Hermeneutics and The Shape of the Future - Edited by Frank K. Flinn

Hermeneutics: History and Providence -- James Deotis Roberts

The writer is a systematic theologian who happens to be Black. The perspective of this essay, in keeping with a process of contextualization, will reflect the history and sociology of the Black religious heritage. The reader should be prepared, therefore, for major deviations from the general mind-set of Western theological interpretation.

Hermeneutics, the process of interpretation, is the means by which the meaning of theological affirmations are described and unfolded. Exegesis is concrete and mainly applicable to the biblical field of interpretation. Hermeneutics is more the area of interest of philosophical and systematic theologians who are concerned with definitions and principles of interpretation. We are mainly concerned in this discussion with how theologians work as interpreters of the faith.

Entering The Hermeneutic Circle

The idea of "a hermeneutic circle" is well known in Western theology. Rudolph Bultmann made good use of the concept. The New Testament faith was filtered through the historical critical method and existential philosophy. After the faith was "de-mythologized" and subjected to the fundamental ontology of Heideggerian existentialism, Bultmann calls our attention back to the New Testament. In a word, Bultmann's New Testament exegesis is determined by the existential hermeneutics of Heidegger. It is not surprising that many theologians take exception to such a limited approach.

Bultmann's program has been seriously questioned by Latin American liberation theologians with a different set of presuppositions. The latter are more attuned to Marxist social analysis than to existential introspection. Juan Luis Segundo is representative as he writes about the "liberation of theology." Segundo looks upon Bultmann's "hermeneutic circle" with suspicion. His goal is to filter the biblical faith through the experiences of the poor by means of a Marxist analysis.

Segundo is correct, I believe, when he writes that most of the history of Christianity has been in favor of the rich and powerful and that theology itself has been the preoccupation of privileged classes. Indeed, theology needs to be liberated from its "Constantinian captivity." While I view Segundo's reconstituted hermeneutical circle as a decided gain, I find it inadequate. His circle is nor holistic and falters on the side of personal spirituality. In several ways it does not reach out to the entire human family. Segundo notes that the Black theologian James Cone completes the hermeneutic circle along with several other candidates (e.g., M. Weber, H. Cox, et. al.). In my view if Cone accepts the limits prescribed by Segundo's hermeneutical circle, he will not be true to the African roots of Black theology.

Most theologies, according to Segundo, take the past seriously, but they neglect the present. Liberation theology starts from the present and looks backwards. The Christian religion he maintains, is biblical -- it begins and ends with the Bible reinterpreted. He writes: "... It is the continuing change in our present-day reality, both individual and societal.... The circular nature of this interpretation stems from the fact that each new reality obliges us to interpret the word of God afresh, to change reality accordingly, and then to go back and reinterprer the word of God again and again."1

There are preconditions for completing the hermeneutical circle. First, there must be a precondition that the questions rising out of the present be critical enough to force us to change our customary conceptions of life, death, knowledge, society, politics, and the world in general.

Second, there must be a theological assumption that a response to new questions is possible and that the scriptures are to be reexamined in light of this new situation.

Against this background Segundo outlines his methodological perspectives: First, there is our way of experiencing reality, which leads us to ideological suspicion. Secondly, there is the whole ideological superstructure in general and the theological structure in particular. Thirdly, there comes a new way of experiencing theological reality that leads us to exegetical suspicion, that is, to the suspicion that the prevailing interpretation of the Bible has not taken important pieces of the data into account. Fourthly, we have our new hermeneutic, that is, our way of interpreting the fountainhead of faith (i.e., scripture) with the new elements at our disposal.2

