In lecture 3 of his Introduction to the Theory of Literature Yale Open Course, Prof. Paul Fry makes the following claim:

... the notion of hermeneutics arises primarily in religion first, specifically in the Christian tradition, but that isn’t to say that there hasn’t been, that there wasn’t long before the moment at which hermeneutics became important in Christianity, that there wasn’t centuries’ worth of Talmudic scholarship which is essentially also hermeneutic in nature–that is, to say concerned with the art and basis of interpretation.

What gave rise in the Western world to what is called “hermeneutics” was in fact the Protestant Reformation. And there’s a lot of significance in that, I think, and I’ll try to explain why. You don’t really puzzle your head about questions of interpretation, how we determine the validity of interpretation and so on, until A) meaning becomes terribly important to you, and B) the ascertainment of meaning becomes difficult. You may say to yourself, “Well, isn’t it always the case that meaning is important and that meaning is hard to construe?” Well, not necessarily. If you are a person whose sacred scripture is adjudicated by the Pope and the occasional tribunal of church elders, you yourself don’t really need to worry very much about what scripture means. You are told what it means. It goes without saying therefore what it means. But in the wake of the Protestant Reformation when the question of one’s relationship with the Bible became personal and everyone was understood, if only through the local minister, to be engaged with coming to an understanding of what is after all pretty difficult–who on earth knows what the Parables mean and so on, and the whole of the Bible poses interpretative difficulties–then of course you are going to have to start worrying about how to interpret it. Needless to say, since it’s a sacred scripture, the meaning of it is important to you. You do want to know what it means. It can’t mean just anything. It’s crucial to you to know exactly what it means and why what it means is important.

Is this an accurate description of where hemeneutics came from? For example, is his implication that the Roman Catholic Church played little to no role in the development of Western hermeneutic methods correct?

  • Unrelated note - I suggest this course as a reading challenge on Meta if anyone would like to vote on that either way. Commented Apr 9, 2019 at 13:10

1 Answer 1


He may be making the case that hermeneutics is qualitatively different from medieval scholasticism. Scholasticism is mostly deductive, chasing out implications or inconsistencies in received texts, but with a known result in mind, to validate existing dogma, whether that of canon law or of Greek philosophy. Even Abelard at his most radical, in Sic et Non, was only collecting inconsistencies, not interpreting new ideas from existing texts. Augustine may have done some interpreting of meanings, but those who came after him tended to follow the existing Patristic path that he had made rather than creating a new one.

If you define hermeneutics as a critical methodology for analyzing texts, then some skepticism and distance may be necessary for it to be effective. It was necessary for Lorenzo Valla to admit the possibility that the Donation of Constantine could be a forgery before he could muster all of the internal evidence that he used to prove that it was.

The new importance given to the biblical text starting with Wycliffe and continuing though Luther and Calvin probably fed the new methods. Most of the earlier "heresies" like the Albigensians or the Arians were not especially text based. The Protestant Reformation's ideology caused a new emphasis on the Bible, and due to humanist education, they had some new techniques to analyze it and launch a new type of study.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.