Understanding is to be thought of less as a subjective act than as participating in an event of tradition…[1]

Throughout the history of the church, it has been an important matter to articulate a genuinely Christian understanding of interpretation – especially with regard to the Holy Scriptures. The early church fathers developed the idea of a regulative summary of the Christian teaching as “a necessary hermeneutical principle”[2] – this is what we call the “Rule of faith.” In what follows we will seek to understand some of the central ideas of the great hermeneutical philosopher, Hans-Georg Gadamer; and in so doing it will become clear that we have much to learn about our Christian interpretive tradition from the Gadamerian hermeneutical tradition. Although Gadamer insisted that his work was first and foremost descriptive, there is, as we shall see, much “practical consequence of the present investigation” (xxv).

The Hermeneutical Circle

For our purposes the first Gadamerian concept to consider will be that of the hermeneutical circle. Although Gadamer himself is not the originator of the idea, the circle is a critical notion in any hermeneutics that claims to be Gadamerian. According to Gadamer, when one reads a text, there is always an element of projection involved (269). In order to read, we constantly project a meaning for the text as a whole. Even in our initial reading, which furnishes us with our first projection of the text’s meaning, we have still always come to the text with a “fore-projection” which creates a particular expectation of meaning. As an aside, it is worth keeping in mind that the idea of “reading” a “text” in this way could easily be expanded to encompass “interpreting” the “world.”

Gadamer gives us one of his more succinct definitions of understanding as he describes the hermeneutical circle: “Working out this fore-projection, which is constantly revised in terms of what emerges as [one] penetrates into the meaning, is understanding what is there” (269). We approach a text with expectations of the whole, but what we quickly discover is that meaning cannot be understood arbitrarily. Once we begin to read the parts, we experience ourselves being “pulled up short by the text” (270) and thus we have to revise our conceptions of the whole so that the parts make sense. “Harmony” between the parts and the whole is “the criterion of correct understanding” (291). Having revised our conception of the whole, we then return to reading the parts; and the ongoing event of understanding displays its obvious circularity as the new meaning that emerges in the parts again requires a new revision of our new conception of the whole.

In seeking to understand, we are seeking to be open to the alterity of a text and to the possibility that our fore-projections will be pulled up short. However, as we will see, Gadamer is not at all interested in the elimination of our fore-projections – as if this were possible! According to Gadamer sensitivity to alterity (i.e. openness) is not a matter of “neutrality” but rather a matter of “the foregrounding and appropriation of one’s own fore-meanings and prejudices” (271). It is by becoming aware of, not eliminating, our own biases that we allow a text to speak on its own terms. And it is this awareness to which we now turn.

Historically Effected Consciousness

            The concept of wirkungsgeschichtliches Bewußtsein, or “historically effected consciousness,” is one of the most important in Gadamer’s thought. The main idea here is that our biases, which Gadamer appropriately calls prejudices, are what they are because we are situated in the course of a particular historical context. When we formulate a fore-projection, or pre-judgment (hence the appropriate term “prejudice”), concerning the meaning of a text, we are doing so out of a consciousness that has been affected by history more than we could ever know.

Historically effected consciousness is consciousness of being affected by history (301).[3] This is the awareness of which we spoke above. However, it would be naïve to think that we could ever be conscious of all the ways in which we are affected by history. We are in a particular situation and part of what this means is that we cannot distance ourselves from the situation and evaluate it objectively. What we can do is foreground our historical prejudices by becoming aware of them as much as possible. Although there will always be a measure of familiarity in reading a text because we bring with us our own historically affected ways of understanding, still there will also always be strangeness to the degree that we can become aware of our embeddedness in history and allow the alterity of the text to speak on its own terms (295).

It is simply a matter of fact that our consciousness is effected by history – even experiences of what seems to be “self-evident” can be shown to be historically particular. However, this is not to say that we cannot become conscious of some of the ways in which we have been affected by history. Whatever extent to which we can identify our own historically effected voice, to this extent will we be able to hear the voice of another in a text. This kind of openness to the alterity of a text, allows our unhelpful prejudices to be revised and replaced as we make our way around the hermeneutical circle. The important thing to recognize is the historicity of our consciousness – our prejudices are neither universal human categories (as in Kant) nor are they random – our prejudices are what they are because of our particular location in history.

