Is There a Meaning in This Text? the Bible, the Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge

By Watson, Francis | Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, December 2001 | Go to article overview

Is There a Meaning in This Text? the Bible, the Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge


Watson, Francis, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society


Is there a Meaning in this Text? The Bible, the Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge. By Kevin Vanhoozer. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998, 496 pp., $29.99.

The Bible is the Word of God. In and through its richness and complexity, a single divine utterance makes itself heard. As it narrates and interprets the story of Israel and of Jesus, it speaks about God-but in such a way that its human speech about God becomes the medium of a divine speech, God speaking about God and about ourselves in relation to God. Speech requires not only a speaker but also a hearer or addressee, and, as Word of God, the Bible's address is broad enough to encompass not just ancient Israel and the early church but also ourselves. To describe the Bible as "Word of God" is to identify God as a speaking God, but it is also to identify ourselves as hearers and addressees of this divine speaking. Yet it is not obvious to everybody that "Word of God" is an appropriate or adequate description of the Bible. It is widely assumed that the equation of Bible and Word of God is just another piece of outdated evangelical Protestant dogma, fundamentally at odds with the historical realities of texts that do not characterize themselves as instances of a divine speech with universal scope. If the texts are allowed to be themselves (so it is argued), we will read them primarily as utterances addressed by human authors to their own contemporaries. The dogmatic equation will have to be put into abeyance. The proper response to this objection is not to invoke a doctrine of inspiration (which would come later), but to point to the centrality of Jesus Christ, the incarnate divine Word attested as such by the writings of both the Old and the New Testaments. It is because Jesus is God's Word that the Bible, too, is, derivatively, God's Word.

"Modernist" or "liberal" challenges to Word-of-God talk have been around for quite some time, and the debates they engendered have long since settled into their familiar and often unsatisfactory routines. What is now becoming clear, however, is that the typical "modernist" critique of Word-of-God talk is being supplemented and supplanted by a "postmodern" critique not just of "the Word of God" but of "the Word" as such. It is this postmodern critique of the Word to which Kevin Vanhoozer responds in this major work of theological hermeneutics. According to Vanhoozer, the concept of "the Word of God" is bound up with the general assumption that "the Word" (or Speech) is a reliable conduit of communication between one person and another. If, in and through the Bible, God speaks, then speech must in principle be trustworthy and meaning must be determinate-assuming that God does not intend to tease us with riddles and paradoxes. Postmodernity, however, is the denial of the trustworthiness of speech and the determinacy of meaning. Its response to the Word in textual form is to refuse any determinate communication that it may appear to offer. Instead, it asks whose interests the text seeks to further, and at whose expense. Alternatively, it may promote the idea that meaning is the creation of communities of readers and is not an inherent, stable property of texts. The text as a communicative action disappears, along with its author: it is undermined by the postulate of an ideological sub-text, it is handed over to its readers to use as they see fit. In the case of the Bible, postmodernity can tolerate the idea that the church might constitute one such community of readers-but only so long as the rights of non-ecclesial reading communities are accorded equal validity. Within this framework, to assert that the Bible should be read as the Word of God is to commit a moral as well as an intellectual error.

It would be possible to turn one's back on all this, and to develop a theological hermeneutic purely from the internal resources of Christian faith. Vanhoozer takes a different route, however, seeking to refute postmodern literary theory not by theology alone but by better literary theory-"better" both because it is inherently more plausible and because it coheres with Christian truth-claims. …

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