About the Hermeneutical Function of Dogma in Vattimo and Noordmans




Prof. Dr. Gerrit Neven



In this article I want to examine the significance of ¡®kenosis¡¯ (emptying) for a hermeneutical dogmatics. Contrary to a metaphysical dogmatics, hermeneutical dogmatics functions as a guide. For the latter does not derive its principles from a purported divine reality which coercively imposes itself on it, but takes its bearings from traces or words of divine transcendence, the meaning of which does not come to light but as one feels one's way. In the Christian tradition this strangeness of God particularly shows up in the notion of kenosis. In the Christian tradition the word kenosis refers to the destruction and humiliation of God in Jesus Christ who gives up his divine privileges on behalf of humankind. I will return to this at length later. Here I will limit myself to the remark that this destruction does not mean the annihilation of self, but the complete surrender to love.[1] It is this absolutely anti-metaphysical fact in particular that prompts hermeneutical dogmatics to reflect upon the biblical language of transcendence again.

The notion of kenosis imparts to dogma and dogmatics a connotation that differs quite a bit from what these words are usually understood to mean. Dogma is associated with an authoritarian church, a centralist authority, rigid rules, and an inflexible attitude toward all that deviates from the doctrine of the church. In this contribution I want to show that dogma is not the objectionable ecclesiastical decision that puts us under tutelage, and that its content has rules for a language in which the generous in particular can be articulated in speaking about God. As the notion of kenosis already indicates, ¡®language of transcendence¡¯ refers to a language in which God completely gives himself. This gift of God already resounds in the first verses of Genesis; one hears them again in John¡¯s prologue, and once again in the gift of Pentecost. As it appears, God completely empties himself in various ways in his speaking.

For this view I appeal to two renowned thinkers. I will be speaking of the Dutch theologian Oepke Noordmans (1871-1956). In his time - the period between the two great wars – he was the hermeneutician among Dutch dogmaticists. Alongside him I call attention to Gianni Vattimo (1936-). He is a professor of philosophy and aesthetics at the University of Turin. In my opinion he is the greatest hermeneutician among the so-called post-metaphysical (or post-modernist) thinkers. Vattimo and Noordmans can legitimately be connected, because they have a lot in common. They share Augustin and the late idealism of the nineteenth century as their background; both think in terms of language, both think ¡®weak¡¯, both think anti-metaphysically, anti-speculatively, and anti-transcendentally.

What particularly interests me about these thinkers is their insight that from the outset the tradition of faith is itself attracted to the need for transfer, communication, transmission. One can say that this was no different for the period in which that tradition arose than it is in our time. In the discussion about the language of faith, its ¡®logic of transcendence¡¯ is what demands attention. This logic expresses the mysterious ability to convey exactly those things of God that elude description or definition: ¡®Das Wort Gottes ist niemals definierbar, sondern es ist die Gegenwart Gottes, die praesentia Dei. Es ist die Rettung, es ist das Heil, es ist das Leben und die Vergebung.¡¯ [2] At heart the tradition of faith is transmission, not the depiction of facts or ideas, concepts or mythologies. Its motive is the love for a communication that does not seek itself, but puts itself at the service of others. Both Noordmans and Vattimo recognise the conception they have of it they in the song of the Son of Man in Phil. 2: Jesus as the human being from God, whose action is a unique and one-time revelation in which every temptation to obtain the position of god in a high-handed manner is consumed by the love of God. In this hymn kenosis relates to no one other but Jesus.[3] Yet it is not only in the language of this primitive Christian hymn about Jesus that there is talk of kenosis. According to Scripture the God of Israel is a God who speaks, a God, who always works and thus shares his nature. Therefore God is sometimes also compared to an author who completely expresses himself in what he ¡®writes¡¯. Correctly John Milbank says that this is a ¡®kenotic¡¯ authorship: ¡®By his kenotic act of writing, [God] creates the world and human history as a present sign whose concealment-revealment of the absent God is the philosophy of man¡¯s free creative response which unravels gradually through time.¡¯[4] The picture of God who makes himself small as it were (or keeps quiet), in order to thus allow the creatures to share in his nature, is a familiar one. I particularly recognise that motif in the tradition of Jewish mysticism.[5] What I¡¯m particularly interested in here is the nature of this divine authorship, which gives people of all ages the power and motivation to become interpreters and explicators of truth themselves in their own time and manner. I ¡®m also hearing this in the words that immediately precede the Christ hymn of Phil. 2: ¡®Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus¡¯. (Phil. 2:5; NIV)

Both in its expression of the Trinitarian in God as Father, Son, and Spirit as in its articulation of the more sharply focussed incarnational of God in Jesus Christ, dogma is aiming at helping people – also people that are barely aware any more of their tradition or Christianity - to discern the biblical language of transcendence as an element of modern culture itself.


Vattimo and Noordmans

In the following I want to show what role the notion of kenosis plays in all this. I start with some more information about Noordmans and Vattimo. After that I will compare them under the headings of 1) religion, 2) hermeneutics and 3) the notions confession and conversion. The result of the comparison is that they are searching in their own way for a grammar of love over against the nature of western metaphysics, which is violent according to them. In this grammar it is not the desire to be ¡®like god¡¯ that governs but love.

