Recovering Theological Hermeneutics: An Incarnational Trinitarian Theory of Interpretation

Jens Zimmermann Wipf & Stock Pub, Grand Rapids February 1, 2012
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Zimmermann, associate professor at Trinity Western University and a specialist in the hermeneutics of Calvin, the Puritans, Spinoza, Schleiermacher, Gadamer, and Levinas, seeks to build a bridge between contemporary theological and philosophical hermeneutical systems in this book for academic readers. Zimmermann asserts that modern and postmodern philosophers can end their quest to find ethical transcendence and the hermeneutics of the “other” when they accede to the “other” of theistic hermeneutics, especially those of premodern incarnational Trinitarian hermeneuts (viz., the Reformers, Pietists, and Puritans). Likewise modern and postmodern theologians can take a lesson from the atheistic interpreters and return a concern for ethics to their hermeneutical systems.

After describing the premodern, theistic hermeneutical tradition of Luther, Calvin, the Pietists, and the Puritans, Zimmermann provides a helpful discussion of the contemporary hermeneutical debate. He compares and contrasts the various modern and postmodern systems (existential, philosophical, ethical, and radical), illustrating the challenges and strengths of these various systems. He demonstrates that these non-Christian systems have “silenced” the incarnational and Trinitarian foundation of the Reformed hermeneutical tradition, while, ironically, a philosophical quest for a transcendent other—someone or something above or outside humanity that could represent the objective voice of knowledge and ethics—characterizes these modern philosophical traditions. He then introduces Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s theological contribution to the philosophical debate, suggesting that he is a bridge between the two disparate systems. Bonhoeffer started the modern recovery of the theistic voice (the philosophical “other”) silenced by atheistic philosophies, when he returned to the incarnational Trinitarian hermeneutics of the premoderns. His emphasis on ethics, Zimmermann suggests, is a helpful corrective to the modern theological hermeneutical system.

However, Zimmermann assumes certain ground that raises some questions. Are the Reformers representative of premodern hermeneutics? They certainly represent a theistic, ethical system prior to the modern era, but are common phrases such as “like Augustine” or “following Augustine” sufficient to link the hermeneutics of the Reformers to an earlier age? Can one assume that the Reformers employed the same hermeneutics as Augustine? Furthermore to what extent does Augustine represent the hermeneutics of that earlier age? Would other interpreters of that age and of the intervening periods agree with Augustine’s hermeneutics?

In addition, how might the philosophical tensions of Scholasticism have influenced the Reformers? For example what effect might William of Ockham’s nominalism or John Duns Scotus’s voluntarism have had on Luther and Calvin? Was the Reformers’ hermeneutics as devoid of the philosophical relativism of their time as Zimmermann’s approach seems to imply? Conversely, given their fragmentation since the Reformation, can one speak as if Protestants possess one common hermeneutical system?

Zimmermann aspires to build a bridge between contemporary theistic and atheistic hermeneutical systems. But if his premodern, theistic interpreters employed what the modern, atheistic philosophers need to complete their failed systems, then why attempt to build a bridge? If he is correct that contemporary, atheistic systems have borrowed—whether unwittingly or unabashedly—from premodern, theistic systems, then why attempt to join them together into one system? Why should one expect atheistic systems to join with theistic systems at all? When atheists search for an “ethical transcendent other,” and yet deny God, their quest seems doomed from the beginning. Zimmermann might direct his challenge more effectively and rightly toward theists, encouraging them to link their hermeneutics with premodern hermeneutics. A better approach might be to convince his theistic readers that the secret to modern theological hermeneutics lies not in the present debate with atheistic philosophical hermeneutics or even with the Reformers, but with Augustine and his era. Rather than encouraging his readers to cross a bridge from a nonethical theological hermeneutical system to an atheistic philosophical hermeneutical system, it would have been better for Zimmermann to encourage his readers to read their Bibles in continuity with the ancient church, using the ethical, incarnational, Trinitarian hermeneutical systems native to these earliest, premodern theologians.

—Terry Hebert with Glenn R. Kreider

January 1, 2007
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Jan-Mar 2007 vol. 164 no. 1 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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