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“thrownness” into history, leads Gadamer to advocate history as the alternative to method, because it already assumes the givenness of an interpreter’s situation and the truths communicated by that situation.105 Attempting to set oneself outside of history and prejudice for the purpose of objectivity, therefore, is impossible. One does not have immediate access to being (in the sense of existentiell), but only to an interpretation of being (in the sense of “existential”) into which they are already thrown.106 Removing the Enlightenment’s prejudice against prejudice enables interpreters to recognise the historical shape of their reason as well as their place within history as finite (i.e. historical) beings.107 Thus, human rationality is not outside of, but rather participates in the transcendence of history.108 History, in the sense of an ongoing process, is a positive dimension in Gadamer’s thought. Along with Jauss, Gadamer prefers to speak of the “historic” as geschichtlich rather than in the limited sense of “historical” (historisch) that marks historicism. It is for this reason that Gadamer is able to challenge the historicist’s need to overcome the historical gap between themselves and the text under scrutiny by dismissing their own context and, in the case of biblical historicism, the thousands of years and miles that separate them from the original authors. Alternatively, for Gadamer, Time is no longer primarily a gulf to be bridged, because it separates, but it is actually the supportive ground of process in which the present is rooted. Hence temporal distance is not something that must be overcome… In fact the important thing is to recognise the distance in time as a positive and productive possibility of understanding. It is not a yawning abyss, but is filled with the continuity of customs and Weinsheimer, Gadamer’s Hermeneutics, 2.

Hubert L. Dreyfus, Being-in-the-World (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991), 20–22.

Gadamer, Truth and Method, 244.

Jens Zimmerman, Recovering Theological Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 181.

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The belief that a reader of Scripture can completely bracket their historically-shaped understanding from their reading in order to think with the thoughts, customs, and traditions of the first century Mediterranean world, for example, is not only naïve, it is also impossible. All historical reconstruction occurs in the reader’s historical horizon, which has been shaped by the process of history. Gadamer terms this being shaped, or effected, by one’s situatedness in history (i.e. “traditions”) and particularly the effect of a text through history on the process of understanding as Wirkungsgeschichte.110 iii. Meaning As a concept relating to biblical interpretation, Wirkungsgeschichte solidifies the relationship between history (in the sense of geschichtlich) and meaning. Gadamer focuses his discussion of history on the history of effects of a text, that is the life it has in generations that follow its production.

Meaning, therefore, cannot be delimited exclusively to authorial intent, but must go beyond the author and take place in the course of history as readers continue to engage with the text.111 Arrival at meaning, i.e. “understanding,” does not simply entail reproducing the author’s intent, nor is this reproduction entirely possible. Understanding also necessitates a productive attitude in which the reader brings their historically-shaped horizon to the text and engages with it. For Gadamer, the reader must not impose their horizon on the text, but must bring questions to the text and, in turn, be questioned by the Gadamer, Truth and Method, 264–65.

Ibid., 298–304; Thiselton, Two Horizons, 307.

Gadamer, Truth and Method, 264. Knight speaks of this as the “indivisible fusion of meaning” that rejects the distinction of what a text means and what it meant. Mark Knight, “Wirkungsgeschichte, Reception History, Reception Theory,” JSNT 33, no. 2 (2010): 143.

text.112 “In Gadamer’s language, we renounce the manipulative ‘control’ epitomised by the ‘scientific method,’ and allow ourselves to enter unpredicted avenues into which mutual listening and genuine conversation leads.”113 He is not advocating that any interpretation is equally legitimate, or that any question is valid.114 The place of question and answer in Gadamer does not materialise out of nowhere. Collingwood first reasserted the significance of the dialogue of question and answer as the proper understanding of history.115 He perceived the practice of “history” as a science to be guided by the questions that the historian puts to history, and from which he/she receives an answer. The questions of each generation continue to drive the engine of historical dialogue.116 Waismann, another predecessor of Gadamer, takes this point


–  –  –

Parris, Reception Theory, 51–53.

