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Essays on Biblical Interpretation by Paul Ricoeur

Paul Ricoeur was Professor of Philosophy and Theology in the Faculty of Arts at Paris-Nanterre, then was the successor to Paul Tillich at the University of Chicago. This book was published in 1980 by Fortress Press. It was prepared for Religion-Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.

Chapter 3: The Hermeneutics of Testimony

[Translated by David Stewart and Charles E. Reagan. This article originally appeared as "L’hermeneutique du temoignage," Archivio di Filosofia (La Testimonianza) 42 (1972):35-61.1]



I am proceeding directly to the end of this meditation by asking: What sort of philosophy makes a problem of testimony? I answer: A philosophy for which the question of the absolute is a proper question, a philosophy which seeks to join an experience of the absolute to the idea of the absolute, a philosophy which finds neither in example nor in symbol the depth of this experience.

I have encountered this philosophy in the work of Jean Nabert, the only one, to my knowledge, who has developed the theme of a hermeneutics of the absolute and of testimony.1 The pages which follow are inspired by this work, to the reading of which are joined semantic, epistemological, and exegetical preoccupations of the most personal character.

A Philosophy for Which the Question of the Absolute is a Proper Question.

Testimony should be a philosophical problem and not limited to legal or historical contexts where it refers to the account of a witness who reports what he has seen. The term testimony should be applied to words, works, actions, and to lives which attest to an intention, an inspiration, an idea at the heart of experience and history which nonetheless transcend experience and history. The philosophical problem of testimony is the problem of the testimony of the absolute or, better, of absolute testimony of the absolute. The question is only proper if the absolute makes sense for consciousness. But it makes sense beyond the critique of the ontological argument and proofs of the existence of God, beyond the debacle of onto-theology, if reflection, by an asceticism as intellectual as moral, is susceptible of elevating self-consciousness to an "original affirmation" which is truly an absolute affirmation of the absolute.

A Philosophy Which Seeks to join an Experience of the Absolute to the Idea of the Absolute.

Original affirmation has all the characteristics of an absolute affirmation of the absolute, but it will neither be able to go beyond a purely internal act not susceptible of being expressed externally, nor even of being maintained internally. Original affirmation has something of the indefinitely inaugural about it, and only concerns the idea that the self makes of itself. This original affirmation, for a reflexive philosophy, is in no sense an experience. Although numerically identical with real consciousness in each person, it is the act which accomplishes the negation of the limitations which affect individual destiny. It is divestment (depouillement).2 It is by this "divestment" that reflection is brought to the encounter with contingent signs that the absolute, in its generosity, allows to appear of itself. This divestment (depouillement) is not only ethical but speculative; it is when the thought of the unconditioned has lost all support in the transcendent objects of metaphysics, when it has renounced all the objectifications that understanding imposes. It is then that the claim of the absolute, reduced to the depth of an act immanent to each of our operations, remains steady for something like an experience of the absolute in testimony.

A Philosophy Which Finds Neither in Example nor in Symbol the Depth of this Experience.

Why, in fact, does not the example fulfill this role of an experience of the absolute? In Kant, does not the "sublime" offer us the model of a veneration which proceeds through the exemplary action of a few heroes of the moral life toward the very source of these eminent acts? For at least two reasons, the notion of example falls short of that of testimony.

In the exemplary action, the case gives way to the rule, the individual to the law. Consciousness is only increased by itself and by the norm that it already implies. The "exemplarity" of the example does not constitute a manifestation of original affirmation.

More seriously, the examples of moral sublimity attach our veneration to the order of morality. But the encounter of evil, in us and outside of us, opens under us not the abyss of the unjustifiable, i.e., the abyss of that which makes an exception of every attempt at justification, not only by the norm but by the failure of the norm. The unjustifiable forces a giving up of every cupido sciendi, which bears reflection to the very threshold of theodicy. This ultimate divestment (depouillement) disposes reflection to receive the meaning of events or perfectly contingent acts which would attest that the unjustifiable is overcome here and now. This attestation could not be reduced to the illustration of these norms that the unjustifiable has placed in confusion; the avowal of evil waits for our regeneration more than the examples of sublimity. It waits for words and especially actions which would be absolute actions in the sense that the root of the unjustifiable will be there manifestly and visibly uprooted.

The same reasons which leave the example short of testimony also indicate the distance from symbol to testimony. The example is historic but is obliterated as the case before the rule. The symbol is not obliterated so easily; its double meaning, its opacity, renders it inexhaustible and causes it never to cease giving rise to thought. But it lacks — or can lack — historic density; its meaning matters more than its historicity. As such it constitutes instead a category of the productive imagination. Absolute testimony, on the contrary, in concrete singularity gives a caution to the truth without which its authority remains in suspense. Testimony, each time singular, confers the sanction of reality on ideas, ideals, and modes of being that the symbol depicts and discovers for us only as our most personal possibilities.

But we immediately see the enormity of the paradox that the philosophy of testimony evokes. "Does one have the right," Nabert asks us in L’Essai sur le mal, "to invest with an absolute character a moment of history?"3 How, in fact, are we to conjoin the interiority of primary affirmation and the exteriority of acts and of existences that are said to give testimony of the absolute? This is the paradox that a hermeneutics of testimony sets itself to resolve.

We will follow the following order. In the second part we will start with the ordinary notion of testimony and apply to it the methods of semantic analysis. We will thus be forced to limit the conditions of meaning without which we cannot speak of testimony. These conditions of meaning cannot be abolished but must be retained in the ultimate concept of absolute testimony.

In the third part we will have recourse to the exegesis of testimony in the biblical prophets and in the New Testament. We will be forced by this new method to give an account of the change of meaning by which we pass from the ordinary sense of testimony to the prophetic and kerygmatic sense. But we will ask ourselves at the same time if and how the conditions of meaning which delimit the ordinary notion of testimony are recaptured in this new signification.

In the fourth part we will return, armed with this dual analysis, to the initial paradox which has set this inquiry in motion, and we will define the philosophical hermeneutics of testimony which has given its title to this essay. The central theme of this will be the combining of primary affirmation with testimony under the heading of interpretation.


Ordinary language carries with it conditions of meaning which it is easy to recognize by classifying the contexts in which the expression is employed in a meaningful manner.

1) Testimony has at first a quasi-empirical meaning; it designates the action of testifying, that is, of relating what one has seen or heard. The witness is the author of this action; it is he who, having seen or understood, makes a report of the event. Thus we can speak of the eyewitness or firsthand witness. This first trait anchors all the other meanings in a quasi-empirical sphere. I say quasi-empirical because testimony is not perception itself but the report, that is, the story, the narration of the event. It consequently transfers things seen to the level of things said. This transfer has an important implication at the level of communication. Testimony is a dual relation: there is the one who testifies and the one who hears the testimony. The witness has seen, but the one who receives his testimony has not seen but hears. It is only by hearing the testimony that he can believe or not believe in the reality of the facts that the witness reports. Testimony as story is thus found in an intermediary position between a statement made by a person and a belief assumed by another on the faith of the testimony of the first.

