Epistemology, Hermeneutics, and

Character Development: A Brief Essay on the

Importance of Hermeneutics


By Rick Allbee


(The Following article is posted on this web site:


 with Rick Allbee’s permission.

 It originally appeared in A Journal for Christian Studies 12 (1993): 83-92)


This article is not near as ambitious as its title might suggest.  Its more modest goal is only to briefly point out the relationship of hermeneutics to epistemology and character development in order to place hermeneutics in a larger framework, and in order to highlight the importance of hermeneutics. 


To begin the author will simply state the epistemology to which he holds.  The author believes that: a person makes insightful conjectures that are symbolically mediated producing understanding which reveals meaning.[1] This epistemology is critical realist in orientation while giving due appreciation to critical idealism, and it is whole-person centered.[2]  At present this is the author’s best understanding of the nature of knowing.  However, for the purposes of this article one would not need to agree with all its particulars, but only to agree more broadly with a form of critical realism that gives due appreciation to the mind's critical and constructive faculties.  In addition, one would also need to believe that life and the world have meaning--minimally, structure and value.


To continue it would be best to say more about each part of the above epistemology.  First, it begins with the person.  It is a person of intellect, emotion, will, and commitments, possessing character who is the knower (cf. esp. Barrett; Polayni; and Warnock; cited in note #1). Further, these faculties: intellect, emotion, and will, are integrated and all come into play in the process of knowing (cf. esp. Warnock; Polayni; and Barrett; see also “heart” in NIDNT).[3]  This is important to understand because, although it may seem trivial to point out, it is a person who engages in hermeneutics.  Before saying more about the consequences of this for hermeneutics one needs to discuss the next element in the above epistemology.


The person in trying to understand his or her world makes symbolically mediated insightful conjectures.  Thought (as well as culture and most of society) is symbolically mediated (cf. esp. Cassirer, Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, his Substance and Function; Berger; and Breytspraak; cited in note #1).[4]  People think through language which is a symbol system (cf. esp. Cassirer, Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, vol 1, Language).  Theories and paradigms are constructive symbolic systems (cf. esp. Cassirer, Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Vol 3, The Phenomenology of Knowledge; Kuhn; and Popper, Logic; cited in note #1).  And finally, metaphors and models, which facilitate new thought and discoveries, are suggestive representative symbols, and are also themselves symbolically constituted (cf. esp. Barbour, cited in note #1).  Incidentally, acknowledging the symbolic mediation of knowledge is not in itself sufficient to commit one to a completely relativistic position of knowledge (cf. Breytspraak; and Popper; cited in note #1), which this article does not hold.[5]  Furthermore, this epistemology states that it is not simply symbolic mediation but insightful conjecture--which, although consistent with symbolic mediation, serves to limit symbolic construction to accurate interpretation--that reveals to the knower the object to be known.


Insight is the grasping of the structure, function, and nature of things and their interrelations (cf. esp. Lonergan, in note #1).  It is by insight and successful conjecture--which whenever possible should be testable and falsifiable (cf. esp. Popper, Conjectures), that one comes to know his object of study and can reliably be said to have an understanding of it.[6]  The best understanding, be it at the world view, paradigm, theory, or simple idea level,[7] is the explanation which through insight grasps the logic of the interrelations of its explacandum and best explains[8] all its data.[9]  However, in keeping with the whole-person epistemology one must point out that the process is not automatic nor merely methodological.  Besides abilities, effort, commitment (cf. esp. Polayni) and intention it also takes integrity, humility, and moral courage in as much as insight can be suppressed or circumvented (cf. esp. Lonergan).  Knowing has a moral parameter.


Finally, with respect to the above epistemology, if one thinks of meaning, partially at least, in terms of the natures and purposes of things and oneself in the universe it is precisely these which are revealed when one has achieved insight and has come to understand the structure and function of objects known.  Meaning, then, is revealed by symbolically mediated insight.


Having introduced enough epistemology to provide a larger context for hermeneutics one should now be able to understand more clearly that because:  1)  knowledge is symbolically and conceptually mediated and 2)  it is a person who is the knower, hermeneutics is necessary and important.[10]  This article will focus first upon the former point and then return to the latter.


