Biblical interpretation: Anabaptists, Gadamer, and Latin American liberation theology

Ted Grimsrud—July 29, 2019

[This essay was published in Ted Grimsrud, Embodying the Way of Jesus: Anabaptist Convictions for the Twenty-First Century (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2007), 57-71. The chapter title in that book was “Biblical Interpretation: Anabaptist Theology and Recent Hermeneutics.” It was drawn from one of my comprehensive exams in my PhD program at the Graduate Theological Union entitled “Philosophical Hermeneutics in Conversation with Latin American Liberation Theology” (1986).]  

Historians have proposed that 16th-century Anabaptist theology and practice pioneered many changes now embraced by Christians throughout the world – believers baptism, separation of church and state, and conscientious objection to warfare among them. This pioneering dynamic may be seen with regard to biblical interpretation as well. The Anabaptist approach to the Bible has many affinities with recent developments.

My concern with this chapter is to use these convergences as a way of articulating an approach to biblical interpretation that builds on the insights of our 16th-century forebears and broadens them with help of philosophical hermeneutics and Latin American liberation theology.

Our age is not friendly to the authoritative use of writings from the past. We breathe the air of a skeptical, individualistic, and ahistorical worldview characterized by radical doubt regarding revelation, by suspicion of claims for loyalty and duty to people and communities outside our selves and maybe immediate family, and by a sense that only the present matters and that how we got to where we are today is irrelevant if not undiscoverable anyway.

Nevertheless, many believe that these issues, though daunting, are not insurmountable. In fact, their existence only underscores the need to construct and enact a biblical hermeneutics that makes available the immensely helpful resources of the biblical materials for Christian ethics.

One recently emergent tradition that has accepted this challenge and thereby made it much more real to the rest of the world is what has become known as “liberation theology.” This movement’s main center has been Latin America, but the label “liberation theology” has been used much more widely of groups such as blacks, feminists, Africans, etc. I will focus on Latin American liberation theology from its “classical” period, the late 1960s through early 1980s.

I will explore the close affinity that liberation theology has in its attitude toward and use of the Bible with another recently emergent “school” of thought – “philosophical hermeneutics.” In particular, I will consider the thought of German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer.

These two movements share significant common ground – and, I suggest, this common ground has close affinity with main characteristics of 16th-century Anabaptist biblical hermeneutics. Hence, both liberation theology and philosophical hermeneutics may help in the articulation of a present-day Anabaptist approach to the Bible.

16th-Century Anabaptism

The Anabaptists joined other Protestants in ascribing central authority to the Bible. However, the way they did that marks them off. For the Anabaptists, more than any other 16th-century group, their “focus on Jesus always took pre-eminence.”[2]

Stuart Murray lists the following elements of the Anabaptists’ distinctive central focus on Jesus: “a focus on the person of Jesus; a willingness to start with Jesus and accept his deeds and words as normative on many more topics than the Reformers accepted; an extension of the principle of Christocentrism to embrace the whole of the New Testament; and an emphasis on the cruciality of a life-experience of the living Jesus as a prerequisite for all interpreters, a prerequisite that no amount of education could replace.”[3]

Directly following from reading scripture with Jesus at the center, Anabaptists followed three principles that in many ways parallel what we see in recent liberation theology and, less directly, in philosophical hermeneutics.

(1) “Anabaptist hermeneutics is the hermeneutics of obedience.”[4] That is, we read the Bible as people committed to act on what we learn. Following the demands God places on God’s people provides our reason for reading the Bible – and only such a commitment enables us genuinely to hear the Bible’s message.

(2) Anabaptists affirmed “the hermeneutical privilege of the poor.”[5] Many Anabaptists came from lower classes and understood God as having special concern for powerless and marginalized peoples. They believed that the message of scripture was clear, uncomplicated, accessible to socially powerless, uneducated people – and was a message of God’s love and acceptance of such people.

(3) The congregation provides the most fundamental context for biblical interpretation.[6] The Bible yields meaning through the give and take of a community of interpreters, all sharing a common commitment to acting on the basis of what they learn from the Bible.

These three principles provide strong links between Anabaptist hermeneutics and the two schools of thought I will explore below.

