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This question mentions "the hermeneutical circle":

I sometimes hear ... of hermeneutical "methods", such as the grammatico-historal approach, or literal-historical approach, or sensus plenior. ... But in the past, I've been more familiar with hermeneutics as a study of how we interpret the text, and what we are doing when we do so. This is more ... tightly linked with fields like epistemology and semiotics, yielding "approaches" to hermeneutics like the hermeneutical circle, horizons of understanding, the new hermeneutic, etc.

I was just curious if someone could explain what is meant by "the hermeneutical cirlce"?

  • Is this approach widely used in Biblical Hermeneutics?

  • When was it introduced?

  • Can you give any examples from Scripture which clearly necessitate this approach?

Thanks.

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@JonEricson But really, even if I had asked a question which was answered in chat, wouldn't that be a good thing? It would provide an opportunity to add another Q&A to our repository which could be searched and found by others around the internet. – Jas 3.1 Jul 7 '12 at 18:24
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Hmmm... I seem to remember that a programming language wasn't considered a real language if it's own compiler couldn't be written in it. So why would asking for hermeneutical principles derived from the scriptures be any different? – Bob Jones Jul 7 '12 at 20:38
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If a hermeneutical principle is not derived from the scriptures, then it is by definition man-made. No wonder we have free-for-all hermeneutics ;-) – Bob Jones Jul 7 '12 at 20:42
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@swasheck why have hermeneutics at all if the Spirit is free to guide us in any direction from the text. Why have a text at all? – Bob Jones Jul 8 '12 at 18:49
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@swasheck Sorry if it sounds accusatory, not intended. I am trying to understand the dynamic you propose with the spirit guiding into different meanings. I would make the case that with a proper hermeneutic and guidance by the Spirit, we can know God's intended meaning (unity of the faith). I am hearing you say that multiple meanings are OK as long as they are guided by the spirit, as if there is not a meaning attributable to the text itself. Where am I missing it? The free-for-all appears to be attributed to the Spirit. – Bob Jones Jul 8 '12 at 21:50
up vote 7 down vote accepted

The hermeneutical circle is not an approach--it is descriptive of a problem or state rather than prescriptive of a methodology.

The Communication Problem

In Theory

The hermeneutical circle is a model or illustration used to explain that communication is a fundamentally difficult thing, and follows three basic steps:

  1. Your perspective directly affects your reading of a text.
  2. The text directly affects your perspective.
  3. Therefore, it is vicious circle--you can never come to an objective conclusion about a text, because your perspective will always be changing, and thus your reading will always be changing.

    A fourth step is often tacked on as well:

  4. There is no objective truth in the text; only what the text says (and does) to you. We must abandon the concept of a univocal meaning, or "what the text really says". Instead of searching for the meaning of a text, one can impart any meaning one likes.

In Practice

To a certain extent, this problem matches our experience. This is evidenced by a simple game of whisper down the lane.

Even this site itself shows us that perspectives and interpretations abound. If you have been convinced (by scripture) that Jesus is Messiah, you will surely interpret the Old Testament with that in mind. Others on this site do not come from that background of interpretation (again, convinced by scripture), and will likely have a very different interpretation. This would be be similarly true for various Christian denominations, issues surrounding sacraments, or gender roles, etc. The very idea of "scripture interprets scripture" used within Christendom only amplifies this idea.

Biblical support

And doesn't this also seem to match the way it should work? After all, the Bible is no book to be read for entertainment or information, that we would read it and put it down unchanged. The whole concept of the hermeneutical circle is based on the idea that readers are changed by the text, and surely as a Christian I would want to confess that yes, if these are the words of God, and the spirit works in us as we read holy scripture, we should and even must be changed.

After all, we are talking about the sword of the spirit, not just a bunch of words. How about teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness? Don't these things change us?

Even further, Christians must recognize the devastating effects of the fall. We talk about the noetic effects of sin (that is, its effect on our minds) and we even have God explicitly making communication difficult at the incident at Babel.

Biblical Opposition

And yet, there are a couple of objections to this model as well. Where the problem, as stated, starts from the reader and works to ultimate lack of objectivity, the Biblical argument here must start at the object as foundation and work to the subject as application.

The glaring issue with this whole model is that it is missing a foundational component: God.

God is omniscient and immutable. He knows with perfect understanding, and does not change according to the interpretation of a text. He is the objective knower, and has no communication problem.

Furthermore, God does not sit alone in heaven, simply being omniscient. God is a talking God. As John's gospel famously starts "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." Some modern translations even render this as "In the beginning God expressed himself" or "made himself known". The point is that, for John, God's self-revelation is tied up in his identity.

God condescends to make himself known in his creation (see, e.g., John 1 and Romans 1), in the giving of his Son (see, e.g., Hebrews 1), and, of course in scripture itself. If this is so, then unlike the conclusion drawn by the Hermeneutical Circle, the goal is not to generate new and novel interpretations, but to understand the mind of God. Likewise, if scripture is authoritative, we can also be sure that what we are reading is not left to the interpretation of the reader.