The hermeneutical process of interpreting literature necessitates that one be aware of the symbolic and conceptual mediation of knowledge on two fronts.  First, the author has set down his or her symbolically mediated meaning in the text.  And second, the reader approaches the text through his or her own set of symbols, concepts, and prior understandings.  It is the distance between these two frameworks that must be transversed.  To grasp the authors intended meaning[11] one needs to be acutely aware of this conceptual distance, and have a sound exegetical methodology as well.[12] By being aware of this distance the reader is in a position to come within listening distance of the text and to not misinterpret it by inappropriately reforming its meaning in accordance with his or her own framework.  In addition, by being aware of the author's contextualized meaning one should also be alerted to the inappropriateness of selecting or fashioning meaning piecemeal from the text.[13] 


In the preceding paragraph one noted that the symbolic and conceptual mediation of knowledge entails a distance between the reader and the text that must be transversed.  Understanding and transversing this distance is part of the task of hermeneutics.  At this juncture the author returns to the latter point from the above epistemology; namely, it is a person who is the knower.  This will also lead one into the discussion of hermeneutics and character development. 


The fact that a person, possessing not only intellect but also emotion, will, desirers, values, ideologies[14], and a certain developed character, is the interpreter has implications for hermeneutics which need to be made explicit.  The author stated above that the intellect, emotion, and will are integrated and are all involved in knowing.  Of course this is also true for hermeneutics.  These faculties together have participated in informing and shaping the prior understandings that one brings to any given text; Prior understandings that have come about through the efforts of the whole person and have been shaped by values and commitments as well as thought.  The point of this for hermeneutics is that people have a personal and emotional investment in their ideas and interpretive frameworks.  They do not just approach the text with prior ideas but with beliefs; not just with frameworks of prior understandings but also with frameworks of meaning.  This tends to increases the difficulty of listening to a text proportionate to its meaning distance from the reader.[15]


This point becomes even more significant when one discusses the hermeneutics of interpreting Biblical texts, which is partly the concern here.  The reason is that when one approaches the Scriptures he or she is not only challenged to come within listening distance of the text but also to hear the word of God.[16] That is, one is exhorted to learn the truths, accept God’s values, and heed the message.  To do so requires that one be willing to lay aside old commitments and pick up new ones, to replace or transform old frameworks and fashion new ones, to seek new understanding and embrace new meaning.  To do so effectively (which also requires insight, cf. note #6) allows one to be transformed by the word into the image of Christ Jesus (cf. Rom 8:29, 12:2).[17] This personal aspect of knowledge is extremely relevant to hermeneutics.


With this last point this article has already introduced the importance of hermeneutics for character development and transformation into the image of Christ Jesus.[18]  It is through hermeneutics and not independent of it that one interprets Scripture seeking new understanding and discovering new meaning.  And through the word of God one is given the opportunity and charge to embrace this new meaning and be transformed into His son's image (cf. Rom 8:29, 12:2; Col 3:10; et. al.). 


In conclusion, this article has sought to place hermeneutics in a larger framework of epistemology and character development.  It has shown that because of the symbolic mediation of knowledge hermeneutics is necessary.  Further, by showing hermeneutics’ relationship to meaning and character development it has highlighted hermeneutics’ importance.  Hermeneutics is vitally important for the Christian faith and life.


Note: This article originally appeared in A Journal for Christian Studies Vol 12. It remains substantially the same with only a few stylistic changes. It appears here and at www.worldvieweyes.org/strauss-docs.html by invitation from Dr. James D. Strauss, and with the author’s permission.

