In 2009, Peter Leithart published Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scripture (Baylor University Press) - a book that in part aims to advocate a "hermeneutics of the letter."

First, this book advocates a hermeneutic of the letter. That is to say, reading Scripture has to do with attending to the specific contours—the author's word choice, structural organization, tropes and allusions, and intertextual quotations.

Did Leithart invent this term? A quick search on Google returned only two pages of results, almost all of which pertained to his book. One review I read seemed to think his approach was nothing more than close reading. Is this a fair assessment?

I've read the book itself, so I'm not looking for a definition per se, but more I'm wanting to get a sense where Leithart fits in. Is he off on his own using a novel approach? Or is he reading in similar ways to others, but using a different term (i.e. "hermeneuetics of the letter") than they are? And if so, what other names does this approach have?

  • 1
    The RBL review of this title is available. It suggests Leithart isn't breaking such new ground as he appears to claim -- so consonant with your sense. I haven't seen it myself yet, though I find Leithart generally to be a stimulating author.
    – Dɑvïd
    Commented Apr 1, 2015 at 13:52
  • + Interesting (brief) comment from Don Carson (top paragraph on page). @Soldarnal - could you augment your Q with the gloss/definition that Leithart gives "hermeneutics of the letter" on p. vii of the book? Can't see it in the snippet view on Google books, and page isn't available in Amazon "Look inside", though other chunks are. Thanks!
    – Dɑvïd
    Commented Apr 2, 2015 at 22:22
  • @Davïd Sure thing. I'm not sure the gloss he gives totally captures his methods; but hopefully it helps. Have you ever read "A Son to Me" or his essay on the typological structure of Matthew? They seem to typify the method he expounds in the book.
    – Soldarnal
    Commented Apr 3, 2015 at 1:18

1 Answer 1


Earlier Derivation

I have found the phrase "hermeneutics of the letter" in a quote within John Catalano's Francis Lieber: Hermeneutics and Practical Reason (2000) on page 26. On page 24, we find out the quote is an English translation from the German of G. A. Friedrich Ast (1778-1841) in his book Grundlinien der Grammatik, Hermeneutik und Kritik (1808), which (if my Google translate skills are working) is the last paragraph of section 82 (page 192 of this online version).

The block quote in Catalano's work, in context of some of Catalano's writing around it, is this (bolding added; bracketing in the inner block quote is Catalano's, in the outer is mine):

There are three elements to any explication of an ancient passage. [Catalano now quoting translation of Ast...]

The letter, meaning, and spirit are therefore the three elements of explication. The hermeneutics of the letter is the explication of the word and subject matter of the particular; the hermeneutics of meaning [Sinn] is the explication of its significance [Bedeutung] in connection with the given passage; and the hermeneutics of the spirit is the explication of its higher relation to the idea of the whole in which the particular dissolves into the unity of the whole. (Sect. 82: 48)

The first (hermeneutics of the letter) involves "grammatical and historical knowledge of antiquity" (Sect. 83: 48). One must study languages (including grammar and etymology), archeology, and history in order to accurately explicate the letter of the text. The second (hermeneutics of meaning) involves a psychological understanding of the author. Some meanings are simple while others are allegorical. ... The third (hermeneutics of the spirit) is an explication of the guiding idea of the passage. The author may or may not have been conscious of that idea. "For the idea is the higher, living unity from which all life evolves, and to which it returns again spiritually transfigured" (Sec. 85: 49).


Regarding your particular question:

  1. The English phrase is earlier than Peter Leithart's 2009 work, since Catalano's is 2000. There may be earlier still out there... and in fact just found another English work from 1990 referring to Ast, The Hermeneutic Tradition: From Ast to Ricoeur (Gayle L. Ormiston and Alan D. Schrift, eds.), using the phrase on page 12.
  2. The phrasing in German words, "Die Hermeneutik des Buchstaben," is at least nearly two centuries earlier with Ast's 1808 statement. I do not have time to pursue if it is even earlier than Ast as a German phrase, and what the meaning may have been in that earlier work.
  3. Given Catalano's supplemental quotes of Ast, this phrase appears to be a reference to grammatical/historical hermeneutic to understand the statement of the passage itself, contrasted with both (1) any significance the statement makes from the original author's perspective and (2) a higher spiritual concept that the original author may not be aware of. The whole approach is related to, though not exactly parallel to, the fourfold sense of Scripture approach, and thus the phrase "hermeneutics of the letter" may not exactly parallel a grammatical/historical hermeneutic, which generally is against an "allegorical" or "spiritual" meaning in most cases.
  4. I have not read Leithart's Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scripture, so I cannot say for sure how in-line he is with this historical assessment of the phrase's usage, but perhaps you can now assess that given the information here. It could be he is using the phrase the same way, or in a "novel" way to his own approach.

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