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Christian Hermeneutics: Paul Ricoeur and the Refiguring of Theology.

By James Fodor. New York: Oxford/Clarendon Press, 1995. Pp. xiv + 370. $65.

Fodor probes the possibility of enriching constructive theology through the textual hermeneutics of Ricoeur. He starts with the premise that for most people theology can be dismissed because theology seems incapable of dealing with the truth question. To put it in his own words, "The woeful lack of credence accorded to theology in our time is due, at least in part, to theology's devaluing of the referential import of its own discourse" (332). F. reckons that theology ought to be more than an incommensurable language game and requires more than Frei's intratextual meaning. It must give an account of an extralinguistic state of affairs. He looks to Ricoeur's hermeneutical philosophy to mediate such an exploration of the truth-telling or the referential capacity of theology.

As the concept "truth telling" suggests, F. perceives theology to be preeminently practical. He acknowledges the lack of development of a Christian theory of truth and finds the theoretic formulations of truth in the classical philosophical accounts such as correspondence, coherence, and pragmatics to be insufficient for theological accounts. As formulated by F., the theological notion of truth--as the end goal of reference--requires a community (35) and is to be oriented to the authentic participation in a way of life. Christian truth is "instantiated in particular forms of life, in specific practices, behavior, attitudes and ways of thinking" (62). Its truth as a practical truth is best reflected in truthfulness and faithfulness, that is, in the practical stance of a believer towards a person.

The notion of reference is derived from the German philosopher Frege and articulates the capacity of language to go beyond itself to describe a state of affairs of the world. A practical theology, focussed on reference, supposes that the vehicle to explore practical truthfulness is language. F. has turned to Ricoeur's hermeneutics because Ricoeur has examined at length the referential force of language. In the 60s and early 70s Ricoeur sought to fend off the structuralist thesis according to which there was no outside of the text. F. traces the development of the notion of reference in Ricoeur's writings as a response to structuralism. He then shows how subsequently Ricoeur refines the understanding of reference in metaphor and narrative. Poetic or metaphorical reference operates centripetally, forging an indirect reference. This notion of an indirect reference where language creates a nondescriptive or a nonostensive referent is fruitful for theology for this type of reference operates in biblical, if not in theological, language. F. succeeds well in showing how Ricoeur has innovatively married form and content in the biblical genres to reveal the Name of God as the biblical referent. This approach to the idea of revelation has been welcomed by a number of theologians. F. gives a fine and highly readable interpretation of this contribution to biblical theology.

This work is commendable inasmuch as it draws theology into a fresh and potentially innovative examination of its functioning as a practical discipline. But I believe that F., following the lead Ricoeur gives in his more recent writings, could have gone further. In the final chapter he applies the result of his analysis to explore the referentiality of biblical language in the quest for the historical Jesus. This limitation on the outcome of reference to what appears to me a theoretical issue in theology might have been overcome if F. had adopted more wholeheartedly Ricoeur's shift of terminology from reference to refiguration. On more than one occasion in his later works Ricoeur has declared his preference for the concept of refiguration, dropping the language of reference, because refiguration expresses better the capacity of narratives to have an innovative effect on human initiative. F. does not fully explore the potential of this terminological shift, which meant a move away from text to action, a move beyond the linguistic turn, attesting to the primacy of human action over language. The title of Ricoeur's 1986 collection of articles, Du texte a l'action, says it all. Truth telling in theology as a refiguration of human action and passion has more to do with testimony, initiative, and the practical competency to live Christian faith than with the historical or nonhistorical referentiality of biblical narrative. This potential of Ricoeur's practical her meneutics for theology needs largely to be worked out yet.
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Author:Van Den Hengel, John
Publication:Theological Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1996
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