Interpretation and Philosophical Hermeneutics
B. H. McLean
Church Times Bookshop £17.10 (Use code
ARE interpreters of the
Bible botanists or bees? The argument of this big, bold, and
sometimes difficult book by a Canadian New Testament scholar is
that these two options define the trajectories of biblical
hermeneutics in the modern and post-modern eras respectively.
A botanist dissects a
flower, analyses it, and locates it within its natural habitat. A
bee alights upon a flower, which transfers pollen to the bee's
legs, and the bee then carries the pollen to other parts of the
field. Both the flower and the pollen are to some extent changed by
this transaction; and, more importantly, recipients of the pollen
are touched and changed accordingly.
influenced by Enlightenment ideas of objective research, and so
found questing for the historical Jesus or Paul or Moses, reflect
the method of the botanist. But post-historical hermeneutics,
promoted by McLean and influenced by 20th-century Continental
philosophy, recall the bee. While botanist and bee both have a part
to play in relation to the flower, only the bee brings existential
added value to the rest of the field.
So the question addressed by
this book is: what difference does it make to the discipline of
biblical studies when scholars are less botanist and more bee?
McLean focuses on hermeneutics as a mode of questioning the meaning
of both the "founding sense-event", such as the crucifixion, and
the "present sense-event" - the significance of the founding
sense-event for us in our own place and time. To do so, he mines
the hermeneutical tradition associated with Heidegger, Gadamer,
Habermas, Ricœur, Levinas, Deleuze, and Guattari.
The book is in three parts.
Part One describes how biblical studies devoted to establishing
what actually happened, and what the various authors intended, have
simply served to show how irrelevant scripture is to today's very
different cultural context.
Part Two includes a
brilliantly sustained account of Heidegger's Being and
Time as setting the scene for biblical hermeneutics to be
forward-facing and life-changing rather than backward-looking and
This opens the door to an
exposition in Part Three of post-historical hermeneutics, in which
Gadamer's emphasis on dialogue with tradition is contrasted with
Habermas's more critical view of historical texts as ideologically
suspect. Cue Paul Ricœur's "hermeneutics of suspicion", which has
done so much to promote post-modernism's assault on over-arching
Finally, having put
historicism in its place as necessary but not particularly
edifying, McLean calls upon Deleuze and Guattari to map a future
for "the 'embodied' biblical interpreter enacting a present-sense
event within an ever expanding global ecology of relations". This
seems to mean turning biblical interpretation into a nomadic,
Abraham-like quest for personal transformation in ethical
solidarity with, and accountability to, others. The bee, rather
than the botanist, commands the field.
This is not an easy read,
and is aimed more at theology and philosophy students than the
general reader. But judicious illustrations and examples do serve
to lighten and enlighten the argument when the going gets
It is characteristic of most
post-modern philosophical hermeneutics to be marked by more than
just a whiff of subjectivism. But Levinas believed that "the risk
of subjectiv-ism is a risk the truth must run" - and McLean is
clearly in no mood to argue.
The Rt Revd Dr Saxbee is a former Bishop of