Vanhoozer: How Do We Understand the Bible? Part 3

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 2)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

What does it mean to be a faithful follower of Jesus in the postmodern context?

Ironically, the problem of finding meaning in a postmodern world points to God.  Framing a faithful response to the postmodern dilemma consumes more than half of Vanhoozer  book.  He  writes:

“Derrida’s announcement of the death of meaning alerts us to the indispensable tie between literary theory and theology. Deconstructionism, wholly inadvertently and with some irony, proves that God is the condition for the possibility of meaning and interpretation.” (198).

Following Plantinga, Vanhoozer believes:

“…we as Christians have both a right and a responsibility to begin our reflections about God, the world, and ourselves from Christian premises.  To this list, I now want to add meaning. My contention, briefly stated, is that because the undoing of interpretation rests on a theological mistake, we need theology to correct it. Second, I will argue that Christian theology, not deconstructionism, is the better response to the ethical challenge of the ‘other’.” (199)

His response therefore begins with the question:  “What happens if we begin with explicitly Christian assumptions about reality, knowledge, and ethics?” (200)  Vanhoozer organizes his proposal in terms of the author, the text, and the reader.

The Author

If God is the ultimate author of scripture, then paraphrasing Proverbs 1:7 Vanhoozer writes:  “the fear of the author is the beginning of literary knowledge” (201)[1].  Citing Ricoeur, Vanhoozer writes:

“To consider the text as an authorless entity is to commit what Ricoeur himself calls the ‘fallacy of the absolute text’…Strictly speaking…texts do not have intensions, nor do they act.  We do not ascribe agency to texts, nor do we praise or blame books; we rather direct our praise or blame to their authors.” (216)

In other words, Vanhoozer writes:  “the author is not only the cause of the text [that it is], but also the agent who determines what the text counts as [what it is].” (228)

Vanhoozer spends an enormous amount of energy reviewing the literature on speech acts.  He writes that: “to respect the moral rights of the author is essentially to receive his or her communication, not revise it.” (202)  Understanding speech acts is one way to receive this communication. The need to respect the author is no less for the ultimate author of scripture. Vanhoozer’s writes:

“My thesis is that the ‘fuller meaning’ of scripture—meaning associated with divine authorship—emerges only at the level of the whole canon…the canon is a complete and completed communication act, structured by a divine authorial intention.” (264-265)

We resurrect divine authorship by consulting the full counsel of scripture.

The Text

The idea that a text can have meaning and understanding that meaning are two different things (281)  Vanhoozer posits that:

“…the text can be a source of evidence and a means of knowledge not only about an author…,but also about what the author feels, knows, observes, and imagines.  Indeed, much of what we have in texts is testimony to something other than themselves or their authors.” (282)

To interpret is to make a claim and be willing to defend it (292).

Vanhoozer reviews a number of views of how to interpret and perspectives on dealing with disagreement. What is more interesting, however, is his view on the nature of the church. He writes:

“..the church represents that community of interpreters who share a primary concern for the Bible’s literal meaning.  It may also be because the church is that community in which the interpretative values—intellectual, ethical, and spiritual—are cultivated…literary knowledge is not simply a matter of having the right descriptions but also having the right dispositions.” (320)

Vanhoozer also explains the doctrine of “sola scriptura” as:

“a reminder that textual meaning is independent of our interpretative schemes and, hence, that our interpretations remain secondary commentaries that never acquire the status of the text itself” (321)

He sees “scripture interpreting scripture” as consistent with “sola scriptura” (331).  According to Vanhoozer, we redeem the text with:  “Correct interpretations describe the beliefs, thoughts, and feelings that guided and shaped the text as a communicative act.”  This is what he means by a “thick interpretation”.  By contrast, a thin interpretation is necessarily abbreviated or reductionistic (332).  He rounds out his discussion of redeeming the text with comments about genre.

The Reader

Vanhoozer is interested in an ethical response of the reader.  He writes:

“Some of the radical-response critics have concluded, consistently enough, that the role of the reader is to play, and to create.  There is no need, they urge, to go beyond aesthetics to ethics.” (368)

Vanhoozer reforms the reader in 4 steps:

  1. Distinguishing using, criticizing, and following a text;
  2. Reading involves implied moral rules;
  3. Honoring the limits imposed on interpretation by the text itself;
  4. Rooting the interpretation in the theology and spirituality of the reader (368-369).

He likens the church as an interpreter of scripture to a musician who is an interpreter of a score (441).  He sees the sins of interpretation as pride and sloth (462).

Kevin Vanhoozer’s Is there a Meaning in This Text? is a good read.  If you are able to spend the time to study it thoroughly, it will form you.  And you will never look at the Bible in quite the same way.


[1]The biblical cite is: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Pro 1:7 ESV)


First Theology: God, Scripture & Hermeneutics. 2002.  Colorado Springs:  IVP Academic.

“Body-Piercing, the Natural Sense and the Task of Theological Interpretation: A Hermeneutical Homily on John 19:34”, Ex Auditu 16:1-29

“Imprisoned or free? text, status, and theological interpretation in the master/slave discourse of Philemon,” pp. 51-94 in Adam, Fowl, Vanhoozer, and Watson, Reading Scripture with the Church.

“Ezekiel 14. ‘I, the Lord, have deceived that prophet: divine deception, inception, and communicative action,” pp. 73-98 in Michael Allen, ed., Theological Commentary: Evangelical Perspectives (T & T Clark)

“Ascending the Mountain, Singing the Rock: Biblical Interpretation Earthed, Typed, and Transfigured,” Modern Theology 28/4: 781-803

“Theological commentary and ‘the voice from heaven’: exegesis, ontology, and the travail of biblical interpretation,” pp. 269-98 in Eckhard Schnabel, ed., On the Writing of New Testament Commentaries: Festschrift for Grant R. Osborne on the Occasion of his 70th Birthday (Brill)

“‘Exegesis I know, and Theology I know, but who are you?’ Acts 19 and the Theological Interpretation of Scripture,” in Darren Sarisky, R. David Nelson, and Justin Stratis, eds., Theological Theology: Essays in Honor of John B. Webster.

Vanhoozer: How Do We Understand the Bible? Part 3


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