The 16th-century Anabaptist principles have not necessarily been determinative for all contemporary Anabaptists. Norman Kraus helps us understand that many Anabaptists in the past century have had their approach to the biblical interpretation shaped more by fundamentalism than the Anabaptist tradition.[7] Philosophical hermeneutics and liberation theology may help us recover a more authentically Anabaptist approach.

In what follows, I will first examine the approach of philosophical hermeneutics, a more formal, theoretical perspective, then summarize the more engaged approach of liberation theology. After analyzing their similarities and differences, I will conclude by suggesting a few links with Anabaptist hermeneutics.

Philosophical Hermeneutics

A key issue with regard to the contemporary use of the Bible is the connection between what the Bible meant in its own time and what it mans today. Is there an unbridgeable gulf between then and now? No one would deny that there is distance – such as culture, language, geography, time, etc. Given this distance, can an ancient text speak to us, and if so, how?

I take it as an empirical fact that, indeed, the Bible does speak meaningfully to people today. Philosophical hermeneutics makes an important contribution in helping us understand how this happens. By “philosophical hermeneutics” I mean especially the work of German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer (most importantly in his book Truth and Method). I will summarize the perspective of philosophical hermeneutics in the following ten propositions.

1. Encountering the past is necessary for present-day understanding of reality. Our present-day viewpoint is always in formation, according to Gadamer. As we test our understandings we inevitably encounter the past and struggle with understanding the traditions from which we come. Hence, the “horizon” of the present, our understanding of present-day reality, cannot be formed without resources from the past.[8]

As “hermeneutical animals,” we understand ourselves by interpreting a heritage and shared world bequeathed us from the past, a heritage constantly present and active in all our actions and decisions. Thus, we should not conceive of our understanding of reality simply as a product of our present self-awareness. Understanding requires placing ourselves within a process of tradition in which past and present are constantly fused.

Interacting with the past is possible. Certainly the historical “worlds” that succeed one another are different from each other and from the world of today. But they are all human worlds and thus open and available to each other.[9] Even when life changes dramatically, as in ages of revolution, far more of the old is preserved in the supposed transformation of everything than anyone realizes.[10] This continuity makes necessary, and possible, self-consciously encountering the past in formulating our present-day understanding of reality.

2. The interpreter must relate the text to the present in order to understand it. In Gadamer’s words:

In order to understand [what this text, this piece of tradition, says, what constitutes the meaning and importance of the text, the interpreter] must not try to disregard himself and his particular hermeneutical situation. He must relate the text to this situation if he wants to understand it at all.[11]

There must be a connection between the interpreter’s world or horizon and that of the text for understanding to happen. If a text is to be understood, the interpreter must be able to relate one’s own horizon to that of the text.

At the same time, the job of hermeneutics is not negating the distance between the text and the interpreter. Every encounter with tradition that takes place within history involves the experience of the tension between the text and the present. The hermeneutical task consists in not covering up this tension but consciously bringing it out. The present and the past remain two distinct entities.

3. We especially gain a sense of identity through interacting with “classic” texts. For Gadamer, a “classic” text does not merely testify to something of the past but “says something to the present as if it were said specifically to it.”[12] The reason for the classic’s perennial quality is that it deals with matters of such human importance, and deals with them with such abundance of truth and beauty, that the classic remains vitally important for people of succeeding ages.

The classic is, in Gadamer’s view, certainly “timeless,” but this timelessness is a mode of being in history.[13] It is only as a historical entity that a classic text can speak to later historical situations. “Timeless” does not mean ahistorical; rather, it means that the text illumines truth within history time after time. It is “timelessly” valid, not just one time only.

The Bible, as a classic, suppresses the distance between its time and ours with its profound rootedness in our common humanity. The “authority” of the Bible is functional. It shows itself in practice to be a classic, profoundly illumining the human situation in ever-new ways.

4. The goal of interpretation is to understand the text for today more than focusing on its “original meaning.” The fundamental issue is not what it meant then, but what it means now. The key issue is not what the author intended or what the text meant to its first audience or even what the text actually says, but what the text as it now stands means to the contemporary reader.

