Finding Closure

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in ChristJesus said to him, 

No one who puts his hand to the plow and 

looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.

(Luke 9:62)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

It’s not how you start, but how you finish that matters to God. Jesus makes this point when he finds himself alone, talking to the woman caught in adultery:

Jesus stood up and said to her, Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you? She said, No one, Lord. And Jesus said, Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more. (John 8:10-11)

We all have history. What we share in Jesus Christ is the opportunity to live into a future defined by who God says we are, not what our sins might define us to be. This is the essence of our freedom in Christ.

The Plow

When Jesus talks in Luke 9:62 cited above about putting ones hand to the plow, he is reminding his followers of the calling of Elisha by Elijah the prophet:

So he departed from there and found Elisha the son of Shaphat, who was plowing with twelve yoke of oxen in front of him, and he was with the twelfth. Elijah passed by him and cast his cloak upon him. And he left the oxen and ran after Elijah and said, Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you. And he said to him, Go back again, for what have I done to you? And he returned from following him and took the yoke of oxen and sacrificed them and boiled their flesh with the yokes of the oxen and gave it to the people, and they ate. Then he arose and went after Elijah and assisted him. (1 Kgs 19:19-21)

Here in this story, no one questions the commitment of Elisha to follow Elijah, but Jesus’ ministry is coming to an end and he demands a higher level of commitment as he prepares his disciples for his own death.

Os Guinness recounts the story of one eighteen year-old Jane Lucretia D’Esterre, Guinness’ great-great-grandmother, who distraught over the death of her husband in 1815 in a duel, gave up the thought of suicide through drowning as she stood on a riverbank because she noticed the son of a neighbor plowing a field:

Meticulous, absorbed, skilled, he displayed such as pride in his work that the newly turned furrows looked as finely execute as the paint strokes on an artist’s canvas. (Guinness 2003, 184) 

Mind you, this young man plowed with a team of horses that have a mind of their own!

Guinness’ story not only reminds me of the story of Elisha’s calling, but also of the importance of attending to our daily work as service not only for our supervisors but for the Lord. Imagine what might have happened to the young woman if this young man had abandoned his efforts after only plowing half his field that day.

Finishing well

The need to complete what we start, to take risks to advance God’s kingdom, is highlighted in Jesus’ Parable of the Talents. In this parable Jesus describes a businessman who, in preparing for a trip, leaves his assets in the hands of trusted assistants, in amounts corresponding to their abilities. The first receiving, for example, a million dollars, another two million, and a third five million.

When he returned from his trip, he asked for an accounting from his assistants. The latter two assistants invested his money and doubled it, earning their bosses’ praise: well done, good and faithful servants. The businessman then promoted these assistants placing them in charge of entire divisions in his company.

By contrast, the first assistant stashed the boss’ money in a vault and simple returned what he had been given. Seeing no gain from his confidence in this first assistant, the businessman criticized him calling him lazy and gave his million to the assistant now holding ten. The businessman then fired this assistant and sent him on his way. (Matt 25: 14-30)

Celebrate the Season

In my own life, I have always sensed that life is short, too short to dawdle. I have learned, however, that rather than running from one task to another, we need to celebrate the seasons of life both by completing them and by marking their completion.

Remember the Exodus of the people of Israel from Egypt. Once they crossed the Red Sea and witnessed the salvation of God in the destruction of the Egyptian army, they danced and sang praises to God:

“I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.” (Exod 15:1)

After then spending forty years in the desert, God parted the Jordan River and they crossed into the Promised Land. As they did, God instructed Joshua to mark the occasion:

And Joshua said to them, Pass on before the ark of the Lord your God into the midst of the Jordan, and take up each of you a stone upon his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the people of Israel, that this may be a sign among you. When your children ask in time to come, What do those stones mean to you? then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it passed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. So these stones shall be to the people of Israel a memorial forever.” (Josh 4:5-7)

These memory stones are sometimes called Ebenezers. Modern Ebenezers are things like birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, graduations, funerals, and simple things, like keeping a journal of answered prayers and other divine interventions in your life. 

When I have a bad day—get stuck in a moment—and need a good talking to, I often go back and read my own prayers and other writings. Being reminded of where I have been (God’s goodness in my life) and where I am going (our future in Christ) reminds me of whose I am and gives life meaning.


Guinness, Os. 2003. The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

Finding Closure

Also See:

Value Of Life

Other ways to engage online:

Author site:, Publisher site:


Continue Reading

Tim Keller Makes Sense, Part 2

Timothy Keller, Making Sense of GodTimothy Keller.[1]  2016. Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical.  New York: Viking Press. (Part 1, Part 3)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Modern and Postmodern

The attempt to apply the scientific method to all aspects of life defined the modern era and people looked upon the professionals undertaking this project as cultural heroes. Early in life I knew people whose past time consisted to trips to the airport to watch the planes come and go, much like our grandparents might have spent time in adoration at a train station. Pilots, doctors, engineers, and other professionals (even pastors) earned our respect solving society’s problems and advancing living standards in the process.