I present Vattimo and Noordmans as thinkers who have both – one with regard to theology, the other with regard to philosophical tradition – turned around the famous dictum ascribed to Aristotle. This dictum runs as follows: Plato is my friend, but even more is the truth [derived by way of intellectual contemplation] my friend.[6] For Noordmans and Vattimo the order is reversed. According to both of them the truth content in a motivated personal choice is much higher than in a distant intellectual contemplation. Converted into the language of the Christian tradition both Vattimo and Noordmans prefer the sentence: ¡®the truth is our friend, but even more than this truth Jesus is our friend¡¯.[7]



Vattimo is an Italian philosopher; he teaches philosophy and aesthetics in Turin. He especially gained a following through his publication on ¡®weak thinking¡¯ (1980). In addition he made a striking contribution at a symposium about religion (1994). His ¡®Credere di credere¡¯ (1996) can be read as the confessions of a 'halfway believer¡¯, a title, which Vattimo now uses with fervour and with which he is paying back a debt from his youth, in which he had learned to exclude just those ¡®halfway believers¡¯ that don¡¯t quite belong. Vattimo sees the systems of church and science, dogmatics and ideology break down, wear away. They are replaced by modern, open communication. A culture in which there is room for differences, for diversity is starting to take the place of a culture of uniformity. This opens up the possibility of breaking through the taboo on sexuality, e.g., and opening up the way for a free discussion about culture, morality, and religion. It promotes ¡®weak¡¯ thinking. It is weak in the sense that thinking permits a unique and differentiated stream of information, which causes it to rethink the existing traditions of church and science, metaphysics and morality. Vattimo emphasises, it is often said, the bright side of the modern information culture. He is also called a cheerful nihilist. I think this is true. But this does in no way need to detract from the radicalness ascribed in this weak thinking to the ¡®otherness¡¯ of what is called transcendence in the Jewish-Christian tradition, and from the radically ¡®other¡¯ of the love in the first command, and second that is equal to it. The radically other refers to the fact that Vattimo brings down any grounding in a being that is in any way within reach of human thinking and action. [8] In his opinion the early dialectical theology of Karl Barth & co. has not or not sufficiently overcome metaphysical foundational thinking. Hence in his discussion with Barth it is not the radicalness of transcendence, of the ¡®entirely other¡¯ as such that is questioned, but rather the way in which this transcendence is envisioned.[9] According to Vattimo, Nietzsche and Heidegger are the philosophers who have changed switches in the area of philosophically thinking through the issue of hermeneutics and transfer. But in my opinion one must not overestimate their influence on Vattimo¡¯s own views about weak thinking and the essential religious issues. Their significance is that they are spokesmen of a culture. They expressed what was happening or was going to happen in the consciousness of many people. Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God. According to Vattimo, Nietzsche meant with this that the God who functioned as the tailpiece in a Christian worldview is dead. Vattimo feels there is no need to mourn this. For Vattimo Heidegger was the one for whom thinking no longer meant classifying and directing, measuring and organising, but 'Andenken' as Heidegger says.[10] It is a thinking of whatever one poetically or philosophically keeps an Andenken of – up to the very fibres of one¡¯s existence. It is something that one has lost for good that nevertheless intrudes itself into one¡¯s thoughts: as a trail of a trail. In his student years Vattimo reads the writings of Mao and becomes active as a leftist radical. He leaves this political environment as soon as he realises that political radicalism is no less rigid and dogmatic than is the moralism and legalism of the church. In the mean time he keeps talking with representatives of church and faith on an intellectual level. He particularly discusses Christian ethics. He probingly questions grounding church ethics in natural law. The notion of nature as it is used in words like natural law, etc., he now knows – certainly after Nietzsche – is a construction and the so-called Christian world view is a mythology that arises in a certain era and disappears in another. In addition studying Nietzsche and Heidegger teaches him something else as well. It teaches him that the spirit of the gospel is not exhausted in the historical form of the church or in so-called Christian thought, because the language and the thought of Scripture have shaped our entire European culture. In Nietzsche¡¯s proclamation of the death of God he also hears a legitimate protest against a tyrannical Father-god, and in Heidegger¡¯s late ¡®Andenken' the outlook of someone shows through, who once started his career as a theologian and rose up against the metaphysics of the ancient faith.[11] He sees a ¡®sign of the times¡¯, a portent of things to come (Math. 16) in what these thinkers are on to. A question that comes to mind is what exactly is the force of these signs. Do they have the force of revelation of God? I don¡¯t think Vattimo wants to go that far. To him Heidegger and Nietzsche are rather prophets of ¡®this¡¯ reality conceived differently. Their nihilism makes him feel hopeful. Their trail is a true trail, and to the extent that it points to something, one should certainly not refrain from following them there seriously.[12]



Noordmans is a Dutch theologian of Protestant origins. From 1903 to 1944 he was a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church [Nederlands Hervormde Kerk]. His great strength lies in the fact that like few others from his generation he foresaw, or rather intuitively sensed in advance that the 20th century would bring a fundamental turn in all areas of society. Not only in religion, art, organisation, but also and particularly in the (natural) sciences and its applications. The technology applied to warfare in the period of 1914-1918 revealed what modern science is capable of, if it becomes a tool to the will to power. He is sensitive to the apocalyptic fear that the world of human beings will be swallowed up by infinite space. However, he is not carried away by this, but concentrates all his mental powers on human opportunities, which appear to arise especially during periods of crisis. To this extent the Hölderlin verse cited by Heidegger and fondly quoted by Vattimo "But where danger is, grows the saving power also,¡±[13] also applies to Noordmans. A large responsibility is attributed to faith and theology with regard to the reflection on morality (ethics) and science. In his programmatic article ¡®Geloven op gezag¡¯ [Believing based on Authority] of 1921, Noordmans argues for a modest kind of thinking that shows striking similarities with the kind of weak thinking that Vattimo is defending. Weak here means: modest, because it is willing to listen. Hence the word ¡®authority¡¯ in the title of the essay. Listening refers to both written texts as well as to the unwritten stories of the living and the dead. Modest thinking connects the ability to listen with prophetic power, because by listening attention is drawn to what is new, to what has not been heard before. The words ¡®weak¡¯ (Vattimo) and ¡®modest¡¯ (Noordmans) touch each other in the fact that both abandon any sort of foundational thinking and radically open themselves up for possibilities that present themselves in time. As early as Noordmans¡¯ first essay – still strongly marked by intra-ecclesiastical discussions – he uses the Christian, in this case dogmatic tradition of the church in a hermeneutical way, which may be called striking at least. Not the unchangeable fundamental principles that always and everywhere presuppose the reality of being - as in Aristotle¡¯s thinking - are meant with dogma and dogmatic, resp. Dogmatic thinking does not reflect what exists, but is open for a quality that is thrown into one¡¯s lap as if from beyond. Illustrative for what Noordmans means with the openness of dogmatic thinking is his report of a gathering of people that had survived the concentration camps. ¡®A palpable silence fell in the bustle of the hall when the witness said that the spirit was stronger than the destructive power of the intellect. That spirit caused the starving to give up their last crust of bread to a dying person. The spirit–said he – remained alive in the camp and the carriers of the spirit recognised each other. They were not all Christians. They were nowhere near all Christians and also nowhere near all Christians were carriers of that spirit under all circumstances. But this spirit has a name in Christendom: agapè is the name of the Spirit in the New Testament, Caritas in the language of Saint Augustin, Love in our language.¡¯[14] Well then, dogmatic thinking frees the thoughts we have in our heads up for such words. For the sake of being open to such things, dogmatic thinking limits itself to a few critical notions - critical principles – which keep the horizon open for whatever announces itself from yonder side. Dogmatic rules are presented and elaborated in extremely restrained form, for the sake of the necessary observational acumen. In all this great emphasis is laid on the fact that language is the only medium in which such critical thoughts can be expressed.