It is not only from one meaning to another — from seeing to understanding that the event is conveyed by testimony; testimony is at the service of judgment. The statement and the story constitute information on the basis of which one forms an opinion about a sequence of events, the connection of an action, the motives for the act, the character of the person, in short on the meaning of what has happened. Testimony is that on which we rely to think that . . . , to estimate that . . . , in short to judge. Testimony wants to justify, to prove the good basis of an assertion which, beyond the fact, claims to attain its meaning.

The eyewitness character of testimony, therefore, never suffices to constitute its meaning as testimony. It is necessary that there be not only a statement but an account of a fact serving to prove an opinion or a truth. Even in the case of the so-called "testimony of the senses," this counts as "testimony" only if it is used to support a judgment which goes beyond the mere recording of facts. In this regard testimony gives rise to what Eric Weil calls the "judiciary."

2) In what circumstances do we give and listen to testimony? In a situation of characteristic discourse which is susceptible of literal or analogical interpretations. This situation is the trial.

We do not call every report about a fact, an event, or a person "testimony." The action of testifying has an intimate relation to an institution — the judiciary; a place — the court; a social function — the lawyer, the judge; an action — to plead, that is, to be plaintiff or defendant in a trial. Testimony is one of the proofs that the prosecution or the defense advances with a view to influencing the decision of the judge.

Thus testimony makes reference to a trial, that is, to a legal action including charges and defense and calling for a judicial decision which settles a dispute between two or several parties. This reference is expressed in the grammar of the verb "testify": to testify is to attest that. . . But it is also to testify for . . . , or in favor of. . . ; the witness gives a deposition. He gives it "before" the court. The solemnity of testimony is eventually enhanced and sanctified by a special ritual of swearing or of promising which qualifies as testimony the declaration of the witness.

These diverse traits are susceptible to an analogical generalization which contributes to establishing the meaning of the words "witness" and "testimony’’ in ordinary language. In fact, legal discourse serves as model for situations less codified by social ritual but in which we can recognize the fundamental traits of the trial.

a) Notice first the idea of suit and party. We only give testimony where there is a dispute between parties who plead one against the other and thus it involves a trial. This is why testimony always arises as proof for or against — for or against parties and their claims. This notion of suit and of parties is eminently generalizable. It extends to all situations in which a judgment or a decision can be made only at the end of a debate or confrontation between adverse opinions and conflicting points of view. But most human situations are like this. We cannot claim to have certainty but only probability, and the probable is only pursued through a struggle of opinion.

One of the most remarkable applications of this first idea concerns history, historical science. We sometimes label as testimony not only the personal report generally written, made by eyewitnesses of the events in question, but all kinds of pertinent documents to the extent that these documents are capable of furnishing arguments for or against a particular thesis. It is thus always with reference to a dispute between conflicting opinions that a document takes on the value of testimony. Testimony here is not a specific category of the historical method, it is a characteristic and instructive transposition of an eminently juridical concept which here attests to its power of generalization. This transfer of the juridical to the historical underscores several historical traits of the juridical concept itself, in particular, the dual notion of an event that the witness relates and of a story which is his testimony. Thus there occurs an exchange between the juridical and the historical traits of testimony.

b) A second fundamental trait of the trial concerns the very notion of the decision of justice. This juridical coloration of judgment is important to qualify testimony. The testimony which constitutes it has as its aim an act which decides in favor of. . . , which condemns or acquits, which confers or recognizes a right, which decides between two claims. The generalizable trait of legal judgment has been characterized by Hart in an important article, ‘‘The Ascription of Responsibility and Rights."4 With the term ascription, built on the model of description, Hart focuses on a remarkable character of juridical statements: they can be contested, either by denying alleged facts or by invoking circumstances which can weaken, alternate, even annul the claim of a right or the accusation of a crime. Hart labels this effect on the claim or accusation to defeat, and he labels defeasible the character of legal judgment of being susceptible to this kind of argument and failure. This leads him to say that actions which can be ascribed are also defeasible, susceptible of being invalidated, abrogated. The character of being able to be invalidated is not secondary; it is the touchstone of legal reasoning and judgment itself. It is this characteristic which is implicit in the decisional, active, and voluntary aspect of the judgment which settles. Let us therefore say th4t verbal testimony is used to put in play the difference between descriptive and ascriptive discourse. Testimony always occurs as the support for a right of. . . .

c) A third trait concerns testimony itself to the extent that it is a kind of proof which comes to be entered between the dispute and the judicial decision. As such, testimony is an element in a treatise on argumentation.

It is under this heading that Aristotle considers it in the first part of the Rhetoric devoted to "proofs" (pisteis), that is, the means of persuasion used in the deliberative mode, in the judicial mode, and in the epidictic mode (praise, panegyric). The logic of testimony is thus framed by rhetoric considered as "counterpart" (antistrophos) of dialectic.5 But dialectic is the logic of only probable reasoning, that is, the majority of which contains truths of opinion agreed to by most men and most often. The "persuasive" as such (pithanon), which defines rhetorical technique, is therefore correlative only to the probable mode of dialectical reasoning. Thus the epistemological level proper is recognized to which judicial proof belongs: not the necessary but the probable. To this characteristic of the probable Aristotle links a trait that we have already encountered: rhetoric, he says, enables one to "persuade the opposition," not that the orator ought to plead indifferently for or against, but if he undertakes to persuade the listeners or the judge of something, he must anticipate the argument of his adversary in order to refute it.

But rhetoric is not to be confused with dialectic: the techniques of persuasion, in fact, cannot be reduced to the art of proof; they take into consideration the dispositions of the audience and the character of the orator. At the same time they mix moral proofs with logical proofs. This trait is unavoidable and irreducible if we consider that in the three situations of discourse under consideration — to accuse and defend before a court, to advise a meeting, to praise or blame. Argumentation keeps the audience in mind and is directed toward a judgment: "the object of rhetoric is judgment" (henekacriseos)6 and "refers to the hearer" (pros ton akroaten)7 With the audience and with the judge arise passions to excite and dispositions to arouse. Testimony is thus caught in the network of proof and persuasion (the root is the same in Greek, pistis-pistuein) characteristic of the properly rhetorical level of discourse.

As for testimony itself, we can be surprised at the little credit Aristotle gives to it. He places it among the "non-technical" proofs, that is, external to arguments that the orator himself invents. Non-technical proofs are not invented by the orator, they pre-exist his action: laws, witnesses contracts, tortures, oaths.8

We can explain in the following way this apparently minimizing treatment of testimony. First, Aristotle has in mind, under the heading of "witnesses" (martures) not narrators of things seen so much as moral authorities appealed to by the orator. This sort of argument from authority is indeed an argument exterior to the cause but susceptible of contributing to the decision of the judge. The witnesses referred to are in fact at first poets or illustrious men whose judgments are publicly recognized, speakers of oracles, and authors of proverbs. These "ancient" witnesses are more worthy of belief than "recent" witnesses of whom some "share the danger," that is, the risks of the trial, and are prejudiced in favor of one of the parties. This reasoning of Aristotle displaces the credibility of testimony to that of the witness and reveals an important trait to which we are going to return: the quality of the witness, his good faith that a logic of testimony cannot do without. But it follows from this that the orator who "uses" testimony, who puts forward someone as a witness, is not master. Besides, in a rhetoric ruled by a logic, testimony even conceived as a relation of transpired facts, occupies necessarily an inferior place, for it shows the dependence of the judgment and of the judge with regard to something exterior: on the first level, the things spoken by another, and on the second, things seen by him. This is why Aristotle tries as much as possible to link the logic of testimony to the logic of argumentation by insisting on the criteria of probability which can be applied to it. In this way non-technical proofs are coordinated to technical proofs which remain the principal axis of a trait of argumentation. But the exteriority of testimony is what keeps it among non-technical proofs. This is not unimportant for our research; it is precisely the exteriority of testimony which will cause problems for a hermeneutics.

3) Neither the quasi-empirical meaning nor the quasi-juridical sense exhausts the ordinary use of the word testimony. Another dimension is discovered when the accent is displaced from testimony-proof toward the witness and his act. The witness, in fact, is not only the one who utters testimony; the problem of the witness constitutes a distinct problem which arises in certain aspects of testimony of which we have said nothing. Thus false testimony cannot at all be reduced to an error in the account of things seen: false testimony is a lie in the heart of the witness. This perverse intention is so fatal to the exercise of justice and to the entire order of discourse that all codes of morality place it very high in the scale of vices. The extreme sanctions which in certain codes strike the false witness well marks the degree of indignation that false testimony evokes in the common conscience. Hence the question: what is a true witness, a faithful witness?

Everyone understands that this is something other than an exact, even scrupulous narrator. It is not limited to testimony that. . . but he testifies for . . . , he renders testimony to. . . . By these expressions our language means that the witness seals his bond to the cause that he defends by a public profession of his conviction, by the zeal of a propagator, by a personal devotion which can extend even to the sacrifice of his life. The witness is capable of suffering and dying for what he believes. When the test of conviction becomes the price of life, the witness changes his name; he is called a martyr. But is it a change of name? Martus in Greek means "witness." Certainly it is not without danger that one evokes this link between witness and martyr. The argument of the martyr is always suspect; a cause which has martyrs is not necessarily a just cause. But, precisely, the martyr is not an argument, even less a proof. It is a test, a limit situation. A man becomes a martyr because he is first a witness. But that a man can become a martyr, if he ought to be a witness to the end, cannot be derived from a purely juridical reflection, for in a trial it is not the witness whose life is at stake but the accused. That the witness may also be accused calls for a different analysis. That is to say that society, common opinion, the powers that be, hate certain causes, perhaps the most just ones. It is necessary, then, that the just die. A great historic archetype arises here: the suffering servant, the persecuted just, Socrates, Jesus. . . .

This is what we mean by the word witness. The witness is the man who is identified with the just cause which the crowd and the great hate and who, for this just cause, risks his life.

This engagement, this risk assumed by the witness, reflects on testimony itself which, in turn, signifies something other than a simple narration of things seen. Testimony is also the engagement of a pure heart and an engagement to the death. It belongs to the tragic destiny of truth.

Even when testimony does not take on these somber tones, it receives from the confines of death what we could call its interiority. We thus find, even in ordinary language, expressions diametrically opposed to those of the "testimony of the senses" which draw testimony toward its quasi-empirical meaning; thus we speak of the "testimony of conscience." But we especially come to call testimony an action, a work, the movement of a life insofar as these things constitute by themselves the mark and the living proof of a man’s conviction and devotion to a cause.

The meaning of testimony seems then inverted; the word no longer designates an action of speech, the oral report of an eyewitness about a fact to which he was witness. Testimony is the action itself as it attests outside of himself, to the interior man, to his conviction, to his faith.

However, there is no rupture of meaning here, to the extent that the two extreme uses would become pure homonyms. From testimony understood in the sense of a report about facts we pass by regular transitions to attestation by action and by death. The engagement of the witness in testimony is the fixed point around which the range of meaning pivots. It is this engagement that marks the difference between the false witness and the faithful and true witness.


The religious meaning of testimony arises in this semantic complex. With it occurs an absolutely new dimension that we are not able to deploy simply starting with the profane use of the word. But — and this counterpart is no less important — in this semantic revision the profane sense is not simply abolished but in a certain fashion conserved and even exalted. I will therefore speak of the irruption of the new meaning and the conservation of the ancient in the new together.

I will take as a guideline the semantics of the words from the root martus in the prophetic writings of the Bible and in the New Testament.

1) A wonderful text of Second Isaiah — consequently a prophetic text — allows us to read all the aspects of meaning, new and old, in a single breath:

Bring forth the people who are blind, yet have eyes, who are deaf, yet have ears! Let all the nations gather together, and let the peoples assemble. Who among them can declare this, and show us the former things? Let them bring their witnesses to justify them, and let them hear and say, It is true. "You are my witnesses," says the Lord, "and my servants whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe me and understand that I am He. Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me. I, I am the Lord, and besides me there is no savior. I declared and saved and proclaimed, when there was no strange god among you; and you are my witnesses," says the Lord. "I am God, and also henceforth I am He there is none who can deliver from my hand; I work and who can hinder it?" (Isaiah 43:8-13; cf. 44:6-8)9

The irruption of meaning is fourfold. At first the witness is not just anyone who comes forward and gives testimony, but the one who is sent in order to testify. Originally, testimony comes from somewhere else. Next, the witness does not testify about isolated and contingent fact but about the radical, global meaning of human experience. It is Yahweh himself who is witnessed to in the testimony. Moreover, the testimony is oriented toward proclamation, divulging, propagation: it is for all peoples that one people is witness. Finally, this profession implies a total engagement not only of words but of acts and, in the extreme, in the sacrifice of a life. What separates this new meaning of testimony from all its uses in ordinary language is that the testimony does not belong to the witness. It proceeds from an absolute initiative as to its origin and its content.

But the profane meaning is not abolished. In a certain way it is taken over by the prophetic meaning. This is evident in the aspect of engagement that we considered in the last part of our semantic analysis, where the prophetic concept and the profane concept are in perfect continuity. In this regard it appears justifiable to say that no obvious bond still connects the notion of the suffering servant (Ebed Jahweh) to that of the witness. The theology of the martyr is not of a piece with the prophetic concept of the martus. To be sure, the theme of the persecuted just man and, even more, that of the humiliated prophet, even put to death, is more ancient than the theme of the martyr that we find in later Judaism. At least the prophet is from the beginning a man of sorrow: "Nay for thy sake we are slain all the day long, and accounted as sheep for the slaughter" (Psalm 44:22). It is thus that Jeremiah understood his own mission. Every prophet, to the extent that he prophesies against, is a prophet for life and for death. But the junction is not made in the period of great prophecy, in the word of the witness between these two themes of the proclamation addressed to the nations and of the death of the prophet. When this junction will be made, the idea of dying for. . . will always be subordinated to that of proclaiming to others. It is just as true here as in the profane order that the disciple is martyr because he is a witness, not the inverse.

But the juridical aspect of testimony is no less important. It is in the perspective of a dispute, of a trial putting into play the right of Yahweh to be and to be the only real God, that man is called upon to testify: "Who is like me? Let him proclaim it, let him declare and set it forth before me" (Isaiah 44:7). The declaration is at the same time a call for decision: "And you are my witnesses! Is there a God besides me?" (Isaiah 44:8). The trial begun by Yahweh with the people and their idols calls for a decision which settles things once and for all.

This resumption of the theme of the trial in the interior of the theme of confession-profession is, to my way of thinking, the major mark of the prophetic concept of testimony. It would be well not to forget this when we will try subsequently to link the hermeneutics of testimony to what Nabert calls the criteriology of the divine. The criteriology is already there in the crisis, in the judgment about the idols: "All who make idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit; their witnesses neither see nor know, and they may be put to shame" (Isaiah 44:9).

If the juridical aspect is preserved in the manner that we just spoke of, can we perhaps say that the quasi-empirical aspect of testimony is as well? We would be tempted to say that the confession of faith has eliminated the recital of things seen (H. Strathmann in the article martus, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, IV, constantly opposes the witness of facts and confessing truth). Such is not the case. A theology of testimony which is not just another name for the theology of the confession of faith is only possible if a certain narrative kernel is preserved in strict union with the confession of faith. The case par excellence is the faith of Israel which, at first, confessed Yahweh by relating the facts of deliverance which punctuate the history of its liberation. Every "theology of the traditions," following von Rad, is built on this basic postulation that the Credo of Israel is a narrative confession on the model of the nuclear Credo of Deuteronomy 26:5-9. Where a "history" of liberation can be related, a prophetic "meaning" can be not only confessed but attested. It is not possible to testify for a meaning without testifying that something has happened which signifies this meaning. The conjunction of the prophetic moment, "I am the Lord," and the historical moment, "It is I, the Lord your God, who has led you out of the land of Egypt and out of the house of bondage" (Exodus 20:2) — is as fundamental as the conjunction of the prophetic moment and the juridical moment. A tension is thus created between confession of faith and narration of things seen, at the heart of which is renewed the ever present tension between the judgment of the judge, who decides without having seen, and the narration of the witness who has seen. There is therefore no witness of the absolute who is not a witness of historic signs, no confessor of absolute meaning who is not a narrator of the acts of deliverance.

2) The prophetic meaning of witness and testimony paves the way for the New Testament meaning of these terms. All the tensions of the former are found again together with new traits which mark the passage from prophetic discourse to evangelical discourse, without, however, breaking the continuity from the one to the other.

The "confessional" kernel of testimony is certainly the center around which the rest gravitates. The confession that Jesus is the Christ constitutes testimony par excellence. Here again the witness is sent, and his testimony does not belong to him: "It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth" (Acts 1:7, 8), says the Christ of the ascension. But if testimony is confessional in its kernel of meaning, it is not a simple confession of faith. All the traits of the ordinary meaning are resumed, assumed, and transmuted by contact with this confessional "kernel."

First, eyewitness testimony. The witness is witness to things that have happened. We can think of the case of recording Christian preaching in the categories of the story, as narration about things said and done by Jesus of Nazareth, as proceeding from this intention of binding confession-testimony to narration-testimony. This conjunction is performed in different ways by the four Evangelists, and we could form a typology on this basis. At one extreme of the range we would have Luke; at the other John.

With Luke the witness is witness of things seen and heard; he is witness of the teaching, the miracles, the passion and the resurrection: "You are witnesses of these things," says the resurrected Lord in Luke 24:48. To be sure, the fact is inseparable from its meaning, but the meaning is recorded in history; it has taken place, it has happened. Of all that you are witnesses. The affirmation of the apostles appearing before the Sanhedrin echoes this fact: "And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him" (Acts 5:32). The two faces of the notion are here inseparable. On the one side, only the one sent — the apostle — is witness. Of that the Spirit alone is guarantor; but he is witness of things seen. The moment of the immediacy of the manifestation (I will return later to this expression which is Johannine before being Hegelian) is essential to the constitution of testimony as testimony. It is principally about the essential confession — that of the resurrection — that the dialectic of meaning and fact and confession and narration is played out for Luke. Everything indicates that the "appearances" have played the decisive role in that they prolonged the manifestation beyond death. The different sermons that the Acts of the Apostles reports return to this Leitmotiv: "This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses" (Acts 2:32; cf. 3:15, etc.). The preaching of Paul is the same: "But God raised him from the dead; and for many days he appeared to those who came up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are now his witnesses to the people" (Acts 13:30, 31).

But this integration of fact to meaning, of narration to confession, does not occur without internal tension. The eyewitness character of testimony can doubtless be extended and stretched rather far thanks to a corresponding extension of the notion of appearance. Everything indicates that Paul himself interpreted the lightning-struck encounter with the resurrected Lord on the way to Damascus as an appearance which links his experience to the chain of eyewitness testimonies of the life of Jesus and of the resurrection (Acts 22:14, 15; 26:15-20). Primitive Christianity never perceived any fundamental difference between the eyewitness testimonies of the life of Jesus and the encounter with the resurrection Lord. The very editing of the Evangelists proceeds from this direct engagement of the prophetic inspirations attributed to the living Christ and of the memories of the eyewitnesses. There is no intrinsic difference between the facts and gestures of Jesus of Nazareth, or between the appearances of the resurrected Lord and the manifestations of the Spirit in the Pentecostal communities. On the contrary, the continuity of the same manifestation justifies a corresponding extension of testimony given of things seen and heard. It is for a modern mind, formed by historical criticism, that companionship with Jesus and the encounter with the resurrected Lord are distinct things. The profound unity between testimony about facts and events, and testimony about meaning and truth, has survived for some time.

Nevertheless a certain fault appears in the Lukan concept of testimony. Paul does not preach the appearances, still less the "private" appearances he enjoyed. He preaches Christ crucified; but of the cross he has not been a witness. And when Paul evokes the memory of Stephen whom he persecuted, he speaks by addressing himself to Christ: "And when the blood of Stephen thy witness was shed, I also was standing by . . ." (Acts 22:20). "Stephen, thy witness?" Does this still mean eyewitness? With the case of Stephen a turning point is reached: the "witnesses of the resurrection" will be less and less eyewitness to the extent that faith will be transmitted by the hearing of preaching. The "voice" truly refers back to the "seen," speaking is no longer seeing; faith comes by hearing.

With John the balance clearly shifts from the narrational pole toward the confessional pole even if the narrative framework of the Gospel is retained. But John, of all the Evangelists, is the herald of testimony par excellence. Quantitatively it is in the fourth Evangelist that we find the immense majority of the words martus (47 out of 77) and marturia (30 out of 37). The displacement of meaning which affects testimony proceeds from the new sense attached to the summoning of the witness. This word, considerably rarer in John than that of testimony (only five times in Revelation), is applied to Christ himself, called "the faithful witness" (Revelation 1:5) or again "the faithful and true witness" (Revelation 3:14). (It is true that we find in 9:3 and 17:6 the word "witness" with the quasi-Lukan sense of confessing and professing witness.) This displacement of meaning which affects the notion of witness is communicated to testimony. This is not what a person does at first when he renders testimony but what the Son does by manifesting the Father (Revelation 1:2 speaks of the "testimony," marturia of Jesus Christ as a synonym for "revelation," apokalupsis of Jesus Christ, 1:1, 2). The pole of testimony is thus displaced from confession-narration toward manifestation itself to which testimony is rendered. This is the meaning of John 1:18, "No one has ever seen God; the only Son . . . has made him known" (exegesato). The exegesis of God and the testimony of the Son are the same thing. Overwhelmingly testimony rendered by this disciple is regulated in its profound intention by the theological meaning of testimony-manifestation, Christ-act par excellence. If John the Baptist is a witness, it is not as witness of the resurrection, in the sense of the first evangelists, but in a less historic and more theological sense of "witness of the light." "He came for testimony, to bear witness to the light . . ." (John 1:7). But what is the "testimony of John" (John 1:19)? It is nothing other than the essential and total Christic confession. "Behold the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29). In a sense, John the Baptist is an eyewitness ("And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God," John 1:34). But what he has seen is a sign which designates Jesus as the Christ ("I saw the Spirit descend as a dove. . ."). But this sign is nothing apart from an interior word which speaks the meaning: "He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain. . ." (John 1:33). It does not say that someone other than the Baptist has understood the word which gave meaning to the thing seen. The notion of the eyewitness is thus profoundly overthrown by the dual theme of Christ — a faithful witness — and of testimony — testimony to the light. The two themes, moreover, are linked in that Christ, a faithful witness, has himself come "to render testimony." This is what the Johannine Christ declares before Pilate: "You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth" (John 18:37).

In this regard, two very fine texts mark the break between testimony in the Johannine sense and testimony in Luke’s sense: Luke 5:31-39 and 8:13-18. They begin with the Hebrew adage (Deuteronomy 10:15) according to which at least two witnesses are required for proof. But the Christ of John entirely displaces the notion of dual testimony. The first witness is that which the Christ renders to himself. "Even if I do bear witness to myself, my testimony is true, for I know whence I have come and whither I am going.. ." (John 8:14). And who is the second witness? This could be that of John the Baptist, according to what is said elsewhere about him. Nevertheless, the second testimony is not his but that of God himself: "The works which the Father has granted me to accomplish, these very works which I am doing, bear me witness that the Father has sent me" (John 5:36, 37).

By means of this displacement of meaning, we are presented with a nearly complete internalization of testimony: "If we receive the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater; for this is the testimony of God that he has borne witness to his Son. He who believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself" (I John 5:9, 10). The testimony that the witness has in himself is nothing other than the testimony of the Holy Spirit, a notion that indicates the extreme point of internalization of testimony: "But when the Counselor comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness to me; and you also are witnesses, because you have been with me from the beginning" (John 15:26, 27).

It would seem, then, that the testimony, entirely internalized in Christ’s own testimony and in the testimony that God renders to Christ, loses all reference to eyewitness testimony dear to Luke. Such is not the case. Even in John, the link is never broken between the Christological confession and the narrative announcement of a central event of history. In the two texts we commented on earlier (John 5:31-39; 8:13-18), we should be struck by an expression which indicates the externalization of testimony with respect to the intimacy of the dialogue between the Father and the Son. It is that of work: "I told you and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name, they bear witness to me (John 10:25; cf. 10:37, 38: "Do the works of my Father"). This marturia ton ergon on the part of Christ himself, makes testimony that is given to him not testimony to an idea, to an atemporal logos, but to an incarnate person. John, the herald of the word made flesh, is not entirely able to deflect testimony toward a mystical and entirely internal idea. Testimony "to" the light is testimony to "someone" (cf. the numerous expressions: testimony to the subject himself, to the subject myself, to the subject yourself, John 1:15; 5:31, 32; 8:13, 17:10, 25; 15:26). This is indeed why testimony-confession can still be kept in the narrative framework of a Gospel, as conventional as this framework has become: "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us . . . we have beheld his glory" (John 1:14). Luke and John, as different as they are, agree on this point. Testimony-confession cannot be separated from testimony-narration without the risk of turning toward Gnosticism. This is why, by applying the quality of the witness reflexively at the end of his Gospel, John designates his work in terms which would be possible for Luke: "He who saw it has borne witness — his testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth — that you also may believe" (John 19:35). One last time, to have seen and to testify are closely bound together.

I would not like to turn from Johannine testimony without mentioning the second of the traits of testimony in the ordinary sense, namely, testimony as an element of proof in a trial. It is perhaps this aspect of the meaning which, on the one hand, assures the recovery of the profane meaning in the religious meaning, but which also, on the other hand, gives its particular hue to the theological concept of testimony.

If testimony has a relation to a trial, the place of the trial of Jesus would suffice to recall it (cf. the accusation of the false testimony as well as the stirring up of false witnesses to the trial); but the whole ministry of Jesus is a trial. In its turn, the trial of Jesus, a historic trial before a human court, is for the apostle an episode in the great trial that we can indeed call with Theo Preiss a "cosmic trial."10 The advent of the kingdom and of its justice is the stake of an immense contest between God and the Prince of the world, sanctioned by the "judgment" of God on the world and the fall of Satan. If we follow out the line of this plot, it is possible to place the entire cycle of concepts which revolve around the witness, to testify, testimony, in a larger cycle of ideas in a "juridical" turn where we find such notions as "envoy, to testify, testimony, to judge, judgment, to accuse, to convict, counselor."11 A taste for opposing John the mystic to Paul the apostle of justification by faith leads to neglect of this other kind of "juridical" thought, this other problem of justification which derives its coherence from this horizon of the great trial on which all theology of testimony is projected. We can therefore perhaps recapture in this perspective the dialectic of testimony-confession and of testimony-narration. First, the concept of Christ as the faithful witness. It is "in the framework of a suit over rights"12 that the first testimony, the marturia of the Son, takes on the value of attestation. Beginning with the prologue, this dramatic opposition between contesting and attesting is set in place: "He came to his own home, and his own people received him not" (John 1:11). To Nicodemus: "Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen; but you do not receive our testimony" (John 3:11). And the Baptist: "He bears witness to what he has seen and heard, yet no one receives his testimony" (John 3:32).

It is in the framework of a great trial that the witness is also emissary: the one sent is like the one who sends; he has all authority of a plenipotentiary. We then understand the insistence to recall the rabbinic rule of two witnesses. Placed in the perspective of the great trial, the declaration "The works testify of me that the Father has sent me" takes on a new perspective. The Christ is witness par excellence because he evokes the "crisis," the judgment on the works of the world: "I testify of it that its works are evil" (John 7:7). The function of the witness rises to the level of that of Judge of the End. The Judge is the light; he causes the light. By a strange reversal, the defendant of the earthly trial is also the judge of the eschatological trial. For the Christ, to be witness is to join these two roles of the earthly accused and the heavenly judge. It is also to be king according to the confession of Pilate.

It is therefore always in confrontation and accusation that confession-profession takes on the look of testimony.

