Part II: An Introduction to Hans-Georg Gadamer

As mentioned in my opening post, Gadamer’s overall project in Truth and Method is plausibly Gadamer Painting by Dora Mittenzweiunderstood as an attempt to work out the notion of identity-and-difference as manifest in hermeneutical experience.   That is, on Gadamer’s view the “being” of texts (and works of art and music) exhibit a flexibility which allows for multiple, true interpretations, as different communities of inquiry approach the text with new questions.  Yet, these multiple, true and very diverse (yet non-contradictory) interpretations are of the very same text or work or art/music and thus exhibit an identity through time.  In this view, interpretation is not mere re-production but involves a productive aspect given the new questions and new “horizon fusings” that take place as various communities of inquiry engage the texts of the tradition over time.  Here Gadamer speaks in phenomenological language, using terms like “aspects” (=the multiple, true interpretations) and “things themselves” (=the subject matter of the text).

As I’ve suggested on numerous occasions, a helpful way to understand what Gadamer has in mind with his view of the expansive “being” of texts is to consider  a musical analogy .  In jazz, the performer works with a “lead sheet” (something akin to a text) which contains a given melody and harmonic progression.  Thus, there certain givens/structures to which the performer must submit.  However, various performers interpret the (very same) piece differently and bring out new aspects not seen—or rather heard—up to that point.  This is not to suggest a kind of hermeneutical anarchy, as the interpretation/performance must be recognizable by particular musical community/tradition as a valid instance of that particular piece.  Likewise, the performer cannot simply impose onto the piece whatever harmony s/he chooses.  To do so would be to produce an illegitimate interpretation, just as imputing any meaning onto a text would likewise not count as a valid interpretation.  Because the “being” of musical works (like texts and works of art) contain this built-in-flexibility, multiple, true interpretations are not only possible but to be expected. However, in order to count as valid, legitimate, true interpretations, they must exhibit continuity with the tradition in that each (to use Gadamer’s term) “aspect” manifests the thing itself in its presentation, though no two aspects are exactly the same.  This flexibility allows the tradition to grow and continue its influence through time, as the “being” of texts and works of art show themselves differently in different historical epochs, yet they retain continuity with the tradition. (Though some scholars have begun to explore the ways in which Gadamer’s work might be brought into conversion with the development of religious traditions, including Christianity, there is certainly room for additional work in this area.  Those working in biblical hermeneutics have, of course, already enjoyed the fruits of his labors).

Heythrop Journal Article

For those interested, my recent article published in the Heythrop Journal (Vol 50, issue 1, Jan. 2009) is currently available online at the following website.  I believe the essay will be posted until the end of this month.

Here’s a brief synopsis:

The first section of my essay highlights a number of significant encounters with texts and persons at different phases of Augustine’s life. In the final section, I bring Augustine into conversation with Hans-Georg Gadamer in an attempt to draw attention to certain hermeneutical continuities shared by premoderns, Gadamarians and postmoderns.   After briefly comparing premodern and modern hermeneutical orientations, I conclude that Augustine’s approach to Scripture contrasts sharply with a (strict) modern grammatico-historical methodology (as instituted by Spinoza), whereas premodern hermeneutics share a number of continuities with Gadamarian and postmodern emphases.  Lastly, in light of Gadamer’s famous statement, “all of life is hermeneutics,” perhaps one could read Augustine’s life as affirming this claim.  In other words, a close look at Augustine’s life reveals the decisive ways in which pre-judgments, interpretative traditions, and a dynamic rather than a static understanding of text (and reality) affected Augustine’s spiritual and intellectual vision.

