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.


Anonymous said...

Thanks, as ever, Ben, for a helpful review - which, as do all good reviews, sends you straight to Abe or Amazon (though this one is an exception, as I already have Is There a Meaning in the Text? and await the imminent delivery of The Drama of Doctrine).

Your review reminded me of the epigram of the first chapter of Evils of Theodicy (2000), where Terrence Tilley draws together three famous sayings:

"In the Beginning was the Word" - John 1;
"In the Beginning was the Deed" - Goethe, Faust;
"In the Beginning is the Relation" - Martin Buber, I and Thou.

There are a couple of other resonances that immediately come to mind.

First: Augustine's emphatic emphasis on the hermeneutical centrality of the "rule of caritas". Augustine's hermeneutics is an eminently pragmatic hermeneutics which is driven by the the love of neighbour. While Augustine welcomes a plurality of interpretations, he rejects any that do not lead the readerly community to acts of agape.

Second: von Balthasar's theology of language. With Wittgenstein, von Balthasar sees language as an inherently public practice; but, further, he insists that language points to a transcendent source, mediated by the Logos, whose historical form is Jesus of Nazareth, and gifted to us by the community. Having come to self-awareness through their mother's smile, children then learn the rhetoric of communion. Lovely, really.

Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

I hope this work by Vanhoozer does better on Ricoeur than his previous work.

byron smith said...

Ben, it seems that your lack of shelf-space is explained by the plethora of publishing houses knocking down your door to give you review copies of their latest books!

joel hunter said...

In this "fusion," what happens to the very quiddity of conservative evangelical doctrine of Scripture, inerrancy? With what notion of truth does Vanhoozer "overcome the personal/propositional dichotomy" regarding Scripture? The question you raised about his distrust of historical-critical determinations makes me wonder how successful his "overcoming" is in incorporating and reinterpreting the former positions. His stance toward critical theology suggests an attempt to eliminate historical considerations, a most unhermeneutical position to adopt.

I am fascinated by the claim that theology is simply "God-centered biblical interpretation." I very much like what follows (e.g., seeing reality as Scripture sees it--a laudable premodern disposition). But I am struck by the qualifier "biblical." Why is theology limited to "biblical" interpretation? That doesn't seem right at all. Theology is concerned with the movement of the heavens. Theology is concerned with economic relations. Theology is concerned with justice. Theology is concerned with the play of shadows on a stone. "God-centered interpretation" is interpretation all the way down. Perhaps I am unfairly demanding a radicality that Vanhoozer's project needn't undertake?

Chris TerryNelson said...

I'm told that Dr. Wesley Wildman over at Boston University had this book recommended to him in order to supply an evangelical perspective for his class on hermeneutics. Having studied with Searle himself (the one who coined "speech-act theory"), Wildman was horrified with Vanhoozer's treatment of Searle and spent most of the lecture criticizing Vanhoozer for not making a distinction between his own version of "speech-act theory" and Searle's.

Did you find this to be the case, Ben?

Ryan said...


having read 'is there a meaning in this text' and 'first theology', i would have to say that Vanhoozer presents himself as drawing upon speech act theory, and its theorists, but not specifically replicating Searle's model (and it should be said that while Searle coined the term, J.L. Austin's work was what put 'speech act theory (or whatever you want to call it) in motion, at least in its modern form. Seale owns 'speech act theory' no more than does n.t. wright own 'third quest'.

also, in first theology Vanhoozer has an essay further developing his speech act theory ideas, but this time drawing upon William P. Alston recent and excellent book on the subject. Having not read 'drama of doctrine' i don't know what Vanhoozer does with it that work.

regarding the historical-critical method'and its 'promising knowledge, but failing to deliver' it would be well to look at the context of the passage, rather than just parsing it out, acontextually.

page 18:
'...Lewis notes that in the modern world, all the prestige lies with those who look at things--those who are a step removed from the experience on whihc they bring their analytic-critical techniques to bear. To look at things means to contemplate them in dispassionate and disinterested--in a word, detached--terms. such has been the fate of the bible in modern times. By and large biblical scholars look at the Bible--at questions of its authorship, at questions of its composition, at questions of its historical reliability--instead of along it.

well why not? if modernity is the theoretical age par excellence, an extended discourse on method, and if epistemology reigns virtually unchallenged as first philosophy, why shouldn't theology begin with critical study of the bible? I can think of at least two reasons

...second, because the critical approach promises knowledge but does not deliver. What we get instead is an abbreviated, short-circuited substitute for knowledge. Imagine, if you will, what we would come to know if, in the toolshed, we elevated 'looking at' to first philosophy. In that case the 'true' story about the light beam--the 'metanarrrative'--is that it is entirely made up of specks of dust. Any further revelation would be discounted by the authorized view, the account we get of light by looking at it. In Lewis's words: the people who look *at* things have had it all their own way; the people who look *along* things have simply been brow beaten. *Looking at* thus falls prey to the besettign temptation of modern intellectual thought: the belief that our theories see all there is to be seen, and know all there is to be known. The technical term for this temptation is *reductionism*; the theological term is *pride*...

Ben Myers said...

Thanks for providing that broader context, Ryan.

To respond to your query, Joel: although Vanhoozer describes theology as "God-centered biblical interpretation", in other contexts he also speaks of theology's broader interpretive role: "Interpretation is doubly part of theological work: not only the Word but the world itself must be interpreted" (p. 309). Thus some of the chapters in this book offer theological interpretations of culture -- but even here, biblical interpretation seems to be primary, since Vanhoozer's aim is to read culture through the lenses of a "biblical imagination".

Chris TerryNelson said...

Thank you for your response, Ryan.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Wesley Wildman was correct taking Kevin Vanhoozer to task for misusing Speech Act Theory. The center of Austin was to have five main functions or acts uses for language. Kevin Vanhoozer allows so many more categories of acts reveals that he either misunderstood Speech Act theory or is try to do something else. If he is try to do something other than using speech act theory, then he should say so. By saying he is using Speech Act Theory and then creating a system of infinite speech acts, he gets himself in the mud of nonsense. Since most theologians have not read "How to do things with words" he can get away with it. My wife just finished a dissertation about combining Speech Act Theory with Biblical Interpretation, I have had to live with Speech Act Theory and I find it disappointing he ignores Searle, Austin and the other major thinkers of Speech Act Theory and the foundational insight of Speech Act Theory is regrettable.

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