Tuesday, 17 October 2006

Kevin Vanhoozer: first theology

Kevin Vanhoozer is one of the finest theologians working today in the tradition of North American evangelicalism – and as a theorist of theological hermeneutics he has few peers. Some of his central insights are articulated in this collection of essays: First Theology: God, Scripture and Hermeneutics (Downers Grove: IVP, 2002), 384 pp. – and I’m grateful to IVP for a review copy.

For Vanhoozer, the term “first theology” describes the complex problematic of God, Scripture and hermeneutics. The proper locus for thinking God and Scripture together is hermeneutics; from this perspective, he says, “the questions of God, Scripture and hermeneutics [are] one problem” (p. 9). In exploring hermeneutics, Vanhoozer is not trying to develop an isolated, pre-theological prolegomenon. On the contrary, he wants to do “theology beyond prolegomena” by pursuing “a way of speaking of God that allows the theological matter to influence the theological method” (p. 16).

One of Vanhoozer’s central claims is that “[o]ur view of Scripture affects our view of God, just as our view of God colors our view of Scripture” (p. 30). This means that we cannot discuss God apart from Scripture, nor can we discuss Scripture apart from a trinitarian doctrine of God.

Vanhoozer conceptualises this God-Scripture relationship by describing “God as a triune communicative agent and Scripture as the written locus of God’s communicative action” (p. 38). Theology itself, then, is simply “God-centered biblical interpretation,” and as such the aim of theology is to develop a biblical imagination, so that we see reality as Scripture sees it (pp. 37-38). Indeed, faith itself means “having your thinking, imagining, language and life shaped by the biblical texts” in all their diverse literary genres (p. 334). Although there is much that is of value here, one wishes that Vanhoozer would attend not only to the literary genres of the Bible but also to the Bible’s historicity – and in this way he might overcome his fundamental distrust of the historical-critical method. (Most professional biblical scholars would be surprised to learn [p. 18] that “the critical approach promises knowledge but does not deliver”!)

Some of the book’s most impressive essays are concerned with specific hermeneutical reflections on the doctrine of God. Above all, Vanhoozer emphasises the communicative character of God’s being. Perhaps his most profound and most significant proposal is the thesis that “God’s presence is neither spatial nor substantive but communicative”; it is “the presence of personal address and response” (p. 90). Here, he suggests that such a communicative conception can overcome the impasse between classical theism and panentheism. Thus he depicts the God-world relationship as one of “communicative rather than causal agency” (p. 117). “God comes to the world in, and as, Word” (p. 123) – God is with his people not substantially, spatially or causally, but “through speech acts” (p. 149).

In dialogue with the tradition of Barth, Vanhoozer seeks to overcome the personal/propositional dichotomy that has long characterised discussion of the doctrine of Scripture. He argues that “[t]he neo-orthodox emphasis on the self-revelation of God is faulty only in its neglect of the semantic means by which this disclosure takes place” (p. 157) – a point that has also been raised by leading British theologians like Colin Gunton and John Webster.

In his depiction of Scripture, Vanhoozer thus utilises speech-act theory to fuse the central emphases of “neo-orthodoxy” and conservative evangelicalism: “the Bible is the Word of God (in the sense of its illocutionary acts) and … the Bible becomes the Word of God (in the sense of achieving its perlocutionary functions)” (p. 195). Just here, the fusion of the doctrine of God with the doctrine of Scripture is clear, since the Bible is precisely the locus of what God does by speaking and of what happens as a result of God’s speech.

Such a view of Scripture is, of course, a long way from “the postmodern despair of language.” In contrast to such hermeneutical “despair,” Vanhoozer advocates a Christian “delight in language” based on the realisation that language is itself the gift of God (p. 33). Further, he suggests that textual interpretation depends on the virtues of faith, hope and love: faith that there is “a voice, a meaning in the text”; hope that the interpretive community can attain understanding; and love as “a mutual relation of self-giving between text and reader” (p. 231). These hermeneutical virtues are not our own achievement, but they are the work of the Spirit – so that the prayer of the theologian is: “Veni spiritus interpres! Come interpreter Spirit!” (p. 235).

Vanhoozer’s attempt to bring together the doctrines of God and Scripture by way of a renewed theological hermeneutic demands close attention. For those who feel daunted by the size of Vanhoozer’s major volumes – Is There a Meaning in This Text? and The Drama of Doctrine – this book’s account of hermeneutical theology will serve as a welcome introduction to the work of one of the most creative evangelical theologians working today.

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