Much ink has been spilt over the subject of hermeneutics. Most often, however, these
discussions focus upon the method of interpretation. In this article I will focus upon the
necessarily prior thing: the interpreter. Specifically, I intend to show that the spiritual formation
and virtue (or lack thereof) of the interpreter is more determinative than any particular
St. Athanasius of Alexandria concludes his work On the Incarnation with these words:
“But in addition to the study and true knowledge of scriptures, there is needed a good life and a
pure soul and the virtue which is according to Christ, so that the mind, guided by it, may be able
to attain and comprehend what it desires, as far as it is possible for human nature to learn about
the God Word” (Incarnation, §57). Notice, the mind is subordinated to the soul “being guided
by it.” There is a reality more fundamental than the mind, more basic than the intellect, a thing
upon which the machinations of our mind rest, namely, the soul. If, therefore, the soul has gone
awry then the movements of the mind will necessarily follow.
St. Athanasius continues, “Without a pure mind and a life modeled on the saints, no one
can comprehend the words of the saints. For just as, if someone would wish to see the light of
the sun, he would certainly wipe and clear his eyes, purifying himself to be almost like that
which he desires, so that as the eye thus becomes light it may see the light of the sun; or just as
if someone would wish to see a city or a country, he would certainly go to that place for the
sight; in the same way, one wishing to comprehend the mind of the theologians must first wash
and cleanse his soul by his manner of life, and approach the saints themselves by the imitation of their works, so that being with them in the conduct of a common life, he may understand also the
things revealed to them” (ibid). Insofar as the working of the mind rests upon the soul, the soul
must be cleansed and ordered aright. This is done, he insists, by imitating the saints that we
might exist with them “in the conduct of common life.” This call to imitating the saints echoes
Paul’s exhortation to “Imitate me as I imitate Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1) as well as his command to
Timothy to “Be an example of the believers” (1 Tim. 4:12). The communion of saints invites us
into a “common life,” habits of the Spirit, which cleanses our hearts and souls so as to provide
for us the holy foundation upon which all interpretation is built.
To say that the mind is guided by the soul, put another way, is to say that reason proceeds
upon assumption, upon first principles. This is unavoidable. All argument appeals to a standard
of measurement. A known or agreed upon standard is used to measure one’s arguments whether
this standard is a ruler, a multiplication table, a historical fact, a primary human experience, or
something else. Our argument will either accord with this common standard or run contrary to it
and will be respectively accepted or rejected as a valid conclusion. But why is that standard,
whatever it is, accepted as the test of the argument? That standard must have been previously
tried and proven by appeal to a more fundamental standard. And why was that standard accepted
as a valid measure of truth? It too was previously scrutinized by a more fundamental standard
and, having passed the test, was subsequently accepted as a trustworthy standard for future
measurement. And so on and so on until we reach our final court of appeal, the “soul” or the
“heart.” There are things that we accept because they just are and if we cannot agree upon those
things then argument cannot proceed because there is no more fundamental standard by which
we can test our assertions. These are things that we take to be plain, obvious, clear, instinctual. Blaise Pascal describes this experience in his Pensées. “For knowledge of first principles, like
space, time, motion, number, is as solid as any derived through reason, and it is on such
knowledge, coming from the heart and instinct, that reason has to depend and base all its
argument … Principles are felt, propositions proved, and both with certainty though by different
Many handbooks of hermeneutics repeat some iteration of the maxim, “A text is to be
taken in its obvious/plain sense unless that sense is nonsense” or “absurd” or “obviously false.”
Often this rule is an appeal to our first principles, our gut instinct, our convictions about the
things that just are. Of course, this may appeal to rules of logic like “A thing cannot both be and
not be in the same sense at the same time.” Other times, however, we argue from some basic
moral sense, things that we accepting as “just the way things are.” We are arguing “from the
heart.” For example, when interpreting the command to “Love your enemies” one may reason by
saying something like, “Obviously this does not exclude killing in self-defense.” Such a person
takes it as a basic rule that one is allowed to defend his life against attackers and therefore any
interpretation which excludes that fundamental assumption would be absurd. This is not proven.
It is assumed, it is “instinctual,” and the promptly asserted as truth. Only afterwards does the
interpreter set out to demonstrate, using a number of other texts no doubt—we know better than
to depend solely on assumption and intuition—why and how killing in self-defense is a perfectly
acceptable part of Christian life. On the other hand, the Christian who assumes non-violence as a
central part of discipleship will take passages like “Love your enemies” and “Turn the other
cheek” in what they consider to their obvious and instinctual sense. Indeed, the words “plain,”
“obvious,” “clearly,” and so on are characteristic of the hermeneutics of the heart.
We could approach this same example from the opposite direction. Those who take killing to be justified, even moral and necessary under the right circumstances, are often unbothered by biblical passages calling for the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah or the nations of Canaan. In contrast, those who accept non-violent enemy-love as a fundamental principle of following Jesus often see these as problem passages.
Many examples could be given in addition to questions of love, war, violence, and self-
defense. The point is, our spiritual formation determines which are our plain passages and which
are our difficult ones. One’s “obvious” scripture is another’s “problem passage.” Our hearts
both accuse and excuse us. It is the heart of the interpreter that makes the difference. “So
Scripture will not be self-interpreting or plain in its meaning unless we have been transformed in
order to be capable of reading it” (Unleashing Scripture, 49).
But this raises the question, how can we be sure that we take the right things for granted?
We follow someone whom we trust to know the Way. We return to St. Athanasius and Pascal.
“If someone would wish to see a city or a country, he would certainly go to that place for the
sight” (Incarnation §57). If we want to see what the writers of the Bible saw then we need to
walk the Way that they did and so arrive at the same city. Walking the Way spiritually means
imitating their life and habits, those rhythms of the Spirit so characteristic of their heroic virtue.
So spiritual communities often draw us to them by their lives of faith, hope, and love long before
we have ever heard of their logic, reason, and argument. We see Jesus in them and submit
ourselves to their Way of life wherein we find our reasons along the way. The new habits we
acquire from the “conduct of common life” transforms the fundamental assumptions of our heart
and produces new reasons to follow. “What are our natural principles but habitual principles? In children it is the principles received from the habits of their fathers … A change of habit will produce different natural principles” (Pensées §125). New habits make new first principles which make new interpretations.
Because we cannot endure the thought that we might behave irrationally we seek to
produce reasons for our behavior. We do not, however, accept facts/reasons from people that we
do not trust. Conspiracy theories and contemporary politics are enough evidence of that. As
such, trust precedes argument. The beautiful lives of saints appeal to us and we submit ourselves
to be formed by the communities whose lives prove themselves by their virtue. By sharing a
common life the ritual and habits of the tradition become our habits, those habits produce our
first principles, and our first principles produce our interpretations. Morality, it seems, precedes
theology. Stanley Hauerwas and Samuel Wells sum this up well: “The disciple who accepts the
humility of repeating the same practices over and over again receives the wonder of discovering
through them the God who is ever new. Following Jesus is not just about making commitments,
facing temptations, forging patterns, extending gestures, and restoring relationships. It is also
about the ordinary, the routine, the common, the everyday, the trivial … But worship is also a
training for discipleship on earth … While all disciples face crises in life, they take for granted
the great preponderance of things they do. Meanwhile, what they regard as a crisis will probably
be an interruption in the flow of events and practices and relationships that they take for granted.
So what they take for granted shapes and determines what they regard as a crisis, an issue, or a
dilemma. And the way to resolve such a quandary can only be by reference to other things they
take for granted. That is why worship is the key to Christian ethics. Through worship, God
trains God’s people to take the right things for granted” (Blackwell Companion, 25).
Athanasius. On the Incarnation. Trans. John Behr. Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press,
Hauerwas, Stanley. Unleashing the Scripture: Freeing the Bible from Captivity to America.
Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993. Print.
Hauerwas, Stanley and Samuel Wells, Eds. The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics. West
Sussex, UK: Blackwell Publishing, 2011. Print.
Pascal, Blaise. Pensées. New York: Penguin Group, 1995. Print.