A Humble Hermeneutic for Covenant Students

By Noel Weichbrodt

Part One: Confession

Let me give myself away right now. This paper is written to an audience, Covenant philosophy students, regarding how they approach and learn from our philosophy texts, hermeneutics, and is concerned with getting Covenant philosophy students to use a distinctly Christian hermeneutic, which I call the humble hermeneutic, in their studies. Based on the biblical understanding of humility and wisdom, the humble hermeneutic guides us as to how we approach and learn from a philosophical text. The humble hermeneutic is, as we shall see, not only an outworking of our Christian faith, but also the hermeneutic recommended to us by the philosophers themselves.

I have another confession: I find it hard to justify the separation of a person and what they wrote. In other words, when we speak of the text, I think of it as a real, living person who I approach and converse with. Our conversation ranges over everything in the world, and out of the world. When the Bible asks us to serve our neighbor, I take that command to apply to what our neighbor writes as well as the person of the neighbor. And when the Bible tells us how humility works out in the lives of those we serve, I see a call for humility in serving the texts we read as well.

Part Two: Humility and Wisdom

First, let us define terms. What is humility? Its nature is two-fold, and to examine that nature we turn to the Bible. Psalm 8:3-4 reads, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?”1 Romans 12:1-5 elucidates on the same idea of man’s place, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.” Taken together, we understand that humility is a clearheaded understanding of who you are in light of God.

Humility’s nature is two-fold. Philippians 2:3-11 gets into the second aspect of humility, “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Not only is humility a clearheaded understanding of who you are in light of God, but it is also the putting before yourself of others. Now we see that an understanding of who you are and who God is prompts wisdom born of humility: putting others before yourself. This understanding of humility brings us, as Christians, to a distinctively formulated lifestyle, and a distinctively formulated hermeneutic. The hermeneutic is not added-on to the Christian; it is a hermeneutic that results from the Christian being such.

The humble hermeneutic can be formulated now thus: when reading a text, the reader must submit himself to the author, sit at the feet of what is said, and struggle with what is written and not written, and its meaning. Humbly approach the text not as one who judges, but as one who seeks to understand the text and benefit from it in some way.

This understanding of how humility is at work in the Christian hermeneutic can be seen through an examination of wisdom versus arrogance. To get into the tension, the ‘verses’ between wisdom and arrogance, read these three passages from the book of wisdom. Proverbs 11:2 looks at the consequences of arrogance and wisdom, “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with the humble is wisdom.” The result of arrogance and the entrance to wisdom are in Proverbs 13:10, “By insolence comes nothing but strife, but with those who take advice is wisdom.” Finally, Proverbs 24:2-3 examines how to gain intellectual riches, “By wisdom a house is built, and by understanding it is established; by knowledge the rooms are filled with all precious and pleasant riches.”

Part Three: Arrogance and the Call of Humility

All too often, we as Covenant philosophy students are arrogant and uninspiring. And I think its because we think we know better than what we read. We, in our finiteness and sin, do not desire to gain wisdom, but think that a short four years of study will bring us all the knowledge we need to counter the vain philosophies of the world. After all, we are the smart ones, the ones who are sharp enough to know the truth about things, while all the pagan philosophers wander around in their boring, wrongheaded, unworthy lies. In fact, we harbor the suspicion that the study of philosophy is really quite unable to teach us anything new, or change the way we think and live. And if it does change us, that means we have given in to the world’s lies.

The above is just plain wrong. Unless I'm missing something in the observable brilliance department, none of us here at Covenant are worthy to shine the intellectual shoes of the great philosophers: Plato, Descartes, Kant, Heidegger, et al. At least not yet in our lives. Our faith demands a clearheaded understanding of who we are, a humility before the texts we study.

One of my friends put it thus: “Arrogance is a besetting sin of the student. What if we saw humility in studying philosophy not as conflicting with our Christian commitment, but as an outworking of our Christianity?  What if we said, ‘because I am a Christian, I must approach this text with humility’, rather than, ‘even though I am a Christian I should read the wrong thoughts of others?’”2

Wisdom, which students (including myself) sorely lack, is the preventative to arrogance. We are wise when we acknowledge others as having things to say to us. Humility calls us to listen to the texts, sympathetically and deeply, as opposed to just brushing them off. As we let the philosophers speak to us, as we hear them, as we let them change us and correct us, as we study, we are on the path to wisdom. Proverbs 15:12 says “A scoffer does not like to be reproved; he will not go to the wise.” Again, Proverbs 15:32-33: “Whoever ignores instruction despises himself, but he who listens to reproof gains intelligence. The fear of the LORD is instruction in wisdom, and humility comes before honor.”