Part VI: St. Augustine’s Encounter with Words and the Word

In agreement with Gadamer, Augustine did not conceive of biblical hermeneutics as akin to solving a math problem—a model which assumes a univocal, “flat” understanding of meaning (and reality) and denies an analogical, “symbolic” approach to meaning (and reality). In contrast with, e.g., a strict grammatico-historical hermeneutic (as instituted by B. Spinoza), the Church Fathers and medievals understood both Scripture and reality not “flatly” but multi-layered because both correspond to and reveal an Infinite Creator. As Henri De Lubac explains, the doctrine of the fourfold sense of Scripture—the historical, allegorical, moral or tropological and anagogical—“provided a framework of thought for numerous generations of Christians.” Interestingly, those who adopt a strict grammatico-historical “method” of interpretation tend to embrace only the literal or historical sense of Scripture. Likewise, those following this tradition claim to interpret Scripture in an “unbiased” manner, free from all prejudices and traditions. Postmoderns, of course, are very suspicious of such a claim. In contrast, as de Lubac indicates and Augustine seems to agree, the Church Fathers and medievals openly acknowledged their dependence on tradition and the interpretations handed down to the Church by the apostles and their successors. “Right from the beginning, in the first century of the Church’s existence, at the time of the very first generation of Christians, it was a matter of Scripture being read or the word of God being heard in the Church and interpreted by Tradition.” So we see that the Church from its very inception openly acknowledged her dependence on the interpretative authority of her leaders—Christ being the chief interpreter, who in turn instructed the apostles, and they in turn faithfully taught others. Moreover, neither the Church Fathers nor the medievals approached Scripture as just another human book or piece of literature to be studied or examined scientifically, much less as something to be dissected and treated atomistically. Rather, Holy Scripture was first and foremost understood as the very word of God, which having many parts is nonetheless, one story, written ultimately by One Author, and culminating in One Person, the Lord Jesus Christ. In other words, instead of approaching Scripture as a collection of divergent and contradicting accounts, the Christian comes to Scripture as a unified whole—whose unfolding drama is permeated with Christ.

Does this mean that the apostles, as well as the Church Fathers and medievals were biased and came to the Scriptures with their interpretative goal (i.e., Christ) already in mind? Here again, perhaps Gadamer has something to add to the “conversation.” In stark contrast to a modern aversion to prejudice or bias as a hindrance to “objectivity,” Gadamer presents a positive view of prejudices in his understanding of hermeneutics. According to Gadamer, all of us come to the text with our own prejudices or “horizons” and these biases are not be understood as solely negative or as necessarily closing off understanding. Though it is the case that our prejudices or presuppositions can and do set limits on our interpretative endeavors, it is not the case that our prejudices are unalterable nor are they always active in a negative, limiting way. Rather, they can and do often have a positive or productive function and actually help to promote understanding. Addressing this positive aspect of our prejudices, Gadamer writes,

“Prejudices are not necessarily unjustified and erroneous, so that they inevitably distort the truth. In fact, the historicity of our existence entails that prejudices, in the literal sense of the word [pre-judgment], constitute the initial directedness of our whole ability to experience. Prejudices are our biases of our openness to the world. They are simply the conditions whereby we experience something—whereby what we encounter says something to us. This formulation certainly does not mean that we are enclosed within a wall of prejudices and only let through the narrow portals those things that can produce a pass saying, ‘Nothing new will be said here.’”

Until we engage a text (with an openness to being changed by that text) we are often unaware of our biases. Thus, it is through our dialogic encounter with the text that are prejudices are made evident to us—i.e., we must be open or “made open” to having our presuppositions laid bare, as well as to having our presuppositions altered or done away with completely.

Although it is the case as de Lubac observes that “Christian exegesis is an exegesis in faith,” unbelieving “systems” of thought likewise involve prejudices and (unproven) presuppositions. Yet, differing worldviews can be compared, analyzed, and tested so as to see which claims conform to reality and experience. Faith and reason for Augustine (and many postmoderns) are mutually influencing harmonies, not dichotomous dissonances. Certainly, it is the case that “an exegesis in faith” presupposes faith—faith that is a gift of God (and Augustine of course would wholeheartedly agree). Those who have been given this faith will find Christ in the Scriptures; those devoid of such faith will not. As we have seen, this was in fact Augustine’s experience. That is, prior to the gift of faith and a totus homo conversion, he was neither able to “see” Scripture aright nor to appreciate its depths. Yet, after receiving the gift of faith, his attitude toward Scripture changed dramatically. Indeed for the Church Fathers, as well as the Augustine and the medievals (and for those who see with the eyes of faith today), “Jesus Christ brings about the unity of Scripture, because He is the endpoint and fullness of Scripture. Everything in it is related to him. In the end, He is its sole object. Consequently, He is, so to speak, its whole exegesis.”