Tradition

            As we approach our goal of integrating Gadamer’s hermeneutical work with the historic Christian understanding of Scriptural interpretation, we have one more Gadamerian topic to consider before we can proceed – the idea of tradition. Much of what Gadamer has to say about tradition has already been put forth under the heading of “historically effected consciousness.” The two are intimately related. Historical consciousness is what allows us to be aware of the “process of transmission in which past and present are constantly mediated” – and this is precisely what tradition is (291). Openness to the voice of tradition is what allows us to have a “new experience of history whenever the past resounds in a new voice” (285); thus, hearing the voice of tradition is experiencing historically effected consciousness in a concrete way.

            When we discussed historically effected consciousness, we focused largely on the negative importance of being aware of our biases. We endeavor to become aware of our historical biases so that we do not blindly project our voice onto the text – we want to recognize our own voice when we read so that we can be open to hear the voice of another in all of its alterity. However, as we discuss tradition, the focus is more upon the positive aspects of this same historical embeddedness. Prejudices are not only an inescapable reality of our interpretation of the world, they are also the very conditions of our understanding (278). Just as standing in a particular place limits our sight from some things while allowing us to see others, so too our historical location in a tradition endows us with prejudices that both limit our ability to experience the alterity of a text and at the same time allow us to have the fore-projections whereby we enter the hermeneutical circle. Part of historical consciousness is being aware of our prejudices so that we can be open to alterity, but there is another part. By becoming aware of our historical prejudices, we open ourselves to our historical tradition itself speaking to us now with a voice of its own (283). Our traditional prejudices have something to say – they enable us to understand part of the truth of a subject matter (295).

            It must be noted that as positive or “optimistic” as Gadamer is about what we have to learn from tradition and about how essential traditional prejudices are for our understanding, still there is a critical element at work as soon as we become conscious of how we are historically affected. There is a tension as we go back and forth between accepting the authoritative prejudices of our tradition and criticizing those prejudices so that we can be open to the alterity of the text. On the one hand, we belong to a tradition and so there is always an element of familiarity in our understanding of a text – indeed, all our understanding is “a historically effected event” (299). But on the other hand, we are also endeavoring to become aware of our prejudices so that the alterity of a text can produce a strangeness of meaning which we would not have produced ourselves. “The true locus of hermeneutics is this in-between” (295).

            We just now referred to the prejudices of tradition as “authoritative,” and this deserves a brief comment. For Gadamer our submission to the authority of tradition is not a blind obedience – it is an acknowledgment of superior wisdom (281). What we believe based on the authority of tradition is, in principle, verifiable by critical reason. Critical reason and tradition are in a dialogical relationship. We begin with the prejudices of our tradition and then, becoming aware of these prejudices, we ask how enabling or misleading they are in light of what we are trying to understand. The dichotomy between submitting to the authority of tradition and adhering to reason is a false one. The very preservation, affirmation, and cultivation of tradition are acts of reason (282) – this is the hermeneutical circle. We begin our hermeneutical endeavors with prejudices that we may legitimately accept based on the authority of a tradition which has existed long enough to gain knowledge superior to our own; we then proceed to preserve, affirm, cultivate, or revise and replace the prejudices of our tradition depending upon the degree to which they prove to be enabling in the process of understanding. It is a myth to think that either tradition or reason operates unilaterally. However, the inescapability of our historicity and the legitimate authority of tradition give us good reason to defer to and listen to the voices of the traditions in which we find ourselves. And here we have come at last to the hermeneutics of the apostolic fathers.

