Vanhoozer: How Do We Understand the Bible? Part 2

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 1 or Part 3)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Each of Vanhoozer’s three aspects of interpretation—author, text, and reader—have been subject to postmodern “undoing”, leaving interpretations to seem arbitrary and subject to manipulation. Vanhoozer writes:

“…the very meaning of ‘interpretation’ has shifted; instead of being a knowledge claim concerning some discovery one has made about the meaning of the text, interpretation has become a way of referring to what the reader makes of the text.  The new-fashioned interpreter recognizes no reality principle (the way it is), only the pleasure principle (the way I want it to be) (38).

Who then is responsible for the consequences of such interpretation for the church and society after the text has been deconstructed and discredited?  Vanhoozer discusses implications of deconstruction for the author, the text, and the reader.

Author. In some sense, the author is to the text as God is to creation.  Vanhoozer writes:  “The author is the one who originates…Authorship implies ownership” (45-46) The author instills both authority and meaning to a text.  When in Genesis we read:

“Now out of the ground the LORD God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.” (Gen 2:19 ESV)

When God, the author of creation, delegates the task of naming the animals to Adam, Adam is functioning as an co-author and regent over creation.  This is why, for example, the word, authority, includes the word, author.

Vanhoozer writes:

“The author is the foundational principle in what we might call the traditional metaphysics of meaning.  According to this standard picture, the author is the sovereign subject of the sign, the one who rules over meaning, assigning names to things, using words to express thoughts and represent the world…Derrida’s deconstruction of the author is a more or less direct consequence of Nietzche’s announcement of the death of God (48).

Clearly, if the voice of the author is obscured either deliberately or by the text itself, then the attachment of the text to a particular social reality is severed and its authority impugned. Who said X, Y, Z?  We clearly care who said what [1].

Closely tied to the author’s ability to express intention or meaning is the idea that an independent reality exists that can capture and carry that meaning.  Vanhoozer writes:

“‘Realism’ is the metaphysical position which asserts that certain things are mind independent. Hermeneutical realism is the position that believes meaning to be prior to and independent of the process of interpretation. For the ‘naïve’ realist, there is a perfect match between language and the world…For the non-realist, on the other hand, human language and thoughts do not correspond to objective realities or to stable meanings.” (48)

Following the work of Jacques Derrida, “deconstruction is a painstaking taking-apart, a peeling away of the various layers—historical, rhetorical, ideological—of distinctions, concepts, texts, and whole philosophies, whose aim is to expose the arbitrary linguistic nature of their original construction.” (52)  Such analysis can yield new insights and interpretations or it can obscure the author and the intent of the author.  Vanhoozer observes:  “If there is no Author, then every interpretation is permitted.” (98)

The Text. In postmodern thinking, texts and books are distinguished.  Vanhoozer writes:

“Whereas the book resembled an unchanging substance, the text is more like a field of shifting forces. Whereas the book can be studied as though it were a discrete object at some distance from the interpreting substance, the text only comes to light as it is observed from some distance from different points of view.” (105)

The idea that the Bible as a book is unified by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit means that it is a discrete unit with meaning beyond the words found in particular chapters.  Thus, a book can have a stable meaning, if we believe in an objective reality and find unity in the authorship of the Holy Spirit. This idea, however, is taken as a theological assumption in postmodern thinking, which questions such assumptions.

Citing Gadamer and Ricoeur, Vanhoozer (106) notes that: “meaning is the result of a two-way encounter between text and reader.”   In this sense, the postmodern sees no stable meaning. Rather, Vanhoozer reports:  “the text is a network of signs and other texts, radically open and indeterminate.” (111)  Meaning requires a context (112).  Because deconstructive literary criticism places no priority on particular contexts, anarchy rules (138).  The idea of dismantling texts in playful interpretation gives no comfort when, having deconstructed the biblical text, nothing is offered to replace ita kind of theft of meaning and security.  Despair is substituted for purpose like a thief steals a purse yet there is no accountability (182-185).

The Reader.  Vanhoozer observers:

“…if the author is not the origin of meaning and if there is no such thing as ‘the sense of the text’, then meaning must be the creation ex libris of the reader… Meaning in the age of the reader is located neither behind nor in the text, but rather in front of it … Every literary theory is ultimately a theory about reading. Moreover, to say whose reading counts is ultimately to invoke an ethics, perhaps even a theology, of interpretation.” (148)

Vanhoozer further writes:

“Every reader is situated in a particular culture, time, and tradition.  No reading is objective; all reading is theory-laden.” (151)

It is at this point that cultural presuppositions become important.  If I only read books that were discussed on Oprah’s website, it is more important to know how Oprah picks her books than to know about my own tastes and preferences [2].

Having convinced us that understanding biblical interpretation in the postmodern age requires a sophisticated knowledge of philosophy, where does that leave the anti-intellectual majority of postmodern people? Clearly, the potential for manipulation is far-reaching—especially outside the church where there no presumption of an omnipresent, benevolent God. Is it any wonder that our young people are enormously skeptical of all forms of authority and leaving the church?

Kevin Vanhoozer’s book, Is There a Meaning in This Text, gives us a clearer picture of what all the shouting is about in biblical interpretation.  This second part of my review outlines Vanhoozer’s problem statement of our current dilemma. In part 3 of this review, I will examine Vanhoozer’s proposal for how to respond to this dilemma.

 

[1] Postmodern fights over the authorship of a biblical text frequently infer that the author’s words were “redacted” which implies that only subset of the text has authority over today’s reader. The fact that different critics find different ways to redact a particular text, the idea of placing oneself under the authority of scripture is practically impossible or, alternatively, one can claim that one believes in the authority of scripture but never have to actually change one’s behavior to comply with “authorative” texts.

[2] http://bit.ly/1O4lWC6

 

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