A Short Introduction to Hermeneutics

Article excerpt

A Short Introduction to Hermeneutics. By David Jasper. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004. xii + 148 pp. $19.95 (paper).

David Jasper delivers what his title promises: a quick overview of hermeneutics, from its role in the biblical texts themselves, to the latest postmodern criticism. The book shows its origins in undergraduate instruction; Jasper addresses the reader directly, with frequent asides and exclamations. One would be hard-pressed to find an introduction to hermeneutics that covers more terrain in fewer pages, with so relaxed a literary style.

Jasper divides the book into seven chapters. The first covers definitions and presuppositions of the field. The second surveys the hermeneutics manifest in the Bible itself, as well as rabbinic and patristic interpretation. The third chapter discusses medieval interpretation, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment. The fourth chapter focuses on Schleiermacher and Romanticism (with welcome attention to Coleridge and the English Romantic poets). Although Coleridge and the Romantics have already brought readers into the 1840s, Jasper calls the fifth chapter "The Nineteenth Century"; he devotes this chapter principally to summaries of the work of Strauss and Dilthey. Jasper's treatment of the twentieth century covers Barth, Bultmann, Heidegger, Gadamer, and Ricoeur; and the closing chapter treats postmodern hermeneutics.

The task of introducing so complex a field of study as hermeneutics would challenge anyone, and Jasper oversimplifies a great many of the topics he mentions. Different readers will weigh these oversimplifications differently; a great many readers will sympathize with Jasper's decisions and will adopt this as a textbook without hesitation.

At the same time, some readers will find that these particular oversimplifications suggest a problematic insensitivity to both historical and hermeneutical issues. The most troubling of these comes to the fore when Jasper touches on the transition from medieval to Reformation hermeneutics. According to Jasper, Augustine "[fell] back on the final judgment of the rule of faith within the church," which insured that "the church maintained an iron grip on biblical hermeneutics" (p. 41). He depicts a medieval church that enforced a rigid doctrinal conformity in which the Bible serves only as a pretext for the church's magisterial teaching. …