- Series: Landmarks in Christian Scholarship
- Paperback: 512 pages
- Publisher: Zondervan; Anniversary ed. edition (August 31, 2009)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0310324696
- ISBN-13: 978-0310324690
- Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.4 x 9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #215,040 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Is There a Meaning in This Text?: The Bible, the Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge (Landmarks in Christian Scholarship) Anniversary ed. Edition
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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 postmodernity? These are questions of crucial importance for contemporary biblical studies and theology alike.
Kevin Vanhoozer contends that the postmodern crisis in hermeneuticsincredulity towards meaning, a deep-set skepticism concerning the possibility of correct interpretationis fundamentally a crisis in theology provoked by an inadequate view of God and by the announcement of Gods 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 Gods own communicative action in creation, in the canon, and preeminently in Christ. Prominent features in Part 2 include a new account of the authors 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 -- Publisher --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
“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
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
“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 forward---the Christian way forward---out of several interpretive morasses has been seminal.” -- D. A. Carson
“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
“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
“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 McKnight
“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 interpretation---right up to the present time and all under the umbrella of both thinking Christianly and living Christianly. Here is historical, philosophical, and theological exegesis---capped with creative construction---of the first order. As was said to Saint Augustine, on whose thought Vanhoozer builds, Tolle, lege. Take up! Read!” -- Robert H. Gundry
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To defend his belief that there is meaning in texts, Vanhoozer first surveys the history of undoing interpretation in Part One. In so doing, he describes Derrida's deconstruction and other philosophical beliefs that have all contributed to the so-called death of the author. With no author, there are no authoritarian demands upon us; we are therefore free to interpret texts apart from the restraints and "oppression" of authorial intent.
In Part Two, Vanhoozer attempts to redo interpretation. It is in this section that he fully defends his belief that there is meaning in texts as determined by the communicative action of the author. The interpreters job is thus to bear witness to the author's meaning.
The key to Christian interpretation, according to Vanhoozer, is humility and conviction. "Humility," he says, "is the virtue that constantly reminds interpreters that we can get it wrong" (pg. 464). Nevertheless, we must have conviction that we can grasp the meaning of texts. "Humility must be balanced by conviction (pg. 465).
Finally, the end goal of interpretation is not mere knowledge. Our consciences, like that of Martin Luther, must be held captive by the Word even in the face of tradition. We must understand not only the meaning of Scripture, but also its significance. With these in our grasp, we're called to respond to the Author, by following where He—as mediated through the text—leads us.
Although I'm not in agreement with Vanhoozer's non-dispensational leanings (which are evident ever so slightly), and although some of the content of this book went over my head, the large majority of this book is a treasure that must be read! I highly recommend this book, while recognizing that it is not for the average lay-person. To them I suggest Scripture As Communication by Jeannine Brown.
In Is There a Meaning in This Text?, Vanhoozer explores the hermeneutics of various postmodern literary theorists and then advocates for an interpretive method rooted in Christian theology and aided by speech-act theory. The book is made up of two parts, each part containing three chapters that address, in order, the three foci of the interpretive task: author, text, and reader. This triadic theme is a predominant feature of the book (456). Most notably, the threefold division of author, text, reader, correspond to the three major branches of philosophy – metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. Vanhoozer further grounds these triads in the central Christian doctrines of creation, redemption, and sanctification, the activities traditionally assigned to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, respectively. This organization helps to underwrite the Trinitarian nature of Vanhoozer’s view as well as his claim that hermeneutics is “explicitly theological” (456).
Part 1 of the book investigates the claims put forth in recent decades by postmodern literary theorists. Looking especially at the work of Jacques Derrida and Stanley Fish, Vanhoozer analyzes what he calls “hermeneutical non-realism” (26). Partly rooted in a skepticism towards the modernist claim to objective universal knowledge, this view argues that since all authors are inescapably shaped by their own historical, social, and political position in history, there is no objective author behind the text who possesses autonomous control over his consciousness and intention (66-74). This historical situated-ness applies even to language and as a result language is reduced to an endless play of signs that has no objective referent outside itself (63). Derrida, in particular, argues that this transforms language and textual communication from a dispassionate description of what is real and universal to nothing more than a veiled power grab (137). While recognizing that there is some truth in Derrida’s criticism of absolutist interpretation, he admits this move leads to the very “undoing” of biblical authority (86). For if there is no author, then there is no way of grounding meaning in a text (the subject of chapter 3) and reading becomes not an act of discovering meaning in a text but rather an act of creating meaning (chapter 4). Vanhoozer puts it well, “According to contemporary postmodern interpretation, eisegesis is virtually synonymous with interpretation” (162). In this way, the reader replaces the author as the final arbiter of meaning.
