Theology and the Hermeneutics of Testimony: Progress in Theological Interpretation?

In this discussion about the possibility and the nature of intellectual progress in theology, I will explore the methodological work of theology from the standpoint of the hermeneutics of testimony. Testimony has been the focus of epistemological undertakings of both analytic and continental philosophers. More specifically, Paul Ricoeur developed a hermeneutical perspective of testimony that seems promising for a reflection on the methodological nature of theology. The hermeneutics of testimony is related to Ricoeur’s paradigm of text interpretation, according to his coordination of the subjective and objective poles of understanding (verstehen) and explanation (erklären). With the articulation of this paradigm of reading, he intends to affirm the scientific status of the humanities by using resources from the philosophy of language. However, this scientific status is distinguished from the parameters of empirical verification, because the nature of text interpretation entails rather the logic of critical validation. In the context of testimony, the conflict of interpretations takes shape in the form of conflicting testimonies that are offered. This is why the hermeneutics of testimony adopts an argumentative approach, which is similar to the juridical procedures of legal interpretation, that follows the logic of qualitative probability in its attempt to classify one testimony/interpretation or a group of testimonies/interpretations as more probable than others, once they are properly scrutinized. Furthermore, Ricoeur stipulates that the point of text interpretation is not merely to engage with tools for reading and comparing interpretations. Inasmuch as he assumes that a text is a reflection of personal activity, the French philosopher rather maintains that the ultimate goal of text interpretation is to gain insight of human action. From this perspective, while the methodological procedures of empirical verification seek to uncover explanatory causes, the logic of critical validation and qualitative probability attempts to elucidate reasons, dispositions, or motivations for action. A significant example of this methodological framework of the hermeneutics of testimony is Ricoeur’s epistemological understanding of memory and history. In fact, he proposes that testimony provides the transition from the former to the latter. This implies that the hermeneutics of testimony is crucial for the scientific endeavors of historiography, taking into account that an essential step of historical interpretation is the critical comparison of documents or archives containing different types of testimonial accounts. Even though the field of theology has its own characteristics, especially considering its assumptions on the existence of God and divine revelation, theological research intellectually engages in textual interpretation, hermeneutics, and testimony in a way that seems to be somehow similar to other hermeneutical undertakings in the humanities. As Ricoeur himself emphasizes, testimony is a relevant (hermeneutical) concept even in biblical literature. In light of this theoretical background, I will evaluate the pertinence of the use of the hermeneutics of testimony for the methodological understanding of the intellectual task of theology. A significant part of this evaluation includes the analysis on whether it is possible to consider that the logic of validation and qualitative probability in theological thinking can produce scientific progress and, if so, what kind of progress it would be.

Adriani Rodrigues completed his PhD in Religion at Andrews University in 2017. His monograph “Toward a priestly Christology: a hermeneutical study of Christ’s priesthood” was published by Lexington Books/Fortress Academic in 2018. Adriani currently teaches systematic theology in the faculty of theology at the Adventist University of Sao Paulo (Brazil) and is a research fellow in the department of texts and traditions in the faculty of religion and theology at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. His current research project focuses on the hermeneutics of testimony.