The text is not a depository of static meaning but a mediation of meaning. The reader’s task is not finally simply to figure out what the author was trying to say but to understand what the text actually says (in the reader’s present). Reconstructing the “original meaning” cannot be primary in interpretation of texts, because they all take on a life of their own when they become texts. Their meaning goes beyond that “original meaning” for that reason, so even if it could be recovered, it would not exhaust the present meaning of the text.

5. There is no pure “objectivity” in interpretation. Because, as interpreters, we are historical beings, we cannot remove ourselves from history and make a neutral, purely objective interpretation. Therefore, we cannot distinguish between “the meaning of a text” and the “meaning of a text as I understand it from my place history.” Interpreters cannot simply step out of their own horizons and look out at the text in way detached from their own context.

People unmodified by the custom of particular places have never existed, could not in the very nature of the case exist. To try to eliminate one’s own biases in interpretation is impossible because to interpret means precisely to use one’s own biases so that the meaning of the text can really be made to speak for us.[14]

Thus, there are no facts independent of our theories about them, and in consequence no one way of viewing, classifying, and explaining the world that all rational persons are obliged to accept. If there can be no presuppositionless interpretation, then the notion of one “right interpretation” as right in itself is a thoughtless ideal. There is no interpretation without relationship to the present, and this is never permanent and fixed.

However, that there is no pure “objectivity” does not mean that interpretation and understanding are impossible. As we seek to understand, we must not believe we may be preserved us from mixing in our own judgments and prejudices. Yet, at the same time, to acknowledge that one inevitably stands within a tradition does not limit the freedom of knowledge. Rather, this is what makes knowledge possible.[15]

The illusion of pure “objectivity” and denial of prejudice are themselves blind prejudices that distort interpretation and prevent understanding. People who imagine that they are free of prejudices, basing their knowledge on the objectivity of their procedures and denying that they are themselves influenced by historical circumstances, then are dominated by the power of prejudices that unconsciously dominate them.[16]

6. Language is finite. If all of life is historical and pure “objectivity” is impossible, then it follows that human language cannot explain all of reality. Since interpretation and understanding involve intuition and the dynamic interplay of subjectivity and objectivity, they must be seen to be more than a matter of what can be explained by words.

Nevertheless, the limits of language do not imply that understanding is not possible. Understanding beyond language, in reality, does occur. Hence, understanding is not bound by language. Language is limited; it does not encompass all reality.

The goal of hermeneutics as understanding, therefore, goes beyond what can be expressed by words. Understanding is a dynamic, subjective, relational process stemming from the interpreter’s commitments and social location. There is no exhaustive, absolute truth that only need by uncovered through the use of purely “objective,” neutral tools.

7. A goal in interpretation is to separate one’s valid biases from one’s invalid biases. Our being anchored in specific human communities is a given for all of us. We must acknowledge our biases and seek to use them as helps and not hindrances in understanding. To deny them is to short-circuit one’s potential before even getting started.

What distinguishes helpful biases from the countless unhelpful ones that it is the undeniable task of the critical reason to overcome?[17] The interpreter cannot separate in advance productive biases that make understanding possible from biases that lead to misunderstandings. This separation, rather, must take place in the process of interpretation itself.[18] We cannot first separate our biases, discard the invalid ones, and then begin the task of interpretation. We must begin the process of interpretation first. Through the dialogical encounter with tradition we discover which of our biases are blinding and which are enabling.

8. Understanding comes via dialogue with the text, not control over it. Understanding is not primarily a matter of trained, methodical, unprejudiced technique; understanding involves engagement. The keys to understanding are not manipulation and control, but participation and openness, not knowledge but experience, not methodology but dialectic.

Since understanding is a matter of dialogue with the text, Gadamer rejects the idea of “control” over the text via a strict interpretive method. Method implies control, that is, closed-mindedness regarding new awareness.

9. Questions, ours and the text’s, are central to interpretation. Interpretation seeks to find the questions underlying the text. We cannot comprehend what texts are saying until we discover the questions to which they offer themselves as answers. Along with seeking the questions asked by the text, the interpreter also should seek the questions not asked. It is necessary to go behind the text to find what of relevance the text also did not say.