Anthony C. Thiselton, Interpreting God and the Postmodern Self, Current Issues in Theology (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995), 13.

Rush addresses these two concerns together by noting that the new understanding of a text “in light of the present question, is the meaning applicable in the present. Such meanings are not unlimited, since the question of the text is always constantly addressed back at the reader. It may happen that a particular readerly question does not bring forth a meaningful answer from the text. This may indicate that the question is not a legitimate one.” Rush, The Reception of Doctrine, 122. At the same time, Gadamer does not offer a robust approach for determing when misinterpretation has taken place.

Gadamer seems unaware of Bakhtin’s work in this regard. Likewise, Jauss’ early work displays ignorance of Bakhtin, but he eventually engages with Bakhtin when he dedicates a work specifically to the topic of dialogue. Because Jauss interacts directly with Bakhtin, he will receive attention later.

R. G. Collingwood, The Idea of History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1946), 269–74.

F. Waismann, The Principles of Linguistic Philosophy (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1965), 413. Emphasis original.

Such language of “question” and “answer” discloses the crucial role for “dialogue” in Gadamer’s vision of “meaning” or “truth.”118 For “dialogue,” Gadamer relies on Collingwood and Waismann, but he also importantly engages the dialectics of Hegel119 with a view of “experience” as dialectical in nature. In this sense of “experience,” Gadamer envisions the encounter with the other, particularly the text or work of art. Construed in terms of the hermeneutical circle,120 this has to do with the movement away from the horizon of the self to the other and back again. In the encounter with the other, “I”121 am defamiliarised with a horizon not my own and “I” submit my preconceptions to the scrutinising horizon of the other. “I” understand the other as an answer to questions. In so doing, the other becomes familiar to the “I,” and as the “I” returns reflectively to itself, “it cancels out the otherness of the other.”122 Put slightly differently, the horizon of the text and the horizon of the reader meet and understanding occurs in the process of their fusion when the reader is changed by the experience. Therefore, meaning, the result of this fusion, is “eventful” in nature, rather than static.

This notion of experiential understanding that continually seeks expansion Gadamer terms Bildung.123 It is understanding that has not reached a fixed point. The very nature of this transformation in dialogue with texts should cultivate a quality of openness in readers to new experiences and a realisation of historical finitude124 that limits the breadth of our Gadamer, “What Is Truth?,” 42–44.

Platonic dialogue as well is significant to Gadamer, but tangential to our discussion.

Gadamer, Truth and Method, 355–61; Gadamer, “What Is Truth?,” 42.

Gadamer, Truth and Method, 267–72.

In total, “I” am a “historically effected consciousness” (i.e. a person shaped by their particular historical givenness, not a blank slate). Ibid., 335.

Parris, Reception Theory, 23.

Gadamer, Truth and Method, 8–16.

Ibid., xxxii.

understanding.125 This differs critically from Hegel on at least two points: 1.) Hegel’s dialectic sees absolute knowledge, the point at which nothing is other to the self and “experience” reaches its conclusion, as the goal of this process.

2.) This pursuit of absolute knowledge treats the other as a “thing” to be mastered, a means to and end, rather than as an “other” who truly addresses me.126 In Gadamer’s eyes, this reduction of the “other” to “thing” comes about through the imposition of a methodology (e.g. historicism).127 Based on these insights, Gadamer contends that texts generate questions that the author may not have intended and that they may provide answers to questions that are only realised in later generations because of their location in a historical context. “The real meaning of a text, as it speaks to the interpreter, does not depend on the contingencies of the author and who he originally wrote for. It is certainly not identical with them, for it is always partly determined also by the historical situation of the interpreter and hence by the totality of the objective course of history.”128 One cannot overstress the significance of this point for the Church.

Without an approach to Scripture that bears in mind Gadamer’s insights and discards a singularising emphasis on authorial intent and a closed concept of history, the Church must renounce vast swathes of formative doctrine.

