Is there a meaning in the Bible, or is meaning rather a matter of who is reading or of how one reads? Does Christian doctrine have anything to contribute to debates about interpretation, literary theory, and post modernity? These are questions of crucial importance for contemporary biblical studies and theology alike. Kevin Vanhoozer contends that the postmodern crisis in hermeneutics—”incredulity towards meaning,” a deep–set skepticism concerning the possibility of correct interpretation—is fundamentally a crisis in theology provoked by an inadequate view of God and by the announcement of God’s “death.” Part 1 examines the ways in which deconstruction and radical reader–response criticism “undo” the traditional concepts of author, text, and reading. Dr. Vanhoozer engages critically with the work of Derrida, Rorty, and Fish, among others, and demonstrates the detrimental influence of the postmodern “suspicion of hermeneutics” on biblical studies. In Part 2, Dr. Vanhoozer defends the concept of the author and the possibility of literary knowledge by drawing on the resources of Christian doctrine and by viewing meaning in terms of communicative action. He argues that there is a meaning in the text, that it can be known with relative adequacy, and that readers have a responsibility to do so by cultivating “interpretive virtues.” Successive chapters build on Trinitarian theology and speech act philosophy in order to treat the metaphysics, methodology, and morals of interpretation. From a Christian perspective, meaning and interpretation are ultimately grounded in God’s own communicative action in creation, in the canon, and preeminently in Christ. Prominent features in Part 2 include a new account of the author’s intention and of the literal sense, the reclaiming of the distinction between meaning and significance in terms of Word and Spirit, and the image of the reader as a disciple–martyr, whose vocation is to witness to something other than oneself. Is There a Meaning in This Text? guides the student toward greater confidence in the authority, clarity, and relevance of Scripture, and a well–reasoned expectation to understand accurately the message of the Bible. Is There a Meaning in This Text? is a comprehensive and creative analysis of current debates over biblical hermeneutics that draws on interdisciplinary resources, all coordinated by Christian theology. It makes a significant contribution to biblical interpretation that will be of interest to readers in a number of fields. The intention of the book is to revitalize and enlarge the concept of author–oriented interpretation and to restore confidence that readers of the Bible can reach understanding. The result is a major challenge to the central assumptions of postmodern biblical scholarship and a constructive alternative proposal—an Augustinian hermeneutic—that reinvigorates the notion of biblical authority and finds a new exegetical practice that recognizes the importance of both the reader’s situation and the literal sense.
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About the Author
Kevin J. Vanhoozer (PhD, Cambridge University, England) is Research Professor of Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. He is author of several books, including Is There a Meaning in This Text? The Bible, the Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology, and Faith Speaking Understanding: Performing the Drama of Doctrine. He also serves on the editorial board of the International Journal of Systematic Theology and the Journal of Theological Interpretation.
Read an Excerpt
This is not quite the book I set out to write. My interest in hermeneutics initially arose out of my attempt as a theologian to clarify the role of Scripture in theology. What does it mean to be 'biblical'? As a systematic theologian with a number of forthright exegete friends, I have long been aware of how easy it is to use Scripture to prove this or that doctrine, or to justify this or that practice, only to be accused of distorting the text. Of course, one does not have to be a scholar to misread the Bible; it can happen during daily devotions as well as during deconstruction. However, recent trends in hermeneutics may themselves be inadvertently aiding and abetting such misreading by propounding theories of interpretation that, in my opinion, drain the biblical witness of authority. I thus began writing this book with the aim of defending the Bible from its cultured hermeneutic despisers. If theology is largely biblical interpretation, then it is important to work with sound hermeneutic principles.
In the course of writing the book, several things happened. First, I came to appreciate certain aspects of deconstruction in a way that I had not anticipated. Second, I came to see that I was dealing with questions whose reach extends far beyond the realm of biblical interpretation alone. Insofar as postmodernity is a 'culture of interpretation,' I found myself dealing with issues at the very heart of the debate about the postmodern.(1) I have come to think that the way individuals and communities interpret the Bible is arguably the most important barometer of larger intellectual and cultural trends.(2) Third, and most important, I became increasingly convinced that many of the contentious issues at the heart of current debates about biblical interpretation, about interpretation in general, and about postmodern interpretation in particular, were 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. To be precise, it is a systematic and trinitarian theology of interpretation that promotes the importance of Christian doctrine for the project of textual understanding. What started out as a work in hermeneutic theology has become a book on theological hermeneutics.