Besides seeking what questions do and do not underlie the text, we also need to be self-conscious regarding our own questions. Our understanding of a text is bound up with how we question it. There are true, legitimate questions for us to ask, according to Gadamer,[19] and there are also false questions. A true question is one capable of shaking the hold of our taken-for-granted opinions. It opens up a region of ignorance, of not knowing, without which genuine inquiry would not be possible. The question implies openness, but also self-awareness of limits.

Ultimately, for philosophical hermeneutics, the truthfulness of our questions has to do with our openness to reality. Are we asking the questions in order truly to gain understanding? Are we willing to change, to learn, to have our old ways of thinking and our old assumptions challenged. If so, we will be asking truthful questions and will have the possibility of understanding what we are interpreting. Our questions will be false to the extent that we are only seeking to buttress what we already know and thereby make our answers the text’s answers.

10. The process of interpretation is interactive, circular – hence, the “hermeneutical circle.” Gadamer thinks of understanding being achieved not so much through individual reflection, but through the placing of oneself within a dynamic process of tradition in which past and present are constantly interacting with one another.[20]

We understand something by comparing it to something we already know. What we understand forms itself into systematic unities, or circles made up of parts. The circle as a whole defines the individual part, and the parts together form a circle. We may call this process the “hermeneutical circle,” referring to the interplay between the tradition and the interpreter. We have our perceptions and the tradition speaks to us from the outside. But as the interplay proceeds, we actually join the production of on-going tradition.[21]

Understanding happens with this continual interplay between present reality and tradition, not as two mutually exclusive entities but as inter-related parts of the whole. We are part of tradition ourselves and contribute to its growth. But it precedes us, and our understanding of it is necessary for us to understand our present and contribute to the formation of our future.

Common Ground: Liberation Theology and Philosophical Hermeneutics

Though formulated in quite different contexts, Latin American liberation theology shares striking similarities with philosophical hermeneutics.

1. They both assert the need to take the Bible seriously. Philosophical hermeneutics asserts that an encounter with the past, especially through “classic” texts, is necessary for an understanding of the present. For theology, of course, the classic text is the Bible.

Latin American liberation theology, which emerged from changes in Roman Catholicism following Vatican II in the early 1960s, understands itself as biblically-based. Juan-Luis Segundo, perhaps the most methodologically self-conscious of the liberation theologians, asserts that since Christianity is a biblical religion, Christian theology “must keep going back to its book and reinterpreting it.” It “cannot swerve from its path in this respect.”[22]

According to Gustavo Gutierrez, a commitment to the Bible goes hand-in-hand with a commitment to be devoted to service for justice in relation to oppression.

Our purpose is…to let ourselves be judged by the word of the Lord, and to therein think through our faith, to strengthen our love, and to give a reason for our hope from within a commitment which seeks to become more radical, total, and efficacious.[23]

2. They both recognize our lack of “objectivity.” Perhaps the clearest area of convergence between liberation theology and philosophical hermeneutics is in their common recognition that “neutrality” and total objectivity in interpretation are not possible and that it is precisely this lack of total objectivity that makes understanding possible.

We all have pre-understandings in the form of values, commitments, and concerns that are part of the very nature of being specific people living in a specific place in time as part of specific communities with specific traditions.[24] There can be no understanding apart from this non-neutral, non-absolutely objective specificity. Language itself reflects the values and beliefs of those who use it. Thus, our way of speaking, even our way of “seeing” is value-oriented. As Jon Sobrino sees it, understanding is never neutral either in practice or in intention, but it always has a practical and ethical character.[25]

When it poses as an “impartial” discipline, theology already is choosing for the status quo.[26] To assert that theology should choose for the poor and oppressed is not a new imposition of partisanship. It is rather simply posing an alternative partisanship to the one already chosen.

3. Both accept the text’s and our historicity. Gadamer asserts that there can be no real understanding of a text without the recognition that both we and the text are located in history. Thus, we do not read the text as if it is somehow above history. Nor do we assume that we can somehow find an objective spot “above” the text. We share this being-in-history with the text. This sharing is the basis for inter-communication between the text and us.