Not only does the testimony of Christ and, after him, the testimony of the disciples, receive a new light by being placed under the sign of the great trial, so also does all the Johannine "pneumatology" of testimony, about which very little has been said to this point, except to recognize in it the extreme internalization of testimony. The internal testimony of the Holy Spirit derives all its meaning in the struggle which is waged between the Christ and the world before the court of history. The first epistle of John evokes the "dramatics" of testimony and trial. "Who is it that overcomes the world but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? This is he who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is witness, because the Spirit is the truth. There are three witnesses, the Spirit, the water, and the blood; and these three agree" (I John 5:5-8). The water and the blood here designate the punishment of the Cross, the Passion. If we do not link the testimony of the Spirit to the eschatological trial, we would hardly understand why he is called the Paraclete ("But when the Counselor comes John 15:26, 27). The Paraclete is the figure who is the counterpart of the accuser. The same Paraclete who "will convince the world of sin and of righteousness and of judgment" (John 16:8) will be the counselor to the believers when Satan will have become the accuser. Revelation evokes this last act of the drama in the grandiose vision of the defeat of the dragon (12:9-12). Nowhere is the theology of testimony more clearly attached to that of the great trial.

At the same time we also understand that testimony, at the human level, is dual: it is internal testimony, the seal of conviction, but it is also the testimony of works; that is, it is modeled on the passion of Christ, the testimony of suffering. The vision of Revelation thus continues: "And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death" (Revelation 12:11). It is therefore in the perspective of the trial that the martyr indicates the superior seal of testimony.

Such is the strange "juridical mystique"13 in which the Johannine dialectic of testimony has come to be registered. Interpreted in purely mystical terms, testimony is reduced to the confession of the truth; interpreted in juridical terms, it is the attestation which yields victory in the contest. Could we not say, then, that it is the juridical moment which ties together the two moments which had appeared to us to be at the point of being dissociated: testimony as confession (of faith) and testimony as narration (of facts)? For what gives proof before the eschatological tribunal are the "works" and the "signs"; the works and signs that the most mystical of the apostles declares he also has "seen."


The time has come to take up again the question which began this investigation. Is it possible, we were asking, that the philosophy of absolute reflection finds in perfectly contingent events or acts the claim that what is inherently unjustifiable is surmounted here and now? An immense obstacle seems to close off the horizon of the response: do we have the right to invest a moment of history with an absolute character? An unbridgeable chasm seems to open up between the interiority of original affirmation and the exteriority of acts and of existence which would claim to give testimony of the absolute.

Is a philosophy of testimony possible?

I would like to try to show that such a philosophy can only be a hermeneutics, that is, a philosophy of interpretation. Such a philosophy of interpretation is an ellipse with two foci that meditation tends to conflate but which can never be reduced to a unified central point. What, in fact, is it to interpret testimony? It is a twofold act, an act of consciousness of itself and an act of historical understanding based on the signs that the absolute gives of itself. The signs of the absolute’s self-disclosure are at the same time signs in which consciousness recognizes itself. It is the convergence of these two paths that we are going to sketch out.

Starting from the historical pole we are going to show the link between testimony and interpretation. Then proceeding from the reflexive pole we will show how the original affirmation develops from its side a reflexive type of interpretation that Nabert calls a criteriology of the divine by means of which, he says, "consciousness makes itself judge of the divine and consequently chooses its God or its gods."14 By being extended in a criteriology of the divine, original affirmation is led to encounter the crisis of idols that testimony calls forth. Thus the hermeneutics of testimony arises in the confluence of two exegesis — the exegesis of historic testimony of the absolute and the exegesis of the self in the criteriology of the divine. Perhaps it will also be apparent that this double exegesis is a double trial and that this double trial characterizes in its own right the hermeneutics of testimony.

Let us first show how historic exegesis encounters the exegesis of the self.

The concept of testimony such as is drawn out by biblical exegesis, is hermeneutical in a double sense. In the first sense it gives to interpretation a content to be interpreted. In the second sense it calls for an interpretation.

Testimony gives something to be interpreted.

The first trait indicates the aspect of manifestation in testimony. The absolute declares itself here and now. In testimony there is an immediacy of the absolute without which there would be nothing to interpret. This immediacy functions as origin, as initium, on this side of which we can go no further. Beginning there, interpretation will be the endless mediation of this immediacy. But without it interpretation will forever be only an interpretation of interpretation. There is a time when interpretation is the exegesis of one or many testimonies. Testimony is the anagke stenai15 of Interpretation. A hermeneutic without testimony is condemned to an infinite regress in a perspectivism with neither beginning nor end.

This is a hard saying for philosophy to understand. For the self-manifestation of the absolute here and now indicates the end of the infinite regress of reflection. The absolute shows itself. In this shortcut of the absolute and its presence is constituted an experience of the absolute. It is only about this that testimony testifies. For a logic and rhetoric based on a logical model, testimony can only be an alienation of meaning or, to speak the language of Aristotle in the Rhetoric, a means of non-technical proof, that is, external to all the arguments that the orator can invent. This is precisely what the manifestation of the absolute can be.

But at the same time that it gives something to interpretation, testimony demands to be interpreted. This interpretation must be done according to the three dimensions of the ordinary concept that the absolute testimony has taken on.

Testimony demands to be interpreted because of the dialectic of meaning and event that traverses it. The fusion that we have observed between the confessional pole and the narrative pole of testimony has a considerable hermeneutical significance. It signifies that interpretation cannot be applied to testimony from without as a violence which would be done to it. Interpretation, however, is intended to be the taking up again, in a different discourse, of an internal dialectic of testimony. In testimony this dialectic itself is immediate in the sense that narration and confession are joined to each other without distance. The first witnesses of the Gospel confess the significance of Christ directly on the Jesus event: "You are the Christ." There is no separation between the Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith. This unity is written: Jesus-Christ. This is the shortcut of meaning and event which gives something to interpretation and which demands to be interpreted. How? In that this fusion signifies also a tension, the event is both apparent and hidden: hidden to the extent that it is apparent. The appearances of the living Christ are also the empty tomb. This is the point that Hegel has so forcibly underscored in his Philosophy of Religion. A split is sketched, a split which is not the ruin of testimony but an endless mediation on the divided immediacy. If interpretation is possible, it is because it is always possible, by means of this gap, to mediate the relation of meaning and event by another meaning which plays the role of interpretation with regard to their very relation. Charles Sanders Peirce has furnished in this respect the model of this triadic relation. Every relation between a sign and an object, he says, can be explained by means of a sign which plays the role of interpretant with regard to their relation. An open chain of interpretants is thus created by this primary relation between sign and object. Applying this relation to testimony and to the relation of confession to narration points up that the manifestation of the absolute in persons and acts is indefinitely mediated by means of available meanings borrowed from previous scripture. It is in this way that the primitive church continuously interpreted the "testimony of Christ," to pick up on a Johannine expression, with the aid of names and titles, figures, and functions, received for the most part from the Hebraic tradition, but also from the mystery religions and from Gnosticism. In calling Jesus Son of Man, Messiah or Christ, Judge, King, High Priest, Logos, the primitive church began to interpret the relation of meaning and event. The importance of this is that interpretation is not external to testimony but implied by its initial dialectical structure.