Noordmans presents to his readers that theology seeks to connect with the future. People must be mentally [in their imagination] and socially [in their ecclesiastical and political work] prepared not for what once was but for what is coming.

During all of his life (he died in 1956) Noordmans kept drawing attention to limits in the presence of the natural sciences and technology that should not be crossed in developing and applying scientific insights. In his opinion practitioners of modern science themselves are the first that have the opportunities in-house to initiate the proper political and moral instructional apparatus for their science.

But unlike Heidegger, who is commended by Vattimo, Noordmans did not see any signs of a breakthrough. The threat of atomic weapons, ¡®cold war¡¯ and the like, so very palpable in the years after World War II, led to sharp images of the 'condition humaine' with him, preferably using biblical and literary characters. He shares the view with Vattimo that we can say little else about humankind but that it is ¡®but a creature¡¯, through which time passes like a stream. He also shares the realisation with Vattimo that precisely this human being, in its being in time, is radically dependent on transcendence: on more than human love that comes to him from beyond the boundaries of human knowledge and ability.

To get a better view of the relationship between hermeneutics and kenosis with Vattimo and Noordmans I will now carry out a comparison under the headings religion, hermeneutics, and confession.


Religion with Vattimo 

With Vattimo the most important document for this is to be found in the symposium contribution ¡®Trace of the Trace¡¯ (1994). This contribution is an engagé commentary on the revival of interest in religion. Of course there are numerous explanations that would make this revival plausible. Vattimo does not push them aside, but ignores them for the time being in order to be able to fully concentrate on the phenomenon of religion itself. His question is: are we witnessing one of those rare moments in which a human being is not sleeping but awake, because he is – speaking with the poet Hölderlin – experiencing the fullness of the divine? Are we thus going through a moment of ¡®revelation¡¯ in religion? [15] Is there any reason to return to the Judeo-Christian religion by some detour instead of radically criticising it? This brings us to the core. This religion contains elements that have led a retired existence for a very long time, but that now in a moment of ¡®illumination¡¯ rise from the grave. As examples Vattimo mentions the need for forgiveness, experience with one¡¯s own death and that of others, the pain people – always personally – suffer.[16] About the themes of sin and guilt and also about the origins of evil he wishes to say little. Probably because he believes that its sharp and special meaning has worn away within the older ecclesiastical doctrinal systems and theological thinking. What is important for us are the matters that show what position Vattimo takes regarding religion. I distinguish four of those.

 (1) Not the facts of salvation in Scripture are decisive but the ¡®primitive story¡¯ that arose on account of Jesus of Nazareth. Better still than ¡®primitive story¡¯ is the term ¡®original text¡¯, or, referring to Schelling, ¡®original myth¡¯, as long as one maintains a clear distinction between the words myth and mythology. Vattimo reconsiders the words myth and mythology against the background of post-modernity. He argues that modernity has not overcome the mythology preceding it but repeated it in terms of rationality and transparency. Thus one could say that at the end of modernity mythology perishes together with the subsequent Enlightenment thinking. Vattimo emphatically declares that this is not the case with myth as a unique and unrepeatable primitive story.[17] In the myth actually - in this case the myth of the son of man – every all-encompassing explanation of the world is ironised.[18] There is no room for indubitable evidences in the song of the Son of man. The I is being dethroned. In it humanity is reminded of its finiteness, i.e., of its creatureliness and at the same time of a radical event that points out a direction to it in al its finiteness and frailty[19] Thus the hymn says in original-mythical terms that Jesus receives the name above all names, and thus is once and for all removed from anonymity. Thus in Phil. 2 the horizon is marked out within which the utterly own of Jesus can be interpreted.

(2) Nietzsche has rightly said that there are no facts but only interpretations, only perspectives or points of view that people entertain regarding something or somebody.[20] But this does not lead to the removal of special religion from universal reason, as has long been asserted following the philosopher Hegel. No, there can be talk of removal only after the wounds have been healed, the pain has been soothed, death is no longer a horror, prayer is answered. Only then will the programme be realised that Hegel prematurely and forcibly proclaimed to have been concluded. ¡®When will that be? That is a question to which Vattimo neither can nor wants to give the answer. After all, no human being – thank god, one can surely say – has the last word. The last perspective is he who became a human being, who as son, as friend naturally appeals to human beings.

(3) An essential element in Vattimo¡¯s argument is man as believer: the paradoxical realisation that humanity precisely in its being-in-time is purely dependent on something that is not controlled by time, is fundamental. Only in its complete (thus unbound) dependence is man truly religious. The special thing is that humanity finds the reasons precisely in that pure, complete dependence to liberate itself from a past that binds it and keeps persecuting it.

