A Hermeneutic of Finitude: The Value of Multiperspectivalism in Theological Development

finitudeThe eulogy for arrogant epistemology has been clearly spoken in the postmodern era. Sometimes it has said too much, but often it has been just right. The characteristic arrogance of man claims either to know it all, or that with enough study he can know it all. Such a belief, however, will not do for the Evangelical. For the Evangelical claims to believe in total depravity, progressive sanctification, and fundamentally the creatureliness of man. Only God is omniscient. Man is deeply flawed and only slowly being made new. An arrogant epistemology is simply not Evangelical in nature. We need to recover and reapply a hermeneutic of finitude to our theological development.

This hermeneutic has been present in the voices of many theologians throughout church history. Calvin was never afraid to claim mystery. He was a great logician, but he was not a rationalist like his forebears, or like many of those who would follow him. It has existed too in the philosophical writings of H.G. Gadamer who developed a thorough hermeneutic of finitude. And he was merely picking up on and further developing the work of Heidegger before him. Yet within the modern era this approach to studying and reading Scripture seems to have significantly diminished. There has been a tone of self-confidence uncharacteristic of Christian theologians. It has been just as present among liberal theologians as it has among Evangelicals, but it is not worthy to be called Christian. For it is humility which is becoming of the followers of Christ (Col. 3:12; 1 Peter 5:5). This humility needs to be applied to our theological development and our reading of Scripture. Perhaps, however, the reason it is not often applied is because it is not clearly understood.

Evangelicalism has been constructed around a strong conviction in the objective truth of God’s Word. There is a great fear of any relativizing of truth among Evangelicals. This fear is for good reason. After all if we can’t stand confidently on the Word of God we have nothing. Many on the contemporary theological scene have overcorrected against the modernist arrogance and have abandoned all epistemology and all objectivity (see Greg Thornbury’s discussion of such theology in  Recovering Classic Evangelicalism). We can appreciate, then, why so many Evangelicals are reticent to the idea of a hermeneutic of finitude. Clarifying what we mean, however, will help us to better defend the approach.

Defining our terms is important. Hermeneutics refers to the science which delineates the principles or methods for interpreting an individual author’s meaning (Though this definition would be seriously debated in modern linguistic philosophy I am not going to take the time here to defend it, that would distract us from the present discussion). Hermeneutics, then, is about how we read and interpret a text, like for example the Bible. Finitude refers the reality of man’s limitations. As creatures we are not all-knowing, all-seeing, or all-powerful. We cannot plumb the depths of reality or understanding. Gadamer spoke of the experience of finitude as the condition of essential limitation. We have limits as finite creatures, even in our understanding and interpretation. What this means in terms of hermeneutics is that we cannot presume to have exhausted the meaning, understanding, and application of a text. In theological development this means we cannot exhaust the meaning, understanding, and application of our primary theological text: the Bible. There is always more to discover, always more to consider, always another angle we have not yet perceived.

Such a reality makes sense when we consider the nature of the Bible’s primary author. God is an infinite being who pours out His character into His Word. There are depths to the text of Scripture that we cannot plumb ourselves. This is not to say that we cannot know objective truths about and from the Word of God. To say that we cannot know God’s Word and know God’s truths exhaustively is not to say that we can’t know them truly. What we know of God’s Word can be true, even while we concede that there is still more to learn. This hermeneutic of finitude is not a hermeneutic of relativism, but rather of humility. As humble theologians, then, we must consider several key aspects of our theological work.

We must approach theological disagreements with grace. A hermeneutic of finitude readily recognizes that we may be wrong and that we can always learn from one another. It may quickly be asserted that there is right and wrong. There are true and false interpretations of Scripture. We know this because we know that the God who wrote it speaks of right and wrong. It is wrong, according to Scripture, to worship false gods, it is wrong to murder. It is right to be humble and to love your neighbor as yourself. There is truth and falsehood in the Biblical worldview. All good theologians have, however, studied and come to the conclusion that they, at some point, have been the ones who were wrong. A good theologians is one who is ready to change his views when convinced by the Scriptures themselves. Furthermore, humble theologians learn from those they disagree with. While one may fundamentally disagree with a conclusion drawn by another theologian, there are many times where their approaches, their corrections, their concerns have helped to sharpen and reshape another’s understanding of the Scriptures. Be gracious toward those with whom you disagree.

Humble theologians also seek out different voices from which to learn. Because we recognize that we cannot exhaust the depths of Scripture we ought to be ready and willing to learn from those who approach the Scriptures from a different angle. Such approaches open up new worlds and ways of thinking. Listen to the voices of theologians from different cultures, ethnic backgrounds, and religious traditions. Look at the Scriptures through their eyes. If God’s Word is universally true and universally applicable then this means it speaks to all of us in ways relevant to our individual contexts. This means that how my friends in Ethiopia apply Scripture is going to be different and yet may be still be helpful for me. I have written elsewhere about the dangers of developing a middle-class white male theology. A hermeneutic of finitude can help us combat such dangers.

I can fully appreciate and sympathize with the timidity to embrace this hermeneutic. There is plenty of relative, anemic theology floating around theological circles today. But the solution is not to embrace an arrogant epistemology that presumes more on man’s own abilities than on God’s vastness. A hermeneutic of finitude is both more honest and more honoring to God. It also points in the direction of a multiperspectival theology. It keeps theology where it belongs, within the whole community of the church, and not in the hands of one man. Let us be humble theologians.

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