[1] Although they cannot be faulted for any flaw that may exist in this epistemology, the following sources have been especially instrumental for the author’s thinking in the formation of it:  Barrett, William. The Death of the Soul. Anchor, 1986;  Barbour, Ian. Myth, Models, and Paradigms. Harper and Row, 1974;  Berger, Peter and  Thomas Luckman.  The Social Construction of Reality. Doubleday, 1967;  Breytspraak, William.  Toward a Post-Critical Sociology of Knowledge: A Study of Berger, Durkheim, Maneheim, and Polanyi. Ann Arbour: University Microfilms International, 1982;  Cassirer, Ernst.  The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. 3 vols. Introduction by Charles Hendel. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1955-1958; and his, Substance and Function. Dover Press, 1953;  Hiebert, Paul.  “The Missiological Implications of an Epistemological Shift.” TSF Bulletin 8 no. 5 (1985): 12-18;  Jaki, Stanley.  “Chance or Necessity: Interaction in Nature vs. Measurement in Physics.”  Athens, 1981;  and his God and the Cosmologists. Washington D.C.: Gateway, 1989;  Kordig, Carl R.  “Self-Reference and Philosophy.”American Philosophical Quarterly 20 (1983): 207-216;  Kuhn, Thomas.  The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970;  Lonergan, Bernard.  Insight: A Study of Human Understanding. Harper and Row, 1978;  Lucas, J.R.  “Mind, Machines, and Godel.” Philosophy 36 (1961): 112-127;  MacIntyre, Alisdair.  “Epistemological Crisis, Dramatic Narrative, and the Philosophy of Science.” Monist 60 (1977): 453-572;  Peacock, Arthur.  Intimations of Reality. University of Notre Dame, 1983;  Popper, Karl.  Conjectures and Refutations: the Growth of Scientific Knowledge. N.Y.: Basic Books, 1962;  and his The Logic of Scientific Discovery. Rev. ed. Harper and Row, 1968;  Polayni, Michael.  Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962;  Toulmin, Stephen.  The Uses of Argument. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1958;  and Warnock, Mary.  Imagination. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.  (I am indebted to Dr. James Strauss of Lincoln Christian Seminary whose references lead me to many of the above sources).

[2] For a brief taxonomy of the chief alternative epistemological positions of:  absolute idealism, critical idealism, naive idealism, critical realism, naive realism, instrumentalism, and determinism see Hiebert, Paul. “Epistemological Foundations for Science and Theology.” TSF Bulletin 8 (1985): 5-10.

[3] In the Scriptures the ‘heart’ is the single seat of the emotions, will, and intellect.  Cf. Sorg, T.  “Heart.”  New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology 2 (1976): 180-184.

[4] On culture as symbolically mediated see also:  Geertz, Clifford.  The Interpretation of Cultures. Harper and Row, 1978.

[5] Absolute conceptual relativism does not hold because the mind is transcendent (cf. J.R. Lucas, cited in note #1; Polayni; et. al.) and capable of utilizing, expanding, creating, or learning new symbol systems in order to achieve understanding.  Also, for essays that argue against relativism because of the success of trans-cultural and trans-theoretical translation, and the cognitive superiority of modern science see the essays by Gellner, Hollis, Newton-Smith, and Lukes in Rationality and Relativism. Ed. by Martin Hollis and Steven Lukes.  Cambridge: MIT Press, 1982.  See also Kordig, “Self-Reference”, on how relativistic presentations of knowledge are self refuting (above in note #1); and Jaki, “Chance or Necessity”, (cited in note #1) for a critique of the Heisenberg interpretation of the indeterminacy principle in quantum physics which leads one to the extreme position that the mind constructs reality.

[6] The connotation of the term insight may at first seem to exclude knowledge learned and appropriated by tradition.  However, to really appropriate the knowledge of an object one must come to an understanding of the object's structure and interrelations, its nature and purpose.  This necessary process is only made easier by the insights of prior generations or the necessary and foundational revelations of Scripture (The revelations of scripture are necessary because apart from God, in who's image man has been made, man and the universe can not be adequately understood or explained.  See esp. Jaki, God and the Cosmologists, on God and the universe.  Also, because no system of knowledge is self-grounding (see esp. J.R. Lucas, cited in note #1) only God’s revelations can provide a non-arbitrary grounding.  The Scriptures are foundational because some of its revelations address and explain man and the world at the level of general axioms, presuppositions, models, etc which provide insight into the foundations by which man is to be understood, explained, and ordered).

[7] See Paul Hiebert, “Missiological”, p. 13, for a chart depicting the relationship between worldviews, paradigms, theories, and data.  In brief, these levels of understanding and explanation are hierarchical and interrelated.  Worldviews generate and delimit the range and content of acceptable paradigms, paradigms generate and delimit the range and content of acceptable theories, and theories delimit the data selected and interpreted.  All constitute part of the interpretive matrix.