In part 2 Vanhoozer responds to his postmodern counterparts with what he terms a “middle way” between the “absolute interpretation” of modernity and the “anarchic interpretation” of the postmoderns, that is, “adequate interpretation” (136-140). With Steiner, Vanhoozer opts to make a “wager on the meaningfulness of meaning, a wager on transcendence” (198), adopting a kind of Augustinian critical fideism (“I believe in order to understand”). Vanhoozer’s position begins with the Christian belief that God is a communicating God and that his image bearing human creatures are likewise “communicative agents” (199). Using the “speech-act theory” of Searle as well as the theories of Ricoeur and Habermas, Vanhoozer argues the Christian has an “adequate” basis for meaning because the author is a communicative agent, not merely saying something but intentionally doing something with his words (207-19). The means of adjudicating between varying interpretations of the author’s intention is the speech-act itself, governed by rules specific to the genre of that speech-act (chapter 6). In chapter 7, Vanhoozer lays out the virtues and skills required of the interpreter. In particular, he provides a unique advocacy of “obedient” reading (374-76) and the central role of Holy Spirit, the one who brings about the effect of the text in the reader (427). In the final chapter, Vanhoozer points out the need for the mutually balancing attitudes of humility and conviction in interpretation.
There is so much to commend in Vanhoozer’s work, indeed too much to cover here. To begin with, Vanhoozer’s work provides a broad and remarkably in-depth analysis of key postmodern thinkers on issues surrounding the discipline of hermeneutics. Of course, this aspect of the book is ultimately the fruit of a much more fundamental purpose. Vanhoozer’s goal is not merely to construct straw men of his dialogue partners, but to understand them on their own terms and to engage with them on a deep level. This is vital in any discussion, of course, but this one requires no less, for postmodernism is a worldview of which evangelicals especially are prone to give only superficial assessments. As true as this may be, Vanhoozer pushes evangelicals to recognize the positives of deconstruction, even if it takes those positives too far to the extreme.
This is another praiseworthy aspect of Vanhoozer’s work. He acknowledges that part of what Derrida, et al. is saying can actually provide correctives to modernity’s hyper-confidence in human reason and put a halt to the interpretive pride which is a constant threat to good interpretive practice (184). Vanhoozer, then, is able to learn from his opponents even though he disagrees with them in fundamental ways. Postmodernity has some good things to say, but it overreaches in the final analysis. Readers never exhaust the meaning of a text nor can they obtain an infallible knowledge of its meaning but this does not mean that texts therefore have no meaning or communicate only what the reader chooses to get out of them (335). This balance which Vanhoozer strikes over and over between “absolutism” on the one hand and “relativism” on the other is perhaps one of the best takeaways from the book.
Finally, what is most special about Vanhoozer’s analysis is the way in which deconstruction actually reveals the inherently theological nature of interpretation and that God is actually “the condition for the possibility of meaning and interpretation” (198). Vanhoozer admits, with Steiner, that deconstruction is irrefutable on its own terms. The only way to make sense of the most important and foundational tool of human civilization – communication – is to assume that God exists (197). And not just any god, but the Trinitarian God of the Bible whose very Trinitarian nature embodies the reality of human communicative acts and grounds their basic trustworthiness (456-57). This truth which permeates Vanhoozer’s entire argument is an exhilarating discovery for the Christian who has taken for granted the irrevocably theological reality that is at the foundation of every instance of human communication. One truly cannot understand (anything!) without first believing.
All that being said, there are a couple of minor weaknesses in the book. First, for the one who is unfamiliar with the contemporary discussion on meaning and interpretation, the subject material can feel, at times, difficult to grasp. He could have helped his reader by providing some case studies of how either non-realism or realism would work itself out in real-life exegesis. This would have helped to crystallize the views put forth in the book. Second, while Vanhoozer rejects the extremes of deconstructionism, he could have been more forceful in his refutation of it. In particular, his argument would have been helped if he had highlighted the radically self-contradictory position of his opponents. The postmodern theorists, in their attempt to show that texts have no meaning, end up using texts (written and verbal) to communicate that meaning! They lay down rules to which they are the sole exception. Vanhoozer notes this self-refutation at a couple of points (320), but does not pursue it very far. Had he done so, he would have provided more sturdy ground for his own position and exemplified perhaps the most important reason for rejecting deconstructionism, namely, that at some point or another you have to reject deconstructionism, even if you are a deconstructionist!
In all, these are very small criticisms of what is, on the whole, a very beneficial read. This is a book that every evangelical leader, thinker, and teacher, ought to read. For hermeneutics is at the foundation of Christianity, a so-called “religion of the Book.” And it is also a discipline that is at the foundation of civilization itself. Vanhoozer’s work looks at the way that postmodernity threatens this vital human activity, providing a better way of reading texts that is both faithfully Christian and intellectually robust. For this, the church should be very grateful.