Review of Kevin Vanhoozer’s Is There A Meaning In This Text?

by Vern S. Poythress

[Published in the Westminster Theological Journal 61/1 (1999) 125-28. Used with permission.]

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

 

Kevin Vanhoozer has produced an outstanding response to the current hermeneutical climate from an explicitly Christian Trinitarian viewpoint. The book is at once clear and penetrating in its interaction with the challenges of postmodernism and the reaction to it from modernist hermeneutics. Vanhoozer’s own approach tries to avoid both secular alternatives in favor of rooting meaning in explicitly Christian presuppositions. He convincingly shows that the crisis of hermeneutics is basically theological. If people cease to believe in God, then meanings, authors, texts, and readers all become problematic. Underneath the postmodern loss of confidence in meaning is a loss of the sense of God’s transcendence and presence.

After an introductory chapter that raises the main questions, Part I of the book plunges into an extended analysis of three major foci in hermeneutics: author (chapter 2), text (chapter 3), and reader (chapter 4). Rather than superficially denouncing deconstruction, radical pragmatism, and radical reader response approaches, the book takes the time to describe and understand in detail. It thus uncovers the underlying questions about God as the ultimate source of meaning, questions that neither postmodernism nor modernism has been able to answer.

Though rejecting the anarchic tendencies of deconstruction, the book in the end is able to rescue positive insights from it: “Is there not a real danger of mistaking one’s interpretation, which is always secondary, contextual, and never ultimate, for the text itself—a danger we might call the idolatry of literary knowledge?” Deconstruction is then “a standing challenge to interpretive pride” (p. 184).

The book sets forth its positive answer in Part II. Its alternative to secularist approaches has much to commend it. To begin with, it avoids letting the agenda be set by the current viewpoints:

It is because I start somewhere else, with a different set of concerns, that I must dialogue rather than debate with Derrida. Even a point by point rebuttal of deconstruction would still let deconstruction set the agenda, just as modernity sets the agenda for its deconstruction by postmodernity. I wish instead to make a fresh start on the question of textual meaning, inspired by a Christian understanding of God, language, and transcendence.
… I propose that we take God’s trinitarian self-communication as the paradigm of what is involved in all true communication.
… What is needed is “less accommodation to current fashion and more Christian self-confidence.” [quoted from Alvin Plantinga, “Advice to Christian Philosophers,” inaugural lecture to the John A. O’Brien Chair of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame on November 4, 1983] (p. 199)

The book’s own explanation of meaning begins, as it should, with God in his Trinitarian nature, with God’s creating man in his image, and with language as a gift from God for interpersonal communication and communion in the context of covenant. The book then offers three chapters that set out a positive approach to authorial intention (chapter 5), textual structure (chapter 6), and reader responsibility (chapter 7). A concluding chapter (8) calls for hermeneutics of the cross that is willing to crucify human pride and sloth.

We have needed an intellectually deep book like this one for some time. It interacts learnedly with current issues while keeping its own presuppositional feet fixed within Christian Trinitarian orthodoxy.

Though the book has much to commend it, it may still not be amiss to note two remaining areas of tension. In its positive answer to deconstruction, beginning in chapter 5, the book invokes as its ultimate foundation the self-communication within the Trinity (p. 199). Excellent. But when it goes on to consider in detail the question of the author, it appears quickly to leave behind this theological foundation. It builds primarily on the secular theories of meaning from John Searle (speech acts), Paul Ricoeur (the text as projecting a world), and Jürgen Habermas (communicative action). All these theories contain some good ideas—one ought not to fault the book for looking at them. But unless the theories are radically transformed into theological theories that acknowledge and consistently invoke the character and presence of God, they are subject to the indeterminacies that deconstruction so laboriously traced out and that the book expounds in its Part I.

For example, John Searle’s speech-act theory appeals to common sense about normal social contexts; but postmodern thought has rightly challenged the idea that ultimate stability can be found in “common sense” and “the normal.” What modern people treat as commonsensical and normal is actually radically abnormal, because they systematically suppress the knowledge of God (Romans 1:18-21). In fact, one’s vision of humanity and human action cannot be ultimately rooted in secular social theory. Similar problems confront Ricoeur and other secular theories. For Ricoeur, the text may project a world; but postmodernism says that the kind of world projected depends on the context of the readers. Likewise, Habermas’s theory of communicative action appeals to an abstract standard of rationality and justice. But there is no such thing as a single, ahistorical conception of rationality or justice. With Alasdair MacIntyre, one asks “Whose justice? Which rationality?” (Whose Justice? Which Rationality? [Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988]).

In Part I the book was at pains to indicate that the crisis of meaning and hermeneutics is at root theological. So how can secular theories without a word to say about God provide something other than another idol, an idol that Part I of the book describes Jacques Derrida as destroying?