(4) As longs as the need for religion lasts, myth as the language of creative imagination has priority over the logos, who wants to understand and control everything.


Religion with Noordmans

The Easter meditation of 1933 is a document comparable to ¡®Trace of the Trace¡¯ with Noordmans. The context of this piece is the pastorate of a ¡®village pastor¡¯. So it is not a philosophical discourse but a meditative assessment of a biblical story: Matt. 28:1-10. It is about the Angel appearing to the women at the grave and their encounter with Jesus the crucified. Nonetheless the thoughts Noordmans expresses here seem no less groundbreaking than those of Vattimo in ¡®Trace¡¯.

For a correct understanding one must know that Noordmans distinguishes three episodes in this text: 1) the earthquake with its effect of rolling the stone away from Jesus¡¯ grave, 2) the Angel who is introduced speaking and who averts the fear of the dismayed women – the only witnesses – and sends them on their way to a place where they will meet Jesus the crucified, 3) the encounter itself, the salutation, the warding off of any form of worship and the command to go tell the brothers that they will see him in Galilee. In his commentary Noordmans immediately notes that these women are in the process of becoming conformed to their Lord in their way.

I give a short summary of Noordmans¡¯ commentary.

It¡¯s a story that is not based on ¡®supernatural¡¯ facts of salvation. It is a story in which the power of the Spirit, of the ¡®transmission¡¯ of the ¡®earth-shattering¡¯ message already shows through. As a powerful story in a terrible hurry Easter already runs ahead of Pentecost. Yet the story begins with death and thoughts about death. The God of Israel appears to have withdrawn. Suddenly there is that unexpected event. An earthquake as a sign that the graves are opening! An angel appears that deals with the fear of the women and proclaims the coming of Jesus. Behind this action lies the motive of love that drives out fear. In the place of the invisible God comes Jesus – the crucified – and his word to the women is a ¡®mission¡¯ into life to become conformed to him there in their way. One sees this entire Easter story resounding with the tone of Phil. 2: ¡®Your attitude should be that of Christ Jesus¡¯ (NIV): the unique human being who did not desire the direct vicinity to God.

From Noordmans¡¯ entire description it is clear that the dogma of Father, Son, and Spirit underscores the ¡®kenotic¡¯ character of this story. It does not take the form of a truth that leads beyond this narrative, but of an introduction which presents the internal dynamics of this story. The entire dogma of Trinity and Christology is contained in it. The Father, who seems to be withdrawing; the Son – he, who is crucified - who appears; the witnesses who, compelled by the Spirit of the Lord, receive the commandment to follow this Jesus, who broke through the barriers of death and horror.

The women are as in a vacuum: ¡®immediately¡¯ they start off as they were told. They already carry within them the ¡®momentum¡¯, the special instant of their future encounter with Jesus. Their feet are lead in the way to peace ¡®in spite of themselves¡¯. They must still learn to find/taste the nature of this way, which will be in accordance with the way of their Lord.

They only develop the knowledge of this way of peace after they have received the salutation of peace and are sent away. In Noordmans¡¯ interpretation this ¡®sending away¡¯ ushers in a certain secularisation, because the love that leads them on their way, is no longer marred by an irrational fear. What we do have on the way of the women is pure dependence. Here this dependence is called grace, ¡®being graced¡¯. It is a source of new strength, which leads them right past death, so to speak.


Hermeneutics with Vattimo

From religion to hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is the theory of interpretation. Of this interpretation the technique of scriptural exegesis is but a subdivision. With both Vattimo and Noordmans it becomes apparent that the interpreter¡¯s exegesis portrays the truth from an extremely personal angle.  

In his hermeneutics Vattimo distances himself in a sharp way from a kind of thinking that conceives of truth solely intellectually. He chooses for Plato as his friend in stead of truth [as his girl friend – zie boven]. His choice is for Plato and not for the intellectual contemplation of Plato¡¯s idea. With a similar sharpness Vattimo distances himself from the pure form of the Trinity, which arose when an abstract Trinity of being was constructed behind the so-called Trinity of revelation. Vattimo does not give priority to - in the end - impersonal intellectual truth, but to ttruth which one chooses because it is personally appealing. He recognises this preference for the personal with Augustin, Pascal, Nietzsche and Dilthey. I¡¯m not going to explain here how Vattimo comes to his selection of this company. In all he recognises something of what Pascal articulated with his famous Penseé when he wrote that ¡®the heart has its reasons that reason does not know at all. [21]