In sum, Augustine’s approach to Scripture contrasts sharply with a (strict) modern grammatico-historical biblical methodology, whereas premodern “hermeneutics” share a number of continuities with postmodern emphases. Given our current post-modern context, Christians of the 21st century should appropriate this “Egyptian gold” and continue the Augustinian tradition of “plundering.” Lastly, if Gadamer is right and “all of life is hermeneutics,” then perhaps what I have presented as a whole is not as fragmented as at first it might appear. That is, pre-judgments, interpretative traditions and a dynamic/analogical rather than a static/univocal understanding of the text (and reality) have all played decisive roles in Augustine’s various encounters with texts and individuals. Moreover, as we have seen from Augustine’s story, in his unconverted, dis-ordered state, his life was an enigma, full of instability and unrest. Even the best education—which included reading the classical authors and philosophers—was ultimately ineffective, as it lacked the power to transform Augustine’s whole person. Yet, when Augustine’s will is brought into alignment with Christ through the gift of grace, his restless heart is at last brought to a “place” of repose. Hence, for Augustine that which brings unity and purpose to all texts (sacred and profane), all relationships, and to reality itself is Christ—Caritas and Veritas Incarnate.


Augustine. Confessions. Trans., Maria Boulding. Hyde Park: New City Press, 1997.

De Lubac, Henri. Medieval Exegesis (Vol. 1): The Four Senses of Scripture. Translated by Mark Sebanc. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Philosophical Hermeneutics. Trans. and ed., David E.
Linge. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1977.

__________________. Truth and Method. Trans. and revised, Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall. New York: Continuum, 2004.

Martin, Thomas F. “Book Twelve: Exegesis and Confessio.” As found in A Reader’s Companion to Augustine’s Confessions. Eds., Kim Paffenroth and Robert P. Kennedy. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), pp. 185-206.

Part V: St. Augustine’s Encounter with Words and the Word

The Word In-Excess

Now that we have traced Augustine’s journey to his conversion, I want to spend some time discussing Augustine’s more humble orientation toward Scripture and the ways in which his hermeneutical practices have much in common with certain postmodern sympathies, and conversely, the ways in which Augustine’s approach to Scripture contrasts with modern biblical hermeneutics. As we have examined the various texts and persons to which Augustine had been providentially directed, we have seen how each experience (however circuitous it may have been) enabled Augustine to move toward his destiny. Not only lust, but perhaps more significantly, pride in its diverse manifestations, proved to be a hindrance in Augustine’s ability to ascertain truth. However, now as a mature Christian—in fact a leader of the Church—Augustine the Bishop perceives a profound depth in Scripture, which allows for multiple levels of meanings and even multiple true interpretations. For example, in book XII, Augustine, after reviewing a number of possible true interpretations for Gen 1:1 and emphasizing that charity must be keep in view in regard to our hermeneutical endeavors, writes,

“[w]hat does it matter to me that various interpretations of those words are proffered, as long as they are true? I repeat, what does it matter to me if what I think the author thought is different from what someone else thinks he thought? All of us, his readers, are doing our utmost to search out and understand the writer’s intention, and since we believe him to be truthful, we do not presume to interpret him as making any statement that we either know or suppose to be false. Provided, therefore, that each person tries to ascertain in the holy scriptures the meaning the author intended, what harm is there if a reader holds an opinion which you, the light of all truthful minds, show to be true, even though it is not what was intended by the author, who himself meant something true, but not exactly that?”

