Hegel on Exegesis and the Biblical commentary

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An important reminder to me as I engage in my own commentary work. This is from Hegel’s Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion:

[S]o-called [pure] thinking turned against [the doctrinal content of the Church’s teaching] in the name of “Enlightenment.” It left the doctrinal system in place and also left the Bible as foundation, but arrived at its own divergent views and sought to interpret the word of God in a different way. This took place in the guise of exegesis. Because exegesis draws upon reason for counsel, what happened is that a so-called rational theology came into being, opposed to the doctrinal system in the form established by the church. In part, this was the church’s own doing, in part it was the doing of [the thinking] to which the church is opposed. In this rational theology it is exegesis that plays the primary role. Here exegesis takes over the written word, interprets it, and professes only to make the understanding of the word effective and to remain faithful to it.

But where interpretation is not mere explanation of the words but discussion of the content and the elucidation of the sense, it must introduce its own thoughts into the word that forms the basis [of the faith]. There can only be mere interpretation of words when all that happens is that one word is replaced by another with the same scope. [DG: i.e., ‘translation’].  If interpretation is elucidation, then other categories of thought are bound up with it. A development of the word is a progression to further thoughts. One seemingly abides by the sense, but in fact, new thoughts are developed. Bible commentaries do not so much acquaint us with the content of scripture as with the mode of thought in their age. [Underline added]

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion. Edited by Peter C. Hodgson. Vol. 1, “Introduction and The Concept of Religion.” Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1984, pp. 122-3.

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4 thoughts on “Hegel on Exegesis and the Biblical commentary

  1. Dustin

    This comment is gold. Thanks for sharing. I’m so jealous that you’ve found time to get into Hegel. I’m wishing for the same. Maybe I’ll do some Hegeling over the Christmas break.

    In what sense do you take the underlined sentence that you have flagged for us? It strikes me as a profoundly historicist comment (which wouldn’t be odd given the author) and one that I would have thought to run counter to your view of commenting on 1 John. Perhaps I’m missing how you are intending to quote to function as an important reminder to you.

  2. Great question. While I don’t buy Hegel’s radical historicism, he is quite right to remind us that all commentary work brings with it a manifold amount of “idiosyncratic” presuppositions of our age–presuppositions which will only be able to be seen with a degree of clarity in the future. My commentary on 1 John, I hope, at least is an attempt to try to get at the same “subject matter” as the canonical book, but I should also remember that it will also say a lot about me as a “theommentator” in a particular era of the church.

  3. Dustin

    That’s kinda what I thought. It seems to me that Hegel is quite happy with a commentary speaking only of the “forms of thought” rather than the “content.” It accords well, I think, with his distinction between representation and idea, no? That distinction puts the task of the commentator in the role of describing the forms of thought of a particular people in a particular era. It is the task of those like Hegel to show the progress of the “idea” through the various forms of thought (representation) in history and to describe its meaning in the present historical stage. Have I got this right, do you think?

  4. Yup, I think so. Of course, his concern is that even “big ideas” (like the ecclesiastical doctrine of the Trinity) are trapped at the level of only representation, and that to really move forward, there needs to be a “dialectical movement” in thought toward speaking of the Trinity in terms of “pure thought” or “idea.” But to do this kind of commentary means that something is really “added” to the “content” and that it is not just another representation. That is what I can’t quite buy because it seems to assume that the Idea is greater than the concrete. And that is where I think Barth couldn’t quite buy Hegel either.

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