The Hermeneutic Circle

In biblical exegesis it’s quite easy to get sucked into what is called the hermeneutic circle. I was recently provided with an absolutely beautiful illustration of this concept when a friend took issue with my opposition to the idea of a univocal view of the Bible:

You found a couple of puzzle pieces in a thousand-piece puzzle that are difficult to fit into the picture shown on the outside cover of the box, and so on that basis announce that the original puzzle was that represented by the two unusual pieces while the 998 pieces represent a radical alteration of the original picture.

Here is where this runs into problems. The Bible has no theological composition on its cover. It has no cover. It is a collection of texts written, edited, and redacted by a number of different people for a number of different reasons that were gather together for equally disparate reasons and eventually combined in a single publication. Since we didn’t produce the puzzle (fragments of text) from a single, original composition, we can’t have been responsible for any picture on the cover.

The above statements asserts there’s a picture on the cover, though. Where, then, did it come from? There’s only one possible answer. It must come from putting the pieces together. We run into problems, though, since my friend tells us above that we must make sure we put the pieces together in a way that matches the picture on the cover. If we deviate because the pieces don’t fit it’s because we’re doing something wrong. Therein lies the paradox. The picture on the cover cannot depend on the picture produced by the pieces if the pieces must be made to produce a picture that matches the cover. To insist that such is the case is to be stuck in the hermeneutic circle.


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