Segundo runs the thought of Harvey Cox, Karl Marx, Max Weber, and James Cone through his hermeneutic circle. Only the theology of James Cone, in his estimation, completes the circle. The discussion is based upon Cone's book entitled A Black Theology of Liberation. (Cone's God op the Oppressed, based upon an encounter with the sociology of knowledge, would have served Segundo's purpose even better. The latter work was perhaps not yet in print.) Segundo summarizes Cone's views as follows: First, Cone's position begins in personal experience and in an act of will. Second, Cone finds the next stage by focusing on the use of racial oppression. Here Cone finds a general theory which enables him to unmask the reality of oppression. This is put in theological discourse. Third, Cone seizes upon sources and norms that determine the questions asked and the answers given. Black theology is rooted, according to Cone, in the experience, history, and culture of Black people. Not scripture, but Black experience is the source of Black theology. Jesus Christ is the norm, but even christology is determined by the Black community's experience of Jesus Christ. Fourth, Jesus Christ, according to Cone, as well as God's revelation, are seen as participating in the struggle for liberation.3

Segundo has good intentions in his use of Cone's thought. He does not ignore Black theology -- it is obviously akin to liberation theology.

Segundo desires to overcome a devastating criticism faced by Black and liberation theologies. Western theologians charge that they cannot pass the methodological test. But Black theology has to be aware of its African roots as well. Cone is caught in the crossfire. In lifting up Cone's program, Segundo may unwittingly have done a disservice to Cone. It would have been better if Segundo had selected the writings of some Latin American or a Christian-Marxist in Europe -- these would have shared a common set of problems and a common mission.

Segundo's circle does not meet the needs of Black theology. It does not meet the challenge of the African and the Afro-American religious experience. It does not pass the holistic test of person-in-community. It emphasizes the "political" dimensions of the life of faith, but it does not do justice to the "healing" aspects of faith. Its focus is upon written biblical texts, but it does not allow for a considerable oral tradition. Segundo's circle places an undue restriction on the dialogue between African and Black theologians. This dialogue has already reached into the Caribbean and it will surely involve people of African descent in Latin America. Thus it turns out to be a disservice to Cone, a key representative of Black theology, that he has been used to illustrate a hermeneutic circle that is inadequate for a Theologia Africana.

A Hermeneutical Trajectory

A circle is whole, but is likewise closed. A trajectory is open, it "conveys across," impels, transmits, and is therefore a dynamic type of image. It is not a perfect way to convey what needs to be said and expressed, but it adds something vital to the circle figure. This is not an occasion to spell out a viable Black hermeneutic. I will merely provide a brief summary of what I view as its bare outline. The purpose is to indicate that we are not merely critics -- we are builders as well. A Black hermeneutic has much in common with perspectives around the globe, especially in Asia and Africa.

A basic characteristic of Black hermeneutics is a universal vision. In speaking of "universal" here, we wish to avoid the Western "totalized" usage. In most cases a particular culture in the West totalizes or universalizes itself. But in actuality the provincial is substituted for the universal. Enrique Dussel has indicated that when we set ourselves up as a norm and then expect humankind to accept this as a supreme worth, we are guilty of "totalization."4 Universal, as used here, would allow for contextualization of theology in each and every culture, whether European, African, Asian, or other. Universal includes all cultures, all ethnicities -- all peoples and all religions.

Secondly, human rights will be central to a Black hermeneutical perspective. It will include Jiirgen Moltmann's contribution to individual and social rights, the rights of the living and the unborn based upon the imago Dei in each and every person. But it must reach beyond the Reform theology's range of vision. It must somehow embrace the spirit of cosmopolitanism one finds in Stoic literature when they speak of a spark of the Divine Fire in every human. Human rights must in nowise be limited to those who are in a state of grace within the Christian Covenant. The hermeneutics must be seen in the light of God's creation in all humans, of all cultures, and of all religions. A Black hermeneutic cannot be hemmed in by a circle too small to include the entire human family. Hegel in his Philosophy of History, writes eloquently concerning universal history. But world history for Hegel does not include the religions and cultures of Africa, the ancestral home of Black Americans. Adding insult to injury, he treats Egypt as if it were a part of the Orient.5