Interestingly, though Augustine states that he and others strive after the author’s intention, yet he also claims that it is not only possible but quite acceptable that true meanings be revealed (by God himself) that go beyond the mens auctoris. Here we might bring Augustine “into conversation” with Hans-Georg Gadamer. As David Linge explains, for Gadamer, the meaning of a text is not simply restricted to the intention of the author, nor is interpretation solely construed as an attempt to replicate the author’s original intention. This reflects in part Gadamer’s understanding of the text itself as something living and dynamic. Moreover, the text cannot be approached as if it were a math problem in which one and only one answer is correct. Nor should one attempt to come up with a method or formula that when applied produces the same result each time—such a model has more in common with scientific experiments than with a living, breathing textual dialogue. In addition, a hermeneutical theory that restricts the meaning of the text to the intention of the author is riddled with seemingly insoluble difficulties. Highlighting the tensions of such a theory, Linge writes,

“The basic difficulty with this theory is that it subjectifies both meaning and understanding, thus rendering unintelligible the development of tradition that transmits the text or art work to us and influences our reception of it in the present. When meaning is located exclusively in the mens auctoris, understanding becomes a transaction between the creative consciousness of the author and the purely reproductive consciousness of the interpreter. The inadequacy of this theory to deal positively with history is perhaps best seen in its inability to explain the host of competing interpretations of texts with which history is replete, and that in fact constitute the substance of tradition.”

Some try to explain away the multiplicity of interpretations by claiming that there is a kind “meaning-in-itself” which is univocal, yet its significance for interpreters varies over time. This, however, is unsatisfactory as it is clear that interpreters within the same tradition in different historical epochs have disagreed not merely in the significance or application of the supposed univocal meaning of a text but in what they thought they saw in the very same text. Rather, than limit the meaning of a text solely to the author’s intention, Gadamer understands the text as having an “excess of meaning” upon which tradition builds.

Elucidating his position, Gadamer writes,

“Every time will have to understand a text handed down to it in its own way, for it is subject to the whole of the tradition in which it has a material interest and in which it seeks to understand itself. The real meaning of a text as it addresses the interpreter does not just depend on the occasional factors which characterize the author and his original public. For it is also always co-determined by the historical situation of the interpreter and thus by the whole of the objective course of history … The meaning of a text surpasses its author not occasionally, but always. Thus understanding is not a reproductive procedure, but rather always also a productive one… It suffices to say that one understands differently when one understands at all.”

At this point, some might object that such a view opens itself up to charges of relativism or a kind of hermeneutical anarchy. However, these conclusions do not necessarily follow—in fact, in no way did they follow for Augustine (and the premodern interpretative tradition) who, as we have seen, accepts the idea of a surplus of meaning beyond the intention of the author. For Augustine, the fact that we have a multitude of true interpretations and levels of meaning in Scripture indicates the infinity and incomprehensibility of the Referent to which these signs point—not that truth is relative or that there is no truth.

In the next post, we shall compare and contrast various aspects of premodern and postmodern biblical hermeneutics with those of modern practices.

Listening for Built-in-Flexibility as a Hermeneutical Disposition

Below is an excerpt from the recent paper that I presented at Baylor. I would be interested in your feedback (positive and negative)—specifically, I would love to hear ideas as to how what I suggest might be brought into conversation with the hermeneutical insights of Gadamer [whom I have just begun to read this week and am thoroughly enjoying] (or others who have done work in philosophical hermeneutics). Any suggestions regarding primary literature on Gadamer other than Truth and Method and Philosophical Hermeneutics, as well as secondary literature on Gadamer would be appreciated as well.


