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The Art Of Interpretation Of Sacred Texts

Originally, hermeneutics was developed as an auxiliary discipline in the fields that deal with the interpretation of canonical texts, i.e. texts that contain authoritative meaning such as sacred or judicial texts. Hermeneutic rules were especially required when one was confronted with ambiguous passages (ambigua) of Scripture. Some of the most influential treatises in this regard were St. Augustine of Hippo's De doctrina Christiana (427) and Philipp Melanchthon's Rhetoric (1519). Since most of these rules had to do with the nature of language, the major thinkers of the hermeneutic tradition up until the nineteenth century borrowed their guidelines from the then still very lively tradition of rhetoric, for example, the requirement that ambiguous passages should be understood within their context, a rule that later gave rise to the notion of a "hermeneutical circle" according to which the parts of a text should be comprehended out of the whole in which they stand, such as the whole of a book and its intent (scopus), of a literary genre, and of the work and life of an author. Supplying such rules, hermeneutics enjoyed a normative or regulatory function for the interpretation of canonical texts. A specific hermeneutics was developed for the Bible (hermeneutica sacra), for law (hermeneutica juris), and for classical texts (hermeneutica profana).

The German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834) is a foremost example of this tradition, but also an author who points to a more philosophical understanding of hermeneutics in at least two ways. First, at the beginning of his lectures on hermeneutics, published posthumously by his pupil Friedrich Lücke (1791–1855) in 1838, he complains that there are many special hermeneutics and that hermeneutics does not yet exist as a general or universal discipline, i.e. as an art (Kunst, Kunstlehre) of understanding itself that would establish binding rules for all forms of interpretation. Second, Schleiermacher further laments that hermeneutics has hitherto only consisted of a vague collection of dislocated guidelines. Hermeneutical rules, he urges in Hemeneutics and Criticism, should become "more of a method" (mehr Methode). A more rigorous methodology of understanding could enable the interpreter to understand the authors as well or even better than they understood themselves.

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