Recent Biblical Hermeneutics in Patristic Perspective: The Tradition of Orthodoxy

McGuckin, John A.

The twentieth century witnessed a veritable explosion in scholarly interest in hermeneutical issues. As in the aftermath of other kinds of explosions, the resulting field (especially in regard to biblical analysis) is not tidy, but presents to the interested eye many possibilities of "new-build." In terms of any subsequent analysis of the intellectual life of twentieth century Christianity, I suspect that this hermeneutical ferment will probably present, to the eye of later Church historians, one of the most distinctive aspects of the period, and one of the chief (often unrecognized) issues behind the current flux of Church life in America and Western Europe. As the twentieth century progressed this overwhelming interest in hermeneutics was manifested first in how such considerations elucidated literary analysis of texts (how patterns of analysis could be systematically applied to narratives), then how they illumined historiographical problems raised by texts, and finally the focus turned in more narrowly to what became almost an obsession with the philosophy of hermeneutics itself. It was hermeneutical issues, at base, that gave rise to postmodernism's easy passage from analysis of textual motive to philosophical critique of the claims made about "objective meanings" in terms of the post-Enlightenment historical-critical method, and of the possibility of reconstructing "authorial intention." The New Hermeneutic of Gadamer, derived from Heidegger, which suggested a "fusion of horizons" between the historical and subjective-existential perspective, fell prey to the general criticism of Heidegger by Derrida: that it was based upon a "metaphysic" of its own devising. From the 1970s the demise of the hermeneutical movement set in ineluctably. This has, perhaps, not been observed by many religious studies departments (even in the early decades of the twenty-first century) who came to discover the whole area much later than academic philosophy and literature departments, and often embraced it (ironically) with more credulity than their predecessors, as a perceived weapon against skepticism posing as "objectivity" in the study of religions. The snake had begun with its own tail, and it could only have been a slight surprise when it was time for the head to disappear. By the later decades of the twentieth century, not only conservative voices were being heard protesting against the Historical-Critical school of biblical analysis, for several of its chief protagonists were publicly wondering about the utility of the whole enterprise, and had seriously begun to question whether biblical criticism had departed from any residual concern to relate to ecclesiastical tradition or the preaching of the faith as a result of its presuppositions.



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Greek Orthodox Theological Review

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Union Theological Seminary
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April 11, 2012