Heidegger onTradition, Interpretation and the Future

Many theological and ecclesiastical controversies—perhaps all controversies—boil down to how the controverting parties relate to tradition.  How aware are they of themselves, their interpretation, and the tradition they are interpreting itself?  For example, the recent condemnations of the Federal Vision by a PCA committee display the ignorance to which Reformed confessionalism can be subject.  The committee members were blind to their own status as living, historically grounded interpreters of a dynamic tradition.  In my opinion, they treated the WCF as a decalogic formula, a-historically perspicuous and equal to Scripture in authority. 

What could the atheist (onetime Nazi) German philosopher Martin Heidegger have to say to theology?  He claimed that we are simultaneously free from and bound to tradition, that interpretation of (traditional) texts is carried out within the gap between past and future insofar as wee are free from the past yet also on the basis of the past—free for the future.  We set out from the launch pad of tradition, distancing ourselves from it yet always looking back to it as we trace the trajectory of our interpretation.  Future vector takes the past into account while adjusting it to the unique counter-forces of the present.  Put otherwise: present interpretation is a variation on tradition’s theme, an improvisation in harmony with the past yet responsive to the present historical, doctrinal and cultural context: 

 “If we wish to free ourselves from this tradition in one respect, this does not mean somehow pushing it aside and leaving it behind us.  Rather all liberation from something is genuine only when it masters and appropriates whatever it is liberating itself from.  Liberation from the tradition is an ever new appropriation of its newly recognized strengths.”

                                    —-Heidegger, Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995[1983])

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5 Responses to Heidegger onTradition, Interpretation and the Future

  1. Good observations, Bret. Have you read Joel Garver’s posts on this at Sacra Doctrina (a multi-part series)? If not, I highly recommend them. He is tone is extremely charitable, yet insightfully critical–a excellent model (in my opinion) of how these kinds of discussions should take place in Reformed circles.


  2. Peter Escalante says:


    It’s certainly true that modern Reformed, or conservative confessionalists in general, have trouble admitting their the partiality of knowledge, and its dependence on tradition. Schaff used to point this out, and came on for some criticism: as Sandlin has in Reformed circles, and Brian McLaren too, for similar ideas expressed in his “Generous Orthodoxy.”

    Heidegger does have much wisdom to offer on this score, and part of it he gets from predecessors (as one would expect!), Luther notably among them, who influenced Heidegger’s notion of Destruktion: this might be worth your looking into, since there is a great deal of difference between the hermeneutic approach of Luther and Calvin, and the strict confessionalism and proto-foundationalism of their later successors. And of course the hermeneutic concerns you outline were Gadamer’s life work.

    And lastly, I agree with Cynthia: Joel Garver’s series on the FV controversy is a model of reasonable, charitable inquiry.


  3. Dear Peter,

    You make a great point about the Luther connection with Heidegger. In fact, though I am a novice in my understanding of Nietzsche, I recently heard a lecture which traced Nietzsche’s “philosophizing with a hammer” image to Luther.

    Regarding the connection between hermeneutical issues and the current controversies, it seems to me that part of the problem has to do with one group having a more univocal understanding of terms and the other allowing for a more analogical understanding. I greatly appreciate how Garver goes back to the history of the assembly and shows that the divines themselves allowed for a good deal of diversity in what was considered orthodox. This strikes me as being quite consistent with the history of the Reformed tradition from the outset as R. Muller has so brilliantly brought to the fore in his work. That is, the Reformed tradition has from the outset always been a pluriform tradition with great continuity (and of course discontinuity) with the patristics and medievals, and this pluriformity continued throughout Protestant scholasticism. In other words, just as Heiko Oberman has suggested a relation of continuity (and of course discontinuity) between Luther and his medieval predecessors, so too Muller accepts Oberman’s continuity thesis in which not only first and second generation Reformers adopt the major theological loci of medieval scholasticism (of course there were differences here as well, e.g., justification), but likewise Muller argues that the Protestant scholastics do not exhibit a substantive departure from the early Reformers. As Muller observes, Reformed orthodoxy was by no means a monolithic movement. Both its doctrine and its biblical exegesis formed what Muller calls a “confessional spectrum.” Although in continuity with the early Reformers and embracing Protestant distinctives, Protestant scholasticism, of course, is not a mere reduplication of early Protestant theology. Hence, continuity should not be understood as an exact repetition, nor should discontinuity be understood simply as any change or variation from the earlier tradition. As Muller explains, Protestant scholasticism,

    “is clearly a theology both like and unlike that of the Reformation, standing in continuity with the great theological insights of the Reformers but developing in a systematic and scholastic fashion different from the patterns of the Reformation and frequently reliant on the forms and methods of the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries. This double continuity ought not be either surprising or disconcerting. Instead, it ought to be understood as one example among many of the way in which the church both moves forward in history, adapting to new situations and insights, and at the same time retains its original identity as the community of faith” (Muller, Post-Reformation Dogmatics: Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725, Vol. 1, Prolegomena to Theology. pp. 28-29). [Bret, Muller's continuity/discontinuity thesis also sounds very consonant with what you write at the end of your post].


  4. Peter Escalante says:

    Dear Cynthia,

    Points well taken. I don’t think that Protestant scholasticism was essentially a departure from the Reformers, except in method; though there were some fairly seriously unbalanced emphases among the later divines, which somewhat altered the Protestant understanding at the rhetorical rather than the grammatical level, one might say: such as the obsession with dictational inspiration, to the detriment of the original hemeneutic approach of the Reformers: or the obsession of men such as Perkins with soteriological schemata. But I am a devoted reader of the Protestant scholastics, and don’t want to give the contrary impression.

    Heidegger owes a great deal to Luther: but then, so do a great many apparently secular German intellectuals of the early twentieth century. Although this in some measure to be expected given Luther’s inescapable status as a German cultural figure, it is especially worth noting when intellectuals of Catholic background engaged him, since it is a sign of really deliberate conversation: they had to go out of their way to do it, as it were. Heidegger oscillated between a genuinely Reformational intuition, and a neo-Anabaptist millenarian one: Rickey’s book “Revolutionary Saints” is good on this; this shows not only in the ambiguous tropes of H’s politics, but in his hermeneutics too: the oscillation between real hermeneutics on the one hand, and a kind of oracular, private revelation sensibility on the other.


  5. Dear Peter,

    I didn’t take what you said as dismissive of the Protestant scholastics as a whole and can understand your concerns. Though I haven’t read the essay myself, my understanding is that Muller argues against Basil Hall’s interpretation of both Beza and Perkins in his essay, “Perkins’ A Golden Chaine: Predestinarian System or Schematized Ordo salutis?” But since I myself haven’t read it, I can’t comment on his argument. I just thought that I would pass it along in case you are interested.

    Thanks, also for the recommended reading by Rickey.

    Best wishes,

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