Wednesday, May 12, 2010

What is Canon Criticism and the hermeneutic circle?

NOTE: This is one in a series of posts from my moral theology assignments. They are intended to be brief responses. In many cases, the topics could be extensively explored, but that was not the intent of the assignment.

Canon criticism is the Catholic principle that scripture must be interpreted within the context of the whole canon of scripture. Specifically, we must avoid taking texts isolated from the rest of scripture in an attempt to formulate moral principles from them—a “proof text” approach to moral theology and interpretation. Instead, we must interpret parts of scripture by the whole and the whole by the parts. Scripture is, as Raymond Brown asserts, not a book but a library of books. In it, we find a variety of works of various types: poetry, instruction, parable, history (of a sort), and other types as well. Looking at any single book of scripture, one can get a very narrow understanding of a moral law. However, throughout the books of the bible, we can see the moral precepts being applied and interpreted. Indeed, while each book has one or more human authors, scripture as a whole has one divine Author, the Holy Spirit. Because of this continuity of inspiration, what we read in one part of scripture sheds light and interprets other parts of scripture.

Canon Criticism, then, is interpreting a text in light of the whole. This approach to scripture finds modern expression in the concept of the hermeneutical circle introduced by Benedict de Spinoza, developed by Martin Heidegger in the early 20th century, and elaborated by later philosophers such as Paul Ricoeur and Hans-Georg Gadamer. In this formulation, interpretation is a process of going from part of the text to the whole and back until one can gain a proper understanding. We can detect the germ of this notion in medieval thought, particularly in interpretation by the four senses of scripture, particularly the allegorical sense. In addition, the modern hermeneutics began to recognize the necessity of the historical and cultural context in this dialogue. For Catholics who view Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition as two streams from the same source, this approach follows quite naturally.

i. Benedict Ashley, “Moral Theology: Lecture 1—Lesson Two,” International Catholic University, 5 February 2010, .
ii. Raymond Brown, 101 Questions & Answers on the Bible, (New York: Paulist Press, 1990), 30–31.
iii. Ashley,
iv. “Hermeneutics,” 9 November 2005, Stanford Encycolpedia of Philosophy, 6 February 2010,
Ibid., sect. 1.
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