Posted by: Billy Marsh | May 13, 2008

No “Knowing Thyself” Without Knowing God

Recovering Theological Hermeneutics ~ Jens ZimmermannThis is a quote from the 1st paragraph of a book that I just began reading which I thought was one of the most powerful and grabbing introductions to a work that I’ve read lately. The book is by Jens Zimmermann and is called, Recovering Theological Hermeneutics: An Incarnational-Trinitarian Theory of Interpretation. I’ve not read much yet, but I am excited to see what all Zimmermann has to say about the current state of hermeneutics and how we should proceed in the 21st century.

With respect to this quote, I thought it would be profitable to submit it to you in a post since his thesis is related to my recent comments and conflict with Christians’ responses to William P. Young’s The Shack and his unorthodox presentation of the Trinity. Using reactions to Young’s novel only as a case study, one will immediately see how believers are attempting to disconnect true knowledge of self from true knowledge of God. It’s almost as if many have committed the exegetical fallacy of thinking it permissible to switch John’s declaration in his first letter, “God is love” to “Love is God.” Apparently, whether or not God is a Trinity is irrelevant and a non-essential matter. Instead, we are more concerned with love and compassion rooted in an unknown god, with the hopes that those qualities are applied to us in some sort of redeeming manner, despite our awareness, or lack thereof, of the gospel of Jesus Christ. How can we possibly fully understand our own sinfulness and the need for forgiveness, mercy, and grace from God apart from a grounded and objective knowledge of the One whose nature serves as the well from which all of creation draws its purpose, meaning, and identity? Zimmermann’s opening words under gird the need for us to to know and love God through the pursuit of understanding the Scriptures where he has been perfectly and absolutely revealed by the Holy Spirit.

Hermeneutics is all about self-knowledge, and self-knowledge is impossible without knowledge of God. . . . Modern hermeneutics, however, has become extremely squeamish about the knowledge of God. The notion of revelation and particular religion are viewed with suspicion, often for good reason. The suggested solution, religious pluralism based on the reduction of religious knowledge to apophasis, to radically negative theology, may seem attractive, given our generally vague and noncommittal cultural attitude toward ultimate meaning, but it suffers from an incurable inconsistency. The reduction of religion to a general and universally incontestable kernel, such as love and compassion, lacks any possible foundation for these values. If we cannot really know what we know when we love our God, to borrow a phrase from a recent book on religion, how can we still know that the character of this unknown divinity is love or compassion (Zimmermann, “Preface,” 7)?


  1. Some good thoughts/quotes on which to chew.


  2. Billy, I am curious by what this statement means: “Hermeneutics is all about self-knowledge”. Is this following in the tradition of J. C. K. von Hofmann who was convinced that self-understanding on the part of the interpreter provided the key to the meaning of history (i.e. it was the new birth experience that placed the interpreter in the position to understand Christ as the center of history; and hence his conclusions with Heilsgeschichte)?

  3. Bret,
    I’m not familiar with von Hofmann and his position which you submitted in your comment. I think what you stated in terms of von Hofmann and the matter of hermeneutics and history is on a different plane than what Zimmermann is referring to. In other words, I think these are two different discussions.

    When Zimmermann says “Hermeneutics is all about self-knowledge,” he is drawing heavily, if not totatly at this point, off of John Calvin and his opening words to the first book of this Institutes. Zimmermann’s book is about reappropriating pre-modern or Reformation hermeneutics. So, he revisits how Reformers such as Calvin and Luther viewed Bible study per se, and how that affected the outcome of their respective works, theology, and spirituality. He even delves into looking at puritan and pietistic hermeneutics. Ultimately, what he is saying is that in a broad sense, the goal or end of hermeneutics, or rather biblical interpretation, was/is self-knowledge.

    In this case, “self-knowledge” is somewhat of a philosophical shorthand for a number of things, but mainly represents knowing oneself rightly and truly before God in light of one’s knowledge of God. At a more minute level, their is a definite hermeneutical spiral involved in this process, but ultimately, what Zimmmermann is getting at is that pre-modern hermeneutics wasn’t a “science” where by simply waving the exegetical wand one could come to the meaning of a text and interpret it correctly, but instead, it was likened to a spiritual discipline reserved for Christians where the end result was communion with God. Thus, in order to reach that point, one must know himself before God (e.g. sin, holiness, repentance, mission, etc) which was only possible by coming to a true knowledge of God himself who was primarily accessible through his revealed Word.

    Does this help? Oh yeah, you seem to keep forgetting that I don’t know German.

  4. This is a helpful response; however, von Hofmann and others taking this approach are not on totally different planes. He too was affected by the pietists and this influenced his hermeneutic…or shall we say, his perspective :-)

    What may be making his discussion different from Zimmerman’s may be in scope, but probably more so in that his historical situation was so different as he attempted at a confessional interpretation against the critical scholars.

  5. By the way, as a brother, I was only attempting to come alongside and help you to build up your German vocabulary early. Heilsgeschichte means “holy history” or better known as “salvation history”. :-) Love ya bro!


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