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On Interpretation...

I am trying to read Introduction to Philosophical Hermeneutics, Jean Grondin, tr. Joel Weinsheimer, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1994, and not making much progress because the phone keeps ringing.  Ah well.  Nonetheless, I have quite enjoyed the twenty or so pages I've read this morning, been very grateful to those who tried to teach me Greek because the smattering of vocabulary I gained have has proved invaluable, and have already found something that has made me go 'hmmm' in a good way.

Evidently someone by the name of Augustine of Dacia (as distinct from he of Hippo) extended some ideas from Origen (of Alexandria, not another one!) in developing a four-fold scheme for Biblical interpretation.  This scheme was rejected by Luther, which probably explains why until today I'd never come across it.  The fourfold scheme is this:

  • Literal (somatic or historical) interpretation
  • Allegorical interpretation
  • Moral interpretation
  • Anagogical (~eschatalogical) interpretation

The author of the book then summarises the these thus: 'the literal teaches us what happened, the allegorical what to believe, the moral what we ought to do, and the anagogic what we are striving toward.'

Care is needed to avoid a simplistic reading of the thesis, and I'd need to look much more closely at this stuff to find out quite how this Augustine perceived his scheme, but it seems to hint at a series of helpful interpretive questions both for scripture and for history (or perhaps for anything else!):

  • What does it say? (literal)
  • What does it mean? (allegorical, used loosely, what are the truths it contains?)
  • So what? (moral - how does this affect me/us?)
  • What next? (how does this affect the here and now in the light of the aims/visions/hopes for the future?)

Another thing I've discovered is that the ancients understood 'hermeneutic' as functioning both in the move from mind/thought-to-word/letter and in the more familiar way from word/letter-to-thought/understanding.  I think this is helpful as I try to think about the reading and writing of denominational history, not that it isn't already recognised in historical method stuff, because it is, but because it verbalises it in a way I find connects bits of ideas together.  Thus, I end up with a writer asking themself similar questions about

  • what do I write - subject matter?
  • what does it mean?  What hidden truths (untruths?!) or messages are encoded within it?
  • so what?  What difference do I want this to make to those who read it in shaping values, understanding etc.
  • what next?  What are the practical implications of reading and reflecting on this stuff?

So, generally useful stuff.  Needs more critical thought inevitably.  But a useful exercise, I think.  (Maybe now I have to go and apply the scheme and questions to the scheme and questions ...)

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