Possible Solutions

But a gap remains. God is the perfect objective communicator. His self expression is no way lacking in clarity. His word does not return to him void. And yet, man is not perfect. We do not understand as we ought. How do we join these two pieces together?

Role of the Spirit

God did not simply give us the Bible and leave. He intends to make himself known, and will see to it. God has provided for us the Holy Spirit--God Himself--to help us to understand. As we read and interpret Scripture, we do not do so in a vacuum by ourselves, but are guided by the Holy Spirit. Likewise, we further enhance our understanding by asking the Spirit for help, and do so with faith that he will provide.

Other Models

Hermeneutical Spiral

So, suppose that we do read based on our presuppositions, and that our presuppositions do change based on our reading; is it a foregone conclusion that we are left in a hopeless sea of subjectivity? Or can we know truly, even if we cannot know omnisciently?

An alternative proposal that some authors have proposed is known as the Hermeneutical Spiral. This model presents a way of acknowledging that we do change based on our reading, but that our change is directional. That is, as we pray, and read, and study, and pray, and read, round and round, we do not necessarily just go in circles, but, by the Spirit’s guidance, we really do get closer and closer to the text.

This understanding has been sometimes described like an asymptote. That is, as an asymptote approaches a line closer and closer without ever quite reaching it, so too our knowledge grows and we get closer and closer to a full understanding of the Truth expressed by God himself, without ever have a complete knowledge and understanding of God.

While we only see dimly, we do see. While we only know in part, we do know.

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. (1 Corinthians 13:12 ESV)

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Simply put, the hermeneutical circle is a sort of positive-feedback loop between the Old and New Testaments, as regards interpretation. By this I mean that what one learns from the NT casts light upon the OT, and this knowledge further enlightens our understanding of the NT. Oscar Cullmann writes:

We have to do here with a circle. The death and resurrection of Christ enable the believer to see in the history of Adam and in the history of Israel the preparation for Jesus, the Crucified and Risen One. But only the thus understood history of Adam and the thus understood history of Israel enable the believer to grasp the work of Jesus Christ … in connection with the divine plan of salvation. [Christ and Time, p.137]

Sidney Greidanus asserts that this is the same as Calvin's theocentric hermeneutic:

Calvin seeks to understand a passage within the overall thrust of Scripture. Today we speak of the hermeneutical circle (or spiral): one cannot understand a part without understanding the whole, and one cannot understand the whole without understanding the parts." [Preaching Christ from the OT, p. 137.]

The term hermeneutical circle may be new, but the approach itself is as old as the Gospel itself (pardon the pun).

The first example in scripture that comes to mind is the Lord's walk to Emmaus:

... and beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. [Luke 24:27]

If using the OT to explain Himself and open the eyes of his followers was Jesus' method, I would say it gives us good precedent, if not actually necessitating our use of it.

In essence, this approach to Christian preaching never isolates a text to it's immediate context. We first understand the immediate meaning and context, then look to the greater context, namely the redemptive history begun in the Old Testament and completed in Christ. Promise and fulfillment, taken together, deepen our understanding. In other words, history is a continuum, and so our interpretation of any one text is dependent upon our understanding of the whole context, that is, the whole of redemptive history.

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The hermeneutical circle defines intellectual integrity. It is akin to the engineering design cycle. Each iteration produces new information, which is then acted upon in the next.

James addresses it:

Jas 1:23 For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass: 24 For he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was. 25 But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed.

If one learns something from the word, but does not implement it in his life, he is like one who looks in a mirror only for the sake of vanity. He did not straighten his tie nor comb his hair. But he who implements the changes indicated by his examination in the 'next round' shall be happy.

Like the clean animal, when we ruminate upon the word of God, it should produce a separated (Holy) walk. Concerning hermeneutics, we begin with a set of beliefs and use them to interpret the word. As we learn that the facts or the methods don't work, we do not discard what was before or ignore the changes required, but learn from it, willing to modify our understanding of facts and adjust our methods.

Though James does not explicitly indicate a cycle, he speaks in the context of the Jewish/Christian culture which meditates on the law continually.

For programmers: each pass over a waterfall, or each scrum cycle, produces new requirements and/or bugs, which you fix in the next.

Conversations concerning the hermeneutic circle are not limited to Biblical hermeneutics. They describe the circle as being made up of three, four, six, or other number of points along the circumference. They deal with understanding metaphysics, philosophy, theology, etc. But the commonality in the discussions is that understanding is not an end point, but a process of learning and applying cyclically.

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this is an epically excellent answer that describes hermeneutics and its aim. – swasheck Jul 8 '12 at 22:02
    
@swashek Thanks. I didn't think we were too far apart in our thinking on it. – Bob Jones Jul 8 '12 at 22:29
    
Ah. Thank you. With your last edit, I think I finally get it. :) – Jas 3.1 Jul 9 '12 at 0:37

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