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

Kevin J. Vanhoozer
ISBN 9780310211563 (0310211565)
Zondervan, 1998

Category: Language & Reference

I had personally waited several gestation periods for this book, and was delighted to see the child finally born safe and well. It is a work of major significance, a text which deserves readers' 'ethical' duty of engagement which the author calls for interpretation of texts in general.

The bulk of the volume is divided into two main parts, each with three chapters, with the headings almost sermonically delivered. Part One ('Undoing Interpretation') sets up the discussion, to which Part Two ('Redoing Interpretation') replies. The relationship between author, text, and reader dominates Vanhoozer's discussion. He challenges the consensus that meaning is relative to the encounter of text and reader, taking up a position against the 'Undoers' (postmodern deconstructors) and 'Users' (postmodern pragmatists).

Is there a meaning in this text, then? With regard to the author, Vanhoozer argues for 'hermeneutic realism'. To describe meaning is to describe the author's intended action. Authorial intention is based on the notion of the author as a communicative agent. But with regard to the text, Vanhoozer argues for 'hermeneutic rationality'. Texts are communicative acts, not dumb objects, or mirrors in which I see only myself. A text is a complex literary act, which embodies intention, and needs to be understood at the levels of linguistics, genre, and canon. Finally, with regard to the reader, Vanhoozer argues for 'hermeneutic responsibility'. In reading, we are called not to play or create, but to encounter an 'other' that calls us to respond, to 'follow' the text.

Vanhoozer appeals to the Trinity as underwriting the notion of meaningful communication. God is a communicative agent, whose speaking enacts a 'covenant of discourse': speaker (Father), Word (Son), and reception (Spirit). God's own communicative action is thus the model of all sending and receiving of messages. Human beings, created in his image, are likewise communicative agents. In fact, interpretation of texts in general, Vanhoozer claims, rests on 'theological' beliefs about God, the world and ourselves. These theological assumptions are implicit throughout the work.

Not that he doesn't engage with literary issues more strictly conceived. Throughout, Vanhoozer dialogues with philosophers and critical theorists (Derrida, Fish, Habermas, Hirsch, Nietzsche, Ricoeur, Rorty, Searle, and Steiner prominent among them). And he takes in standard topics of discussion in biblical hermeneutics, always stimulating, and often providing a fresh perspective.
Vanhoozer consistently refuses to be drawn on the all-or-nothing choice between anarchic and absolute knowledge. He grants a place and role to authentic subjectivity; but postmodern theorists, he holds, have not satisfactorily shown that interpretation is impossible. Interpretation of texts may not be absolute, but it may still be adequate — for the purposes of understanding and appropriating. We may not know everything, but we may know enough. And for Christians, biblical interpretation is as much a way of life as a way of reading. Following the word entails embodying the word.

The book is not an easy read. Those already familiar with aspects of current hermeneutical and philosophical thought will have a more pleasant reading experience. And a rewarding experience: while there will doubtless be quibbles here and there, anyone interested in current theology, philosophy, and hermeneutics ought to feel obliged to read, and will profit greatly from engaging with, Vanhoozer and his text.

Antony Billington, December 1998

Antony Billington teaches Hermeneutics (that's Biblical Interpretation to you & me) at London School of Theology. He's heavily into film and contemporary culture and spends most of his wages in the LST Bookshop (enter at your own risk).

Previously published by London School of Theology. Reused here by kind permission.


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