In Dostoyevski he detects a corresponding preference. Dostoyevski has one of his characters say: given the choice: Christ or truth, I choose Christ [22]. Vattimo shows in his hermeneutics that this personal relationship to truth already starts in Scripture itself, and stands at the cradle of the apostolic tradition.[23] According to the text of the Vulgate, Hebr. 1:1 reads: 'Multifariam multisque modis olim loquens Deus patribus in prophetis...¡¯(¡®In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways¡¯ [NIV]), and he will keep doing that as long as the last word hasn¡¯t been spoken. In that speaking in various ways, among those many human voices the one voice of the Lord sounds. That speaking is an expression of a multiplicity of perspectives, which are able to arise precisely because of ¡®kenosis¡¯! After all God does not prescribe anything in a coercive manner but gives his creatures space to find their own relationship to truth. In reflecting on these implications of kenosis, Nietzsche¡¯s words on the death of God play an important part. In this case the word ¡®God¡¯ expresses an existence that is, in and of itself, self-satisfied. The God, whose name is connected with this substance, is dead. He turns out to be no more than a component of a worldview. And that worldview is in the process of coming to an end. For biblical hermeneutics this can only be gain. Vattimo explains this using the ¡®multifariam multisque modis¡¯ from Hebrews 1:1. One can read the ¡®multifariam¡¯ in a ¡®platonic¡¯ way and one can read it biblically. Reading it biblically means: learning to understand that within that multiplicity of voices the voice of the Lord is sounding without feeling the compulsion to reduce this voice to something. This leads to great freedom in interpretation. Every voice represents a point of view; every word depicts a perspective. This entire multilingualness is the outcome of that single primitive story (original text) of God¡¯s incarnation. Reading ¡®platonically¡¯ follows a rule that strongly resembles the ¡®multiplicity¡¯, to be sure, but yet differs from it radically. It is a rule one comes across with Aristotle and it says that being, i.e., the self-satisfied but unreachable ground of things can be said in a number of ways. It runs: ¡®Being is said in many ways¡¯. [24] This rule fits with a kind of thinking that has an overview of the entire world as an objective panorama. It has made itself felt from Aristotle to Hegel. Where we are dealing with the one, self-satisfied being with Aristotle, with Hegel we are dealing with being as a process that goes through modifications in the course of time until it is understood in all its aspects and possibilities. This philosophical attitude toward the being of things has had a strong influence on theologically/philosophically thinking through the Christian tradition. Vattimo wants to get rid of this. He wants to read the ¡®multifariam multisque modis¡¯ biblically. The fundamental error is that the pure logos as the producer of sheer thoughts was given primacy over personal language as the source of creative imagination with al its sensoriness and corporeality. Vattimo argues that we must relearn what ¡®hermeneutics of religious experience¡¯ is about. In the chapter ¡®Religion¡¯ in Beyond Interpretation I read: ¡®Hermeneutics can be what it is - a non-metaphysical philosophy with an essentially interpretative attitude towards truth, and thus a nihilistic ontology - only as heir to the Christian myth of the incarnation of God.¡¯[25] So the point is the word that became flesh. The fact that Vattimo calls the incarnation a myth underscores again that it is not possible to reduce it to a ground or principle of being. The story is the expression of boundless love. And the explanation of this story will consist of a number of perspectives in which interested readers interpret this love. In any case such a hermeneutics will display the following characteristics. 1) An ¡®ontological¡¯ nihilism. According to Vattimo historical data do not exist apart from interpretation. It is impossible to look for a reality behind this interpretation that might form the basis for it. 2) The interpreter himself takes part in the process of transmission. Assuming that the usual technique of interpretation doesn¡¯t raise special questions, this hermeneutics draws up rules for the interpreter: about how s/he is a participant in the process that is called interpretation. 3) This hermeneutic anticipates the fact that the transmission (=interpretation) of the text will retain the distinguishing kenotic feature in future contexts as well.


Hermeneutics with Noordmans

What is ¡®an essentially interpretative attitude¡¯? I pass this question on to Noordmans and I take a meditative contemplation on Phil. 2:5 as an example. ¡®Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus [NIV]¡¯. The context is the period right after World War I. It is a time in which the influence of Eastern religiosity is being felt – one thinks of Tagore – and stirs up all kinds of discussions about Christian fundamentals.[26]  Noordmans realises that it is important during this period to work on a hermeneutical theory that is geared to his own time and future. Noordmans talks about this in a meditation on Phil. 2:5. I here summarise his thought and draw a number of hermeneutical conclusions.

(1) The horizon, within which he works, is determined by what he calls the ¡®the great drama of destruction¡¯ depicted in Phil. 2. ¡®...he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross.¡¯ (Phil. 2:8 ff.) That word is like a hammer strike, like fire from heaven. But, says Noordmans, ¡®the burning heart that glows behind this drama of destruction renders us just as speechless and silent as Moses with the burning bush¡¯. (443) Pointing to the attitude within Christ Jesus overrides any political, economical and religious fixation. It cannot be a matter of foundation on any party or church political principles. Over against the radicalness of kenosis all points of view as an expression of conservatism are criticised. Any principle contrasts sharply with Paul¡¯s interpretation of this self-emptying of God in Jesus. He speaks of the ¡®reckless folly of the Son of God, who became poor while he was rich. Who laid down everything he owned piece by piece, relinquished his divine prerogatives¡¯. ¡¯Don¡¯t we get the impression time and again¡¯ he says ¡®that Christ is being buried in our dogmatics and in our churches?...Buried in a respectable life, yes even in philanthropy?¡¯ (445)

(2) Paul is an interpreter. When he addresses his hearer with the words: ¡®Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus [NIV]¡¯, he first applies these words to himself. That attitude that Paul wants to rouse (touto froneite) has nothing to with a religion of feelings or religion as a stream of experiences. After the depiction of the ¡®Song of the Son of God¡¯ in Phil. 2, Paul first points to his own apostolic existence, according to Noordmans. He says, he does not have the desire to imitate Jesus, but ¡®wishes to practice the righteousness, which is from God on the basis of faith, through faith in Christ.¡¯ From that position Paul has and finds room to be ¡®of one attitude¡¯ with Christ in different moods, with different insights and expectations. That relationship to Jesus - as one of attitude – makes him the great radical among the apostles.

(3) Noordmans also devotes an interesting contemplation to the effective history, the interpretation that Paul already gives of this destruction and humiliation of God. I give a short summary of what Noordmans says about Paul on this subject:[27] After Paul has first talked about his own existence, he says: the same is not expected of you. In other words: just like I am not a copy or double of Jesus, you cannot be a copy of Paul. In Phil. 3:15 he first points to Jesus himself. He is and remains the one that attracts. Then he says: ¡®And if on some point you think differently (heterós froneite), that too God will make clear to you. [NIV]¡¯[28] ¡®If I understand the apostle correctly, he wants to say that in the attitude that was in Jesus, there is enough room for different attitudes to life¡¯. ¡®The apostle does not require them to imitate him exactly. The phrase: ¡®if ¡¦you think differently¡¯ holds quite a bit of diversity. But what Paul wants is that the attitude that will carry and compel them ¡®be of one quality with what was in Jesus and what is in himself¡¯ [29] Like that of Vattimo, Noordmans¡¯ hermeneutics is focussed on what is to come and not on what used to be. The point is to find a quality of life, which one knows has always been lost anyway, but which for that reason is sought with all the more fervour. See Phil. 3:14: ¡®Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.¡¯

