An Orthodox Approach to Hermeneutics / Fr. Dr. K. M. George
An Orthodox Approach to Hermeneutics
Dr. K. M. GEORGE, Orthodox Seminary
A few initial remarks seem to be necessary:
1. In the theological tradition of the Eastern Churches, the
problem of interpretation and understanding has always been an
important one. But nowhere in the history of these Churches, one
finds any attempt to turn the hermeneutical process into a specialized
academically hermetic activity. Hermeneia is always directed to the
oikodome of the Church as St. Paul reminds us. (1 Cor. 14: 5).
2. Biblical hermeneutics is not treated in isolation from the
general theological hermeneutical approach of the Church. In other
words, the question ‘how do you understand the Bible today’ is
necessarily related to such questions as how do you understand God,
the Church, the liturgy or the humanity.
3. While the Church recognizes the special character of the
hermeneutic of written texts, it thinks that a hermeneutic of the non-
verbal and the non-conceptual envelopes and permeates the former
in such a way that a rigid distinction between them is often difficult
Generally speaking a hermeneutical problem is constituted by
the temporal and cultural distance of the interpreter from the text
or the event to be interpreted. The Church had to confront the
problem in the very early centuries when the Gospel passed from its
Semitic cultural matrix to meet the Hellenistic culture and learning.
We know how in this encounter, the Greek idea of Logos and several
Platonic and Neoplatonic concepts became important hermeneutical
categories for generations of Christian theologians both Orthodox
and heterodox. The problem of interpretation was raised all the
more sharply when the question of Orthodoxy and heresy came up
within the Church. Ingenious teachers began to interpret the Bible
and the Christian doctrines with the assistance of pure logic, impressive
dialectic and with other techniques of sophistry and rhetoric only to
find themselves accused of deviating from the authentic faith of the
Church. The Church then had to evolve certain criteria, though not
formal, in order to test and guide the process of interpretation. The
Hermeneutical problem, therefore, is nothing new to the Church.
It had to grapple with some of the basic issues in modern hermeneutics
long before the German scholars started to discuss it in a wissenscha-
ftliche manner and the others followed suit, in a slavish way.
The hermeneutical approach of the Eastern Tradition was pro-
foundly influenced by the great controversy between Eunomius, the
radical Arian theologian and three Cappadocians (Basil, Gregory
Nazianzen and Gregory of Nyssa) in the latter half of the 4th century.
The debate centred round two key issues:
1. The question of divine incomprehensibility.
2. The role of language in expressing truth.
Both the questions had to deal with the problem of interpretation and
understanding. Eunomius, armed with subtle Aristotelian logic,
dialectic and the Holy Scriptures, was trying to accommodate
Christian theology to a certain brand of Neoplatonic system. He
advanced the thesis that the divine essence (ousia), the real nature of
God is perfectly comprehensible to the human mind. To Basil and
his friends who rejected the thesis, the Eunomians cited Scripture
and argued. Quoting for example, Jesus’ words to the Samaritan
woman “you worship what you do not know; we worship what we
know” (Jn. 4: 22), they squarely put the question to Basil: “Do you
worship the God you know or the God you do not know?” 1 To
the Eunomians it appeared that if one followed the Word of God in
a strictly logical way, one would have to agree with their original
assumption that the essential nature of God is perfectly comprehen-
sible to the human mind. They would argue it in a somewhat syllo-
Scripture says : we worship what we know
Scripture is revealed truth
Therefore we know what God is.
Those who rejected this “Scriptural truth” and affirmed the divine
incomprehensibility are impious agnostics. Their confession of
ignorance is atheistic in effect. 2
The principle of the absolute intelligibility of divine nature which
the Eunomians used as a hermeneutical principle in scriptural inter-
pretation and consequently applied to the Trinitarian doctrine is
1 Basil of Caesara, Epist CCXXXIV. 1, 3.
2 See Gregory Nazianzen, Orat, XXVIII 5, Gregory of Nyssa, Contra Eunomium
III P. G. 45. 602
brought in from philosophical sources outside the tradition of the
Church . 3 Eunomius had accepted the division of all reality into the
creator who is agennetos (unbegotten) and the creation which is the
gennema (that which came to be or the begotten). In Trinitarian
doctrine, it meant that the Father alone is agennetos, unique and
absolutely simple, while the Son and the Holy Spirit belonged to
the gennema along with the rest of creation.
