Original Research

An existential phenomenological understanding of early church diversity

Gert J. Malan
HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies | Vol 76, No 3 | a6089 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/hts.v76i3.6089 | © 2020 Gert J. Malan | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 06 May 2020 | Published: 14 October 2020

About the author(s)

Gert J. Malan, Department of New Testament Studies, Faculty of Theology and Religion, University of Pretoria, Pretoria, South Africa


The New Testament documents represent a variety of perceptions about the church, showing that the early church was not unitary in practise or theology. How do we explain the diversity in the early church? Existential phenomenological hermeneutics can shine insightful light on this question by utilising Heidegger’s concept of Dasein in an interpretation model. The model used the pre-structure of Dasein (pre-understanding, presuppositions and prejudice) and its interactive circular dynamic with the hermeneutical concepts of world and phenomena to table aspects of the hermeneutic situation and the resultant Dasein types as self-understanding developed from various groups’ interpretations of Jesus. In this way, the hermeneutic dynamic explains the variety of pre- and post-Easter groups. The results show that there is no objective, standard view of Jesus and no objective set of Jesus’ teachings available; no ideal Dasein type is presented for faith communities. The kerygma of the Crucified and Risen One as God’s act of salvation is the central presupposition of the church’s Dasein. The historical nature of hermeneutics cannot be denied. Historical–critical exegesis and its circular dynamic of understanding is a legitimate and sound hermeneutic model. Unhistorical hermeneutics have definite limitations and should be deemed insufficient. There is no plain meaning of any phenomenon or text, only the text or phenomenon as it is understood. Faith communities consciously partake in the hermeneutic dynamic and recognise the influence of their pre-understandings, presuppositions and prejudices which constantly be questioned and adjusted to facilitate their authentic Dasein.

Contribution: This historical hermeneutical study explains that different hermeneutical situations lead to different Dasein types as various self-understandings developed according to Jesus groups’ interpretations of Jesus varied. No ideal Dasein type for faith communities is presented. These findings resonate with HTS Theological Studies focus and scope regarding historical thought in research.


hermeneutics; early church diversity; existential; phenomenological; historical


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