The Rule of Faith

In discussing the hermeneutical circle, we saw the indispensable role of fore-projection in coming to understand a given text. In discussing historically effected consciousness, we saw the essential role of history in providing us with the prejudices (i.e. fore-projections) that we have; and we saw the importance of becoming aware of these prejudices so that we can be open to the alterity of the voice of another in the text. In discussing tradition and its legitimate authority, we saw that becoming aware of our historical embeddedness is not only for the sake of being open to the alterity of the text, but also for the sake of being addressed by the truth claims of tradition itself. As it turns out, this Gadamerian understanding of understanding is an exceptionally accurate philosophical account of the hermeneutics of the early church. The hope is that the above discussion has already made it obvious that Gadamerian hermeneutics is applicable to Christian interpretation in many important ways. As we today continue in the apostolic tradition of interpreting the Scriptures, a brief examination of Christian hermeneutics, in light of Gadamer’s work, will prove to be practically beneficial.

Long before Gadamer brought to our attention the historical contingency of our interpretive prejudices, the apostolic fathers of the church recognized that depending upon the pre-judgments with which one reads the Scriptures, incredibly different interpretations can be derived. In the first-century work Against Heresies, Irenaeus paints the amusing and poignant picture of the heretic who manipulates the Scriptures – this person is like someone who takes apart the pieces of a mosaic of the emperor and then recombines these same pieces to produce the picture of a dog.[4] Constantly threatened by heresies claiming to be Scriptural, the early church sought to identify what Gadamer calls “justified prejudices productive of knowledge” (280) over and against the unjustified prejudices of the heretics which led to misunderstanding the Scriptures. It is precisely in this context that it became necessary for the church fathers to talk of a regula fidei or a “Rule of faith.”

At this point it may be helpful to define more clearly what exactly is meant by the ancient term “Rule of faith.” In discussing the principle of sola scriptura, Keith Mathison defines the Rule of faith as follows: “The regula fidei was essentially the content of the profession of faith that every catechumen was asked to recite from memory before his or her baptism. It was a summary of the faith taught by the Apostles and committed to their disciples.”[5] It is rather conspicuous that the very language that we use to define the Rule is not so subtly Gadamerian. The Rule of faith was a creed-like summary of the meaning of Scripture as a whole.[6] It was not as formal as any of our creeds are today, but rather it was a simplified fore-projection of what the whole of Scripture would be found to say. In almost all of the fathers’ various accounts (Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement, Hippolytus), the Rule contained at least a confessional statement regarding the Trinity, and the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.[7] From this fundamental hermeneutical tradition, which was publicly proclaimed in all of the apostolic churches, the church fathers argued that any interpretation of Scripture that did not begin from this prejudice was by definition outside of the Christian tradition. Scripture was the final authority, but there was a traditional prejudice about what it would be found to teach. The Gadamerian overtones are overwhelming.

By looking back on the above discussion of Gadamer’s hermeneutics, we can understand the Rule of faith (and the creeds which developed thereafter) with more philosophical depth. Even today as we enter the hermeneutical circle of reading the Bible, the Rule of faith provides us with a fore-projection of what the Scriptures will say as a whole. As we proceed to read the parts, we revise our conceptions of the Rule largely by understanding it more concretely (this is not, however, to say that we do not at times replace faulty conceptions of the meaning of the Rule). As in Gadamer’s circle, the criterion for correct understanding is harmony between the whole and the parts – we rule out readings of Scripture that are incompatible with the most basic formulations of the Christian message as a whole. Interestingly, it is quite possible to imagine more than one harmony between the incredibly diverse parts of Scripture and the relatively simple Rule of faith. Even in the case of the more developed creeds, we can hold to the creedal teachings without reservation and still come to more than one harmonious interpretation of Scripture. Therefore we must admit that multiple interpretations can be “correct.” We may still maintain with the apostolic fathers that if one departs from the Rule of faith then one has left the Christian tradition; nevertheless, more than one authentically Christian interpretation is possible. In our communal reading of the Bible today, it would behoove us to take this truth into account.