[8] Four criteria that have been put forth for the evaluation of knowledge claims that are consistent with critical realism are: consistency (freedom from contradiction within the interpretive scheme), coherence (internal relatedness of the statements within the interpretive scheme), comprehensiveness (applicability of the interpretive scheme to all experience), and congruity (appropriateness of the interpretive scheme to the experience it covers)- Heie, Harold.  “Wanted: Christian Colleges for a Dynamic Evangelicalism.” Christian Scholars Review XXI:3 (March 1992): p. 260, quoting David L. Wolfe, Epistemology: the Justification of Belief, InterVarsity Press, 1982).  “... the project of ‘making sense of total experience’ is nonsense if these criteria are not operative.  Therefore, when one engages in this project, one implicitly agrees to these ‘criteria for criticism’” (Ibid, p. 261).

[9] For a presentation and discussion of the rationality of explanatory systems at the level of worldviews see esp. Knopp, Richard Alan.  Religious Belief and the Problems of Cognitivity and Commitment: A Reappraisal Based on Contemporary Philosophy of Science. Ann Arbor, University Microfilms International, 1991 (for discussions of rationality see Knopp, Popper, Logic, and Toulmin-- cited in note #1).  Also, consistent with the symbolic mediation of knowledge explanatory systems which allow for and encourage the utilization or creation of new symbol systems that achieve new and deeper understandings of the world should be seen as truer views of the world than those that do not.  This is part of Stanley Jaki’s argument respecting the developments in mathematics that the Christian worldview encouraged allowing for a greater understanding of physics.  See his, The Road to Science and the Ways to God. University of Chicago, 1976.  See also J. Nickel's Mathematics:  Is God Silent?  Ross House, 1992; and Kline, Morris.  Mathematics and the Search for Knowledge.  Oxford, 1985.  Finally, an exhaustive explanation should also be able to account for its rival counter explanations (see esp. Lonergan, cited in note #1) and/or the previous more limited explanations or paradigms that it has supplanted (see MacIntryre, cited in note #1).

[10] The Christian Church heritage has in the past thought it sufficient to rely on common sense rationalism (on which see Ahlstrom, Sydney.  “The Scottish Philosophy and American Theology.”  Church History 24 (1955): 257-272).  Given the developments in epistemological theory this position is no longer tenable.

[11] On the possibility of discovering an author’s intended meaning through interpretation see Hirsch, E.D.  Validity in Interpretation. New Haven:  Yale University Press, 1973.  See also Juhl, P.D.  Interpretation:  An Essay in the Philosophy of Literary Criticism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980.

[12] A sound exegetical methodology is crucial for good Biblical interpretation.  The author is personally indebted to and would like to thank Dr. Robert Lowery of Lincoln Christian Seminary and Gary Bailey of Central Christian College for their valuable contributions toward the shaping of his exegetical methodology.

[13] Sometimes interpreters end up legitimating their own meanings and not the Scriptures by proof-texting.  Proof-texting can be notoriously piecemeal and when misused pays too little attention to context.  (On the development of proof-texting as a methodology see pp. 15-19 in Hays, J.B., and J. Prussner.  Old Testament Theology: its History and Development. John Knox Press, 1985).  Context is essential.  In addition to the literary, grammatical, and historical context of a passage, letter, etc. one should also be mindful of the theological context.  For a presentation of Promise Theology as the theological center of the Bible see the relevant works on Promise Theology by Dr. Walter Kaiser of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and the syllabi and papers on the same by Dr. James Strauss of Lincoln Christian Seminary.  As Dr. Strauss has pointed out theoretically many things could be the theological center of Scripture, but Promise seems to be Paul’s center as reflected most notably in Galatians and Romans.  In addition, it seems to this author that Promise naturally emphasizes the importance of faith-- the corollary of promise, and more importantly the centrality of Christ Jesus-- the promised One in whom all the promises are realized.