For liberation theologians, “entering into the historical particularity of our own situation”[27] means inserting ourselves into our historical situations as agents of liberation in the struggle for a more just society.[28] The Bible itself emerged from a particular historical situation of action for liberation. It is this common involvement in particular situations of oppression and injustice that forms a bridge between the biblical materials and the present.[29] Modern people not involved in action for liberation will find these biblical materials inaccessible.

To link our historical situation with the interpretation of the Bible, eschewing a universal, objective, neutral, ahistorical perspective for interpretation “above” the text is simply being honest. Everyone does this in actuality because such an ahistorical perspective does not and cannot exist. The true question is: what present-day historical reality does the interpreter’s perspective reflect and how well does this correspond with that of the biblical writers?

4. Both assert the need to relate the text to the present. Philosophical hermeneutics views the Bible as a “classic” text that only lives in relation to the questions of the interpreters. It is to be studied in a neutral fashion for its own sake. It speaks to those who ask of it, but only in relation to the interpreter’s own horizon. Liberation theologians write of the need to interpret the Bible in light of their present social situation and the questions arising therefrom.

In focusing on one’s present situation for the questions that make interpretation of the Bible and the doing of Christian theology possible, liberation theologians attempt to understand the Bible in the light of their contemporary situation. Miguez Bonino asserts that his theological method has to do with first developing questions “which arise out of the concrete historical praxis” and then looking “to the biblical and theological tradition.”[30] These questions arise from the historical reality of oppression and injustice in Latin America.

True understanding happens with an ongoing willingness to change one’s interpretation of scripture in light of the continuing questions arising from analysis of the present. As Segundo writes: “If our interpretation of scripture does not change along with the problems, then the latter will go unsanswered; or worse, they will receive old, conservative, unserviceable answers.”[31]

5. Both see knowledge as personal and practical. To liberationists, what we know is inextricably tied with what we do. Like Gadamer, they reject the idea of abstract, ahhistorical, objective, neutral “knowledge” existing apart from involvement in historical existence. In Gutierrez’s terms, “history…can be known only by transforming it, and transforming oneself.” To know the truth requires a commitment to modify reality according to that truth.[32] It is only by practicing what we know, only by living the truth, that we can truly gain knowledge.

Both recognize the need to encounter “classic” texts, especially the Bible, for help in understanding the present. Both see the impossibility of this encounter being unbiased, neutral, and totally objective, and both recognize that the interpreter and the text are historically specific. Both see the need to relate the texts to the present in order for them to “live.”

Making the Hermeneutical Circle Specific

Liberation theology makes the hermeneutical circle quite specific and in the process articulates a “method” of interpretation. Philosophical hermeneutics focuses more on describing the context within which interpretations takes place than with outlining how it should be done. Liberation theology is much more directive than philosophical hermeneutics.

1. Reality is experienced as oppressive. The theologian must recognize that most Latin Americans are poor and that their poverty is not simply a matter of bad luck or the “orders of creation,” but rather the result of oppressive, even evil social structures.

According to Hugo Assmann:

The starting-point of liberation theology is the present historical situation of domination and dependence in which the countries of the third world find themselves….[We start here] because this is the situation of two-thirds of humanity and as such must impinge on the historical consciousness of Christianity and pose radical questions about the nature of the church’s mission.[33]

Starting from this experience leads to a more conflictual notion of reality and God’s relation to that reality than customary in Christian theology. But this is the only way genuinely to “de-ideologize” the Christian message. Gutierrez writes, “theology seems to have avoided for a long time reflecting on the conflictual character of human history, the confrontations among people, social classes, and countries.”[34] By doing so it has missed the central thrust of the Bible.

Truly to understand the Bible, the interpreter must share the biblical writers’ awareness of the conflictual nature of reality exposed by the existence of oppression and poverty. The God of the Bible takes sides in these situations.

2. Our ideological superstucture is viewed with suspicion. An awareness of the unjust realities of their social situation leads liberation theologians to suspicion of the ideological superstructure of the social status quo. This suspicion is a fundamental component in the theological method of liberationists. As Segundo writes, “systematic suspicion would seem to be an integral part of the hermeneutical circle of any liberated and liberating theology.”[35]

The phenomenon of ideology occurs when thinkers claim to be neutral. When we are unaware of how outside concerns shape our thinking, we are most vulnerable to oppression-justifying ideologies.[36] A truly liberative theology must start form the opposite assumption than that that sees the theologian as unaffected by surrounding society.[37] Liberation theologians recognize that theology is shaped by its social world and its institutions and worldview.