Finally, we must include the holistic nature of thought and reality. A Black hermeneutic must be able to mediate between extremes in thought and life. Howard Thurman recently expressed to me his interest in "mysticism and social change." His entire career has been based upon the relationship between spirituality and social activism, mainly within the Black religious tradition. Other Black religionists may stress a different option, as did Martin Luther King, Jr., but not to the neglect of a powerful spiritual and evangelical thrust. This is the genius of Black religion. The theologian of the Black experience is charged with the responsibility of providing a suitable interpretation of this experience. The secular and the sacred, the national and the mystical, the individual and the social, interact and are held in dynamic tension in one continuum of experience.

Hermeneutics: History and Providence

It is understood that we will examine history and providence as stated in Unification theology. In this section I will attempt to state to my best understanding the beliefs held by religionists of this persuasion on this subject. The final section will provide an evaluation of what is presented here from the hermeneutical perspective of the writer.

According to Divine Principle, the purpose of God's creation is the establishment of a world family in which all people would live together in harmony and peace. Just as body and mind are intended to be one, even so God and man are to be one. The body is the temple of the mind and its means of expression. In the same manner, God and perfect man become one. When human nature is perfected, it is deified:6 "If perfected Adam and Eve had become husband and wife and had given birth to their children under the blessing of God, their children would also have become men of deity, inheriting the good nature of their parents. By the multiplication of these people, there would have been established a God-centered, sinless family, society, nation, and world in which all people would live together as one huge family."7

This would be the kingdom of heaven on earth. It is assumed that those who live in the kingdom of heaven on earth will go to the kingdom of heaven in the spirit world when they leave the physical body. The kingdom of heaven on earth and the kingdom of heaven in the spirit world make up the good world of God's sovereignty.

Human nature is, however, fallen. Man and Satan are united. Man has assumed an evil nature. Man as fallen has reversed the order of God's intention: "Fallen Adam and Eve became husband and wife centering on Satan and gave birth to their children. Their children inherited evil nature from their fallen parents, and became men of original sin and evil nature. By the multiplication of these people, a Satan-centered family, society, nation, and world was established."8 Now, this world of evil is cut off from God's love and is controlled by Satan. This fallen world was established on earth and is called hell. Upon leaving their physical bodies, fallen men inhabited a hell in the spirit world. Physical and spiritual hells make up the evil world of Satan's sovereignty.

It is obvious that Unification theology views heaven and hell, perfected human nature and fallen human nature as opposites. Against this backdrop, the only way from a fallen state to a "redeemed" condition is by means of "restoration." Salvation is "restoration." It implies a reclaiming of the original purpose of God's creation of humans. The providence of salvation is the providence of restoration. The evil world of Satan's sovereignty must be replaced by the good world of God's sovereignty. As a result of man's fall, God lost his ideal world. God never changes his purpose. He is carrying out the work of salvation to destroy the evil world and to establish his ideal world.9

The purpose of salvation providence is to restore fallen man to a state of perfection. It is to replace hell with heaven on the physical and spiritual levels and to establish God as sovereign. God is almighty and cannot fail in this task. He created humans as his children. He is their father. He feels the sorrows and pain of his fallen children. His purpose to redeem them is motivated by love. Humans have a spiritual nature and destiny. As an eternal being, man cannot be destroyed, even by God. God, therefore, works to "restore" fallen man. This is the area of God's work of restoration. Throughout history, God has been working to save man. His goal should be viewed, therefore, as the providential history of salvation.

Man has an original mind. In spite of the fall, man desires to leave evil and follow the good. God, the subject of goodness, created man as a substantial object of goodness in order to achieve the purpose of goodness. Man, even though prevented by Satan from living a good life, due to the fall, still pursues the good. The goal of human history is a world of goodness. Religion is the means by which humans revert to their original minds. The original mind seeks goodness in the world transcendent of fallen time and space, since it cannot be found in the world of reality under Satan's control.