At secular universities, so I’m told, the students approach a text with a vitality, an urgency and passion, that we sometimes lack here at Covenant. The vitality is that of a seeker looking for truth, because the seeker has not found any in their travels. Philosophy is vital to their lives, which are incomplete and longing for narratives to give them meaning. Each text, therefore, has the potential to give meaning to their life, and so the study of the texts is imbibed with an urgency. While we might deny the latter part of the vitality, the former vitality, that of a seeker in the act of study, of being changed by the text, is the way we should approach the text. Moreover, that vitality is not added on to our faith, but is fundamentally a part of our faith. Because we are called to be students of philosophy at Covenant, we are to bend our minds to the texts of philosophy, seeking to understand them, putting them before us and learning from them. That is what God calls us to do.

All this talk of humility can be dangerous, though. The humility and wisdom the Bible speaks of is different from the understandings most of us have in our heads. If we went by our worldly understandings of humility and wisdom, what I am saying the Bible calls us to do hermeneutically leads us to an unconditional surrender to the text. We fail to appropriately chew on the ideas of we read, we approach the text with a porousness and shallowness that fails to properly realize who we are by God. As Paul says in Romans 1:16-17, we should be “not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes…For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” To bring Gadamer in a little earlier than I had first planned, our Christian preunderstandings are dictative in what we learn. Our horizon, which is being renewed Author and Perfecter of our faith, fuses with the horizon of the text to create our understanding of the work. In short, it is not only okay that we are self-consciously Christian in our hermeneutics, but Christianity vitally shapes what we get out of our encounters with texts. The challenge is to sit at the feet of the philosophical masters while at the same time submitting not worldly wisdom but to God.

Humility, when understood and lived, boldly and passionately approaches the text. It does not back down from the challenge of learning, of being corrected. And it does not despair of failing to gain from study. When I gave a paper on Derrida’s differance, I said, “I will approach the text with the humility of one who is trying to act on something that is complex, brilliant, intimidating. A humble attempt to trace-out differance holds a better chance of something like edification of the person from Derrida that a assumptive, goal-oriented approach will. We will not, however, lose our intellectual boldness and give up an attempt.”3 Recall Philippians 2: “…he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name…” Through humility, we gain boldness and a certain footing as we study.

Part Four: The Philosophers’ Call

Now that we have established the imperative of faith in our hermeneutic, the call for humility before the text, we can really start to examine what the humble hermeneutic looks like. Let us look to the philosophers themselves, who have already understood what a humble hermeneutic does.

But first, a surprise. The first philosopher to study in this matter is C.S. Lewis. In his Experiment in Criticism4 , Lewis inquires into what we are calling the humble hermeneutic. “We sit down before the picture in order to have something done to us, not that we may do things with it. The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way. (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such a surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out.)”5 When Lewis commands us to get out of the way, what he is asking for is humility, putting the other before ourselves. In fact, when Lewis talks about humility, he lays out what a humble hermeneutic looks like before the other, and the text. “Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him it will be because you will feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will be not be thinking about himself at all.”6 And lest you think I am doing undue violence to what Lewis was saying about humility, Lewis himself equates humility before the text with humility before the person. “Good reading, therefore, though it is not essentially an affectional or moral or intellectual activity, has something in common with all three. In love we escape from our self into the other…Obviously this process can be described either as an enlargement or as a temporary annihilation of the self. But that is an old paradox; ‘he that loseth his life shall save it’. We therefore delight to enter into other men’s beliefs even though we think them untrue.”7

Lewis’ most important idea is of how good literature and bad literature are read. Good literature is received. Bad literature is used. 8 The trick is, you cannot make the distinction between good and bad until you receive the text. “It will be seen that all the experiences on which our judgments are based depend on taking the words seriously. Unless we are fully attending both to sound and sense, unless we hold ourselves obediently ready to conceive, imagine, and feel as the words invite us, we shall not have these experiences. Unless you are really trying to look through the lens you cannot discover whether it is good or bad. We can never know that a piece of writing is bad unless we have begun by trying to read it as if it was very good and ended by discovering that we were paying the author an undeserved compliment.”9

Bad texts are used by the student. But the student must be careful to not carry over this use-facing hermeneutic to the text before it is read. “This attitude, which was once my own, might almost be defined as ‘using’ pictures…you treat the picture…as a self-starter for certain imaginative and emotional elements of your own. In other words, you ‘do things with it’. You don’t lay yourself open to what it, by being in its totality precisely the thing it is, can do to you.”10 We must approach the text with a hermeneutic of humility, for without it we will never know whether the text is good or bad. “…While we read, we must treat the reception of the work we are reading as an end in itself.”11

Humility before texts will reward us, enrich us, teach us, even transcend us. Lewis ends his exercise on this grand note, “In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.”12

Hans-Georg Gadamer understood that humility is necessary when interpreting texts. “Thus the hermeneutical conversation begins when the interpreter genuinely opens himself to the text by listening to it and allowing it to assert its viewpoint. It is precisely in confronting the otherness of the text—in hearing its challenging viewpoint—and not in preliminary methodological self-purgations, that the reader’s own prejudices are thrown into relief and thus come to critical self-consciousness”13