I believe that Vattimo and Noordmans find important clues for their kenotic and future oriented hermeneutics in the peculiar language of the dogma. Regarding this peculiar language of the dogma both also refer to the work of the Schleiermacher-biographer and founder of the ¡®Geisteswissenschaften¡¯, Wilhelm Dilthey. His account of the history of the humanities shows that for him the inner will to know takes precedence over the pure rationality of scientific knowledge. It is the purified will, the ¡®inner light¡¯ that in his understanding has the ability to penetrate to the truth beyond all particular truths interpretations (Beyond Interpretation). The religious knowledge one finds in church dogma, in the symbols of creation and incarnation etc. supply a ¡®grammar¡¯ in a nutshell of religious language, which is the language of love.[30] That view can already be found with Augustin. The true mark of dogma is its distinctive language, which by definition is the language of love. A will to know is expressed here that has, however, barely been able to hold its own against the violence of the concept-formation of science. Not the harsh categories of Kant that must keep empiricism under control, rule in dogma, but critical thoughts that help people on account of their power of discernment to apply the language of tradition to what benefits them: the need for forgiveness, coping with death, suffering, prayer. Vattimo can imagine a Trinitarian symbolism in which the suffering of humanity finds resonance. That language will always be the language of love, which is not blind but distinguishing, subtle in its criticism according to an ¡®esprit de finesse¡¯. Its sharpness is shaped in the language of prayer and confession.


Confession with Vattimo

In his Belief Vattimo, in a relatively small document, gives an account of his faith. It is a confession similar to that of Augustin: It is a personal account given publicly. It is a confession that elicits recognition and response, because it articulates something that lives among many people. For many – Christians and non-Christians – experience the church as an institution with a number of mechanisms that exclude people because they are different: homosexuals, women, the underprivileged. The motive or the ¡®drive¡¯ of the entire confession is the friendship of God.[31] That God is a friend and is close by and not an omnipotent authority at a distance, is a discovery that marks the beginning of a ¡®return¡¯: a way to turn back from an artificial sham religion to a mature faith. It is a faith that takes on the adventure to shape the essential content of religion in a new/fresh way. It is a faith that leaves behind a world of criticism and scepticism and spontaneously accommodates itself to the friendliness of God as he speaks in Jesus, or in the saints, or in a person that asks for my love. Tradition or culture or any kind of principle or law as such can never be the basis of faith. He knows one cannot find truth by revitalising the past – tradition. The reality that humanity ¡®originally¡¯ belonged to and is at times has pursued as in a dream is unattainable. So one should not try to retrieve this world through memory. Ontologically speaking Vattimo is a nihilist: there is no being one can fall back on. But Vattimo is a ¡®nihilist in hope¡¯: he searches all over for signs that point to the world he yearns for. In this he does not hesitate to use mytho-poetic terms like creation, kenosis etc. These words stimulate the imagination. They invite to the game of the imagination. Thus creation points to a meaningful and salutary event, which one comes in touch with ¡®ex nihilo¡¯, so to speak, though the void. In 21 fragments in his confession Vattimo indicates how this return through the void comes about. His views, discussed earlier, about how modern information society promotes such a return rather than obstructing it, I will not consider here now. I will restrict myself to three points here. The notion of creation, which Vattimo speaks of[32] – in most cases appealing to Schleiermacher – assumes an interpretation of scripture that – as Vattimo points out himself - is risky, personal, and cheerful.[33]

 ¡®Creation¡¯ leads to a risky interpretation.[34] This one can imagine when one realises that the kind of believer Vattimo wants to be has made a break with the sacral order. This break with the sacral, this demythologising, as he sometimes calls it too, does not leave objectifying scientific reason undisturbed either. To the extent that reason lends itself to give proofs of God or the reasonableness of faith, it serves a religious worldview that is no longer valid. This reason, too, he says, must be secularised.[35] For a long time it has been equally as violent as the imposed religion was, because it did not allow to shape their existence on the basis of their particularity – formulated abstractly, on the basis of their being-in-time. The time of this coercion is over. If Vattimo argues for a faith that has its own reasons that the head does not know, this is not a proposal to sacrifice rationality as such, on the contrary. Only, Vattimo doesn¡¯t bet all his chips on what has already been proven, but what is to come, on that for which there are no exact proofs. If reason wants to supply faith with arguments, it will have to empty itself until it speaks the language of the heart, of creative imagination.

The notion of creation leads to an interpretation that is personal. In his accounting for his faith Vattimo argues for a church that is friendly, like the face of God. He is aware of the unfriendly. He knows how people can suffer under the mechanism of exclusion because they are ¡®different¡¯. He cannot confess to a faith in which this being ¡®different¡¯ is suppressed. I can only have a mature relationship with a religious text, if the interpretation itself leads me into it. Text and content only become significant if I can handle them with my own individuality.[36] Only then does the Jesus of the gospel come within reach for me.[37] This means that after reason the holy texts - sacra scriptura – also reveal an earthly Jesus to me who is contemporaneous to me and my being.