As followers of Jesus who have inherited the Scriptures after more than two thousand years of Christian interpretation, we can safely assume that our fore-projections of what we will find in Scripture are deeply affected by the historical location in which we find ourselves. There is the Rule of faith, which defines the essential bias that must be assumed in order for interpretation to be considered genuinely Christian. However, we bring much more than the Rule of faith with us when we approach the Scriptures. We have all of the consciousness that has been effected in us by history – Christian and non-Christian. We know from experience that to truly hear the voice of an Other in Scripture there is an enormous amount of unconscious prejudice that has to be made conscious. We in America find it helpful deliberately to remind ourselves that we are modern individualist capitalists and that the world of the Bible is none of these things. While it is not at all a bad thing to be historically located in our particular context today, and although we can never hope to be fully aware of all of the ways that we are affected by this historical embeddedness, still, when we read the Bible we are more able to be open to its alterity the more we are able to “foreground and appropriate” (271) the historical prejudices that we have. As we read the Bible it is imperative that we seek this kind of openness.

Having seen how the Gadamerian hermeneutical circle and appreciation of historically effected consciousness is a helpful philosophical account of traditional Christian hermeneutics, we may now turn lastly to the concept of tradition. When we foreground our historical prejudices, we are able to hear the voice of the text as the voice of another, but we are also able to hear ourselves being addressed by the voice of tradition. For us as Christians, a part of this tradition is most certainly the Rule of faith – this locates us in a particular tradition, limiting what we can see in Scripture and enabling us to begin correct interpretation. But there is so much more to Christian tradition than the Rule of faith! As Lutherans, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, Pentecostals, and countless other traditional types, we all as Christians are deeply embedded in traditions – traditions that have much to say to us if we are able to listen. By becoming reflective we can open ourselves to the possibility of being addressed anew by our traditional heritages. It seems that no matter how “high church” our ecclesiology may be, it is appropriate to learn from Gadamer and enter into a reflective, dialogical relationship with our legitimately authoritative traditions. We may find that there is much truth to learn from the way that our traditions teach us to read Scripture.

Gadamer contends that true understanding has not taken place apart from the application of a given text to the present situation of its reader (307). Because “a text is understood only if it is understood in a different way as the occasion requires” (308), we can safely assume that Gadamer would appreciate our attempt to understand his text in the way required by our examination of the Rule of faith. We have endeavored to apply Gadamer’s hermeneutic by expressing its concrete manifestation in the apostolic Rule of faith specifically and in the Christian interpretive task generally. The hard part is, as usual, putting this into practice.

Hermeneutical thinkers from Irenaeus to Gadamer have agreed that the interpretive process is no simple one. It is part of the human condition to be embedded in history, in tradition, and thus in prejudice. It is accordingly in our best interest as readers to learn from the Gadamerian concept of historically effected consciousness – we can be sure that Irenaeus would agree. We might therefore, without reservation, conclude in agreement with Stuart Hall: “Irenaeus, like his distinguished successors, in fact brings other ideas, religious and philosophical, to his understanding of the text. We all do.”[8] Let us be mindful of this fact without being ashamed of it. The very ideas that we bring to our understanding of the text are the ones that allow us to enter the hermeneutical circle of interpreting the Scriptures – and it is here that we hear the voice of an Other. It is through the prejudices of tradition as experienced in hermeneutic consciousness that we are confronted by “what is still and ever again real” (xxiv).


[1] Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (New York: Continuum, 1989), 291. Otherwise unidentified page numbers in the text will refer to this version of Gadamer’s work (loving called the “red book” by Merold Westphal and his students).

[2] Keith A. Mathison, The Shape of Sola Scriptura (Moscow, Idaho: Canon Press, 2001), 23.

[3] In the course of less than four lines, our English version of Truth and Method translates wirkungsgeschichtliches Bewußtsein with these two different phrases: “historically effected consciousness,” and “consciousness of being affected by history” (see p. 301).

[4] Stuart Hall, Doctrine and Practice in the Early Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 62.

[5] Mathison, 23.

[6] F. F. Bruce, cited in Mathison, 24.

[7] Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, vol. 1, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971), 117; Hall, 61-62.

[8] Hall, 63.