Hermeneutical Circle: Inseparability of Theory and Praxis

It has become fashionable in some Christian circles to deride the need for theory or to disabuse the importance given to doctrinal orthodoxy as a poor substitute for living faith. Indeed, it is claimed that preoccupation with doctrinal orthodoxy leads to judgmentalism. Hence, the favourite slogan “From Absolute to Authentic”.

I think these criticisms are unfair. Do contemporary theologians view right doctrine as substitute for faith? Do theologians really offer their doctrinal formulations as absolute truth? For that matter how can Christians be authentic if they reject belief in absolute truth (which admittedly is fully grasped only by the omniscient God)? In any case, clarity is needed since contemporary theologians and critics differ on how the word ‘absolute’ is significant for Christian faith and understanding.

The criticisms are also misleading since theologians work on the premise of division of labor – theologians, pastors and activists are each leveraging on their talents and strengths when they focus on their chosen areas of work. Furthermore, it is a carricature to suggest that theologians dichotomize the desire for God and the love of learning.

A brief acquaintance with the works (both theological treatises and biblical commentaries) of Jonathan Edwards, Charles Hodge, B. B. Warfield and Herman Bavinck from the previous centuries would confirm that it is possible for theologians to argue with logical rigour and maintain spiritual vitality at the same time. I dare say the same noble tradition is carried on in the works of John Montgomery Boice, James I. Packer and John Frame.

I think the contrast between doctrine and practice is unnecessary, if not misguided. It is also a mischevious ploy when critics contrast orthodoxy and orthopraxis in order the slant the debate in their favour. I think the real contrast should be between orthodoxy and heterodoxy (heresy). In reality, faith is sound and alive if it is conforms to orthodoxy (right belief) and expresses itself as orthopraxis (right practice).

Obviously, we should strive to be accurate when we use words like theory and praxis, hermeneutics and truth, and paradigms and incommensurability as technical terms. I shall comment on some of the issues now and then. For a start, I want to elaborate on the relationship between theory and practice to illustrate why the demand to choose between them is unnecessary.

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By practice or praxis here is meant “the willed action by which a theory or philosophy becomes a social actuality.” It is true that the term is often associated with Marxism which uses it to describe the revolutionary activity of the proletariat in the overthrow of oppressive structures. But the term has a much longer history stretching back to Aristotle, who differentiated praxis from poiesis. Aristotle used the term poiesis to describe the production of useful or beautiful artifacts. But for him praxis meant the purposeful activity and reflective ethical action directed towards the right ordering of society. It is in this sense that the term praxis or ‘practice’ will be used here.

The relationship between theory and practice is a controversy currently associated with a theological movement broadly known as liberation theology. Specifically, liberation theology claims to have recovered the insight that primacy must be given to practice since action itself is truth and truth is at the level of history, not in the realm of ideas. In other words, critical consciousness and theological reflection can be authentic only when it proceeds from action. Miguez Bonino writes,

…action is itself the truth. Truth is at the level of history, not in the realm of ideas. Reflection on praxis, on human significant action, can only be authentic when it is done from within, in the vicinity of the strategic and tactical plane of human action. Without this, reflection would not be critical and projective conscience; it would not be a revision and projection of praxis as such.

David Tracy helpfully brings out the reason behind the insistence by liberation theologians that greater significance should be given to practice over theory. Accordingly, the authenticity of the individual is actualized through intersubjective relations and actions with other subjects in a historical world. Furthermore, for these theologians,

…praxis is theory’s own originating and self-correcting foundation, since all theory is dependent, minimally, on the authentic praxis of the theorist’s personally appropriated value of intellectual integrity and self-transcending commitment to the imperatives of critical rationality. In that sense, praxis sublates theory, not vice-versa.

Liberation theology has had at least this effect, that social practice is now widely perceived to be an indispensable element in theology. But the alleged primacy of practice is a thesis in need of careful analysis.

Juan L. Segundo, for example, observes how our experience of reality may lead us to view critically the received interpretation of our faith and to conclude that the received theology has failed to take into account important empirical experiences. By incorporating these data we are able to look afresh at the basis of our theology, i.e., scripture, and arrive at a more adequate interpretation of faith and theology. This new interpretation is to be tested again with what we actually experience in reality, thus repeating the whole hermeneutical circle.

Similarly, Bonino highlights the dialectical relationship between theory and practice when he writes, “Theory is a human construction abstracted from past and present praxis that in turn opens the way for a new praxis. Praxis incorporates a theory and challenges it by changing the reality from which it has been abstracted.” Finally, Johannes Baptist Metz emphasizes the need for the theologian to retrieve hermeneutically the insights of the past to ensure that the theologian is liberated from the tyranny of the present.

It should be evident that the image of the circle significantly qualifies the simple assertion that priority should be assigned to practice and that practice sublates theory. It would be more appropriate to argue instead that the point of entry into the circle depends on both the context in which the theologian is working and the division of labour perceived and undertaken. For example, it would be highly irresponsible to hide behind an ‘impartial’ and hence noncommittal theory in a revolutionary situation when what is required is immediate decision and social action. At the same time there is no reason to rule out the possibility that a different situation would permit greater consideration to be given to the theoretical aspects of practice itself. After all, even Marx himself emphasized that revolutionary practice must be guided by revolutionary theory. His point has been put in the following way:

The role of practice as a criterion of truth should not be understood to mean that practice provides a criterion of validity such that a simple reading of practice would yield all the necessary evidence for a criterion of truth. Practice does not speak for itself, practical facts must be analysed and interpreted, since they do not reveal their meaning to direct and immediate observation nor to intuitive apprehension. The criterion of truth may be found in practice, but it is only discovered within a properly theoretical relation with practice itself.

Given the distinction between, but inseparability of theory and practice, it is unnecessary and unacceptable to emphasize any one of the components over the other. After all, “truth as transformation always involves truth as disclosure; speaking the truth is never separable but is distinguishable from doing the truth.”

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