3. Traditional biblical interpretation is viewed with suspicion. Reflection upon human experience, especially the experience of the poor and oppressed, leads to a sense of suspicion, not only of one’s social world but also of theology and the prevailing interpretation of the Bible.

Liberationists do not seek abstract, intellectual “understanding” of biblical texts, but question results of biblical scholarship that relegate the biblical message to “personal” or “spiritual” present-day relevance. Something is drastically wrong when Christians can study the Bible and come away with their involvement in an oppressive social order unchallenged.

The liberationist hermeneutical circle deconstructs traditional interpretations of Christianity and the Bible that buttress a socio-political reality in which the vast majority of Latin American people are “non-persons.” Liberationists believe that a different interpretation of Christianity and the Bible is possible that demands commitment to liberating action.

4. Reinterpretation brings new insight. From this attitude of suspicion can flow new interpretations for these oppressive situations. A rejection of status quo interpretations frees one to see the full radicality of the biblical God. These conditions of sin and oppression may actually prove to be the context of an encounter with God.[38] As they facilitate rejecting traditional interpretations, they help foster a clearer vision of the biblical God as liberator of the oppressed.

As involvement in these conditions begins this new interpretative process, its fruit moves the interpreters to change these conditions, making clear that the Bible points toward liberation, justice, shalom, the poor, and love.[39] To be animated by these themes leads us to reject any acceptance of oppression and poverty as inevitable constituents of “the way things are.”

The Central Point of Difference

In comparing liberationist and philosophical hermeneutics, we see many similarities. However, the two perspectives diverge regarding the “rights” of the text. A feminist theologian speaks more clearly to this point than the Latin Americans we have considered – but the likely would echo her comments.

Feminist biblical hermeneutics stands in conflict with the dialogical-hermeneutical model developed by…Gadamer…because it cannot respect the “rights” of the androcentric text and seek for a “fusion” with the patriarchal-biblical horizon. Its goal is not “identification with” or “consent to” the androcentric text or process of biblical reception but faithful remembrance of and critical solidarity with women in biblical history.[40]

Commitment to present-day liberation requires that one be selective in reading the biblical materials. Some biblical passages are accurately read as buttressing the status-quo. A hermeneutics of total openness to the biblical materials reflects an apolitical orientation; present-day commitments make it necessary to affirm some biblical teachings and to reject others.

On the other hand, the viewpoint of philosophical hermeneutics remains suspicious of any strict method – presumably even a liberationist one. Method, according to Gerald Bruns,

is what we take recourse to when our learning fails us: it is an alternative to invention. Method tries to reduce rather than to amplify, for it wants always to determine what cannot be said in this or that case, and so by closure or the natural exclusiveness of its design it forbids all statements but those it can account for.[41]

So, these two perspectives diverge over the question of “method.” The priority of the liberationists is on the use of the Bible as a means to the end of liberation. Because they believe the true message of the Bible supports liberation, they claim that their biblical study is seeking only to understand the Bible. But in practice it is clear that liberationist hermeneutics is a method for utilizing the Bible for the work of liberating the poor and the oppressed. Philosophical hermeneutics much more sees “understanding” the text and “understanding” our world as ends in themselves. A “method,” which by definition exerts control over the text, hinders gaining understanding by asserting ahead of time what kinds of things the interpreter expects to find.

Conclusion: Implications for Anabaptists

Present-day Anabaptist biblical hermeneutics surely affirms the common ground we see between philosophical hermeneutics and Latin American liberation theology. Affirming this common ground should lead Anabaptists to be suspicious of objectivist “scientific” approaches.

Anabaptists see the Bible as central to our faith and practice. We recognize that all people have interests, commitments, and biases that shape how they read the Bible. We affirm that only as we seek to follow Jesus will we be enabled truly to understand the Bible. Anabaptists also recognize that the Bible is a historical document and that we are, as well, ourselves historical creatures. Anabaptist theology cares much more for practical, concrete living than for ahistorical, abstract ideas. And the point of reading the Bible is to relate it to present-day life.