N. T. Wright, in his excellent work on interpreting the Gospels, is under no illusion about the scope of the task facing today's student of the Bible, whether academic exegete or preacher. Fully to account for how to read the Gospels as historical, literary, and sacred texts demands much more than looking words up in a dictionary. The serious student of Scripture needs to develop an epistemology (theory of knowledge) and hermeneutic (theory of interpretation): 'Any philosophically minded literary critics looking for a worthwhile life's work might like to consider this as a possible project.'(3) My own view of the project is even more ambitious than Wright's, involving not only epistemology, but the metaphysics and ethics of meaning as well. Such is the task I here undertake --- to respond, from an explicitly Christian theological point of view, to the modern and postmodern challenges to biblical interpretation by marshaling a host of interdisciplinary resources and bringing them all to bear on the problems of textual meaning: Is there a meaning? Can we know it? What should we do about it?
I am aware that contemporary debates concerning theories of interpretation can be as intimidating to the lay reader as discussions of non-Euclidean geometry or quantum mechanics can be to the nonscientist. Nevertheless, meaning and interpretation are too important to be left to the specialists. Indeed, it follows from the Protestant emphasis on the priesthood of all believers that every Christian wrestle for himself or herself with the complexity of biblical interpretation. Reading Scripture is both privilege and responsibility.
The present work challenges what amounts to an emerging consensus that sees meaning as relative to the encounter of text and reader. The interpretation of Scripture, on this view, owes as much to community tradition as to the canonical text itself. The view here defended --- that meaning is independent of our attempts to interpret it --- is a minority opposition view in the parliament of contemporary literary theory.
Several groups have, at different times and places, read or heard portions of the following arguments. Students at various institutions endured the gestation of many of its arguments. I am grateful to those who participated in the 'Biblical Interpretation' seminar at New College, Edinburgh, to my erstwhile doctoral students at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School who took part in my seminar on 'Meaning, Truth, and Scripture,' and to Tim Ward, one of my current doctoral students, who read most of the manuscript and offered helpful suggestions. Thanks also to those comparative literature students in Edinburgh University's 'Literary Theory' course for allowing a theologian to pose awkward questions concerning the ethics of interpretation. A word of thanks is also due the Working Party on the Interpretation of Scripture of the Church of Scotland's Panel on Doctrine for their ecumenical toleration of my attempt to draw a distinction between right and wrong interpretation. I especially appreciated their alerting me to the dangers of abstruseness inherent in my project of reinvigorating author-oriented interpretation through a creative retrieval of Reformed theology and speech-act philosophy.
1. The term 'interpretation' appears in the present work with two very different senses. The more positive sense (call it realist) treats interpretation as a mode of knowledge. The more negative sense (call it nonrealist) views interpretation as an exercise in human ingenuity and invention and fails to carry the connotation of knowledge.
2. This is so especially, but not exclusively, in Western societies. Had time and space permitted, I would have liked to have dealt more with the way emerging African and Asian theologies interpret the Bible and to explore how their approaches also reflect broader social and intellectual trends.
3. N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (London: SPCK, 1992), 61.
Table of ContentsContents Preface Introduction: Theology and Literary Theory 1. Faith Seeking Textual Understanding Three parables on reading and reflection Philosophy and literary theory: from Plato to postmodernity Meaning and interpretation: the morality of literary knowledge The three ages of criticism: the plan of the book Augustinian hermeneutics Part One: Undoing Interpretation: Authority, Allegory, Anarchy 2. Undoing the Author: Authority and Intentionality Authorship and authority: the birth of the “author” Undoing the author’s authority Undoing the author’s intention Has the Bible lost its voice? 3. Undoing the Book: Textuality and Indeterminacy Demeaning meaning? What is a text? Meaning in Antioch and Alexandria Textual indeterminacy: the rule of metaphor Interpretive agnosticism? 4. Undoing the Reader: Contextuality and Ideology The birth of the reader The aims of reading: literary knowledge and human interests Interpretive violence Power reading and the politics of canon Undoing biblical ideology The ethics of undoing: the “new morality” of knowledge Part Two: Redoing Interpretation: Agency, Action, Affect 5. Resurrecting the Author: Meaning As Communicative Action The physics of promising: from codes to communion Dissenting voices: speech rehabilitation The “what” of meaning: texts as communicative acts The “who” of meaning: authors as communicative agents Communicative action and the author’s intention Meaning and significance redivivus 6. Redeeming the Text: The Rationality of Literary Acts Belief in meaning as properly basic: the nature of literary knowledge The conflict of interpretations: the problem of literary knowledge How to describe communicative acts: the norm of literary knowledge Genre and communicative rationality: the method of literary knowledge 7. Reforming the Reader: Interpretive Virtue, Spirituality, and Communicative Efficacy The reader as user, critic, and follower Is exegesis without ideology possible? Reader response and reader responsibility Understanding and overstanding The Spirit of understanding: discerning and doing the Word The vocation of the reader: interpretation as discipleship Conclusion: A Hermeneutics of the Cross 8. A Hermeneutics of Humility and Conviction Trinitarian hermeneutics The verbal icon and the authorial face Hermeneutic humility and literary knowledge Bibliography Name Index Subject Index