Now, Eunomius claimed that agennetos is the proper name of
God. By rational analysis of the name, we can get back to the
ousia of God. Every object has its name given by God and the name
reveals the reality of the object. Giving of names (onomaton thesis)
belongs to God alone. Behind this assertion, there was a classical
debate between the Platonists and the Aristotelians about the origin
of language. The former argued that words and names are kata
phusin, i. e. given to objects supernaturally and they therefore reveal
reality. The latter held that words and names are kata thesin, i. e.
given to objects by convention, by the human mind as arbitrary
symbols. Language is a purely human creation. It is valid but it
bears the mark of human limitation.
Eunomius represented the former in a radical way and held that
the name unbegotten is a revealed name and therefore it gives us the
essential knowledge of the Being of God. This name existed before
all excercise of human intelligence. The position of Eunomius means
that all verbal statements about God based on agennetos contain the
truth of his essential nature.
The Cappadocians attacked vehementally the position of Eunomius.
They held that the human mind’s inability to comprehend the ousia
of God is not a moral defect, but a constitutive character of created
beings vis-a-vis the infinity of God’s nature. Following the famous
words of Clement of Alexandria “we know that God is not what he
is,” Gregory Nazianzen told Eunomius: “It is one thing to be
persuaded of the existence (to einai) of a thing and quite another to
know (eidenai) what it is .” 4 5 Human comprehension is an attempt
to circumscribe its object, and God can never be objectified thus:
“God like some great sea of Being limitless and unbounded,
transcending all conceptions of time and nature, only adumbrated
by the mind, and that very dimly and scantily, not by his essentials
but by his environment.” 6 !
3 See J. Danielou, “Eunome l’arien et l’exegese neoplatonicienne de Cratyle”
in Revue des Etudes Grecs 69 (1956) 412-423.
4 Orat. XXVIII. 5.
5 Orat, XLV. 3.
Even if we persist in our attempt to understand the divine
nature, “all that we can comprehend is the infinity (« apeiria ) of God.” 6
The Cappadocians argued against Eunomius that language is
a creation of the human mind ( epinoia ). Human epinoia does not
possess any innate idea of God’s essential nature. 7 Language which
the epinoia invented is a very useful instrument, but is an insufficient
tool to understand God. Not only language but no other mode of
understanding can penetrate or comprehend the divine apeiria . At
this level if any language is possible at all, it turns negative and proceeds
The debate with Eunomius made clear to the Church among
other things that: (1) linguistic category is not the only category nor
a sufficient one for interpretation and understanding; (2) human
mind and language are incapable of fully understanding and articu-
lating not only transcendent realities, but also matters in our sensible
world; (3) since the infinity of God and his ultimate incomprehensi-
bility are basic to the theological thinking of the Church, interpre-
tation and understanding belong to an unceasing, dynamic process;
(4) biblical interpretation requires more than the principle of reason.
The exclusive alliance of logic and Scripture had proved fatal to the
What then, are some of the categories and principles of inter-
pretation emphasized by the Orthodox tradition as necessary for a
right understanding? The following are no formal criteria laid down
by any council or declared ex cathedra by any Patriarch, but guide-
lines deeply embedded in the general consensus of the Church.
1. Living Community: the Hermeneutical Matrix
The hermeneutical problem consitituted by temporal and cultural
distance between the interpreter and the text or event to be interpreted
is here approached from the vantage point of the living community. The
Church speaks only of a single living community, irrespective of culture
and chronology, when it refers to its own life and identity. That
means an event of the first century can be present to the 20th century
through the organic mediation of the living community held together
by unbroken gathering and celebration. Further no event or text
within this community can be totally objectified by one who stands
6 Ibid. E. Muhlenberg has demonstrated the significant relationship between
the concepts of infinity and incomprehensibility in Gregory of Nyssa’s thought.
Die Unendlichkeit Gottes bei Gregor von Nyssa, Goettingen, 1966.
7 For a discussion of Gregory of Nyssa’s brilliant debate with Eunomius and its
theological significance see Paulos Gregorios, The Cosmic Man Delhi 1980.
within it, so as to constitute a real distance between them. As a
member of the Church my approach to a biblical text of the first
century is bound to be different from my approach to a Roman
legal text of the same period. 1 need two different sets of hermeneutical
principles here, because in the case of the biblical text, it is already
part of my inheritance through the mediation of the community,
while the Roman legal text does not belong to my dynamic inheritance.