The notion of creation leads to an interpretation that is cheerful. Among others I point to the 20th and one before last fragment of Vattimo¡¯s confession. The title of this fragment is: ¡®Che peccato!¡¯, ¡®What a pity! (literally: what sin)¡¯[38] In this piece Vattimo points to the possibility of a dogmatic way of thinking in which the confession is not in the way but is rather a joyful sign of recognition. Dogmatic thinking cannot be retrieving what is over and done with nor confirming what is established and dominant. This inevitably results in retaliation, revenge, and manipulation by people who have an interest in history accusing us. The dogma of the church only fulfils its purpose if it makes rules that help point a way past the injuries, loss, and destruction brought about in the past. What a pity? ¡®Che Peccato!¡¯ it says at the head of the one before last fragment. The superscription sounds like a cheerful call causing a crack in moral or dogmatic systems. The word has an ironic ring to it. It belongs to no scientia at all except to reason that plays. It aims to lighten the system that morally pegs people down on their shortcomings. Sin is what God, to speak classically with Karl Barth, passed over. It is actually out of place to use this word in any other sense than in the ironical sense of ¡®what a pity!¡¯

It is much better to pass over sin and to concentrate on the need for forgiveness: because time and again we abandon others to their fate; on the experience of death, which I experience with myself and particularly with others; on suffering that I cannot abolish, but that perhaps I can help articulate; on prayer in which the calm of surrender and the passion for the wholly other go hand in hand. In all this - in all these forms of confession, contemplation, and prayer, a kenosis takes place that finds its fulcrum in the song of the Son of man, who passed over sin in order to be a companion of human beings to the extreme.


Confession with Noordmans

I choose a meditation on Mark 1:15. ¡®Repent and believe the good news [NIV]¡¯.[39] One of the first sentences runs: ¡®We do not live by a ¡®status quo¡¯, by fixed circumstances. The nature of our knowledge of God is not natural. The miracle is ¡°the sweetest child of faith¡±(Goethe). It cannot be derived from what is known. It comes in the full sense of the word.¡¯ This coming here of course refers to the preaching of the kingdom of heaven. This coming includes a turn-about. The turn-about is an exodus out of the ¡®status quo¡¯. As such it does not come to us from the past at all. As with Vattimo this turn-about does not come about unthinkingly but observes the signs of the times (Math. 16:3), that are the prelude to the breaking of a day. (252) It points to the event that eludes the grasp of one-dimensional reason. This event is expressed as follows:

¡®There is something particularly delicate about daybreak. First it creates a suspicion of light. Then there is twilight. First it colours the horizon a soft red, before it sets it off with stronger pigments. – The way the gospel reveals itself to us in no different. It makes delicate and very fragile agreements with us, like Eliezer, Abram¡¯s servant, did with God. If the girl that he met at the well would say: "Drink, lord, and I will also give your camels to drink ", then that would be the wife intended for Isaac (Gen. 24: 14). (...)¡© Surmises count for more than exact proofs in God¡¯s kingdom¡¯. What Noordmans is expressing here is intimately related to an aspect of the ¡®self-emptying of God¡¯, that is, with a God, who does not reign as the almighty, but who makes things happen in hiddenness. The response a person can give and gives to this is more akin to conjectures than to giving exact proofs. In this meditation there is not a trace of the world perishing. It is indeed as if the writer reads the ¡®repent¡¯ as a call to return to and to be ready for a place beyond the fall: to a world to which we belong ¡®by nature¡¯ and which is announced to us here in the message of Jesus himself.

The quote more or less speaks for itself. If one compares it to Vattimo it is striking that with Noordmans the emphasis on the language of friendship and love is at least equally strong: a language that reveals the secret: ¡®as which someone whispers in the ear of his friend¡¯. It is primarily risky: it is in no way based on the status quo; it relinquishes the security that comes with established positions. It chances it with the play of language. In the second place it is extremely critical. The meditation betrays a keen ability to listen. It hears a new creation beginning in the words of Jesus and also sees this in the signs round about. The criticism is particularly articulated in the subtleness of love that does not take, but gives. In the third place it is playful and associative, which is shown by the playing with language and the many references to Scripture, tradition, and culture that are effortlessly, it seems, inserted into the meditation.


A Summary

In this study I have examined the place and the function of church dogma. My thought was and is that dogma has a guiding function in interpreting Scripture. The notion of kenosis draws attention to a boundless divine love: it is this love that is breathing in the texts of Scripture and wants to be passed on time and time again.

I worked out this thought by comparing Noordmans and Vattimo under the headings of religion, hermeneutics, and confession. I believe that this comparison yielded a number of convergences that merit further examination. I will briefly summarise them here.

In a hermeneutical dogmatics the notion of kenosis, i.e., of the self-destruction of God in Jesus Christ, is central. It makes possible an interpretation guided by charity. This language of love has its own kind of ¡®logic of transcendence¡¯. It is filled with an unequalled divine love.

It turned out to be well worth the trouble to compare Noordmans and Vattimo thoroughly. After all both are interested in the transmission of Christian tradition in today¡¯s culture. Both are searching for an exegetical theory. In the plan of both the notion of kenosis plays a key part. Noordmans puts all the emphasis on theological aspects: the emptying originates with God himself. Vattimo puts all the emphasis on the philosophical and cultural aspects. The focus is on human beings, for whom the actual practice of divine love functions as a guide within their own historical context. Over against a strained metaphysics both might be able to find each other in a ¡®grammar¡¯, in rules for the personal language of faith: the language of love.[40]

In comparing the two under the heading of religion, the idea of pure dependence emerged, a dependence that is pure to such an extent that it is a source of emancipation and far-reaching moral choices. The reason for this pure dependence lies in God¡¯s kindness to humanity, in the human being who comes from God, who is ¡®the son by nature¡¯.

In comparing them under the heading of hermeneutics the need for a theory of religious experience emerged. This theory consists of the personal participation of the interpreter in the process of transmission. It takes its cues from the one voice among the many voices. This hermeneutic (= theory of religious experience) can only be succesful if it lends its ear to a multitude of interpretations. Not the impersonal logos is dominant in listening to and weighing these, but rather the personal responsibility of the interpreter is decisive.

Under the heading of confession the motif emerged that faith personally/publicly compels to a confession: it is to be found in the friendship of God. Discovering this God is the beginning of a return. This return is not going to be an actualisation of the ancient doctrine of the fathers with all its violent and hurtful moments. Rather it is going to be a ¡®turning toward¡¯ what is ¡®coming¡¯, toward what the past can not take possession of. A ¡®self-emptying¡¯ is required for this from closed reason to creative reason; from the categorical judgements of reason, because they accuse, to the creative and transforming categories of the Spirit called love.