I offer the following analogy as a way to explore the possibilities that jazz might offer as to how we as Christians read the “text” of creation, as well as the text of Scripture. The analogy runs as follows. First, God’s revelation, both natural and supernatural, might be understood to play a similar role to what jazz musicians call “lead sheets.” Second, our various and multi-layered understandings of this revelation would then be similar to the different ways that jazz works can be performed and interpreted. Before proceeding further, let me explain what a jazz “lead sheet” is by way of comparison to a classical score. A jazz lead sheet is similar to a notated score for a classical piece; however, only the melody is written out in standard musical notation. In other words, in contrast to the classical score in which the bass line, the chords, and more or less every note that will be played is written out in full notation, a lead sheet allows for much more flexibility. For example, above the melody one simply finds chord symbols, as opposed to chords displayed in standard notation with specific voicings. Writing the chord symbols in this manner affords the pianist or guitarist, as well as the bassist, a significant amount of creative freedom in performing the piece. However, we should be clear that this freedom does not swallow up the form or structure, as one must choose harmonies and bass lines that fall within a certain trajectory of the specified chord symbol that will support the melody and mark out the general harmonic structure of the piece. Thus, with a jazz lead sheet, one is in a sense “tied to” the “score,” i.e., one must agree to submit to the “givens” that make the piece to be what it is and respond accordingly.[1] Yet, in other sense, one’s own personality, skill level, and creative sensibilities also come through making each performance something unique. One might even say that the flexibility that lead sheets afford, coupled with the distinctly human traits and personal idiosyncrasies that manifest in improvisation, in a sense engenders greater intelligibility and appeal to the piece itself. That is, the built-in flexibility of lead sheets aids in preserving the piece through the passage of time while simultaneously allowing and even expecting various re-articulations because it “has room for” the creative expansions that inevitably come with temporal progression.

Keeping with Christianity’s desire to uphold the traditional doctrines of God’s incomprehensibility and yet knowability in light of his condescending to reveal himself to us, perhaps our understanding of the created order given the ultimate “Signified” to which both the created order and Scripture point, indicates that our approach to understanding and interpreting these signs should not be a quest to attain the closest “copy” of the original archetype as God knows and understands it. After all, how could we as creatures know creation or Scripture as God knows them? Instead of trodding down the path of univocity, a more fruitful way to conceive our role as interpreters may be to think of ourselves more like jazz improvisers. That is, as those who are called to creatively re-interpret God’s various “lead sheets,” which themselves were never meant to produce a one-to-one, univocal meaning for us but rather a multi-layered analogico-symbolic meaning that reflects the inexhaustible nature of the Author.

Anticipating possible objections, viz., does this not lead to relativism and render the text more or less superfluous? On the contrary, just as in no way is it the case that when a jazz piece is performed and interpreted by various musicians from different time periods, a kind of free-for-all takes place in which the “original” melody is somehow destroyed, neither would it be the case that our interpretations have no strictures whatsoever and no relation to God’s archetypal ideas. Though it is the case, that each jazz performance is distinctive,[2] there is a common, yet dynamic range that “grounds” each performance such that the melody is recognizable when played in a wide range of styles (from traditional to more “out” styles). If one simply ignored the melody and harmonic structure or distorted either such that they become completely unrecognizable, then clearly one has “gone astray.” Certainly, I am not suggesting that, but I am wondering whether the analogy might help us to conceive anew a more dynamic and historically “friendly” approach to interpreting and understanding creation, as well Scripture.

Regarding the latter, a reading of the New Testament’s use of the Old Testament indicates that both Jesus and the Apostle Paul were quite comfortable citing Greek translations of the Old Testament and in no way felt compelled to quote a pristine original. Here we might interject that perhaps the drive to get back to a “pure” and “untainted” text is connected with deeply modernist expectations and assumptions regarding history, the belief that diversity of text types are somehow inherently bad, and that moving closer to the original will necessarily bring greater clarity.[3] Rather than discuss each of these in detail, for brevity’s sake, I simply point out that with translations, of course, we do not have one-to-one exact replicas of the original; however, this does not mean that God’s word fails to be communicated. After all, translations such as the Septuagint(s) and others harmonize well with the mission of the Church to make disciples of all nations. Just as Christ came and incarnated Himself to save His people, so too the written word of God is incarnated via translations so as to be intelligible to numerous peoples of diverse languages and cultures. Becoming incarnate of course involves complications, inconveniences, ambiguities and various other distinctively human challenges, yet our Lord so valued humanity that He willingly took on flesh and not simply for His time on earth, but for eternity. In light of our Lord’s, as well as St. Paul’s contentment with what we might provocatively call “imperfect” yet incarnational translations, perhaps such examples teach us something of God’s comfort with the “messiness” of an historical revelation as well as pressing us to continually question and submit our expectations and presuppositions as to the nature of Scripture to Scripture itself.