[14] The literature on ideology is voluminous.  For a definitional article see Hamilton, Malcom.  “The Elements of the Concept of Ideology.”  Political Studies 35 (1978): 18-38.  The following articles and essays are also good:  Berger, Peter and Stanely Pullberg.  “Reification and the Sociological Critique of Consciousness.”  History and Theory 4 no. 2 (1965): 196-211;  Bohman, James.  “‘System’ and ‘Lifeworld’: Habermas and the Problem of Holism.”  Philosophy and Social Criticism 15 no. 4 (1989): 381-401;  Elster, Jon.  “Belief, Bias, and Ideology”, pp. 123-148 in Rationality and Relativism. Ed. by Martin Hollis and Steven Lukes. Cambridge: MIT press, 1982;  Geertz, Clifford.  “Ideology as a Cultural System”, pp. 47ff in Ideology and Discontent. Ed. by D. Apter. Free Press, 1964;  Lichtheim, George. “The Concept of Ideology.”  History and Theory 4 (1965): 164-195;  and Ricoeur, Paul.  “Ideology and Ideology Critique”, pp. 134-164 in Phenomenology and Marxism. Ed. by B. Waldenfels. London, 1984.

[15] One should also point out that in a different way sometimes a text's nearness also makes it difficult to hear.  That is, when one comes across a familiar concept in a text, or a concept that one believes that he or she has an intuitive grasp of, it may be easy to miss some of the content of that concept.  The author believes that one example of this is the Biblical concept of love.  Some Evangelicals (influenced by the paradigms of pietism and romanticism) seem to understand love almost exclusively as emotional whereas the Scriptures, while giving full appreciation to love’s emotional aspect, reveal love to be a genuine concern for the welfare of another that should lead to assistance that seeks to transform his or her situation to the good (cf. e.g.  Luke 10:27c, 33-35; and further, “The Commandment ‘You Shall Love Your Neighbor as Yourself’ and the Biblical Social Moral laws.”  Thesis submitted to the department of New Testament, Lincoln Christian Seminary, 1991).

[16] In the Scriptures hearing often includes obedience.  See Mundle, W.  “Hear.”  New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology 2 (1976): 172-180.

[17] Of course understanding the word of God is not in itself a sufficient condition for transformation and living the Christian Life, but it is a necessary one (cf. Rom 12:2, 10:16; et. al.). Other fundamental conditions include:  1)  faith in God and Christ (see esp. Moody, R.M.  “The Habakuk Quotation in Romans 1:17.” Expository Times 92 (1980-81): 205-208; Cottrell, Jack.  “Conditional Election”, p. 61 in Grace Unlimited. Ed. by Clark Pinnock. Minneapolis: Bethany, 1975; Mickel, O.  “Faith.” New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology 1 (1975): 587-606; Berkower, G.C.  Faith and Sanctification. Studies in Dogmatics. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952; Hultgren, Arland.  “The Pistis Christou Formulation in Paul.” Novum Testamentum 22 (1980): 248-263; and Schnackenburg, Rudolf.  “The Notion of Faith in the Fourth Gospel”, pp. 558-575 in his The Gospel According to St. John. Vol 1. N.Y.: Crossroads, 1987);  2)  the indwelling Holy Spirit (see esp. Bruner, Frederick Dale.  A Theology of the Holy Spirit. Eerdmans, 1970; and p. 127 in Parsons, Michael.  “Being Precedes Act: Indicative And Imperative in Paul's Writings.” Evangelical Quarterly 60 no. 2 (1988): 99-127); and  3)  Discipleship (see esp. Segovia, Fernando. Ed.  Discipleship in the New Testament. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985; Wilkins, M.  Following the Master. Zondervan, 1993; and McKay, J.W.  “Man’s Love for God in Deuteronomy and the Father/Teacher--Son/Pupil Relationship.” Vetus Testamentum 22 (1972): pp. 426-75).

[18] On character and the Christian faith see Hauerwas, Stanley.  Character and the Christian Life.  2nd ed. San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 1985.  See also the very plain statements on character by C.S. Lewis in his discussion of the cardinal virtues, pp. 69-78 in Mere Christianity, Collier Books, 1965; and the discipleship references above in note #17.  Finally, on moral development generally see Conn, Walter.  “Moral Development: Is Conversion Necessary?”, pp. 307-342 in Creativity and Method:  Essays in Honor of Bernard Lonergan.  Ed. by Matthew Lamb. Marquette University Press, 1981.