On the Reformed Movement’s Theological Hermeneutics in the Post-Reformation Era

The Lutheran-Calvinistic approaches paved the way for Friedrich Schleiermacher of the Eighteenth Century. For Schleiermacher, reading –albeit, interpreting Scripture –was an art and the reader assumes the role of an artist whenever they extract meaning from any given text. There is, if I may interject Gilles Deleuze and Mikhail Bahktin, through the reader assuming the role of an artist, the sense that the act of reading is a “meaning-making” process that is situated on a creative act (Deleuze’s term), or a creative activity (Bahktin’s term). Though Deleuze and Bahktin do not come along until the 20th century, Schleiermacher is their forerunner. Schleiermacher’s notion of the reader as artist is steeped in a sense of the creative act/activity that a reader must be gainfully employed in, if he reader intends to honor the text as a “meaning-making” device. This means that, when the reader is engaged in the reading process, the reader is experiencing the text, where that experience of the text is predicated on what Schleiermacher calls “feeling” and “self-consciousness.”

In The Christian Faith published in 1821-1822, Schleiermacher’s conception of the church is one that is rooted in hermeneutics: the interpretation of what the Church is, what the Church should do, and how the Church should function with respect to its representation in Scripture and its role in the Christian community. Hermeneutics, then, for Schleiermacher, “feeling” and “self-consciousness” is a two-fold experience which he describes in the following manner:

In the first place, it is everybody’s experience that there are moment in which all thinking and willing retreat behind a self-consciousness of one form or another; but in the second place, …this same form of self-consciousness persists unaltered during a series of diverse acts of thinking and willing…[1]

Here, what is undoubtedly lurking behind Schleiermacher’s notions of “feeling” and “self-consciousness” –though, perhaps, not so subtly –is Kant’s categorical imperative to knowledge as divided into the essentialist structures of pure reason (logic), practical reason (morality), or judgment (aesthetic). This is especially the case if situating Kant and Schleiermacher historically: they were essentially contemporaries, even though only the first edition of Schleiermacher’s On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers was published in Kant’s lifetime. Nevertheless, Kant’s doctrine of knowledge works in the background behind Schleiermacher’s respective doctrine of knowledge, where, though Schleiermacher adopts Kant’s fundamental law about knowledge being bounded by experience, Schleiermacher wholly rejects Kant’s “thing-in-itself” or Ding an sich. Hence, Schleiermacher’s elevates “feeling” and “self-consciousness,” which are two very important components of his approach to hermeneutics.

As a central figure to a post-Reformation period, Schleiermacher’s approach to hermeneutics was a generalized understanding of the field. In this sense, Schleiermacher views the interpretation of Scripture was predicated on a two-fold lenses: avoiding misunderstandings and discovering the author’s intent. Not only is Schleiermacher concerned with the “subjectivization” of the reader’s experience with a given text, but also the objectification of the text itself. Schleiermacher –on opposing sides of German Idealism from Kant –is aware that “meaning and understanding” is more than just a subjective enterprise but is, by association, an objective one. It is not strictly about how a reader is doing their subjectivizing, but how they are allowing the text to do its objectifying. This goes back to the notion of “reading into” a text. To this end, Schleiermacher’s post-Reformation period is not that far apart ideologically from the Reformation period’s understandings of Scripture, inspiration, authority, and interpretation –in fact, I would say that Schleiermacher is concerned with the same hermeneutical concerns as the Reformers, most notably “sola scriptura” and the discernable excellence of the text.

This post-Reformation period’s approach to hermeneutics directly informs the emergence of fundamentalism in America in the 19th and 20th century, particularly with respect to the “Old Princeton Theology” at Princeton Theological Seminary in the theologies of Charles Hodge, his son Archibald A. Hodge, and Benjamin Warfield. Ideologically, “Old Princeton Theology” is conservative, but its conservatism arose mainly in response to proliferation of theological liberalism at Princeton. This “theological liberalism” was a kind of “Liberal Christianity” evidenced in some of the following theologians: Adolf von Harnack (with the denial of the possibility of Jesus performing miracles), Walter Rauschenbusch (with the development of the Social Gospel movement), Rudolf Bultmann (with the concept of demythology), and Paul Tillich (with the appropriation of Heideggerian concepts and existentialism at large into the theology). Each of these figures, as did others that can be categorized under the “theological liberalism” label, infused into philosophical perspectives and contemporary scientific assumptions into their approach to hermeneutics, which, on the whole, sought to interpret Scripture from an objective point of view, decidedly setting aside the authority of Scripture in the process.

In reaction to the way in which “theological liberalism” and theologians accordingly aligned with Liberal Christianity understood the role of Scripture, “Old Princeton theology” sought to promote biblical inerrancy. The father-and-son Hodges, Warfield, and others that aligned in this regard –perhaps, as a term, “Old Princeton theology” was meant to differentiate from what might be called the “New Princeton Theology” of Liberal Christianity. To be sure, “Old Princeton theology” was a tradition of the Reformed Protestantism, specifically epitomized in John Calvin. Through an orthodox Calvinism, “Old Princeton Theology,” as a hermeneutical movement, focused on the authority of the Bible and being “faithful” to the Word of God. To truly understand not only the theology of this “Old Princeton Theology,” but how that theology developed into a specific hermeneutical praxis, consider Charles Hodges’ Systematic Theology published from 1872-1873. In it, Hodge makes the following claim, which I find to be critical to understanding the hermeneutical lenses through which “Old Princeton Theology” approached biblical interpretation: “…the Bible contains truths which the theologian has to collect, authenticate, arrange, and exhibit in their internal relation to each other.”[2] Here, Hodge is clear: “the Bible contains truths.” In effect, the Bible is a collection of facts and, when a theologian does theology –and hermeneutics itself –the theologian engages theology as a science.

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[1] Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, Edited by H. R. Mackintosh and J. S. Stewart (Edinburgh, Scotland: T & T Clark, 1999),  7.

[2] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology: Volume 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1872), 1.

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