Hermeneutics

The present debates about the doctrine of God are, of course, not limited to that doctrine. There are several areas in play. One of those is obviously theological method, and another related one is the role of philosophy in competent theology. Not unexpectedly, because theology that is Scriptural is interpretation, a third is hermeneutics. That is why Craig Carter set out to write a book about classic theism in Nicene Trinitarian formulation and instead found he had to write about hermeneutics first.

The ground that is shifting in hermeneutics is moving away from an approach that controls for objectivity, reducing the interpretation to a single authorial intent, smuggling the rest that Christians have in the past retrieved in terms of meaning into the various applications. It is, of course, an epistemological shift as well. What can we know, you might ask, when we interpret? What are the objects of knowledge Scripture presents us with? The mind of God, is the answer.

That last is Christian Platonism. I am afraid that is how people with whom I talk think, and it is largely due to ignorance of John Eriugena who would have told you that the objects of knowledge are not in the mind of God, they are in the image of God. How long before Eriugena appears on people’s radars? I have read a description of him as the greatest Christian metaphysician ever, you know. Will Christian Platonism mean that you should know your Eriugena? That would be a pleasant expansion on the Carolingean pause in Medieval Church on the way to the tenth century and Anselm.

Anyway, the answer that I now see being provided, curiously enough, is a return to the quadriga: the literal, the allegorical, the analogical, and the tropological. The hermeneutics of redemptive-historical preaching are allegorical hermeneutics, the difference is that since people today think allegory means irresponsibly imaginative interpretation, the term is avoided and Origen smeared. Which is silly. Origen was often incorrect, but he was seldom irresponsible. (That is a failure of church historians. I think a recovery of the Great Traditions, as Carter advocates, is going to involve speaking more accurately, more honestly in terms of how we present the past.) The Analogical is when we ask how does this passage help me orient my Christian life in terms of the life to come. Hardly something we can afford to suppress (2 Pet 3:11). And the tropological meaning is when you ask about present conduct: Christian morality, ethics, and such matters, which Scripture clearly addresses.

The return to a fourfold interpretation is first to recognize at least a twofold: human and divine. Can God have meant more than the human author intended? That is a question getting an affirmative. Is Scripture a book like other books? Negative. And the whole thing is not really that controversial, if what has been developing can be connected to the right terminology.

On the surface at least, much of what creates the confusion and controversy is a combination of bad historiography and careless terminology. Below the surface has been a whig approach to history (or a protestant triumphalist narrative) in which what we have gained is so prized that we are not reluctant to sever our connections altogether or dangle by the thinnest of implausible threads.

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