Recovering Theological Hermeneutics

An interesting work in which Zimmerman appeals to the premodern hermeneutics of the Reformation (and earlier) to show its answers to the modern hermeneutical debate. He does so by “reclaiming its (hermeneutics) original grounding in an incarnational ontology that defines ‘being’ by the reality of Jesus Christ and the relation of Father, Son, and Spirit (Vanhoozer).” Here’s an excerpt. . .

“Modern fundamentalists who react against this so-called liberal theology unfortunately proceed from the same assumption as the ‘enemy,’ namely, that a text can have only one meaning but many possible applications, which can never become normative. Premodern interpreters by contrast possessed superior interpretive concepts, such as progressive revelation and typology, and were more keenly aware of the multiple layers of textual meanings. Their view of God’s word as a vehicle of typological exegesis, the idea of sensus plenior, and the analogy of faith renders fundamentalist notions of stable, unitary meanings highly problematic. Yet fundamentalist interpreters cheerfully continue to use modernist principles in their defense of theology, a highly unhelpful strategy of entrenchment, the zeal of whose practitioners does little to conceal the increasing irrelevance of their effort (pp. 22-23)”

“For Luther, in other words, the Bible is the word of God in a derivative sense, derived from his basic concept that God’s speech is a powerful, creative force. As the church historian Jaroslav Pelikan observes: ‘The scriptures were the Word of God in a derivative sense for Luther — derivative from the historical sense of Word as deed and from the basic sense of Word as proclamation. As the record of the deeds of God, which were the Word of God, the scriptures participated in the nature of that which they recorded. As the written deposit of the preaching of the apostles, they could be termed the Word of God also (Luther the Expositor, 108).’ The word of God in the historical sense was a deed of God. Put differently, God’s word of redemption, intended to bring people into intimate communion with himself, manifested itself in concrete historical action. Following the model of the incarnation, Luther thus fuses history and revelation into an inseparable unit. According to Luther, biblical hermeneutics must recognize the incarnation as its guiding principle (p. 58).”

“Luther’s mature understanding of law and gospel is rooted in the division of God’s written word into letter and spirit found in Luther’s early writings. Thus it is important to come to grips with this primary distinction before examining his use of law and gospel. Perhaps no other phrase has been so misunderstood in the history of hermeneutics. As Ebeling points out, ‘Luther did not regard the literal meaning as such as the ‘letter that kills’ and the allegorical. . . interpretations imposed upon it as the ‘life-giving spirit’.’ Luther is not a Neoplatonist: he does not discard the textual kernel for a spiritual experience of God-consciousness (Schleiermacher), for a timeless message of self-authentication (Bultmann), or even for a timeless moral code (Christian Fundamentalism). Instead the entire text, the whole, can be either the letter that kills of the life-giving Spirit, depending on whether ‘the understanding is oriented towards Moses or toward Christ’ (p. 61).”

– Ben Eilers

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