Contemporary Hermeneutics and the Study of the New Testament -- By: Richard B. Gaffin, Jr.

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 31:2 (May 1969)
Article: Contemporary Hermeneutics and the Study of the New Testament
Author: Richard B. Gaffin, Jr.

Contemporary Hermeneutics and the Study of the New Testament

Richard B. Gaffin, Jr.

1 The question of hermeneutics (or how the Bible is to be interpreted) is at the center of contemporary theological debate. In fact, it does not go too far to say that today all theological discussion is, in one form or another, hermeneutical discussion. Particular lines of inquiry are seen to converge in a hermeneutical focus. Specific issues are considered to be reducible to a hermeneutical common denominator. In a word, the problem—for it is recognized to be such—the problem of hermeneutics is felt to be the theological problem par excellence.

As long as one continues to operate with the conventional understanding of hermeneutics, this all-consuming interest in the subject remains unintelligible or its significance is, at best, only dimly perceived. Traditionally, hermeneutics has been conceived of as a particular theological discipline, closely associated with, yet distinguished from, exegesis, as both have reference to the biblical text. To be more specific, hermeneutics and exegesis are related to each other as theory to practice. Hermeneutics is concerned with enunciating principles of interpretation derived, for the most part, from previously established epistemological and philological considerations, principles which, in turn, are to facilitate understanding of the text as they are applied in the concrete act of exegesis. This, for instance, is the conception of hermeneutics developed by Abraham Kuyper in the third volume of his monumental work on theological encyclopedia: hermeneutics is “de logica der exegese.”2

In marked contrast to this traditional point of view is the new grasp of the proportions and nature of the hermeneutical task which has been emerging since the appearance of Karl Barth’s commentary on the book of Romans and which has become increasingly dominant since about 1950. This significant expansion of the hermeneutical horizon is seen most easily in the influential encyclopedia article on “Hermeneutik” by the German church historian, Gerhard Ebeling, which appeared in 1959.3 An excellent statement of this new orientation has been provided for the English reader by James M. Robinson in his essay, “Hermeneutic Since Barth.”4 Guided by etymological reflection upon the three root meanings of the Greek verb which directly underlies the word “hermeneutics” and its equivalents in other modern European languages, Ebeling maintains that in his i...

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