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Existentialism and Hermeneutics (p3)

[Be sure to catch part 1 and part 2, first, and note Mike’s comment in p2 which highlights the importance of the terms we use when discussing philosophy].

The Strength of an Existential Approach to the Text?

Our kitten 'experiencing' a text.

Sure…reading a text is an experience of sorts. Paul Ricoeur emphasized that reading a text leads to self-understanding. I liken this idea to the phrase “letting the text read you.” Ricoeur would say (if I understand him correctly) that when a reader encounters a text, an event takes place in which the world of the text is disclosed to the reader, and at the same time, the reader gains perspective on his or her own relation to the world of the text (and in this sense, develops self-understanding).

In other words, we learn about ourself, our own views, our understanding of things when we read a text. I’ve heard similar ideas from the pulpit–“Don’t just read the Bible. Let the Bible read you”–followed by a reference to Heb. 4:12. Certainly there is truth to this (though I have my doubts as to whether the Hebrews passage is an appropriate prooftext!).


Even so, it does not necessarily follow that the primary function of interpretation is self-understanding. Nor do I care to follow Ricoeur in his view that a text is relatively autonomous from its author (though he seems to suggest that the experience of a text possesses a vague link to what he calls a ‘founding event’…perhaps a link to a historical author and situation).

In some cases, existentialism questions whether an interpreter can really get at that historical context of a passage, the intentions of an author, and any meaning as perceived by an original reader (for example, an original reader of Paul’s letter to the Romans). Rather than worry about that, they suggest the modern day reader ought to meet the text half-way and dance together (my metaphor, not theirs so far as I know). My experience (no pun intended) suggests to me, however, that historical context can be reestablished accurately, and such information has bearing on the meaning of the text.

The Problem of Multiple Meanings

One other critique is that an existential approach (like that of Gadamer or Ricoeur) can result in multiple and divergent meanings. While this is welcomed by many interpreters today, I contend that multiple interpreters can reasonably perceive the same meaning in a text–a meaning which largely reflects the meaning intended by the author (I think I just heard gasps from the reader-response folks). I suppose I mean to suggests that the ‘gist’ of the meaning reasonably comes through. Sure, we lose some of the meaning, but not usually essential meaning.

2 Responses to Existentialism and Hermeneutics (p3)

  1. Great points, Josh. Indeed, it’s sad when pastors and Bible teachers try to “over-spiritualize” a passage. For example, pastor and Bible scholar John MacArthur recently wrote an article titled “How to Study Your Bible.” At one point, he embarrassingly recalled the first sermon he preached, which he titled “Rolling the Stones Away in Your Life.” The entire sermon was founded on the verse (I believe it’s in Matthew) that speaks of an angel rolling away the entrance to the tomb, and MacArthur went on to preach about rolling away the stones of Fear, Pride, Addictions, etc. In other words, he took a verse that had absolutely nothing to do with what he preached on, and twisted it to suit his purposes! Like you said, sometimes it takes careful study to properly interpret a passage. Excellent work, Josh!

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