The beginning of the end of the modern era came during the Second World War when humanity looked in horror at the application of scientific methods to the task of killing vast numbers of human beings. In a very real sense, the postmodern era began with a deep skepticism that rational thinking should be applied to all aspects of life, especially relationships among different ethnic and religious groups. The focus on efficiency in the modern era morphed into a focus on equity in the postmodern era. Just like a collage can contain different and contrasting pieces all hung in balance, people often held incoherent views and accepted the incoherence.


In part two of his book, Making Sense of God, Timothy Keller examines some of these incoherencies. The general theme of part two is: religion is more than you think it is.

We care a lot about the existence of incoherencies in our worldview because they reveal hidden agendas that might not be accepted if brought into the light. Keller writes:

“I hope by now my more skeptical readers will see that neither secularism not Christianity has the main ‘burden of proof.’ Western secularity is not the absence of faith but a new set of beliefs about the universe. These beliefs cannot be proven, are not self-evident to most people, and have, as we shall continue to see, their own contradictions and problems just as other religious faiths do. One significant problem is that modern secularism’s humanistic values [like human rights] are inconsistent with—even undermined by—its belief in a material-only universe.” (53)

Secularism as an Alternative Faith

The fact that secularity is an alternative set of beliefs (an atheistic religion) means that, for example, it can be taught in public schools without the scrutiny and prohibitions given “religious” beliefs, a huge, practical advantage for those promoting these beliefs. For many Christians, this observation motivates alternatives like private and homeschooling, posing an enormous burden on family resources and energy.

The fact that many of these secular beliefs are not time-tested the same way that traditional religions have been means that we simply do not know how lives will be affected by the children who have been so vigorously indoctrinated. Given the huge human toll associated with the century-long experiment with communism, this lack of time-testing should be viewed with great suspicion.

Crisis of Meaning

“What is the meaning of life?” (57) For years people have joked about this question, but it poses a defining weakness in secularism, especially the Marxian variants. Placing the individual at the center of cultural begs the question of how the individual came into being and such prominence, in the absence of biblical faith. The secular account of creation claims that we evolved from a historical accident, which implies that life has no intrinsic meaning—we are simply a highly evolved bacteria. Political correctness (shouting down opponents) began with Marx who did not want people citing the Bible’s creation account because his theory, known as dialectical materialism, did not have a defensible alternative.

So Why Else Do We Care About the Meaning of Life?

Keller cites an interesting story by Atul Gawande who:

“tells of a doctor working at a nursing home who persuaded its administrator to bring in dogs, cats, parakeets, a colony of rabbits, and even a group of laying hens to be cared for by the residents. The results were significant. ‘The residents began to wake up and come to life. People who we had believed weren’t able to speak started speaking … People who had been completely withdrawn and nonambulatory started coming to nurses’ stations and saying, ‘I’ll take the dog for a walk.’ All the parakeets were adopted and name by the residents.’ The use and need for psychotropic drugs for agitation dropped significantly, to 38 percent of the previous level. And ‘deaths fell 15 percent.’” (58-59)

Why? Keller concludes: “we all seek a cause beyond ourselves.” (59) Obviously, a philosophy like secularism that denigrates human value and the search for meaning is seriously flawed. It is not enough to be housed and fed.

Six Basic Human Needs

The core of Keller’s argument in part 2 focuses on six basic human needs: meaning, satisfaction, freedom, identity, hope, and justice. (216) In his own words, these points are made:

“…in each chapter, I looked at Christianity’s unsurpassed offers—a meaning that suffering cannot remove, a satisfaction not based on circumstances, a freedom that does not hurt but rather enhances love, an identity that does not crush you or exclude others, a moral compass that does not turn you into an oppressor, and a hope that can face anything, even death.” (216)

The purpose of this discussion is to convince secular readers that the Gospel is indeed a sensible alternative.


My brief overview of the second part of Timothy Keller’s book, Making Sense of God, does not do it justice. Keller’s book is a jewel. It answers better than most books focused on apologetics some of the basic concerns of our age. In part three of this review, I will turn to Keller’s last question: how does Christianity make sense?


Gawande, Atul. 2014. Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. New York: Metropolitan Books.