Testimony gives still more to be interpreted by the critical activity which it evokes. It is here that the connection between testimony and trial derives all its force. It is always necessary to choose between the false witness and the true witness, between the father of lies and the faithful witness. Testimony is both a manifestation and a crisis of appearances. Aristotle was right to include it in a treatment of argument, even if he could not understand its place in an experience of the absolute. One also attests where one contests. Works and signs are open to judgment. The absolute itself is on trial. Taken in this second sense, the hermeneutic structure of testimony consists in that testimony concerning things seen only reaches judgment through a story, that is, by means of things said. The judge in a court makes up his mind about things seen only by hearing said. Fides ex auditu. The trial is unavoidable; it is grafted directly onto the dialectic of things seen and things said. Only a trial can decide between Yahweh and the "idols of nothing." The works and signs that the revealer "gives" are so many bits of evidence and means of proof in the grand trial of the absolute. Hermeneutics arises there a second time: no manifestation of the absolute without the crisis of false testimony, without the decision which distinguishes between sign and idol.

Testimony finally gives something to be interpreted by the dialectic of witness and of testimony. The witness testifies about something or someone which goes beyond him. In this sense testimony proceeds from the Other. But the involvement of the witness is his testimony. The testimony of Christ is his works, his suffering, and the testimony of the disciple is, analogously, his suffering. A strange hermeneutic circle is set in motion; the circle of Manifestation and of Suffering. The martyr proves nothing, we say, but a truth which is not strong enough to lead a man to sacrifice lacks proof. What counts as proof, manifestation, or suffering? The hermeneutics of testimony is also caught in this spiral, which it never stops passing, at different heights, by these two opposed poles.

Let us now trace the path of original affirmation toward testimony. It is on this path, we claim, that original affirmation changes into a criteriology of the divine. Why? Because the way a finite consciousness can appropriate the affirmation which constitutes it can only be in a critical act. There is no unitary intuition, no absolute knowledge, in which consciousness would grasp both consciousness of the absolute and consciousness of itself. The moment of awareness can only be broken up and dispersed in the predicates of the divine. These predicates are not characteristics or qualities of a being in itself; they are the multiple and diverse expressions of a Pure Act which can only be spoken of by being invested with these qualities. That is why these characteristics and qualities do not constitute a closed system; they remain discontinuous traits which indicate an effort pursued in many but uncoordinated directions. A criteriology of the divine groups only in a diversity of predicates the always different traces of the heterogeneous requirements of a thought which is purified in every sense. The criteriology of the divine, Nabert says, "is the expression of the greatest effort that consciousness can make in order to take away the conditions which prevent it from attaining complete satisfaction, when it attempts in the very core of its finitude to justify itself, to change itself into a radical purity of its intention. Each of the qualities to which we give the name of the divine corresponds to a completely internal act by means of which we conceive of it, but immediately fail to realize and incarnate. There is an irreducible conflict, a radical opposition, between the creative operation of each of these qualities, corresponding each time to a thetic16 judgment, and the ambition that human consciousness can have of verifying them for itself, by itself. This is not ideal; it is rather its negation. The criteriology of the divine corresponds to the greatest divestment of which human consciousness is capable in order to affirm an order freed from the limitations from which no human existence can deliver itself. This selectivity, this affirmation, is of acts."17

Can we not say, then, that the judgment to which testimony makes an appeal is identical to the judgment by which self-consciousness, by being laid bare, sifts the predicates of the divine? Is it not the same trial which, little by little, proves to be the trial of testimony and the trial of the predicates of the divine?

But this identity is not itself given; it is to be interpreted. A constantly widening gap occurs between the reflexive judgment which produces the criteria of the divine by an entirely interior operation, and the historical judgment which is used to group together externally the meaning of the given testimonies. The fundamental identity of this double operation becomes the stake of the hermeneutic of the absolute.

We doubtless can understand the identity of this double operation only in producing it. It is necessary to understand that consciousness, in fact, advances toward the most interior self only at the price of the most extreme attention used in looking for signs and glimpses of the absolute in its appearances. To the greatest interiority of the act corresponds the greatest exteriority of the sign: "For the apprehension of the divine, the divestment (depouullement) essential for mystical experience and the link of the divine to a historic manifestation are mutually complementary. Thanks to the first, the grasping of the divine tends to be confounded with the advance of reflection by means of the lonely asceticism of philosophic consciousness. By the second, the divine is written in history by a testimony, the meaning of which consciousness never exhausts."18 The only surprising thing is the sort of alliance which makes the interiority of the act and the exteriority of the sign dependent on one another. The alliance is the proper character of the perception of the divine by and in a finite consciousness. It is, in effect, a fact of finitude that original affirmation cannot appropriate itself in a totally intuitive reflection but that it must make a detour through an interpretation of the contingent signs that the absolute gives of itself in history. The hermeneutical structure of original affirmation is a corollary of the finitude of human consciousness in which and by means of which the original affirmation is produced. That self-consciousness is held in abeyance by whatever decision, by whatever choice, or whatever trial where it is made to answer a summons — even that which is the appearance of the absolute — does not express the feebleness of the proof of testimony, as in Aristotle, but the finitude of the consciousness to which absolute knowledge is refused.

That is why one can indeed follow Hegel, but only to a certain point. Hegel begins his chapter on "The Revealed Religion"19 by what can indeed be called a hermeneutics of testimony; the absolute has been seen among us; visible things have become understood by the disappearance of the appearances. The internal testimony of the spirit in the community replaces the testimony of external signs. But Hegel claims to garner the meaning which occurs historically in the logic of the concept. This is why the hermeneutics of testimony is swallowed up in absolute knowledge. For a reflexive philosophy of original affirmation, it is not possible to reduce to a unity the correlation between two divestments (depouillements). Its law is that of a double humility: "The double humility which comes to it from its relation to the divine that it discerns in history."20

But if reflection cannot be assured of the identity of the two trials, at least it can perhaps verify that they are not heterogeneous. They are both of the order of judgment and of the nature of act.

The first common characteristic results from the break between the hermeneutics of testimony and absolute knowledge. Compared to the scientific ideal which constitutes the latter, hermeneutics of testimony appears to be blemished by relativity. There is no apodictic form of a response to the recurring question: how do we assure ourselves that the affirmation is not arbitrary, that God is not constructed, almost picked, from certain testimonies that other consciousnesses could contest, since there indeed is no fact which can be dissociated from the idea which gives meaning to it, a meaning that transcends the fact itself.21 In terms of the modality of judgment, the interpretation of testimony is only probable, but it only appears as such when compared to a scientific ideal which governs only one of the different requirements of thought, which reigns in only one of the centers of reflection, namely knowledge of objects. To measure the degree of certitude of testimony of the absolute by the norm of one of the functions of consciousness is to surrender the problematic of self-consciousness to the most deplorable metabasis eis allo genos.22 Original affirmation cannot be subsumed by the standard of knowledge of objects. It is therefore in a modified sense that the interpretation of testimony can be said to be probable. However, this modified sense is completely required by the sort of judgment in which the reflexive act apprehends itself when undertaking to itemize the meaning of its act of divestment (depouillement) by submitting it to the grille of a criteriology of the divine. Passing by the narrow path of the judiciary, to use again the excellent expression of Eric Weil, original affirmation makes itself a critic of the divine predicates. It is this critique which, as a judgment, falls under the modality of the probable. But it is the same even with historical interpretation of testimonies; the sort of tribunal before which witnesses are summoned and the sort of trial by which testimony gives proof are placed under the same categories of the modality of judgment as the criteriology of the divine. Additionally the two crises, the two trials, the two judgments, share the same modality. But if the recourse to the modality is not only inevitable but justified, it is indeed in a modified sense. To attest is of a different order than to verify in the sense of logical empiricism. The relation of the phenomenon to the act of absolute affirmation, of which testimony bears the mark, is of a different order. If the question of the modality remains legitimate, it is because the manifestation of that which reveals itself is inseparable from an adherence which implies a choice and because this choice is produced in a trial akin to the criteriology by which the reflexive act gives account of itself.