As religion appeared, new cultural spheres were formed. There have been twenty-one to twenty-six cultural spheres which are now absorbed into four: the Judeo-Christian, the Muslim, the Hindu, and the Far Eastern cultural spheres. In order to have a peaceful and harmonious world, we must be united into one culture. This is the world of God's ideal. Cultures have progressed in history from rudimentary stages to superior stages. The purpose of religion is to lead humans to an ideal world of one culture. Science contributes to this development. Science brings about a highly developed civilization and can provide man with ideal living conditions. Since science has developed to a high degree, mankind is, externally, on the verge of the ideal world. It follows that when religion and science are united by a new religious movement, the ideal world will be realized. We can observe from the direction of religion and science that human history is the providential history of resroration.10

History is filled with struggle. All is directed towards goodness by the original mind. Conflict of views and selfish attitudes keep tension alive. Individuals, families, clans, and nations are at war. We are still in the stage of world struggle.11 There are two worlds: the free world and the communist world. This division is prior to the realization of the one world -- the ideal world. What we need now is a religious truth which will enable us to overcome materialism and usher in this one ideal world. The time is at hand for the emergence of this new religious truth. Thus the history of struggle points to the providential history of restoration.

God's purpose of salvation is to restore the tree of life (Genesis 2:9) lost through the fall (Genesis 3:24) by the tree of life (Revelation 22:14). The purpose of history is to restore the Eden of the original creation through the Lord of the Second Advent, who comes as the tree of life.

History must come to an end because God's purpose of creation was originally good. Evil cannot be eternal. During the last days, evil will end and goodness will begin. The Messiah will come in the last days to destroy evil and to establish goodness on behalf of God. Judgment and reformation will be carried out by the Lord of the Second Advent. The last days must be ushered in by the Lord of the Second Advent because the world is not redeemed. The reason for this is that man has not fulfilled his portion of responsibility for the restoration of creation to the Creator's intention. Apart from man, all creation reached perfection. Human history, therefore, must be restored, the Garden of Eden must be reclaimed.12

Critique and Conclusion

You will recall that we promised to do our study from a Black hermeneutical perspective. Furthermore, we found that this outlook upon interpretation has at least three basic characteristics which we have outlined: It is universal, it is humane, and it is holistic. Using these characteristics as criteria, how do we evaluate providence and history as discussed in Divine Principle?

First, we apply the principle of the universal. It is clear that the intention of the discussion on providence and history in Divine Principle is that all humans and all of history be understood by its formulations. In fact, however because the vision is East-West, the African-Afro religious experience does not come in for consideration. Thus we have a situation of "totalization" more comprehensive than that of most Euro-American religious visions, but not sufficiently comprehensive to be designated as universal -- including all humankind, their cultures, and religions. It depends upon the extent to which the revelation in Divine Principle is seen as final as to whether this vision can be expanded without doing damage to the entire religious development based upon it. This is a challenge which must be considered by the theologians of the Unification Church.

Secondly, humanization is a Black hermeneutical principle. It seems to me that the discussion on providence and history in Divine Principle does make an important contribution to a theological approach to human rights. God's intention is for a perfected humanity. This was to be established through fulfilled families -- a loving relationship between husband, wife, and children. This family idea is conceived as the earthly component of a redeemed relationship between humans and God as creator, provider, and sanctified. Unfortunately, the fall and Satan have intervened and frustrated God's purpose in the history of salvation. It is the hope of Unification theology that a restoration will take place which will, indeed, bring about the kingdom of God on earth.

It is on the pragmatic level that the thesis begins to raise serious doubts. I am not happy about much of the theology either -- e.g., conservative evangelical assumptions and the absence of a sound historical critical approach to biblical interpretation. When we are told that the four world cultures (the Judeo-Christian, the Hindu, the Muslim, and the Far Eastern cultures) will be united into one religio-cultural sphere, I become gravely concerned. Africa is left out. Need I say more! Then, we are told that science has a special role at this point. The association of the development of science and technology with religious advancement will be questioned by most astute religious observers in the West. Science, in our experience, has so often worked in reverse order to the quest for meaning, spirituality, and human concerns. Science is a god that has failed. We simply do not believe that advancement in science necessarily leads to fulfillment in God's providential history. The fortunes of science and the redemption of the world in God's purpose are not associated in our world view or theology. Should they be? Where is the evidence?