Tim Keller Makes Sense, Part 2

Also see:

Tim Keller Makes Sense, Part 1 

Keller Argues the Case for God 

Keller Engages Galatians; Speaks Gospel 

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

Author site:, Publisher site:

Newsletter at:

Continue Reading

Tim Keller Makes Sense, Part 1

Timothy Keller, Making Sense of GodTimothy Keller.[1]  2016. Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical.  New York: Viking Press. (Part 2, Part 3)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Why does anyone care about theology, the study of God? In our thoroughly secular society, God would seem to be irrelevant, yet these are not happy times. Suicide rates have recently reached record levels and life expectancy went down last year in America for the first time driven by increases in death rates from preventable causes. If your faith is in the basic goodness of human beings, why is nuclear war an increasing worry? If your faith is in rational decision-making and technology, why Is life expectancy declining here in America due to preventable causes? As the presumptions of secular society have proven to be at best false and at worse idolatrous, turning to God and the study of his ways might seem a sensible response.


In his recent book, Making Sense of God, Timothy Keller sets forth these objectives:

“…I will compare and contrast how Christianity and secularism … seek to provide meaning, satisfaction, freedom, identity, a moral compass, and hope—all things so crucial that we cannot live life without them. I will be arguing that Christianity makes the most emotional and cultural sense…” (4-5)

A bit later he addresses his target audience: “If you think that Christianity doesn’t hold much promise of making sense to a thinking person, then this book is written for you.” (5) Keller writes in three parts: (1) Why does anyone need religion? (2) Religion is more than you think it is; and (3) Christianity makes sense. (vii-viii)

This review is written in three parts that correspond roughly to Keller’s own divisions. The first part will, in addition, provide an overview of the book.

Who is Timothy Keller?

Timothy Keller founded Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Manhattan, New York in 1989. While many pastors have founded churches in recent years, Keller stands out for having successfully witnessed to young, urban professionals with a faithful message, something thought inconceivable until he did it. He writes prolificly about Christian apologetics and his writing is passionately followed by young pastors and seminarians interested in urban ministry. He grew up in Pennsylvania, attended Bucknell University (BS), Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (MDiv), and Westminster Theological Seminary (PhD).

Keller distinguishes three uses of the word secular. In the first, a secular society is one that separates religion from the state, as is true in most Western countries. In the second, a secular person focuses on the material world and is skeptical that anything exists outside it. Finally, a secular culture focuses on the present, material reality and “meaning in life, guidance, and happiness are understood and sought in present-time economic prosperity, material comfort, and emotional fulfillment.” In a secular culture, even people professing faith may not act on it in making significant life decisions. (2-3)

In this sense, secularism is an atheistic religion, one of many, because God no longer occupies first priority in the lives of secular people, regardless of their professed religion.

Why Does Anyone Need Religion?

While the number of cultural Christians continues to decline in the U.S., the number of devote Christians continues to grow here and abroad. Why? Keller offers two reasons:

“…many people find secular reason to have ‘things missing’ from it that are necessary to live life well. Another explanation is that great numbers of people intuitively sense a transcendent realm beyond the natural world.” (11).

What’s Missing?

Secular postmodernism asserts many rights, such as human rights, that are a legacy of Christian morality, but it has no justification for maintaining them outside the Christian tradition. For the Jew or the Christian, human rights make perfect sense because they believe that we are created in the image of God (Gen 1:27), but for the Marxist, who does not believe God exists and believes that all rights are conferred by the state, such logic seems meaningless. Citing Habermas, Keller writes:

“The ideals of freedom…of conscience, human rights and democracy [are] the direct legacy of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love…To this day, there is no alternative to it.” (13)

For the radical individualist, the absence of any moral obligation beyond the individual leaves no philosophical justification for human rights yet most assert human rights should be respected without a justification. Passing a law to assert disembodied values can certainly be done, but what happens when an evil coalition passes contrary laws? Many people have sensed that something important is missing and have come to see faith in God as essential to maintaining a just society.

A Sense of Transcendence

The sense of transcendence becomes obvious when contemplating the limits of the material world. Keller writes:

“Steve Jobs, when contemplating his own death, confessed that he felt that ‘it’s strange to think that you accumulate all this experience…and it just goes away. So I really want to believe that something survives, that maybe your consciousness endures.” (16)

In my own experience, I came to understand that even nihilism, complete denial of the existence of God, points itself to God because the human heart refuses to live without hope.


Timothy Keller’s book, Making Sense of God, is a jewel. It answers better than most books focused on apologetics some of the basic concerns of our age. In parts two and three of this review, I will turn to Keller’s other two concerns: why religion is more than you think it is and how Christianity makes sense.


Habermas, Jürgen. 2006. Time of Transitions. UK: Cambridge.



Tim Keller Makes Sense, Part 1

Also see:

Keller Argues the Case for God 

Keller Engages Galatians; Speaks Gospel 

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

Author site:, Publisher site:

Newsletter at:

Continue Reading

Frankl Finds Meaning Outside Self

Vicktor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning

Frankl Finds Meaning Outside Self

Viktor E. Frankl. 2008. Man’s Search for Meaning: A Classic Tribute to Hope from the Holocaust (Orig Pub 1946).[1] Translated by Ilse Lasch. London: Rider.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

What is the meaning of life? “To glorify God and fully to enjoy him forever.”[2] Reminding ourselves of the centrality of God in our lives is a good theme for Holy Week.