In the former I have inherited a sense, while in the latter, the text
remains cold, objective and dead. Therefore, even if an outsider
wants to understand really the biblical text, he should first “enter into
the inheritance” of the community. Otherwise the Roman text
and the biblical text remain the same for him and are interpreted
using the same principles. Here one has to disagree completely with
Bultmann’s classical statement that the “interpretation of biblical
writings is not subject to conditions different from those applying to
all other kinds of literature.”
Interpretation ( henneneia ) in the Church, as I have suggested at
the beginning, is not for a disinterested, objective understanding of
the text, but for the oikodome of the community. These are comple-
mentary processes. Interpretation builds up; the built up community
2. Event, the Hermeneutical Source of the text
In the Eastern tradition, the event has priority over the text.
The event of the death and resurrection of Christ is crucial. The
Apostolic experience of this event is being transmitted in the Church
in both written and non-written modes. Therefore in the Orthodox
perspective, a hermeneutic of the written word must always be inte-
grally associated with an experimental appropriation of the Word
incarnate, crucified, and risen. Since participation in the experience
of this event is possible by entering into the life of the living community,
the interpretation of the written Word must also take place in the
context of this experience in the community. The Church cannot
reduce the Christ event into “a linguistic event” or an “acoustical
event” 8 . The effort of Eunomius in the 4th cent, was precisely the
same — to reduce Trinity and Incarnation to linguistic “technology.” 9
8 Cf. Carl E. Braaten, History and Hermeneutics, New Directions in Theology
Vol: II, 1966, pp. 138-139.
9 The Cappadocians called the Eunomians, technologists, because of their
unbridled application of Aristotelian dialectic and sophistical techniques to
Christian doctrine. See Gregory Nazianzen Orat. XXVII. 2; Basil, Epist,
XC. 2, Homil. XVI 4; Gregory of Nyssa, Contra Eunom. I (Jaeger, t. 1, p. 38).
3. Tradition: a Hermeneutical Category:
The modern German philosophical discussion has taken up
‘tradition’ as a significant hermeneutical category, though the word
smacks unevangelical reactionary archaism in many protestant
‘traditions.’ It has now become a common place in all human
activities whether of science or art or religion. There are unquestion-
able traditions in objective and exact sciences. The most virulent
opponents of tradition gradually constitute a dogmatic tradition of
opposing tradition. The human community is sustained by traditions.
Gadamer would put it thus, referring to the subjective assimila-
tion of tradition and to the inevitable pre-understanding (prejudice)
provided by it: “We stand always within traditions and this is no
objectifying process, i. e. we do not conceive of what the tradition
says as something other, something alien. On the contrary, it is
always part of us, a model and an exemplar, a self-recognition, which
our later historical judgment would hardly see as a kind of knowledge
of tradition.” 10
For the living community of the Church, tradition represents its
unbroken life. Without sharing fundamental prejudices with the
tradition one cannot rightly interpret the Christ event or its biblical
testimony 11 . Instead of speaking about ‘the fusion of two horizons’
we will have to speak here about a single horizon which the tradition
provides. It does not mean that all hermeneutical problem ceases
when we speak about tradition as a single horizon. Tradition itself
moves through a sifting and filtering process. Tradition is not any
immutable original depositum, but a dynamic reality which interprets
and is shaped by interpretation at the same time. The verbs tradere
(to transmit = tradition) and traducere (to carry over to translate =
Interpretation) are related. Tradition is not simple transmission,
but interpretation as well.
Contrary to popular understanding, tradition is not a collection
of past events, texts and memories. It is that vital flow that meaning-
fully relates the past to the present. It is not a simple memory,
but a creatively interpreted memory. The memory of exodus from
the slavery of Egypt was not a traditional memory for Israel. It was
a creative and liberating remembrance transmitted by tradition. In
a dynamic tradition, the event, the text and the interpreters are held
together in a single horizon of “experiential consanguinity.” 12 The
10 Truth and Method: London, New York, 1976, p. 250.
11 Ibid. p. 262.
12 The expression is Bultmann’s Cf. C. E. Braaten, Op. cit. p. 134.
tradition as an interpretative process is open and oriented to future.
There is a danger of the formation of false traditions. When a
tradition is unable to interpret the original Christ event in conformity
to the Apostolic witness or when its interpretation is unconducive
to the olkodome of the community, or when its interpretation is not
creatively future-oriented, it is a false tradition. A simple use of
scripture alone to test its validity is considered insufficient. The
Orthodox Churches have experienced the formation of false traditions
in their historical life. It is the corporate mind of the Church aided
by the Holy Spirit that finally sifts the true from the false tradition.