In other words, what I suggest is that in jazz improvisation instead of seeking to replicate a piece in a univocal fashion, producing in a sense a “zerox” copy of the original within strict (literal) confines of the (human) author’s intention, we should instead become like jazz improvisers who creatively re-interpret the original melody such that it is clearly recognizable, yet it speaks to the culture of the day. Moreover, allowing for multi-layered, symbolic, re-creative interpretations that arise out of the Christian metanarrative of creation, fall, redemption in Christ, and final consummation in Christ, is yet another expression of a harmonious unity-and-diversity bringing forth a dynamically rich display of the infinitely diverse ways in which God can be imitated, participated and hence worshipped.

[1] The communal aspect of jazz performance is an important factor here as well. For example, if the pianist simply decides to play chords that have no relation whatsoever to the chord symbols, the rest of the group or ensemble will be affected (not to mention thoroughly frustrated) as their parts will not correlate at all with the random harmonic superimposition on the part of the pianist.
[2] One might argue that even with classical music where all the parts are strictly defined and written out, the same piece played by the same group or musician is strictly speaking never played the same way twice.
[3] On the contrary, what if moving closer to the original actually moves one more deeply into the realm of mystery and thus requires in a sense more “graced” faith (at least in this life)?

Performers and Composers as Co-creators

Bruce Ellis Benson in his book, The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue, argues that instead of choosing between Werktreu[1] or a kind of musical anarchy, we should look to the past where we find a way of conceiving music composition as an event in which the composer and performer become “co-creators.” Using Gadamar as a way to help us to begin thinking about models of music composition, Ellis writes, “Gadamer claims that an ideal dialogue has what he calls the ‘logical structure of openness.’ I think there are at least two aspects to this ‘openness.’ First, the conversation often brings something into the open: it sheds new light on what is being discussed and allows us to think about it (or, in this case, hear it) in a new way. Second, the dialogue is itself open, since it (to quote Gadamer) is in a ‘state of indeterminacy.’ In order for a genuine dialogue to take place, the outcome cannot be settled in advance. Without at least some ‘loose-play’ or uncertainty, true conversation is impossible” (p. 15). As Benson notes, Gadamar of course realizes that this is the “ideal” for conversations and that they do not always flesh out in this manner. Likewise, in stressing “openness,” Gadamer is not suggesting that dialogues are without rules. Rather, “the rules are what allow the conversation to take place at all. In effect, they open up a kind of space in which dialogue can be conducted” (p. 15). Though rules are essential for a dialogue to occur, they can be overly restrictive or more on the “open” and “flexible” side and “are themselves open to continuing modification” (p. 15). Though today we tend to think of classical music as not particularly open, Benson shows that historically this view is relatively new and in fact is only one way, not the way to view composition. For example, in the 1800s there were two characteristic ways of conceiving composition and these were exemplified by Beethoven and Rossini. Though no doubt these composers represent two different styles of music, the deeper significance lies in the differing ways that they understand the nature of musical compositions, the role of the performance in expressing them, and the relation between the artist and the community (p. 16). As Benson explains, “Beethoven saw his symphonies as ‘inviolable musical “texts” whose meaning is to be deciphered with ‘exegetical’ interpretations; a Rossini score, on the other hand, is a mere recipe for a performance’ (Carl Dahlhaus, Nineteenth-Century Music, p. 9 [Benson, p. 16]. In other words, Beethoven’s view is the more recent, innovative view that has come to characterize how we think of classical music as Werktreu, whereas Rossini’s conception was significantly more flexible, allowing the performer to participate in the creative process. Moreover, for Rossini, “it was not the work that was given precedence; rather, the work (and thus the composer) was in effect a partner in dialogue with performers and listeners” (Ibid., pp. 16-17).

A number of interesting parallels might be drawn in relation to Biblical hermeneutics.

[1] A rather strict faithfulness first to the work and second to the composer.