Review of Vander Goot’s Interpreting the Bible in Theology and the Church

by Vern S. Poythress

[Published in Westminster Theological Journal 47 (1985): 337-40. Used with permission.]

Henry Vander Goot: Interpreting the Bible in Theology and the Church.  Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 1984.  ix, 109.

 

Henry Vander Goot challenges modern academic theology to return to the practice of interpreting Scripture in a manner that takes seriously its claim to be divine revelation.  Scripture is only properly interpreted when interpreters allow their own worldviews to be reformed by Scripture, and view themselves as part of the Scriptural story of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation.  They are not to stand outside of Scripture and use autonomous reason and post-Enlightenment worldviews in order to sit in judgement on the claims of Scripture.

Orthodox scholars have, of course, issued similar challenges before.  But Vander Goot broadens the previous argumentation by appealing to the insights of Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics, Hans Frei’s interests in narrative, and Brevard Childs’s and Charles Wood’s interests in “canonical” interpretation.  All of these scholars show us in one way or another the necessity of taking seriously the claims of the totality of Scripture on our whole lives and on our most cherished presuppositions.  But Vander Goot, unlike Childs and others, will not allow critical scholarly research to go on its own independent way, as a complementary route along side of churchly, believing, “theological” interpretation.  Scholars, along with everyone else, must abandon their post-Enlightenment secularized worldview, and adopt the scriptural worldview as their own.  It is refreshing to see Vander Goot utilize positive insights from Gadamer, Childs, and others without falling into an uncritical admission of limited “rights” for post-Enlightenment autonomous criticism.

I can only applaud Vander Goot’s vigorous affirmation of the primacy of the message of Scripture.  But I should also point out one potential weakness of the way in which he argues his case.  Vander Goot makes his affirmations within the basic framework of cosmonomic philosophy.  Evangelical readers differ in their degree of sympathy for this framework.  But Vander Goot uses the framework in a flexible, insightful way, so that the strengths rather than the weaknesses of cosmonomic philosophy stand out.  Hence, by itself, this is not a weakness.

Unfortunately, Vander Goot, in using the naive/theoretical distinction of Herman Dooyeweerd, tends to oversimplify the relationship of theological scholarship to the church.  The church’s “direct” (but not presuppositionless) reading of Scripture, as a pre-theoretical stage, provides the worldview forming the proper foundation for a theoretical, scholarly stage of reflection.  At this theoretical stage the scholar reflects on the church’s interpretation, rather than engaging in interpretation of the Bible itself (pp. 83,86).  One is reminded of Dooyeweerd’s view that theology studies the “pistic sphere” rather than studying God or the Bible.  Vander Goot thereby makes it sound as if professional theological studies can never criticize the naive believer’s understanding of Scripture, but only deepen it.

What do we say about this?  Vander Goot is undoubtedly right that scholarly reflection should take place within the guidelines of a Christian worldview.  But there is also a reciprocal influence.  Scholarly reflection can potentially “perfect” the Christian worldview by improving our understanding of Scripture.  In particular, the scholarly work of Bible translation is, in some sense, the foundation for the ordinary reading of the Bible by the modern church.  Vander Goot does allow for this (pp. 88-89).  Yet his affirmation is muted because of an understandable reaction to the destructive forces of modernist criticism.  His emphasis might have been different if he had focussed his concern on the damage that uncriticized traditionalism can do.

Vander Goot knows that the Scripture, not the church’s “direct” reading and understanding of it, is primary (p. 31-43).  But his move to define the “literal sense” as the church’s pre-theoretical understanding of the canon does not to illumine this point adequately.  His view of “literal sense” does not correspond, as he thinks, to the understanding of the “literal sense” in the Reformation.  He has lost sight of the Reformation’s insights into the role of scholarship in recovering the literal sense.  The Reformation used scholarly resources not only to deepen but also to correct the church’s understanding of the Bible.

The problem seems to arise from a confusion between two senses of “theoretical.”  In one sense, “theoretical” describes individual acts of thought that are consciously reflective.  Individual acts of thought are “theoretical” when they reflect back on other thoughts.  “Theoretical” thoughts in this special sense do not include thoughts about God or thoughts about Scripture, but only reflection on prior (“direct”) thoughts about God, Scripture, and other subjects.  On the other hand, in a second sense, “theoretical” describes whole disciplines and whole books that include some elements of reflection.  Modern disciplines like sciences, systematic theology, and biblical studies are “theoretical” because they include at certain moments acts of reflection on their own logic, methods, justifications, etc.

A theoretical thought in the first sense is clearly secondary, and ought never to usurp or challenge the authority of God and of Scripture.  On the other hand, theoretical thought in the second sense may include distillations of what God is saying, and of what Scripture is saying about God.  The authority of such thought is dependent on the authority of Scripture, but is not for that reason inferior to the so-called “direct” reading by the church.  In fact, there is very little “direct” reading that is absolutely pure, without any moments of reflection.  Vander Goot applies the limitations of “theoretical” in the first sense to all of scholarship (“theoretical” in the second sense), and thereby unduly restricts the role of scholarship.

In fact, then, Vander Goot has mixed together two distinct issues:

(1) Both churchly and scholarly reading and studying of the Bible should take place against the background of a Christian worldview, a worldview already established by prior reading of the Bible and submission to its message as far as it is then understood.

In the modern context the attempt to conduct scholarly research on the Bible “in a vacuum” or on a basis “scientifically” acceptable to non-Christians means adopting assumptions about autonomous reason from post-Enlightenment secularism which are already a denial of the Bible’s claims, and can only perpetuate a distortion of understanding.

(2) Theological scholarship should acknowledge its one-way dependence on the “literal sense” as given in believing, churchly reading and understanding of the Bible.

On issue (1) I agree completely with Vander Goot.  On issue (2) the situation is more complex than what Vander Goot shows.  Like Vander Goot, I am against a “priesthood” of professional scholarly experts.  Orthodox as well as modernist scholars easily underestimate the godly wisdom of the laity and overestimate the ability of their powers of reflection to overcome blindspots.  But unlike Vander Goot, I would acknowledge more explicitly the legitimacy of challenges to tradition arising from scholarly research.  This would in fact strengthen Vander Goot’s case.  Modernists are unlikely to appreciate the force of his appeal if they think that he is advocating uncriticizable tradition.  Modernism has learned, it thinks, from the Reformation that tradition must be reformed.  But modernism can conceive only of one alternative to traditionalism, namely a universal criticism recognizing no absolutes outside itself.  This is not what the Reformers did, nor is it what Vander Goot wants.  Hence one could wish that he provided greater space for a positive role of scholarly criticism following the example of the Reformers.

 

Vern S. Poythress
Westminster Theological Seminary
Philadelphia, PA 19118