Vanhoozer: How Do We Understand the Bible? Part 1

Vanhoozer_review_04042015Kevin J. Vanhoozer. 1998. Is There a Meaning in This Text:  The Bible, The Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan. (Go to:  Part 2 or Part 3)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Biblical interpretation has become a contact sport. The Bible has been the center of the Christian faith since the fourth century and is still today the most widely read book on earth.  Most cultural disputes either originate in biblical interpretation or are mediated by it. How then are we to read and understand the Bible properly?  Even before seminary, my own quest to answer such questions brought me to Kevin Vanhoozer’ book, Is There Meaning to This Text?

Introduction

Vanhoozer starts off with some very interesting observations:

…many of the contentious issues at the heart of the current debates about biblical interpretation, about interpretation in general, and about postmodern interpretation in particular, [are] really theological issues.  I began to see meaning as a theological phenomenon, involving a kind of transcendence, and the theory of interpretation as a theological task.  Instead of a book on biblical interpretation, therefore, I have written a theology of interpretation…the serious student of Scripture needs to develop an epistemology (theory of knowledge) and hermeneutic (theory of interpretation)…not only epistemology, but [also] metaphysics and ethics of meaning (9-10).

Say what? Perhaps it is easier to start with a question.  For example, in scientific study, where do the hypotheses and assumptions come from that are needed before applying logic? Or, in terms of faith, does one need to be a Christian to read the Bible properly?[1] Vanhoozer asks: “What does it mean to be ‘biblical’?”(9) These are not questions easily answered no matter how you stand on the issue of faith. Yet, we cannot proceed in any serious study of the Bible without implicitly or explicitly having an answer.  Clearly, Vanhoozer has taken on an interesting and intrinsically difficult task.

Vanhoozer is ultimately writing a study on hermeneutics—“reflection on the principles that undergird correct textual interpretation” (19).  As he parses this subject, he sees interpretation involving three philosophical issues:  “the nature of reality” [metaphysics], “the possibility of knowledge” [epistemology], and “the criteria for morality” [ethics].  Vanhoozer sees these three questions motivating a fourth:  “What does it mean to be human, an agent of meaning?” [anthropology] (9)[2].

Literary Criticism

Twentieth century philosophy has focused on the problems posed by language (17). The Bible is a book which implies that Biblical interpretation is a form of literary interpretation or “literary criticism”.  Citing Kierkegaard’s reading of James 1:22-27[3], when we read the Bible, do we see in it only ourselves, perceive it to be a love letter, or take it as a royal edict? (15-16)

Vanhoozer sees literary criticism evolving through three ages:  author, text, and reader (25).

  • In the first age, that of the author, the focus is on the author’s intent in writing (25). Who was the author and what was his audience?  Knowing the author ties the text to a time, place, and social context.  As Christians, we see the hand of God working through particular authors to bring us into closer relationship with Him.
  • In the second age, that of the text, the focus is on the text itself and how it is to be understood (26). Reformers, such as John Calvin, naturally looked to the Bible itself in understanding a particular passage.  The idea was that scripture can interpret scripture; an unclear passage may be more clearly discussed elsewhere in scripture. As Christians, we intuit the presence of God in a particular text knowing God’s expression in other texts.
  • In the third age, that of the reader, the focus is on the reader’s context—an inherently ethical question (27). When we consider the question—what does this passage mean to me?—we expect to get different answers because our contexts differ.  Yet, as Christians, we also expect continuity in our reading of scripture with other readings through the agency of the Holy Spirit.

In this latter respect, Vanhoozer writes: “My thesis is that ethical interpretation is a spiritual exercise and that the spirit of understanding is not a spirit of power, nor of play, but the Holy Spirit” (29).  As you might imagine, there is a lot to unpack in this one sentence!

Who is Kevin Vanhoozer?

Vanhoozer is a professor of systemic theology at Trinity International University in Deerfield, Illinois right outside of Chicago[4]. He writes Is There a Meaning in This Text in four parts:

Introduction (Theology and Literary Theory)

  1. Faith Seeking Textual Understanding

Part One (Undoing Interpretation: Authority, Allegory, and Anarchy)

  1. Undoing the Author: Authority and Intentionally
  2. Undoing the Text: Textuality and Indeterminacy
  3. Undoing the Reader: Contextuality and Ideology

Part Two (Redoing Interpretation:  Agency, Action, Affect)

  1. Resurrecting the Author: Meaning As Communicative Action
  2. Redeeming the Text: The Rationality of Literary Acts
  3. Reforming the Reader: Interpretative Virtue, Spirituality, and Communicative Efficacy

Conclusion:  A Hermeneutics of the Cross

  1. A Hermeneutics of Humility and Conviction

In his part one, Vanhoozer seeks to interpret the postmodern hermeneutics as Christian theologian. In his part two he offers an alternative hermeneutical approach (25). These chapters are followed by a bibliography, a name index, and a subject index.

Assessment

Kevin Vanhoozer’s Is There a Meaning in This Text is a book that seeks to explain what “all the shouting is about” in Biblical interpretation [5]. That makes this book must-read for seminary students and working pastors. Be prepared to be challenged both in your knowledge of philosophy and hermeneutics.  In parts 2 and 3 of this review, I will look in more depth at Vanhoozer’s review of postmodern hermeneutics and his proposed hermeneutic.

Footnotes

[1] The 12th century Archbishop of Canterbury, Anselm thought so.  Anselm famously spoke of the priority of faith in seeking understanding. If faith must precede understanding, how can it be “objective”?   (http://www.ccel.org/ccel/anselm).

[2] My book, A Christian Guide to Spirituality (T2Pneuma.com), also considers these four questions—metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and anthropology—in trying to understand Christian spirituality.

[3] “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.  For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like.  But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.  If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”  (James 1:22-27 ESV)

[4] http://bit.ly/1GiDzNF

[5] I knew that Dr. Butterfield was a serious scholar when I noticed Vanhoozer on her list of readings (87-89; review: Butterfield Journeys from PC to JC; http://wp.me/p3Xeut-wj).

REFERENCES

Butterfield, Rosaria Champagne. 2012.  The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert:  An English Professor’s Journey into Christian Faith.  Pittsburgh:  Crown & Covenant Publications.

Hiemstra, Stephen W. 2014.  A Christian Guide to Spirituality.  Centreville, VA:  T2Pneuma Publishers LLC.

Vanhoozer: How Do We Understand the Bible? Part 1

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