Reading Isaiah as Christian Scripture

Paul Ricoeur on the Hermeneutical Constitution of Faith

Posted in Hermeneutics, Paul Ricoeur, PhD Research by Bacho on September 24, 2010

Paul Ricoeur, “Philosophy and Religious Language” in  The Journal of Religion, vol. 54, no.1 (Jan., 1974), 71-85

“For a hermeneutical philosophy, faith never appears as an immediate experience, but always as mediated by a certain language which articulates it. For my part I should link the concept of faith to that of self-understanding in the face of the text. Faith is the attitude of one who accepts being interpreted at the same time that he interprets the world of the text. Such is the hermeneutical constitution of the biblical faith.

In thus recognizing the hermeneutical constitution of the biblical faith, we are resisting all psychologizing reductions of faith. This is not to say that faith is not authentically an act which cannot be reduced to linguistic treatment. In this sense, faith is the limit of all hermeneutics and the non-hermeneutical origin of all interpretation. The ceaseless movement of interpretation begins and ends in the risk of a response which is neither engendered nor exhausted by commentary. It is in taking account of this prelinguistic or hyperlinguistic characteristic that faith could be called “ultimate concern,” which speaks of the laying hold of the necessary and unique thing from whose basis I orient myself in all my choices. It has also been called a “feeling of absolute dependence” to underscore the fact that it responds to an initiative which always precedes me. Or it could be called “unconditional trust” to say that it is inseparable from a movement of hope which makes its way in spite of the contradictions of experience and which turns reasons for despair into reasons for hope according to the paradoxical laws of a logic of superabundance. In all these traits the thematic of faith escapes from hermeneutics and testifies to the fact that the latter is neither the first nor the last word.

But hermeneutics reminds us that biblical faith cannot be separated from the movement of interpretation which elevates it into language. “Ultimate concern” would remain mute if it did not receive the power of a word of interpretation ceaselessly renewed by signs and symbols which have, we might say, educated and formed this concern over the centuries. The feeling of absolute dependence would remain a weak and inarticulated sentiment if it were not the response to the proposition of a new being which opens new possibilities of existence for me. Hope, unconditional trust, would be empty if it did not rely on a constantly renewed interpretation of sign-events reported by the writings, such as the Exodus in the Old Testament and the Resurrection in the New Testament. These are the events of deliverance which open and disclose the utmost possibilities of my own freedom and thus become for me the Word of God. Such is the properly hermeneutical constitution of faith.”  [84-85]

Paul Ricoeur on the Specificity of the Biblical Discourse

Here is a lengthy but thought provoking excerpt from Paul Ricoeur’s article “Philosophy and Religious Language”:

“One of the traits which makes for the specificity of the biblical discourse, as we all know, is the central place of God-reference in it. The result of our earlier analysis is that the signification of this reference of biblical discourse is implicated, in a special way which we have yet to describe, in the multiple unified significations of the literary forms of narration, prophecy, hymn, wisdom, and so forth. “God-talk,” to use John McQuarries’s phrase, proceeds from the concurrence and convergence of these partial discourses. The God-referent is at once the coordinator of these varied discourses and the index of their incompleteness, the point at which something escapes them.

In this sense, the word “God” does not function as a philosophical concept, whether this be being either in the medieval or the Heideggerian sense of being. Even if one is tempted to say in the theological metalanguage of all these pretheological languages-that “God” is the religious name for being, still the word “God” says more: it presupposes the total context constituted by the whole space of gravitation of stories, prophecies, laws, hymns, and so forth. To understand the word “God” is to follow the direction of the meaning of the word. By the direction of the meaning I mean its double power to gather all the significations which issue from the partial discourses and to open up a horizon which escapes from the closure of discourse.

I would say the same thing about the word “Christ.” To the double function which I have described for the word “God,” this word “Christ” adds the power of incarnating all the religious significations in a fundamental symbol, the symbol of a sacrificial love, of a love stronger than death. It is the function of the preaching of the Cross and Resurrection to give to the word “God” a density which the word “being” does not possess. In its meaning is contained the notion of its relation to us as gracious, and of our relation to it as “ultimately concerned” and as fully “re-cognizant” of it.

It will thus be the task of biblical hermeneutics to unfold all these implications of this constitution and of this articulation of God-talk.”