Listen. It is the call of Solomon, Lewis, and now Gadamer. Gadamer comes at the idea of a humble hermeneutic using his understanding of how we exist inside history. We are people of our times, and our times go all the way back to the beginning of time. When we read a text, we read something that is not of our time. It is other than our present time. And so in both content and in historicity the text challenges us. And that challenge both reveals what we believe, and brings us to a critical evaluation of what we believe. Wisdom is gained, through humility. “To locate the question of the text is not simply to leave it, but to put it again, so that we, the questioners, are ourselves questioned by the text.”14 Applied to us as Covenant philosophy students, Gadamer reiterates that it is necessary to bring to the text our biblical horizon and use that horizon to question the text. In response to the questioning, the text questions us, and reveals.

Revelation is not quite what Martin Heidegger has in mind when he thinks about thinking and facing with texts. It can be related, though. Truth is unconcealment for Heidegger, unconcealment can be seen as revelation, and when a text is properly considered, truth comes out. Heidegger, in What is Called Thinking15 , reveals a bit about what a truly humble hermeneutic looks like as well. And, like Lewis and Gadamer, what he has to say about how we approach and learn from texts we have already found in the Bible, commanded as a part of our faith.

When we think, we turn to the texts of other thinkers, thinking out what they thought. “But the thinkers’ language tells what is. To hear it is in no case easy. Hearing it presupposes that we meet a certain requirement, and we do so only on rare occasions. We must acknowledge and respect it. To acknowledge and respect consists in letting every thinker’s thought come to us as something in each case unique, never to be repeated, inexhaustible—and being shaken to the depths by what is unthought in his thought.”16 The thinking that Heidegger speaks of is the presence of what is present. From Parmenides, Heidegger says thinking is the letting-lie-before-us, the taking-to-heart. And the acknowledgment, respect, taking-to-heart that Heidegger speaks of, that is humility.

Like Lewis, Heidegger makes a distinction between good and bad readings. True thinking is a good reading. Merely letting common comprehension of the thoughts dictate how you read is a bad reading. This difference (differance?)s between good and bad readings, good and bad thinking, comes out when the thinker finds something incomprehensible. “To the common comprehension, the incomprehensible is never an occasion to stop and look at its own powers of comprehension, still less to notice their limitations. To the common comprehension, what is incomprehensible remains forever merely offensive—proof enough to such comprehension, which is convinced it was born comprehending everything, that it is now being imposed upon with an untruth and sham. For acknowledgment and respect call for a readiness to let our own attempts at thinking be overturned, again and again, by what is unthought in the thinkers’ thought.”17 Heidegger is merely echoing Proverbs 15:32-33, quoted earlier and now again, “Whoever ignores instruction despises himself, but he who listens to reproof gains intelligence. The fear of the LORD is instruction in wisdom, and humility comes before honor.”

Heidegger also recognized that arrogance will cause foolishness to befall us as we read philosophy. “Basically, there are only two possibilities [to encounter great thinkers]: either to go to their encounter, or to go counter to them. If we want to go to the encounter of a thinker’s thought, we must magnify still further what is great in him. Then we will enter into what is unthought in his thought. If we wish only to go counter to a thinker’s thought, this wish must have minimized beforehand what is great in him. We then shift his thought into the commonplaces of our know-it-all presumption.”18 As Heidegger urges, let us as Covenant students of philosophy encounter our philosophy texts, gain wisdom, and be known by humility.

Appendix One: Verses That I Did Not Use, But Still Find Vital

Ps. 131:1

LORD, my heart is not lifted up;

   my eyes are not raised too high;

I do not occupy myself with things

   too great and too marvelous for me.

Mt. 18:1-4 “At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

Lk. 14:11 “But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Jn 1:30 “The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’”

I Cor 15:9-10 “For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.”

1 All Scripture is taken from the English Standard Version.

2 Elissa Mather, personal correspondence, 9 November 2002.

3Differance, Part 1” by Noel Weichbrodt. Given to the Continental Philosophy class at Covenant College, October 2002.

4 An Experiment in Criticism, by C.S. Lewis. Canto Edition, Cambridge University Press, 1996. (EiC).

5 EiC, p. 19.

6 Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis. Touchstone Edition, Touchstone Press, 1996. P. 114

7 EiC, p. 138.

8 Ibid., p. 19.

9 Ibid., p. 31-32.

10 Ibid., p. 16-17.

11 Ibid., p. 130.

12 Ibid., p. 141.

13 Philosophical Hermeneutics, by Hans-Georg Gadamer. Translated and Edited by David E. Linge. University of California Press, 1976. (PH). P. xx.

14 PH, p. xxi.

15 What is Called Thinking, by Martin Heidegger. Translated by J. Glenn Gray. Harper & Row, 1968. (WiCT).

16 WiCT, p. 77.

17 WiCT, p. 77-78.

18 Ibid., p. 78.