“Pure exegesis (“reading out”) without any eisegesis (“reading in”) is an illusion”: Engaging With the Hermeneutical Problem and Theological Exegesis

My MA degree is effectively an MA in New Testament Studies; with a Master’s thesis on I Corinthians 1.17-25. I minored in NT Greek in undergrad as well, so studying Koine Greek was a significant aspect of my training during school. What I came to realize was that translation work was just as much about exegesis and interpretive work as was the writing of a commentary. To embrace this idea in an absolute way challenges the more traditional (at least as that is understood in a Grammatical-Historical sense post-Enlightenment) notion that theology is only arrived at after an objective-exegesis of the text has been accomplished. In other words, to arrive at my conclusion we would have to be admitting of some level of eisegesis; viz. some level of ‘reading into the text’—this is an absolute violation of all that is holy in the traditional notion of exegeting or ‘reading out of the text’ (or is it?).

In light of this introduction I wanted to share something from David Congdon as he describes this sort of question as it took form as a debate between Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann. What Congdon helps to show is that while Barth asserts his commitment to the more traditional understanding I just described, what Barth actually is committed to is something more akin to Bultmann’s view; that is, that there is always already interpretation embedded in translation (that eisegesis is a component part of the translational event).[1] Here is the way Congdon describes it:

Barth’s attempt to identify a moment of interpretation prior to translation is impossible, according to Bultmann, because the very act of interpretation is inherently an act of translation. Even purportedly scientific and objective modes of exegesis are already engaging in translation simply by virtue of using contemporary terms and methods. An interpretation utterly free from translation would not even be possible were we alive at the time of the apostles, since the very hearing of the words involves—even demands—a response from the hearer. Pure exegesis (“reading out”) without any eisegesis (“reading in”) is an illusion. Barth himself recognized as much in the third draft of his preface to R1: “Those who do not constantly ‘read in’ [einlegen] because they contribute to the subject matter cannot ‘read out’ [auslegen] either.”

Bultmann supports his case by appealing to another statement by Barth, namely, his claim that “the concept of dogma . . . is an eschatological concept.” From this Bultmann draws the conclusion that the New Testament message can only be presented “in Auseinandersetzung, in a definite antithesis,” since every human presentation is a historical act that is qualitatively other than the eschatological act of God. Consequently, “there are only relative, provisional formulations,” and the message must always be “reformulated (‘translated’)” in each new situation. All interpretation is translation because all interpretation occurs within the historicity of existence.[2]

We feel Kant’s presence and impact here, no doubt. But beyond that it pinpoints an important reality about our own situatedness and how that impacts our engagement with reality; with God. For Barth God’s choice to be for us in Christ comes prior to our encounter with the Christ (and as such grounds that encounter); for Bultmann, God’s choice to be for us in Christ comes simultaneously with our choice to be for Christ in the encounter of kerygmatic faith. As corollary we can see how this would impinge upon Barth’s desire to have an interpretation of Scripture prior to its translation; but I would want to side with Bultmann, and Barth who, as Congdon highlights, contradicts himself at certain levels. While not wanting to reject an idea of the antecedent reality of God’s choice to be for us in Christ (Barth and the trad) and conflate that with our choice to be for Christ as the ground (Bultmann) I do think that the hermeneutical problem we are attending to is most overtly on the side of Bultmann’s thinking (and Barth’s even as that stands in some contradiction to his doctrine of election); that we must in fact ‘read into’ the text if we are also going to ‘read out of’ the text of Holy Scripture.

So what regulates then? How do we keep from so existentializing or subjectivizing our reading of Scripture (from an abstract humanity) that we escape a further problem of projecting ourselves into the text; isn’t this the problem and critique of theological liberalism in general? Congdon, along Bultmannian lines, might want to simply reverse the dilemma by arguing that there is a simultaneity to the subject’s reading of the text in the always already event of kerygmatic faith. That is, that the faith of the risen Christ as the content of the kerygma, as that is realized in the reader and encounter itself grounds what is ‘read into’ the text. If we were to go with a Barthian ‘eisegesis’ what would regulate for him is the objective reality of God’s choice to be for us in Christ; i.e. that Christ himself in dialogical reality (e.g. in a way that we are hearing his voice by the Spirit) is the reality that is ‘read into’ the text just as he is ‘read out of it’ as its dogmatical prior.[3]

Either way: Theological exegesis, Theological Interpretation of Scripture and the reality of interpretation as translation and translation as interpretation go hand-in-hand. This is why I am an ardent proponent of theological exegesis; interestingly so were the premoderns. The premoderns of course read the Bible theologically from different soundings than did either Barth or Bultmann. Although I think Barth’s impulse (along with Thomas Torrance’s) was more in the spirit of the premoderns than is Bultmann’s.[4]

[1] Congdon notes some more technical reasons for Barth’s commitment to the more traditional rather than existential view of Bultmann, but we won’t engage with those just now (at least not in depth).

[2] David W. Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 198-99.

[3] I’m not as concerned with “erasing” metaphysics as is Congdon. Interestingly not even Congdon can fully erase metaphysics; or maybe he can, but at what cost?! Unfortunately I think this is what drives, at a prior level, Congdon’s whole mode of theologizing; i.e. the desire to offer a scholastically clean post-metaphysical or anti-metaphysical theological means.

[4] Congdon attempts to problematize Barth’s ‘prior’ by critiquing Barth’s understanding of history and a prior theological history (as the antecedent). I don’t think I follow or agree with Congdon’s critique here; even if I did I’m willing to live with the paradoxical nature of Barth’s understanding, and the tension therein, just as I think Barth’s theology fits better with the reality of the mysterium trinitatis and the creedal reality of ecclesial and catholic grammar than does Bultmann’s (which in the end is the way Congdon goes; with Bultmann).


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