Review of Ricoeur on Biblical Interpretation

by Vern S. Poythress

[Published in the Westminster Theological Journal 43/2 (spring 1981): 378-380. Used with permission.]

Paul Ricoeur: Essays on Biblical Interpretation. Edited with an Introduction by Lewis S. Mudge. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980. ix, 182. Paper, $7.95.


In the book Essays on Biblical Interpretation, editor Lewis S. Mudge has gathered under one cover four essays of Paul Ricoeur already available in English: “Preface to Bultmann,” “Toward a Hermeneutic of the Idea of Revelation,” “The Hermeneutics of Testimony,” and “Freedom in the Light of Hope.” These essays form the four major chapters, to which Mudge prefaces his own illuminating essay on Ricoeur’s significance, and a reply to this by Ricoeur. Mudge chooses these particular essays because


p. 379

they represent some of the most explicitly theological of Ricoeur’s wide-ranging reflections on hermeneutical philosophy.

All four essays address in one way or another the interface between contemporary theology and secular philosophy. All four present richly creative, constructive criticisms of philosophical attempts to dismiss the gospel. In brief, their foci are as follows:

“Preface to Bultmann,” after distinguishing three levels of “demythologization” in Bultmann, suggests ways to go beyond Bultmann and enrich him. Bultmann’s own “demythologized” language about God’s act and our decision also needs interpretation. Symbol and interpretation can never be eliminated by reduction to completely transparent language.

“Toward a Hermeneutic of the Idea of Revelation” addresses the philosophical resistance to the supposed “heteronomy” involved in revelation. “The Hermeneutics of Testimony,” by relating biblical ideas of testimony to phenomenological analysis of testimony in general, challenges the philosophical resistance to the idea of the appearance of the absolute in history. “Freedom in the Light of Hope,” by relating biblical hope to philosophical analysis of freedom and hope, challenges philosophical resistance to the idea of overcoming death and evil. All the way through Ricoeur is showing deep points of contact between the biblical message and philosophical analysis of man and world. By immanent analysis of philosophical views he opens them up to be receptive to the biblical message.

Unfortunately, Ricoeur accepts modern historico-critical results, vitiating straight-forward appeal to the Bible’s teaching as authoritative. Within the scope of Ricoeur’s hermeneutical circle, there is no clearly locatable articulation of norms. That is sad. With all his philosophical acuity and brilliance, Ricoeur has not learned the simplest biblical truth about how to do philosophy: “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Ps 111:10). Instead, for Ricocur, the work of philosophical thought “…is a work that begins with listening, and yet within the autonomy of responsible thought” (p. 156). That is a recipe for corrupting the mind in its own deceitfulness and wickedness—unless one’s concept of responsibility itself is wholly purified by the power of the message of the gospel. Actually, autonomy means not responsibility, but rather each human being throwing up his projection of an idea of responsibility for how to think. There is not one such projection but a million. Ricoeur is just one of that million. On his own basis, why should we listen to him? How can we tell whether we are receiving enlightenment or delusion?

The strange thing is that Ricoeur, as heir of Marx and Freud, knows


p. 380

that evil has insidious power over the mind. Evil has power over the mind of the philosopher and hermeneutical theorist not least of all. Yet, though considering himself Christian, Ricoeur will not accept for himself the biblical remedy for the healing of philosophy and worldview.

Ricoeur considers that modern scientific culture has put us in a unique hermeneutical situation by revealing a gap between our own worldview and that of the Bible (pp. 56-57). Ricoeur is right that our modern Western culture is unique. But that is not how it is unique. The Athenians at Mars Hill considered Paul’s worldview just as absurd as twentieth-century man does. They too saw a gap in worldviews. The difference is that the twentieth century “benefits” from centuries of effort to work out a worldview, including massive, specific counterarguments to the Bible’s claims. Hence we are more smug and self-satisfied than the Greeks could be in the conviction that our worldview is right. But the man who fears the Lord applies a hermeneutics of suspicion to modern science and culture. Perhaps in a formal way Ricoeur is not so far from this himself. But he must become radical at an even deeper level than he now is.

Vern Sheridan Poythress
Westminster Theological Seminary,

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