Markus Bockmuehl and Effective History

Can we fully understand the meaning of a text without understanding how it has been received throughout history? Markus Bockmuehl[1] says we cannot:

a foundation document means cannot be determined without reference to its original intention; but nor can we discover what it means now without attention to what it has meant in the meantime. Whether we like it or not, we stand inescapably in the shadow of those who have gone before us (59).”

He argues that we should look at the effective history of a text (Wirkungsgeschichte) throughout the church and this will give a clearer picture on how modern readers should interpret the text. Without examining this then we can not fully understand the meaning of the text. So what is Wirkungsgeschichte? He gives us three basic polarities against other hermeneutical avenues to give us a picture (61–63):

  • Effective History vs. Confessional History: Confessional history examines the “formation of the traditions of credal orthodoxy” but Wirkungsgeschichte also examines the “losers of Church history.” He says that, “the effective history of a biblical text includes the impact of its use, misuse and non-use–even if our ultimate aim is to shed light on its proper use.”

    • I think this is a helpful observation. Often times we comprehend an idea best when we read/learn from others who disagree with us. By looking at the “losers” from the past we can strengthen our own interpretation by understanding its misuse.
  • Effective History versus History of Interpretation: Bockmuehl states that we must see the difference between Wirkungsgeschichte and Auslegungsgeschichte (history of interpretation). The latter is just the “mere account of its treatment in the annals of interpretation.” Ulrich Luz states that the Auslegungsgeschichte is the “exposition in commentaries and theological writings” while Wirkungsgeschichte is “other media like sermons, canon law, hymnody, art, the actions and sufferings of the church.” Bockmuehl observes that this line is often blurred (even in Luz’s writings) because these two ideas are hard to separate, which creates a false dichotomy.
    • I think in theory this is an acceptable separation but with the caveat that we must realize in our actual interpretation we are likely not able to separate them. By observing how a text has effected the culture (secular and orthodox) around it we need a starting point of how it has been interpreted in commentaries and theological writings. From there we can look at sermons, hymns, and art in order to see how these interpretations were understood by a broader people.
  • Effective History vs. Authorial Intent: We are never going to fully understand the exact authorial intent of an author, even by using the historical-critical method. He says, “the fact is that biblical texts quite often had effects which went far beyond, and sometimes even contrary to, their ‘original meaning.’” He quotes Heikki Räisänen saying, “the phenomena and developments for which the application of a text was a necessary condition.” The meaning of a text takes different paths as history unfolds.
    • Understanding that the meaning of a text for modern interpreters is often different from previous interpretations because of an interpreters context, which can give us pause today. I believe it is important to realize that the search for the original authorial intent (in a narrow definition) is a lost cause. We are never going to fully understand what all went into an author’s intent in writing a text. By examining the effective history we begin to understand what a text meant and how it effected a culture and this “can exercise a corrective function today (63).”

Hermeneutics is a broad river with many competing ideologies that continues down taking different turns as history unfolds. By looking at these different turns throughout history we can gain a richer understanding of a text today. Wirkungsgeschichte is not the only way to interpret a text but is just another tool in the interpreters toolbox.


  1. Markus N A. Bockmuehl, “A Commentator’s Approach to the ‘Effective History’ of Philippians,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament, no. 60 (D 1995): 57–88.  ↩