Based on Martin C. Albi's book Reason, Faith, and Tradition: Explorations in Catholic Theology, what are scriptural hermeneutics? What is the significance of Paul Ricoeur's thought concerning...

Based on Martin C. Albi's book Reason, Faith, and Tradition: Explorations in Catholic Theology, what are scriptural hermeneutics? What is the significance of Paul Ricoeur's thought concerning scriptural hermeneutics? How did the methods of hermeneutics come about, and how can they be used by modern readers? How do the theological methods of Lonegran and Aquinas compare and contrast?

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Tamara K. H. eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Scriptural hermeneutics, or biblical hermeneutics, simply refers to methods in which we interpret the Bible. Several different models for interpretation have been born, including the historical-grammatical model, the Dispensational model, the Covenantal model, the New-Covenantal model, and many others ("Biblical Hermeneutics").

According to Martin C. Albi in his book Reason, Faith, and Tradition: Explorations in Catholic Theology, theologian and philosopher Paul Ricoeur argued that a problem exists with respect to biblical interpretation through the modern worldview. The essential problem is that the biblical text means something different to the modern reader than it would to the "prescientific reader." Ricoeur classifies this problem using what he terms the "hermeneutical circle." His circle simply poses the problem that "we must understand in order to believe, but we must believe in order to understand" (p. 63). According to Albi, Riceour also proposed two stages through which a modern reader can interpret a biblical text and derive meaning.

But first, let's look at the example Albi gives to illustrate the problem. Albi uses the fictional person Roger as his example to explain that Roger sees a problem with the amount of hardship and violence in the world and wants to reach a better understanding for as to why violence and hardships exist, so he turns to the Bible. He even reads Genesis chapters 1-3 at the suggestion of a friend, but those passages simply confuse him more because he can't fathom how in the world a story involving a talking snake and a woman created from the rib of a man can help anyone understand the violent nature of the world. Ricoeur explains that Roger's confusion stems from the fact that he is trying to interpret the passages from a literal, modern, scientific mind, but the ancient passages themselves were written far before the world became modern and scientific. As Ricoeur phrased it, "The biblical worldview is prescientific and symbolic"; therefore, modern readers who are shaped by science for their understanding of the world will have difficulty deriving meaning from the biblical worldview (p. 62). Hence, unless someone like Roger uses a means of interpretation, the passages will remain incomprehensible. According to Albi, Riceour laid out two stages for interpretation.

The first stage is critical reasoning. The reader must accept that things like a "prescientific explanation for why snakes crawl" on their bellies will be completely irrelevant to the modern reader.

The second stage involves becoming aware of "the type of language that the story employs" (p. 63). More specifically, it's important to understand that the story in Genesis 1-3 is actually not a literal, historical account. Instead, it's a myth, full of symbolic and figurative language.

Once the reader sees that the language is symbolic and figurative, the reader can then much more easily derive meaning from the text. The reader can then see that Adam and Even symbolize human traits, such as the human tendency to stray from God's will, which is a way of speaking of sin. The story of Adam and Eve is a symbolic way of describing "the human experience of sin" (63). Once the reader completes those two steps, the reader will be able to see the story as representing a relationship between man and the divine and showing that sin separates us from that divine relationship, which brings us back to the problem of the hermeneutical circle. The first step in the hermeneutical circle states that "we must understand in order to believe," which means that we must see the biblical text as having meaning beyond the literal meaning, meaning that is symbolic and figurative. However, the second problem in the circle is that "we must believe in order to understand," which means that we must accept that the text has more significant meaning and power than just what's literally stated. It is the Christian's belief that the text has greater meaning and power that draws the Christian to the text; the Christian is drawn to a desire to understand the text because of his/her beliefs about the text. Ricoeur argues that even non-Christians will be able "to believe in order to understand" if the non-Christian stops to ask critical questions of the text because the very act of asking critical questions can only be done based on the assumption that there is something more to the text than beneath the eye.

Ricoeur's thought concerning biblical hermeneutics is significant to the modern reader because his thought is drawn based on the belief that the biblical text is not literal. While many modern Christian readers may understand that there is a deeper, more symbolic meaning behind the text, many modern Christian readers also still cling to the belief that the text can be viewed as a literal, historical account. More importantly, his thought is significant for all modern readers because it shows that there is a direct relationship between believing and understanding. If we don't as readers achieve a deeper understanding of a text, than we won't believe the text has any significance; likewise, it is our natural inclination to believe that the text is worthy of understanding that makes us believe we should understand it and derive a deeper meaning. Hence, based on Ricoeur's arguments, it is possible to interpret and understand the Bible, but only if the reader assumes that there is something in the text worthy of being understood. In other words, it is the reader who imparts value to the text rather than the text having value in and of itself.