4. Economy, a Hermeneutical principle
The word oikonomia comes from oikonomeo meaning to admini-
ster, to rule (one’s home), to accommodate. ‘Economy’ has been
used as a synonym of the Incarnation of Christ, and also for the
providential plan of God to administer the world . 13 In the incar-
nation the Son of God is accommodating himself to our world of senses
in order to realize God’s supreme providential plan of salvation. In
Christ the invisible and the incomprehensible has become visible and
comprehensible as part of God’s ‘home rule.’ Economy is a partial
compensation for man’s inability to know the essential nature of
God. But Christ himself had many limitations in his incarnate
nature. The subordinationist Arians had argued their point from
the Scripture by pointing out that Christ was in the form of a servant,
that he was ignorant of God’s total plans, that he had no will of his
own etc . 14 The patristic answer was that Christ was a kenotic figure
who had accepted all the limitations of sense-bound human beings
and who in his earthly life was hiding rather than revealing the
essential nature of God which would have been too unbearable
to humans in their earthly condition . 16 This hiding was soterio-
logical in nature.
Now this implies some hermeneutical principles. All human
language (word) about God necessarily bears an economic limitation
as Word incarnate limited himself for our sake. All human inter-
pretation and understanding are relative with respect to the divine
nature. Biblical interpretation also must take into account God’s
incomprehensible transcendent nature and his own economic self-
limitation in Christ- The incarnate word’s self-limitation was for the
13 For the various use of the term in Christian and Greek tradition, see
K. Duchatelez, “La notion d’economie et ses richesses theologiques” in
Nouvelle Revue Theologique XCIL (1970) 267-292.
14 See Gregory Nazianzen, Orat, XXX. 3. 15, 10 etc.,
1 5 Cf. Gregory’s description of the vision of Moses on Mount Sinai as a negation
of the real vision with a soteriological motif. Orat. XXVIII. 3, also see Orat.
salvation of the world. The Church’s preaching of the Word must
bring itsel fdown to the existential condition of human beings, and
inspite of its limitations, must be oriented towards their salvific
transformation. Interpretation and understanding within the Church
are not primarily meant for deeper epistemological and philosophical
intelligibility, but aimed at the salvation of the world.
5. Some Hermeneutical Relationships:
(a) Praxis-Theoria : In the patristic tradition theoria is the
highest form of contemplation and knowledge, the immediate ex-
perience of God. But the way to it is through praxis, rigorous self-
purification, self-discipline and through practice of Christian virtues.
In other words, the Church insisted on the constitutive significance
of the ethical-practical for the cognitive-theoretical 16 . Ethical
activity is the mode of right understanding. Theological interpre-
tation is simply vain talk if it is not sustained by praxis. (Karl Marx
had criticised the separation of theory and practice as characteristic
of bourgeois philosophy. Marxism also considers practical activity
as the right mode of understanding).
(b) Word and word: The human word (language) is always
validated on the basis of its relationship with the eternal divine Word
(Logos). The patristic equation is Logos-logikos-logos where the
first Logos is God’s reason or word, the logikos is the rational human
being, and the last logos is the human word or language l7 . Unless
this three-fold relationship is maintained human language loses its
value and becomes vain talk. In the Cartesian system cogito ergo
sum , being (sum) is derived from the human rationality (cogito). In
the above understanding, it is the inverse process; human rationality
(logos) is derived from the divine being (Logos).
(c) Speech and Silence: Silence is a hermeneutical category in
the Eastern tradition. An authentic vision of reality creates aphasia.
Ordinary language ceases to be operative at higher levels of under-
standing. A right dialectic between speech and silence is enormously
fruitful in interpretation and understanding. “Silence is a gift from
God ” 18 to be offered back to him. The apophatic silence is creative
of meaning. Buddha’s flower sermon or Sankara’s neti neti tends to
this apophatic silence.
16 For the close connection between knowledge and ethics in the patristic tradition,
see. T. Paul Varghese, The Freedom of Man Westminister, 1972, p. 67ff.
The author argues that the cultic, the cognitive and the creatively ethical form
a single entity.
17 Clement of Alexandria Protrept. 10; Origen, Comment in Joan 1 : 42. Gregory
Nazianzen, Orat. XLV, 2; Orat. XLI. 1.
18 Nazianzen, Orat. XXXI T. 14.
6. Symbol and Celebration: a Hermeneutical Complement
Francis Bacon, a famous modern European painter was exhi-
biting some of his more abstract paintings in a Paris gallery in 1977.