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Wirkungsgeschichte (as well as Rezeptionsästhetik). During the ecclesial debates of the 4th century C. E. the Church faced questions as to how it could For this description of dialogue, see Ibid., 360–62.

Hegel uses language of “demanding” from the other and describes the positions of the self-conscious “I” and the “other” as “lordship” (Herrschaft) and “servitude” (Knechtschaft),

respectively. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Phänomenologie des Geistes (Hamburg:

Meiner Verlag, 1988), 127–35.

Parris, Reception Theory, 24.

Gadamer, Truth and Method, 263.

affirm its worship of a single God, while holding to the Sonship of Jesus as well as the ministry and personhood of the Holy Spirit. The questions did not generate in the atemporal ether, but arose out of engagement with the Scriptures and the contemporary thought-world. Texts such as Gen 1, Prov 8,129 Matt 28:19, John 1, 1 Cor 12:3-7,130 2 Cor 13:14, Col 1:15-20 all open larger questions relating to the nature and being of God. These questions and their answers are part of the Wirkungsgeschichte of the respective texts, as well as the biblical canon as a whole.

The fact that historic (geschichtlich) dialogue with texts continue to produce fresh meaning indicate that “true meaning of a text or a work of art is never finished; it is in fact an infinite process.”131 Jauss essentially follows Gadamer in this respect, contending that meaning is not an “atemporal, basic element which is always already given; rather, it is the never-completed result of a process of progressive and enriching interpretation, which concretises— in an ever new and different manner— the textually immanent potential for meaning in the change of horizons of historical life-worlds.”132 This concept of a horizon is essential to both Gadamer and Jauss.

Gadamer describes it in terms of the collective expectations133 generated by reader’s background that they bring to the text. As described above, understanding happens when the horizon of the “other” enlarges the reader’s The exegesis of Prov 8:22 particularly in the first four centuries of the Church is phenomenal, especially given the relative lack of engagement with it by the NT authors.

Nevertheless, it was a foundational text for understanding the pre-existence and co-creative

work of Jesus as part of the Godhead. Khaled Anatolios, Retrieving Nicaea (Grand Rapids:

Baker Academic, 2011), 37, 46, and 122; Seitz, Character, 100 and 109.

For treatment on this particular text in relation to reception history and the doctrine of the Trinity, see Thiselton, Thiselton on Hermeneutics, 293.

Gadamer, Truth and Method, 265.

Hans Robert Jauss, “The Alterity and Modernity of Medieval Literature,” New Literary History 10, no. 2 (1979): 183.

Thiselton, Hermeneutics, 221.

horizon in a process Gadamer calls the “fusion of the horizons.”134 The reader’s horizon expands, or “shifts,” to incorporate the insights given by the “other.” Wirkungsgeschichte, as a reflective endeavour, looks at the history of these shifts and the horizons of expectations with which readers historically approached, in our case, biblical texts. Additionally, it construes meaning in a historically holistic sense that takes into consideration the broad range of effects that have resulted from horizontal interaction with the text.

Gadamer supplements this dialogical understanding of meaning and truth with the concept of Spiel (“play” or “game”) that he takes over from Heidegger.135 In opposition to Nietzche particularly, but also the methodological control of the sciences, Heidegger suggests that existence and truth realized therein are characterised by “play.” Though we find ourselves “thrown” into existence (as Dasein), we construct a philosophical world of what is “essential” (particularly “truth”). In the flow of life, we proffer reasons for everything. This reasoning, however, does not lead toward absolute knowledge, but rather is countered by the withdrawal, or suspension, of the epistemological foundations of being. “Play” is the movement between reasoning and withdrawal. The same notion follows for truth, which Heidegger suggests entails both disclosure and concealment. This concealment is not negative, but the reality of being finite (i.e. we cannot know the total Being of another person or thing) and that truths pose further challenges or Gadamer, Truth and Method, 337.

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