[1]I agree with the way Simone Weil articulates this, who, as quoted by Rowan Williams, speaks of ¡®the supreme integrity of divine self-effacement as the only way in which love can be received by us¡¯, Rowan Williams, On Christian Theology, Oxford 2000, 217v.

[2]H.J. Iwand, Nachgelassene Werke 5, 225:

[3]What God does in Jesus is ¡®intransitive¡¯.

[4]John Milbank, The Word Made Strange. Theology, Language, Culture (Oxford: Blackwell Publisher, 1997), 78

[5]Cf. G.W Neven, Schepping als profetie : over de betekenis van het denken van Franz Rosenzweig voor de christelijke theologie, Kampen 1989


[6]Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics I, 4, [p.1096a pag in Engelse editie opzoeken] . The quote is found in Vattimo, Waarheid, vrijheid en emancipatie: christendom voorbij de metafysica,  in Ger Groot a.o., Een zwak geloof. Christendom voorbij de metafysica, Kampen 2000, p.17.



Cf. also Vattimo¡¯s reference to Sjatow and Stawogrin from Dostoyevsky, The Possessed: ¡®But didn¡¯t you tell me that if it was mathematically proved  to you that the truth excludes Christ, you¡¯d prefer to stick to Christ rather than to the truth? Did you say that? Did you?¡¯ (New York 1966, p.247)


[8]Cf. Vattimo in his introduction to the 2nd edition of his Schleiermacher, Filosofo dell¡¯ Interpretazione, Turin 1985, 3; also Vattimo, Beyond Interpretation, p.91.

[9] Cf. the postscript of Belief, p.94. Vattimo there promises to return to dialectical theology at some future time. To my knowledge that has not happened so far. One could easily devote an entire paper to Vattimo¡¯s criticism of Barth.

[10]In the English translations of his work the word is sometimes left untranslated. Most of the time it is rendered ¡®recollecting¡¯ (= ¡®keeping in mind¡¯). E.g. in Vattimo, The End of Modernity, p.115.

[11]See ¡®Waarheid, vrijheid en emancipatie¡¯, in Ger Groot a.o., op. cit., p. 24.


[13] First line of Hymne Patmos, in Jochen Schmidt, Friedrich Hölderlin, Sämtliche Werke und Briefe, vol. I, 350. The hymn starts out with: ¡®Nah ist /Und schwer zu fassen der Gott./ Wo aber Gefahr ist, wächst/ das Rettende auch.¡¯ Quoted by Heidegger in his famous essay on technology, see Martin Heidegger, Vorträge und Aufsätze, vol. III, 28 and 35, translated in Heidegger, Martin, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. William Lovitt. New York: Harper and Row 1977: ¡®But where danger is, grows The saving power also, (...)¡¯




[14]O. Noordmans, VW.5, 544.

[15]Thus Christine Bernier in a personal report of Vattimo¡¯s symposium contribution. She points to Hölderlin, Brot und Wein, and to the autobiographical significance that the quoted words have for Vattimo. See Hölderlin, Sämtliche Werke und Briefe, vol. 1, 289. ¡®Nur zu Zeiten erträgt die göttliche Fülle der Mensch.Traum von ihnen ist drauf das Leben.¡¯


[16] ¡®Trace of the Trace¡¯, p.87.

[17]See, e.g., The Transparent Society about ¡®the recovered myth¡¯.

[18]Op. cit., 59

[19]¡®Trace of the Trace¡¯, p.85-87.

[20]See Vattimo, Beyond Hermeneutics, Ch I: The Nihilistic Vocation of Hermeneutics, p.5-14.

[21] Blaise Pascal, Pensées et Opuscules, ed. Brunschvicg, Paris, n.d., Pensée 277


[22]See note 7

[23]This is elaborated in the chapter ¡®Religion¡¯ of Beyond Hermeneutics. See also Belief, p.78 ff.

[24]¡®to on légethai pollachôs¡¯

[25]Vattimo, Beyond Interpretation, p.54

[26]VW 7, 441.

[27]O. Noordmans, VW.7, 446f.

[28]Le Bible de Jerusalem: et si...vous pensez autrement, là encore Dieu vous eclairera¡¯. Revelation passes from van Jesus to Paul and from Paul to the church.

[29] O. Noordmans, VW7, 447.

[30]Dilthey, Gesammelte Schriften II, p.137. ¡®Religion als Lebendigkeit schafft sich eine Sprache in den Dogmen ersten Grades. Solche bestehen in gro©¬en, gleichsam bildlichen Symbolen......Wie es ein Wörterbuch dieser religiösen Sprachezeichen gibt, so gibt es auch eine Grammatik desselben: Regeln ihrer Beugung und ihrer Verknüpfung. Diese Sprachzeichen und Regeln gehören einer ganz anderen Region als der des Verstandes an.¡¯

[31]Belief, passim.

[32]See Vattimo, Religion, 84, 85. About ¡®Createdness constitutive of the essential content of religious experience¡¯. With an explicit appeal to Schleiermacher: ¡®religion depends on an originary factuality that happens to be legible as createdness and dependence (in Schleiermacher¡¯s sense, perhaps).¡¯

[33]Belief, passim.

[34]A risky interpretation, Belief, 44, cf. 46, 86

[35]Belief, 92.

[36]For his hermeneutical theory I refer to Vattimo¡¯s work on Schleiermacher referred to in note 8.

[37]Cf. Belief, 61 where Vattimo speaks ¡®of the necessity of a personal interpretation of Scripture without which Jesus and salvation would remain inaccessible to me¡¯.

[38]Unfortunately, the English translation: ¡®What a pity!¡¯ does not convey the irony or even the joy that rings through in the Italian ¡®Che peccato!¡¯.

[39]O. Noordmans, VW.8, 251.

[40]O. Noordmans speaks VW. 9. 608  of a ¡®syntaxis charitatis¡¯ [syntax of charity].