Since the critics spoke highly about the artist, a French television
journalist came to see Bacon for a directly televised interview. One
of the first questions the journalist asked was: “Mr. Bacon, could
you explain some of the reasons why you paint?” The artist, without
even looking at the interlocutor, said in a low voice: “If I could
explain that I don’t need to paint at all.” Now he would not respond
to other questions and the interview was cut short.
The inexpressible and the incomprehensible can be represented
through symbolic forms and liturgical celebration. God who has
no name can be praised in a thousand names. 19 For the Eastern
Christian tradition, liturgy is the context par excellence for interpre-
tation and understanding. Remembrance of the past event and
anticipation of the future are brought together in the present cele-
bration in the Eucharistic liturgy. My understanding of the gospel
narrative of the resurrection of Christ within the liturgical experience
is different from my apprehension of the same text in the academy.
In the former I share the experiential interpretation given to me by
the living community and its tradition bridging the hermeneutical
gap between me and the original event. In the latter, the academic
tradition I share may not necessarily possess the experiential di-
mension transmitted through liturgical celebration. It is perhaps
this fact that prompted a Lutheran professor like Carl Braaten to
say: “The act of understanding occurs as a miracle in the context of
We are naturally very much concerned with a hermeneutic of
the written text. But what about the interpretation and understand-
ing of other forms of human activity like music, painting or dance?
Historians of art like Roger Garaudy (formerly a leading French
Marxist theoretician, now converted to Christian faith) argues for the
non-conceptual mode of understanding as more significant than the
conceptual and the verbal. Criticizing the Western tradition, he says
that the west is used, since Socrates, to underestimate everything that
escapes our intellectual network. 21 Qualifying art as a hermeneutical
short cut, he deplores the disappearance of liturgical dance from the
Western tradition. In Greek tragedies, the choir used to sing and
dance to communicate that which verbal dialogue could not commu-
nicate. Referring to the movements in dance Garaudy says there is
a metakinesis , a direct transmission of the movements of the dancer
19 See the Hymnus ad Deum attributed to Gregory Nazianzen, Carmina 1.1.29.
20 C. E. Braaten, Op. Cit. p. 159.
21 R. Garaudy, Danser sa vie, Paris, 1973. p. 22.
to the spectator, both being tuned to a cosmic resonance. 22 It is
an unmediated experience of the movement of being, a non-verbal
hermeneutical happening. Using gestures, colours, odours, taste and
touch in a deeply symbolical way, the liturgy is a hermeneutical alter-
native to the limitations of conceptual and verbal understanding.
The paronymy between dogma and doxa (praise, glory) is very
much emphasised in the Orthodox tradition. Dogma had been
interpreted in its Western medieval sense, as a ‘doctrinal law’
( Lehrgesetz ) by Harnack in his antidogmatic polemic. Barth
understood it as the creeds and confession of the Church and disting-
uished the Word of God, the dogma and the Church. 23 In the
Eastern tradition creeds and confession have no value isolated from
doxa, the liturgical celebration. They are rendered meaningful
only when they are incorporated as part of the doxological act of the
Church. A credal statement or a conciliar decree does not become
dogma by itself.
7. Holy Spirit, the Hermeneutical Guide:
Theological hermeneutics is characterized by trust in the guidance
and inspiration of the Holy Spirit. “The Spirit of truth” is taken
in all seriousness as the source and pledge of right knowledge. The
Church believes that discursive reasoning alone will not yield truth.
You need the creator Spirit to lead you to new and higher levels of
understanding. An authentic theological interpretation is, in the words
of Gregory the Theologian (4th cent.), “offering wings to the
Spirit.” 24 The transparent openness and the etherial freedom in
interpretation and understanding come when we are afloat with the
creative wings of the Spirit. Referring to the recourse to the Spirit
as the right method of the knowledge and speech of God, the
I opened my mouth and drew in the Spirit, and 1 gave myself
and my all to the Spirit, my action and speech, my inaction and
silence; only let Him hold me and guide me and move both hand
and mind and tongue .... I am an instrument of God, a
rational instrument ( organon logikon ), an instrument tuned
and struck by that skillful artist, the Spirit. 25
This in-depth experience of the Spirit has become hermeneutically
normative for the Church. The Holy Spirit unceasingly liberates the
Christian faith and understanding from becoming dead doctrine or
sterile* logic, and grants the gift of interpretation to the inspired
22 Ibid . p. 23.
23 Church Dogmatics Vol: I, Part I, tr. G. T. Thomas, 1936, p. 308.
24 Orat. XII. 5.
25 Orat. XII. 1.