But the judiciary is itself implied in the self-manifestation of the absolute, and this absolute manifestation of the absolute confers on a finite revocable act of recognition the seal of its own absolute. This is why one can indeed say paradoxically that the hermeneutics of testimony is absolute-relative. It is twice absolute and twice relative. It is absolute as original affirmation in search of a sign, absolute as the manifestation in the sign. It is relative as the criteriology of the divine for philosophic consciousness, relative as the trial of idols for historical consciousness.

But the correlation of the two judgments, the two trials, rests on an even more profound correlation: judgment is only the trace of acts. The correlation of judgment with judgment, of criteriology with trial, only expresses, in judicial terms, the relation of two acts: the act of a self-consciousness which divests (se depouille) itself and tries to understand itself, the act of testifying by which the absolute is revealed in its signs and its works. In the same way as the act of original affirmation is enclosed in the discourse of predicates of the divine, testimony, understood as the action of testifying, is enclosed in the story of the witness to which we also give the name testimony. If, at the level of judgments of a correlation, at the level of acts one can speak of reciprocity. The promotion of consciousness and the recognition of the absolute in its signs are reciprocal. "The essential idea is to demonstrate an established correspondence between historic affirmation of the absolute and the degrees by which a consciousness proceeds to raise itself and transform itself for an original affirmation."23

One can express the correspondence of act to act in the following way. What we can recognize in testimony — not in the sense of the story of a witness who tells what he has seen but of a work that attests — is that it is the expression of the freedom that we desire to be. I recognize as existing what is only an idea for me. What I recognize outside myself is, in its effectiveness, the movement of liberation that I posit only as an ideal. This recognition is no longer historical; it is philosophical. It permits us to speak of absolute actions which are senseless for historians, for an absolute action is not understood as proceeding from antecedents or giving rise to consequences but as the uprooting of a free consciousness from its historical conditions. What we fundamentally understand is another consciousness which makes itself absolute, at the same time free and real. But this recognition is only possible by an act of the same nature as the interior act of our own liberation.

Such is the extreme point to which one can push a hermeneutics which attempts to reduce the distance between the two foci of the ellipse, between the reflexive act of divestment (depouillement) and the act attested by testimony.

But this distance is irreducible and indicates the difference between a hermeneutic philosophy and a philosophy of absolute knowledge.

The impossibility of absolute knowledge is marked by three indices: First, it expresses the impotence of fixing the criteriology of the divine in a closed system. Even if that advances step by step with the interpretation of historic signs, it is never completed. The testimonies of the absolute which rule the advance of self-consciousness give each time a new or more profound meaning to the divine. Also, the criteriology of the divine is likewise never finished.

Next, the impossibility of absolute knowledge expresses the impotence of consciousness to bring all the signs together in a coherent whole. Tied to testimony is the experience of "each time." The harmony between reflection on self and testimony given by history is only attained if each time consciousness takes as unique the example which the divine reveals to it. Testimonies can have a profound resemblance among themselves, but the "family resemblances," as Wittgenstein reminds us, are not based in an identity of essence.

Finally, the impossibility of absolute knowledge expresses the impotence of identifying absolute reflection and absolute testimony itself raised to the rank of proof in the grand trial of meaning. The relation is certainly reciprocal and intimate between the criteriology which produces consciousness of the divine and the discernment of testimony which leaves the initiative to the event. But this circular relation implies an unavoidable break between the principle of reflection and the historical advent of signs. There are two acts, two initiatives. The initiative of deepening and the initiative of a manifestation. The first, entirely internal, can only be signified by means of understanding applied to testimony of the absolute; the second, entirely external, can only apply its discernment to the principle of sublimity which constitutes self-consciousness. This invincible break is that of reason and faith, of philosophy and religion. It prevents us from subsuming, in Hegelian fashion, religious representations to the concept. The correlation is on the level of judgment, not of concept. This is what signifies the "trial," the "crisis" of testimony. There is a correlation between two trials without the representations of the one disappearing in the concept of the other. The mutual promotion of reason and faith, in their difference, is the last word for a finite consciousness.

Consequently, in many ways the relation between act and sign proves to be itself a hermeneutic relation: a relation which gives something to interpretation and a relation which calls for interpretation.

We must choose between philosophy of absolute knowledge and the hermeneutics of testimony.



1. Jean Nabert, Le Desir de Dieu (Paris: Aubier, 1966), Book III, "Metaphysique du temoignage et hermeneutique de l’absolu."

2. The verb depouiller and its noun form depouillement are translated throughout as "divest" and "divestment," though this fails to capture the full meaning of the French which includes such diverse meanings as "to cast off," "lay aside," "abandon," "rid oneself of," and "to sit off one’s clothes." Ricoeur is here giving an account of Nabert’s Elements pour une ethique, and depouiller is his term and is often rendered in the English translation of his work as "letting go." Nabert’s use of the term evokes St. Paul’s call to "put off" or divest oneself of the old nature Eph. 5:22. (Tr.)

3. Jean Nabert, Essai sur le mal (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France 1955), p. 148.

4. Hart, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 49 (1948-49).

5. Aristotle, Rhetoric 1354a, 1-7.

6. Ibid., 1377b, 20-22.

7. Ibid., 1358b, 1-5.

8. Ibid., 1375a, 23-24.

9. All biblical citations are from the Revised Standard Version. (Tr.

10. Theo Preis, "La justification dans la pensee johannique." Hommage et reconnaissance a Karl Barth pour son 60 anniversaire (Neuchatel and Paris: 1946); reproduced in La vie en Christ (Neuchatel and Paris 1951).

11. Ibid., p.48.

12. Ibid., p. 51.

13. Ibid., p. 60.

14. Nabert, Le desir de Dieu, p. 264.

15. Fixed necessity (Tr.).

16. A thetic judgment is a belief which implies the existence of that which is believed; it is a judgment which posits existence.

17. Nabert, Le desir de Dieu, p. 265.

18. Ibid., p. 267.

19. G. W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977, chap. 7, "Religion," part C, pp. 453-78.

20. Nabert, Le desir de Dieu, p. 272.

21. Ibid., p. 271.

22. Change into another kind (Tr.).

23. Ibid., p. 270.

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