Theology Needs Critical Hermeneutics

Hermeneutics are very important for theology. The set of operating assumptions governing the interpretation of theological work can dictate what a given work says even against its own text. This happens just as surely in exegetical work, most often when we sustain Christian assumptions about Jewish and Judean texts—a realization that is still dawning over large swaths of the New Testament field. Certain works, like Hebrews, are understood to be so central to our theology as Christians that we almost cannot hear them speak for the voices of tradition speculating "behind" them in order to make them more easily appropriated by Christologies and ecclesiologies they did not share.

This is always the danger of critical scholarship as a necessary aid to hermeneutics: we must submit to the text, but the text is rarely unambiguously self-explanatory in our contexts, and so we must develop interpretive frameworks that make the text comprehensible. The accusation of "eisegesis," reading something into the text rather than out of it, renders us somewhat tone-deaf to this reality. Such an accusation posits the total self-explanatory nature of the text, a perspicuity that only requires us to be equally perspicacious as readers.

Of course, this is intentional; claims for the self-sufficiency of a text are always claims for the sufficiency of a particular interpretive framework over it. The purity of a given exegetical work is its conformity to a given interpretive frame, meeting its claim to account for the text with no remainder. And yet all texts have remainders. Surplus of meaning is the nature of language. At best, a given text is already engaged in translation from context to context for the sake of its audience. When the author is already and explicitly a hermeneut, we see the acknowledgment that the original texts are not self-explanatory—and yet this tempts us to trust that the explanation will have remained so, in spite of its existence for us as a text out of context.

This is therefore the necessity of critical scholarship as an aid to hermeneutics. Retrieval cannot proceed without skepticism. Credulity exercised before the text is ultimately not a demonstration of trust in the text, but in ourselves. The challenge of critical scholarship is to remain critical of ourselves and our interpretive frameworks. The text is not a reliable authority because the text does not say—instead, we say. And yet the text is the only reliable authority, and we cannot escape the interpretive task without paying our debts to it in full.

The text binds us, and it binds us precisely to its own interior uncertainty, to the fact that we cannot say exactly what it says, but must each erect our own interpretations next to it, to be tested and found wanting and corrected, over and over again. Repeating the words of the text is no escape, because those words will have meaning when we are heard repeating them, and we are responsible for that meaning. Not to interpret the text is simply to pass off the burden to the listener, who will understand the words as though we spoke them with the meaning implied by our own contexts. This is the danger of "literalism," by which the text comes to mean what we mean just as surely as if we imposed some other interpretive framework upon it.

Theological texts are not free from this burden of interpretation. For all the benefits of greater proximity to us, especially in reading modern theology, the reading of a text still imposes the same burden. Even were we to have the author speak directly to us, we would be interpreting their words. This is among the benefits to understanding scriptural texts as themselves theological works: we allow the problem to corrode every last lingering trace of confidence in our own understanding.

The point is not to do theology without presuppositions, as though we could escape subjectivity and its problems, but to expose and prepare to betray every presupposition we find along the way. And yet theologians, as members of a guild opposite the exegetical guild, tend to avoid acquiring the same critical tools that allow the exegete to be still more critical. It is not assumed that what the exegete must do with Paul, we must do with Barth, and to the same degree. A theologian is not fundamentally one who studies theological texts, but one who writes them.

Our texts tend to be translated once, per target language—and if the translation is not sufficient, if it is even objectively bad, there remains the original language for those who are sufficiently academically adept. Ours is not a discipline so pervasively grounded in translation and thus so deeply aware of the affect of interpretive issues on the meaning of our texts. A badly translated text suffices, usually for generations; a very old text may be deemed worth refreshing in a new translation, if it remains popular or someone might like it to become so again, but multiple competing translations are something we generally leave to Classics scholars or the marginal folks who study the Patristics for a living. (The medievalist has always had an odd place among us, since the Enlightenment: halfway there, and halfway here—and yet the humanist endeavors that created us are grounded in that work.) We do not tend to trouble ourselves deeply over interpretive issues in texts we can simply read. A serious aporia may be referred to the original language, but its resolution will leave us with an understanding of the meaning of the translation, not a question as to the larger meaning issues of the whole text.

Seeing this and fighting it is what it's like to be an exegete first, and a theologian second. The exegete-as-theologian wants more. The theologian-as-exegete is the more common problem.


  1. I remember the first time you mentioned the idea of Hebrews not being a Christian text. It was very puzzling.

    I've read a good deal since, and have come to learn that the authors/communities that gave us these early texts ( thus early christologies) are more to be considered Christian Jews than Jewish Christians. I hope this made sense (I can clarify if need be).

    Your ideas make more sense to me little by little.

    1. Glad to be making more sense. :)

      "Christian Jews" vs "Jewish Christians" is a binary I'm trying to move beyond. Those terms presume that there are two clear groups, "Jews" and "Christians," and a range with some intermix between them. Sometimes we even make it a historically-developmental typology, positing Christianity as the outcome (with an often vestigial Judaism lingering past its expiration date, of course). But any way we swing this typology, it's bad. The people it's worth calling Christians aren't meaningfully Jewish, except by supersessionist appropriation of the identity of the people of God. And the people it's worth calling Jewish aren't meaningfully Christian, no matter how they account for Jesus of Nazareth as God's messiah.

      There's a difference between ethnic Judeans (and otherwise culturally Jewish people) for whom Jesus of Nazareth is messiah, on the one hand, and people to whom the adjective "Christian" belongs. It's not a clean line time- or geography-wise, but the best way I can draw it is to say that "Christians" are formerly-pagan people whose faith in God did not derive from a Judaism or lost/abandoned its connection to Judaism at some point. The Fathers are all meaningfully Christian in this way, back into the early 2nd century, and relate to Judaisms as outside their faith.

      A better line might be to say that there are ethnic Judeans, whether in territorial Judea or in disaporic communities, who either 1) reject Jesus of Nazareth, or 2) accept him in some way, and that Venn diagram has so many more nuances that could be assigned the deeper we care to look. And on the other hand there are "gentiles," people who are not ethnic Judeans, who 3) don't relate to Judaism at all, 4) relate directly to some one of those Judaisms described above, with or without some form of Jesus-messianism, or 5) come to have some form of faith in God by connection with Jesus but without direct connection to one of those Judaisms.

      So it's meaningful to say there are Jesus-accepting and Jesus-rejecting ethnic Judeans, Jesus-accepting and Jesus-rejecting Jewish gentiles/God-fearers, and Jesus-accepting and other non-Jewish gentiles. The first four are all meaningfully "Jewish," Judaizing in some way, shape, or form. The fifth are where I'd put the line for "Christian," and the sixth are simply pagan Helllenes and other citizens of the world at large. Paul's congregations are all part of this third class, sometimes including elements of the first (Romans), and being variously proselytized by members of sects of this first class, of which Paul is one. The gospel communities belong to the same first and third classes, mixed, as proselytic Judean/Jewish communities, and find themselves in conflict with both the sixth and the second and fourth classes. The tension between the Hellenistic world and some ideologically pure form of cultural Judaism always falls into this binary, which is how we get to the third and fourth centuries with nobody left in the first class: Jesus becomes the property of communities that increasingly belong to gentile contexts, which devolve into Jesus-accepting Christianities versus Jesus-rejecting Judaisms.

  2. Thanks for the reply. I'll reread the section where I first read about this (oversimplified) distinction;)


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