For Anabaptist theology, as for philosophical hermeneutics and liberation theology, knowledge is personal and practical. We know Jesus as we follow his way. Knowledge follows from commitment. Christian ethics have much more to do with face-to-face caring for actual human beings than with intellectualized, disembodied theories.

The difference between liberation theology and philosophical hermeneutics points to a potentially creative space in Anabaptist hermeneutics. On the one hand, liberationists challenge a complacent biblicism that comfortably accepts the power and privilege accorded wealthy North Americans. Anabaptists may tend toward either a kind of individualistic reading strategy that focuses on personal piety or a scholarly, critical reading strategy that distances the interpreter from the text. Both strategies blunt the radical biblical call for transformative social engagement.

On the other hand, philosophical hermeneutics challenge any comfortable melding of ideology with biblical interpretation – be it an ideology of social action or (much more likely in the U.S.) an ideology of Pax Americana. Anabaptists (like all other Christians) may minimize the core anti-idolatry message of the Bible that demythologizes all ideologies.

Resources from the Anabaptist heritage could foster a creative synthesis of liberation theology and philosophical hermeneutics. Most centrally, our peace tradition provides a basis for non-coercive engagement, transformative social involvement without coercive ideologies.


[1] This chapter originated as a research paper in 1986 at the Graduate Theological Union.

[2] Stuart Murray, Biblical Interpretation in the Anabaptist Tradition (Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 2000), 20-21.

[3] Murray, Biblical, 86.

[4] Ben C. Ollenburger, “The Hermeneutics of Obedience: Reflections on Anabaptist Hermeneutics,” in Willard Swartley, ed., Essays on Biblical Interpretation: Anabaptist-Mennonite Perspectives (Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1984), 59.

[5] Willard Swartley, “Continuity and Change in Anabaptist-Mennonite Interpretations,” in Swartley, ed., Essays, 327.

[6] Millard C. Lind, “Reflections on Biblical Hermeneutics,” in Swartley, ed., Essays, 152.

[7] C. Norman Kraus, “American Mennonites and the Bible, 1750-1950,” in Swartley, ed., Essays, 131-150.

[8] Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, second revised edition, translation revised by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall (New York: Crossroad, 1989), 306.

[9] Gadamer, Truth, 447.

[10] Gadamer, Truth, 281-2.

[11] Gadamer, Truth, 324.

[12] Gadamer, Truth, 290.

[13] Gadamer, Truth, 290.

[14] Gadamer, Truth, 397.

[15] Gadamer, Truth, 361.

[16] Gadamer, Truth, 360.

[17] Gadamer, Truth, 277.

[18] Gadamer, Truth, 295.

[19] Gadamer, Truth, 363-364.

[20] Gadamer, Truth, 290.

[21] Gadamer, Truth, 293.

[22] Juan Luis Segundo, The Liberation of Theology (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1976), 7.

[23] Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1973), ix.

[24] Gutierrez, Theology, 3.

[25] Jon Sobrino, The True Church and the Poor (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1984), 9.

[26] Segundo, Liberation, 13.

[27] Hugo Assman, Theology for a Nomad Church (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1975), 105.

[28] Gutierrez, Theology, 262.

[29] Miguez Bonino, Doing Theology, 102.

[30] Miguez Bonino, Doing Theology, 165.

[31] Segundo, Liberation, 9.

[32] Gutierrez, Power, 59.

[33] Assman, Theology, 53-54.

[34] Gutierrez, Theology, 35.

[35] Segundo, Liberation, 231.

[36] Juan Luis Segundo, The Historical Jesus and the Synoptics (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1985), 27.

[37] Segundo, Liberation, 56.

[38] Sobrino, True Church, 27.

[39] Miguez Bonino, Doing Theology, 103-104.

[40] Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Bread not Stone: The Challenge of Feminist Biblical Interpretation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1984), 140.

[41] Gerald L. Bruns, Inventions: Writing, Textuality, and Understanding in Literary History (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1982), 1.

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