D The Hermeneutical Circle

Hermeneutics has long been fascinated by the fact and problem of the hermeneutical circle. In its initial form it was the circularity of part and whole, already noted by Schleiermacher: the parts can only be understood in terms of the whole; but understanding of the whole is built up from the parts. As

65. Meyer, Reality and Illusion 94-98. Authorial intention 'is to be understood not as some subjective occurrence lying behind the text but as the principle of the text's intelligibility', 'as primarily embodied in the words the author wrote' (Watson, Text and Truth 112,118).

66. It should be added, of course, that Paul's letters (the most obvious examples in the NT of intentional texts) were not always effective communication, in that the response they elicited was not as he would have wished. But the fact that so many of them (some were lost) were respected, retained, no doubt read and reread, pondered, circulated, collected, and finally gathered to become part of the NT canon attests their overall effectiveness.

Schleiermacher was well aware, the 'whole' was not simply the whole particular writing, but the whole language and historical reality to which the particular text belonged.68 It is called a circle, because the hermeneutical process is unavoidably a movement back and forth round the circle, where understanding is ever provisional and subject to clarification and correction as the whole is illuminated by the parts and the part by the whole. As pupil, P. A. Boeckh, went on to point out, this hermeneutical circle 'cannot be resolved in all cases, and can never be resolved completely'. Boeckh continues:

every single utterance is conditioned by an infinite number of circumstances, and it is therefore impossible to bring to clear communication. . . . Thus the task of interpretation is to reach as close an approximation as possible by gradual, step-by-step approximation; it cannot hope to reach the limit.

The similarity to the procedures of historical study indicated above (§6.3) should be obvious.

By way of immediate corollary, it is worth observing that narrative criticism has attempted in effect to narrow the hermeneutical circle of whole and parts, by limiting the whole to the text itself.70 In narrative criticism, in order to make sense of a part, verse, or passage of a Gospel, the hermeneutical circle need only take in the whole of the Gospel itself. But all that has already been said should be enough to show the weakness of this model of the hermeneutical circle. The reality is that the historical text draws on (and its communicative potential depends on) wider linguistic usage of the time; it makes references and allusions to characters and customs which are not explained within 'the closed universe'71 of the text; it cannot be adequately understood without some awareness of the society of the time.72 For example, without knowledge of the extra-textual social tensions between Jews and Samaritans, a central thrust of the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10) will be lost.73 Without a knowledge of who

68. In Mueller-Vollmer, Hermeneutics Reader 84-85. Gadamer notes that 'this circular relationship between the whole and the parts . . . was already known to classical rhetoric, which compares perfect speech with the organic body, with the relationship between head and limbs' (Truth175).

69. In Hermeneutics Reader 138.

72. B. J. Malina, The Social Gospel of Jesus (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001) 1-13 speaks for the recent sociological perspective on the Jesus tradition when he suggests that 'The Bible is necessarily misunderstood if one's reading of it is not grounded in an appreciation of the social systems from which its documents arose' (5).

73. See further K. E. Bailey, Poet and Peasant: A Literary-Cultural Approach to the Parables in Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976)ch. 2.

Moses and Elijah are, information not provided by the text, the reader will miss a fundamental dimension of the significance of the account of Jesus' transfiguration (Mark 9.2-8 pars.). The surprising evocation of the Newtonian world view ('closed universe') in a hermeneutic trying to distance itself from the historical-critical method prompts a wry smile.

A second form of the hermeneutical circle sends the interpreter back and forth between the matter of the text and the speech used to convey it, between Word and words, Sache und Sprache,74 between langue and parole, signified and signifier. This form of the hermeneutical procedure has been played out throughout the period reviewed in the preceding chapters, particularly in the way in which again and again a definitive subject matter perceived through the text has been used to critique the wording of the text itself. One thinks, for example, of the gospel (was treibet Christus) serving as the critical scalpel for Luther,76 or the universal ideals of Jesus indicating an 'essence' from which the merely particular could be stripped,77 or Bultmann's 'kerygma' providing the key for his demythologizing programme,78 or 'justification by faith' acting as the 'canon within the canon' for Käsemann.79 Or in recent Jesus research an instructive example is Wright's repeated appeal to a metanarrative of Israel in exile and hoped-for return from exile as providing a hermeneutical echo chamber in which the various sayings of Jesus and stories about Jesus resonate with a meaning hardly evident on the face of the text.80

The third form of the hermeneutical circle is that between reader and text. The interaction between reader and text was already implicit in the recognition of a 'psychological' dimension to hermeneutics,81 and in the historical principle of 'analogy' (above §6.3c). Bultmann elaborated the point in his insistence

74. Meyer, Aims 96. Sachkritik (the English 'content criticism' is not really adequate) builds on the older theological distinction between the Word of God and the words of Scripture through which it is heard (but is not to be simply identified with them) by distinguishing between the real intention (die Sache, the matter or subject) of a text and the language in which it is expressed (die Sprache). Sachkritik is linked particularly with the name of Bultmann (see, e.g., Thiselton, Two Horizons 274).