What People are Saying About This
“There is meaning in Vanhoozer's text! Plenty of it, in fact. It is a meaning that traces with a discerning eye the history of authorship and authority, of readership and interpretationright up to the present time and all under the umbrella of both thinking Christianly and living Christianly. Here is historical, philosophical, and theological exegesiscapped with creative constructionof the first order. As was said to Saint Augustine, on whose thought Vanhoozer builds, Tolle, lege. Take up! Read!” Robert H. Gundry
“What starts off as contemporary hermeneutics to justify the move from biblical text to systematic theology becomes full-blown, highly sophisticated, theological hermeneutics in Is There a Meaning in This Text?. The decade this book has been in print has not diminished my enthusiasm for it. Vanhoozer is one of the few contemporary scholars who takes a balanced measure of postmodern thought within an unflinching Christian confessionalism. Here is neither mere traditionalism nor ephemeral faddishness. If in certain respects the discussion has moved on since Vanhoozer authored this book, that is merely a way of saying that his contribution toward pointing the way forwardthe Christian way forwardout of several interpretive morasses has been seminal.” D. A. Carson
“Over the past fifty years, evangelical theology has been beset by three major questions. Is the Bible the totally truthful Word of God and what does it mean to confess that it is? Is the God of the Bible the almighty, all-knowing Lord of time and eternity? How do we proclaim Jesus Christ as the unique and universal Savior in a world of vacuous meaning and privatized belief? Each of these issues begs the question that is the title of this book: Is There a Meaning in this Text? Kevin Vanhoozer’s landmark study is must reading for anyone interested in the difficult but necessary work of biblical interpretation. I welcome this anniversary edition with enthusiasm.” Timothy George
“Vanhoozer challenges a ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ and advocates a ‘hermeneutics of humility and confidence.’ His project succeeds because he does not simply dismiss those literary critics, theologians, and philosophers whose work undermines our confidence in biblical interpretation, but he learns from them as he offers a more powerful model for understanding the communicative act between author and reader in the biblical text. As a biblical scholar and commentator, I have found in Vanhoozer’s work a theological foundation to my interpretation. Everyone interested in biblical interpretation should read and ponder this profound book.” Tremper Longman III
This book provides an excellent reply to those who might underestimate the threat of postmodernism, especially in hermeneutics. It still repays study as a classic landmark in its field. The author provides a convincing critique of much that is destructive for readers of the Bible in Derrida and others. Vanhoozer also addresses the sad decline of epistemology, alongside a good critique of Richard Rorty’s neo-pragmatic philosophy. He usefully discusses the respective merits and weaknesses of hermeneutics oriented towards the author, the text, and readers, respectively. He includes critiques of deconstruction and reader-response theories, as well as a positive account of speech-act theories and theological hermeneutics. Anthony C. Thiselton
“Seldom does one come across a book that combines, as this one does, breadth of learning, depth of analysis, and clarity of expression. Defenders of authorial intention typically caricature thinkers who argue in favor of the indeterminacy of meaning. Not so for Vanhoozer. It is clear that he not only understands opposing arguments, but appreciates their value and has learned from them. This alone makes his own thesis very persuasive. Even those who disagree with him will recognize that this impressive and literate volume is to date the most capable defense of the author. And beyond that, readers will find the book a thorough education in several areas of modern thought.” Moisés Silva
“An exhaustive and well-researched account of modern hermeneutics that serves to introduce the subject in a comprehensive way and also to propose a constructive approach for our season. Now a standard in the field and properly so.” Christopher R. Seitz
“Is There a Meaning in This Text? is a daring attempt to think theologically about hermeneutics, treating biblical interpretation as a helpful paradigm for all acts of reading. Vanhoozer's thought has deepened and developed over the years, yet this remains an important book. It offers profound insight into much that is at stake in debates about 'postmodernism' and the ethics of interpretation. Moreover, Is There a Meaning in This Text? remains a crucial element in the intellectual trajectory of the leading evangelical voice recovering theological interpretation of Scripture.” Daniel J. Treier
“Is There a Meaning in this Text? was widely recognized as a major contribution to biblical hermeneutics when it was published in 1998, and it is excellent news that it is to be given a new lease of publishing life and made available to a fresh generation of Bible students and expositors.” Howard Marshall
“Kevin Vanhoozer’s Is There Meaning in this Text? is more biblical than any hermeneutics book I’ve seen because it cares so much about how language works. After teaching the Bible for twenty-five years, I’ve become convinced that we don’t given enough attention to how language works, how one person (in this case God) can communicate intent to another person (in this case the church). We abort the process of interpretation when we stop at an imperative and think we’ve got ourselves a commandment or a prohibition. Vanhoozer probes behind mood and voice to plumb evangelical depths for understanding divine intent in written form. Evangelical students who are nurtured on this book will change the church.” Scot Mc Knight