On this same point, the division of the world between the free world and communist world seems arbitrary. We Blacks and other minorities do not have a rosy view of the so-called free world. It in no way resembles the approaching kingdom of God. Conversely, we are not enchanted with any form of Marxism. Satanic or evil manifestations are too evident on both sides for us to see the kingdom of God emerging in either. There is from our perspective a transcendent judgment of the gospel upon any and all human economic or political systems. All human systems need to be examined carefully to determine what can or cannot be used to fulfill the goal of the most wholesome human values for all. Only in this direction will they point to God's providence and redemption in human history. Establishment of healthy families we embrace as a positive good. But even here, we must be concerned about how this is to be done and for what purpose.

Finally, we have spoken about a holistic perspective. It seems to me that much of the Divine Principle is seen in terms of dualisms: creation and fall, God and Satan, evil and good, this world and the spiritual world. I see this hermeneutical device as more Western than Eastern. It is on this point that Orientals are much closer to Africans than they are to, say the Greeks and the Germans. It is, therefore, somewhat surprising to find a holy book from East Asia with this mind-set.

There is an attempt to overcome this, somewhat, by asserting that humans retain an original mind in spite of the fall. This original mind retains a propensity in human nature toward goodness and can become a means whereby there is hope in "overcoming the world." It would be interesting to compare this outlook to Zoroastrianism which has a dualism and yet a positive view of creation. In the case of the latter group, this leads to a quest for social justice through human agency. But where does this blend of pessimism-optimism concerning human nature stem from? Calvin and Confucius seem equally involved.

It is just at this point that the traditional understanding of the incarnation should be introduced. Divine Principle, by asserting that Jesus failed his mission, dismisses the central affirmation of the Christian confession. If Jesus failed, the Messiah has not yet come and the world is unredeemed. Christians agree that the world is unredeemed, but the One who has come is the Returning One. He who has come is to come. Unificationists hold that the Lord of the Second Advent is to come to restore the fallen creation. God has done his part, but man has not assumed his responsibility. If this is the case, what assurance is there that the Lord of the Second Advent will find "faith upon the earth?"

We believe that the incarnation represents a serious attempt to deal with God's positive and redemptive concern for creation and humanity. God respects creation and human life. He was embodied in flesh for this salvific purpose. He entered history and gave it new meaning and direction. The cross demonstrates God's identification with our fallenness and suffering. The resurrection assures us that God redeems history. Thus between incarnation and eschaton there is a period during which God works in history, especially through the church, the redeemed community, to carry out his mission in the world. Eternal life, therefore, is a new quality of life in Christ. The world is being redeemed because of what God has done in and through Christ. This continues in the church, the extension of the incarnation. The Holy Spirit is the agent of God's redeeming work in the believer, the fellowship, the world. In the end, God and kingdom.


1 Juan Luis Segundo, The Liberation of Theology, trans., John Drury (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, 1976), p. 8.

2 Segundo, p. 9.

3 Segundo, pp. 7-25.

4 Enrique Dussel, Ethics and the Theology of Liberation, trans. John Drury (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, 1978), pp. 17-21.

5 Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Philosophy of History, trans. J. Sibree (New York: Willey Books, 1944), pp. 198-219.

6 Young Whi Kim, The Divine Principle Study Guide. Part I (Tarrytown, New York: Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity, 1973), p. 101.

7 Kim, p. 102.

8 Kim, p. 102.

9 Kim, pp. 103-104.

10 Kim, p. 105.

11 Kim, p. 106.

12 Kim, pp. 105-107. 

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