75. Referring to Ferdinand de Saussure's influential distinction between the language system (langue) and concrete acts of speech (parole) and his idea of the text as an encoded sign-system — hence 'semiotics', the theory of signs (see Thiselton, New Horizons 80-86).

76. Luther's famous criticism of the epistle of James: 'What does not teach Christ is not apostolic, even though St. Peter or Paul taught it' (Kümmel, New Testament 25).

79. E.g., E. Käsemann, ed., Das Neue Testament als Kanon (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck, 1970) 405.

80. Wright, Jesus passim.

81. Schleiermacher and Droysen, in Mueller-Voll mer, Hermeneutics Reader 8-11, 128.

(which students of the NT still needed to hear) that 'there cannot be any such thing as presuppositionless exegesis'. 'A specific understanding of the subject matter of the text, on the basis of a "life-relation" to it, is always presupposed by exegesis', hence the term, 'pre-understanding'.82 The point is sometimes missed when more conservative biblical scholars deem it sufficient to declare their presuppositions before embarking on what most of their fellow scholars would regard as uncritical exegesis, as though the declaration of presuppositions somehow vindicated the exegesis itself (since 'Everyone has presuppositions'). But the point is not simply that any reading of a text is shaped by the pre-understanding brought to it. The point is rather that as the exegete moves round the hermeneutical circle between pre-understanding and text, the text reacts back upon the pre-understanding, both sharpening it and requiring of it revision at one or another point, and thus enabling a fresh scrutiny of the text, necessitating in turn a further revision of pre-understanding, and so on and on.

The most vicious form of the hermeneutical circle, however, has proved to be that between reader and text as it has been developed within postmodern literary criticism. Indeed, deconstructionist hermeneutics attempt in effect to undermine the whole procedure envisaged in the hermeneutical circle by suggesting that the reality is an infinite series of interlocking circles, where the search for meaning is never ending and the play between signifier and signified goes on ad infinitum. The image conjured up is of a computer game without an end, or of an internet search into the infinity of cyberspace as web pages direct to other web pages in an endless sequence, or indeed of a computer hacker who has succeeded in so overloading a system that it crashes, or perhaps again of an academic colleague who always insists on the impossibility of any effective discussion of an academic subject or political policy without first resolving the problem of what human consciousness is. Intellectually challenging as such exercises are, they do not much assist in the living of life, the advance of knowledge, or the building of community. To conceive the hermeneutical process as an infinitely regressive intertextuality is a counsel of despair which quickly reduces all meaningful communication to impossibility and all communication to a game of 'trivial pursuit'.

Perhaps it has been the image of a 'circle' which has misled us, since it invites the picture of an endless 'going round in circles'. In fact, however, from its earliest use, the hermeneutical circles were always perceived as a progressive exercise, in which the circles, as it were, became smaller. Alternatively expressed, the circle was seen more as a spiral, the circle in effect as a three-dimensional cone, so that successive circlings resulted in a spiralling towards a common centre. Wilhelm von Humboldt expressed the point well (though with nineteenth-

82. Bultmann, 'Exegesis without Presuppositions' 343-44, 347. See also Gadamer's striking 'defence' of prejudice (Truth 270-71, 276-68).

century overconfidence) when he talked of history as 'a critical practice through which [the historian] attempts to correct his preliminary impressions of the object until, through repeated reciprocal action, clarity as well as certainty emerge'.83 Once again, the likeness of the hermeneutical method to the historical method described above (§6.3) is to be noted. As a reader of historical texts (the Gospels and Epistles of the NT), therefore, I (and most others engaged in the same exercise) do not despair over the hermeneutical circle but find that the reality of a self-critical critical scrutiny of these texts can and does provide a growing appreciation and understanding of why they were written and what they must have conveyed to their first auditors and readers. The meaning intended by means of and through the text is still a legitimate and viable goal for the NT exe-gete and interpreter.

Was this article helpful?

0 0
Study Aid

Study Aid

This Book Is One Of The Most Valuable Resources In The World When It Comes To Getting A Scholarship And Financial Support For Your Studies.

Get My Free Ebook

Post a comment