An Exploration of the Spirituality of Gustavo Gutiérrez Part 3

In this 3rd post we examine the first of the four themes of the spirituality of Gustavo Gutiérrez that we identified in the 2nd post.

Is Gutiérrez’s Biblical Interpretation Legitimate?

As Vanhoozer reminds us: ‘Perhaps no twentieth-century philosophers have done more on behalf of hermeneutics than Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur’.[1] Both are inextricably linked to the modern paradigm of the hermeneutical circle. Gutiérrez like many liberation theologians accepts the central premise of the hermeneutical circle.[2] For Gutiérrez, as for Gadamer and Ricoeur, the interpretation of the Bible is not a neutral or objective process. Throughout his work Gutiérrez not only acknowledges that we inevitably read from a place of preunderstanding but he argues that there is a need to actively cultivate the correct preunderstanding. Gutiérrez, as we have seen, privileges the experience of the poor for this task.[3]

Segundo is perhaps the most prominent Latin American proponent of the hermeneutical circle and he gives a fuller treatment of it than most other contextual theologians.[4] The hermeneutical circle is however commonly explicit, and always implicit, in all contextual and materialist theologies.[5] Having noted this use of the hermeneutical circle we can usefully enquire how critically it is used. Interestingly, Gutiérrez and others who employ the idea of the hermeneutical circle do so, I would suggest, in an ideological sense. What I mean by this is that they note that the starting point of a commitment to the poor is confirmed when the Bible is read in this light. They argue correctly that when reading from this commitment many biblical passages take on new depth and even fundamentally different meanings. That this is true is readily apparent but this does not offer proof of the legitimate hegemony of such readings. It is clearly the case that liberation theology in general, and Gutiérrez’s specifically, gives rise to readings that are at odds to those starting from other stances. That this is the case can be seen from the hostility between some Latin American theologians and the Vatican.[6]

This is not to say that the hermeneutical circle is not a valuable tool in evaluating the legitimacy of a reading of a scriptural text. Rather I am suggesting that it must be used in an open and self-critical way. Used in this way the hermeneutical circle can question initial presuppositions. Gadamer who made a large contribution to the modern understanding of the hermeneutical circle as involving the fusing of horizons is frequently misunderstood on this point.[7] What Gadamer was not advocating was the hasty identification of parallels between text and modern context, though that this frequently happens is of course true. That this happens in the sorts of contexts that Gutiérrez ministers in is also true. The sort of biblical interpretation that takes place in the base ecclesial communities often represents a premature fusing of horizons as any initial parallels between text and context are seized upon.[8]

For Gadamer, understanding (rather than preunderstanding restated) takes place when horizons are fused which had previously been appreciated as distinct from one another.[9] An example would be the Exodus story. Someone who was part of an oppressed community, effectively enslaved to a privileged ruling class who reads of the Israelites in slavery in Egypt, might naturally and uncritically make a hasty fusion of horizons. This would be what we might call a naïve reading, i.e. a level of identification such that an expectation of the immanent intervention of God miraculously to liberate looks like the corollary of the Exodus story. A more critical examination of the story will raise other themes which don’t connect so obviously with the reader’s context. Questions like how does this fit into Yahweh’s relationship with his chosen nation? Why did Israel experience a distinct lack of liberation for such lengthy periods of biblical history? It can be noted just as appositely that a Western, middle-class, evangelical reading is all too likely to yield an understanding (in fact a reflected preunderstanding) consistent with the story being typological and speaking only about salvation of the soul.

The point is that there is always a very serious danger of a hasty fusion of horizons which gives back the preunderstanding that was put in. What can be absent from both liberation theology and some Western readings is two aspects of what Barth called the Sache of Scripture.[10] There are two serious dangers that face the reader of Scripture, both of which violate the very notion that the Bible is Scripture:

  1. By placing something in front of it, whether this is an ideological commitment (however apparently laudable), a key text or doctrine, i.e. a canon-within-the-canon[11] we get the same thing reflected back. We read something of our context in Scripture rather than allowing it to read us.[12]
  2. A prior commitment perceives an order to Scripture which is just not there. There is every danger that we constrain Scripture so that it is no longer the strange world that Barth refers to.[13] This complexity and dialogical nature of scripture is seen in much contemporary scholarship.[14] If we miss this reality of Scripture we hear it only selectively.

[1] Vanhoozer, Meaning, p.106.

[2] See, for example, Gutiérrez, Theology, p.26

[3] So, for example, in Gutiérrez, Task, pp.25-27, Gutiérrez, Wells, pp.30-32 and Gutiérrez, Power, pp.156-160.

[4] See Segundo, Theology, pp.7-38.

[5] Ched Myers’ Binding the Strong Man is a good example, see Myers, Binding, pp.4-5.

[6] See Hebblethwaite, Catholic, p.186.

[7] So Thiselton, New, p.412 and his strong criticism of Rowland and Corner, Exegesis, p.22.

[8] See, for example, Rowland and Corner, Exegesis, p.14.

[9] Gadamer, Method, p.305.

[10] See Burnett, Exegesis, pp.74-84.

[11] See Goldingay, Authority, pp.122-127 on the concept of a canon-within-the-canon.

[12] On the idea of Scripture reading us see Vanhoozer, Meaning, pp.405ff. and Thiselton, Hermeneutics, pp.8ff. on active texts.

[13] Barth, Word, pp.28-50.

[14] For example this is seen in two major contributions to Old Testament theology. Brueggemann, Theology, pp.xv-xvii argues for a dialogical approach to the Old Testament.


Author: PsalterMark

Psalm addict, disciple, son, husband, father, academic, theologian, cacti grower, steam enthusiast and ale drinker

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