For unbelievers, life is a bit more complicated, kind of like the mathematics of planetary motion for people who still believe the universe revolves around the earth. The mathematics of planetary motion became so much easier after Copernicus demonstrated that the earth revolves around the sun, not vice versa.


In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl shares both his concentration camp experiences during the holocaust and his observations as a logotherapist (meaning therapist) on the meaning of life. (104) His purpose in writing, as stated in his preface, is that: “I thought it might be helpful to people who are prone to despair.” (12)

Problem of Despair

This purpose statement is a massive understatement, as we later learn from Frankl’s own summary of the predicament of our times, when he writes:

“Every age has its own collective neurosis, and every age needs its own psychotherapy to copy with it. The existential vacuum which is the mass neurosis of the present time can be described as a private and personal form of nihilism; for nihilism can be defined as a contention that being has no meaning.” (31)

Neurosis can be defined as an “excessive and irrational anxiety or obsession”[3] while an existential vacuum (lack of meaning in life) “manifests itself mainly in a state of boredom” which afflicts 25 percent of European students and about 60 percent of American students, according to Frankl’s own statistics. (110) As a parent, I used to say that the two most dangerous words in the teenage vocabulary were “I’m bored”; apparently, Frankl would agree.

Meaning of Life

In reading Frankl’s work, we can surmise that Frank’s life work as a logotherapist arose immediately out of his experience during the Holocaust, but we are never explicitly told. What is remarkable is that Frankl, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was offered the opportunity to immigrate to America before such opportunities went away, but stayed in Vienna to look after his parents who were not offered this opportunity (13).

Why link meaning in life to experiences in a concentration camp? Viktor again does not explicitly tell us, but he does explain how he managed to survive the Holocaust when 27/28 camp inmates did not. Frankl busied himself in the camps contemplating the lectures that he would give after the war on the psychology of the concentration camp! (82) In other words, this book was the therapy that he administered to himself in the camps—outlining what he would write in this book. Contemplating the meaning of life in the camps gave life meaning, as he spent his days laying railroad tracks and, later, caring for inmates dying of typhoid.

Surviving in the Camps

Frankl offers numerous tips to prospective concentration camp inmates on how to survive. Among his observations are:

  • Don’t draw attention to yourself from sadistic guards.
  • Shave daily, walk briskly, and stand up straight to look healthy enough for work.
  • Applaud profusely when sadistic guards read poetry.
  • In walking in formation, stay in the middle or the front to avoid those that stumble and the beatings that follow.
  • Offer free psychiatric counseling to guards in need of it.

Short timers, who have given up on life, ignore these rules and smoke cigarettes that might otherwise be traded for food.

Critical Role of Meaning

A critical point in all this craziness is that, according to Frankl, survival depended on finding meaning in suffering. Frankl reports that the death rates in the camps days after Christmas in 1945 rose dramatically, not because of any external deprivation, but simply because inmates who had hoped to be released by Christmas gave up the will to live in the days thereafter. (84) When life hangs by a thread, small changes in attitude make a difference. Frankl writes:

“Woe to him who saw no more sense in his life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore no point in carrying on. He was soon lost…we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.” (85)

So Frankl learned that inmates needed to live for other people who depended on them and to live to finish unfinished tasks, like the book he was to write. (87, 109) In other words, meaning comes not from looking inside one’s self, but from transcending one’s self.(131)


Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning is an unusually fascinating book. Frankl does not dwell on the horrors of the camps, but develops lessons from it for daily life in a postmodern world. When he discusses his survival tips, my mind immediately jumped to office situations where the same tips would be pertinent, suggesting not an opportunity for dark humor but that the camp experiences helped Frankl strip away the thin veil of the civilized world to see more fundamental truths. This is a book that you will want to read and, perhaps, return to occasionally for reference.


[1]Ein Psycholog ergebt das Konzentrationslager (A Psychiatrist’s Experience of the Concentration Camp).

[2]“The Larger Catechism” (7.111) The Book of Confessions. Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Part 1. 2004. Louisville: Office of the General Assembly.


Also see:

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

Author site:, Publisher site:

Newsletter at:

Continue Reading

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.


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.


Vanhoozer: How Do We Understand the Bible? Part 2

Continue Reading

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?


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 stages:  author, text, and reader (25).

  • In the first stage, 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 stage, 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 stage, 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.


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.


[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”?   (

[2] My book, A Christian Guide to Spirituality (, 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)


[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;


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

Also see:

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

Author site:, Publisher site:

Newsletter at:

Continue Reading