We can illustrate the tension in another way. The book acknowledges the inspiration received from John Milbank’s critique of social theory (Theology and Social Theory [Oxford: Blackwell, 1990]):

Milbank argues that theology should not conform to social theory, for social theory is born and bred of “secular reason,” that is, of the modification or rejection of orthodox Christian beliefs. I wish to apply a similar argument to the relation between theology and literary theory. So-called secular literary theories are anti-theologies in disguise. (p. 200)

But the book does not carry through its project consistently. Milbank used postmodern tools in order to deconstruct the idea that a neutral, secular, “scientific” sociological analysis is really scientific; rather, it masks counterfeit theology. The analogous project in the area of meaning and understanding would use postmodern literary-philosophical tools to deconstruct not only the pretended secular neutrality of earlier Western philosophy, but the positions of Searle, Ricoeur, and Habermas. These theories too mask counterfeit theology.

Milbank’s critique is still compatible with a positive appreciation for insights coming from sociology. Likewise, an analogous critique of secular meaning theory is compatible with acknowledging its insights. But the book tends to adopt secular theories too quickly, not merely to acknowledge insights here and there. Side by side with this use of secular theories, the book does discuss theological issues relating to the revelation of God through Christ. But the two sides sit uneasily together, because, unlike Milbank, the book has not mounted a thorough critique of secular meaning that would lead to an equally thorough transfiguration of the theoretical apparatus appropriated from secular sources.

A second tension arises from the book’s prolonged analysis of postmodernism in Part I. Christian readers are all too prone to ignore or rush through discussions of postmodernism, because they immediately see in it atheistic, relativizing, and nihilistic tendencies. Commendably, the book is patient in its analysis. And so it arrives at a positive result, in the form of a critique of “interpretive pride” (p. 184). But for the Christian reader, this final result, though satisfying, ought also to be disappointing. Should we not have known this all along? Do we really have to go through the painful, intellectually difficult analysis of Derrida and postmodernism to learn what the Bible has told us a hundred times? And of course, the Bible is far more powerful in exposing sin than is the frustrating mixture of insight and idolatry in secular postmodernist worldviews. “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, … discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb 4:12 RSV).

The disappointment is then increased if the book, after having achieved this pinnacle of insight from deconstruction, fails to apply it thoroughly in criticizing the “interpretive pride” lodged in secular theories of communication and meaning, as exemplified by Searle, Ricoeur, Habermas, and others. To be sure, the best modernist theories offer us “chastened” forms of modernism. In response to postmodern attacks, they have learned to moderate their claims. So pride is veiled. But it is not yet overcome, because modernist theories still remain secular, rooted in the dream that human beings can think autonomously and block off the presence of God.

Autonomy postulates that human authors have godlike control over meaning. A Christian response would say that God in his Trinitarian nature has such control, but human authors do not. Vanhoozer’s book fails to apply consistently this crucial distinction between God and man. For example, after a long discussion of authorial intention, the book proposes that “the meaning of a text is what the author attended to in tending to his words.” In offering this definition, the book fails to attend to what it observed in part I, that human beings are not perfect masters of their communication. They ought not in pride to imagine that they are gods creating texts ex nihilo. They already use language that has associations and structures built into it. Hence, there can be no sharp line between what an author “attended to” and what came out through partly subconscious processes, including the subconscious effects of aspects of the language system. Most important, human authors cannot seal off their communicative acts from the power and presence of God, with whom they are constantly interacting, and with whom they are in tension because of sin. Such continual interpersonal tension within the act of writing prevents human writing from having a monistic, unitarian intention. There is no author-in-himself, isolated from God! The book’s key definition thus fails to define, for reasons that the book itself has already rehearsed in Part I.

The book rightly maintains “hermeneutical realism,” the view that meaning is “out there,” not simply created by human readers. But it needs to explore how this meaning is rooted in the unity in plurality in the Trinitarian God. The book shows impressive signs of wanting to found itself on Trinitarian doctrine. But along side these it contains strands that seem contented with E. D. Hirsch’s secular rationalist view, that human authors’ intentions are meaningful apart from God’s personal involvement in their acts. According to Hirsch, human authorial intention is monistically one, and for this reason meaning is one and significances are plural.

To root authorial intention in social rules for speech acts succeeds no better, because social rules are not fixed with perfect precision. Society, like the human individual, is not self-sufficiently autonomous, but dependent on God, and in tension with God because of sin. As the book says in a better moment, “Human beings … are subject to all the imperfections and distortions that characterize human fallenness” (p. 457).

 

Vern Sheridan Poythress
Westminster Theological Seminary
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania