Is There a Meaning in This Text?  The Bible, the Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge by Kevin J. Vanhoozer


When Kevin Vanhoozer wrote this book, he was professor of Theology at the Wheaton College and Graduate School. He is now research professor of Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.  In 1988 he wrote Is There a Meaning in This Text? revising it ten years later into its present form.  It has over 500 pages of small print and minimal spacing which could be expanded to 700 pages if normal sizing was used.  It contains almost 1700 footnotes, which inconveniently are located at the end of each long chapter (eight altogether).  The writing style is difficult, redundant and scholarly.  As a result, few outside of the academic world will dare approach this volume.  With this in mind, a review would demand either a 20-page analysis or a short summary.  I have chosen to take the summary route.

Vanhoozer is discussing how any text, especially the Bible, can be read in such a way that meaning can be found, especially in light of the challenges steming from postmodernity thought.  The author engages regularly with deconstructionist philosophers such as Jacques Derrida, Michael Fovault, Stanley Fish and Richard Rorty, all who in one way or another deny that a given text can be understood and interpreted with any degree of certainty.  Some, like Fish, believe that there is no meaning in the text at all.  Therefore, rather than searching for the authorial intent, the reader determines what the text means (pp. 24, 28, 56, 148-152, 164, 170, 384, 400-401).  Texts have no meaning in themselves.  We all bring our own presuppositions, background, bias and purposes to any reading (p. 103).  As such, no interpretive certainly is possible, or as in the case of Derrida, sought or desired.  For these reasons, Vanhoozer believes “the most important question for contemporary theories of interpretation, whether the Bible or any other book: Is there something in the text that reflects a reality independent of the reader’s interpretive activity or does the text reflect only the reality of the reader” (p. 15).  While Vanhoozer travels down many sideroads, this massive tome is dedicated to answering that question.

The author makes clear that his book is not an unqualified endorsement of the grammatical-historical hermeneutic, for the duel authorship of Scripture demands more (p. 6).   Craig Blomberg, in his foreward, captures well Vanhoozer’s thinking:

His methodological conclusion is that the Bible should be interpreted like every book, but not because we bring it “down” to the level of mere literature as so many others have done, but because the very Trinitarian hermeneutic that its own contents compel us to apply to it indeed forms the proper hermeneutic for any act of human communication (p. xiv).

Recognizing the danger of deconstruction – “It is the death of God put into writing” (p. 30) – Vanhoozer is not ready to accept authorial intent with the certainty and objectivity championed by E.D. Hirsch (pp. 74-85).  He attempts a balancing act that appreciates the uncertainty raised by the deconstructionists, while at the same time recognizing that texts do have meaning which can be found by the careful reader, if not with complete certainty at least adequately.  In essence Vanhoozer is defending this middle ground.  He writes:

There is a third possibility, an alternative between absolute and anarchic interpretation, that I will explore further…It is a kind of interpretation, neither absolute nor arbitrary, that yields adequate knowledge – adequate for the purpose of understanding…I argue that interpretation is not an all-or-nothing affair (p. 139).

Vanhoozer repeats his thesis in one form or another throughout the volume (pp. 173, 187, 207, 229, 236, 282, 289-291, 311, 315, 382, 386, 392, 458, 462).  He writes, “This book will have succeeded if it has established the possibility of a reading that yields knowledge while resisiting both temptations [of pride and sloth], reading that would be both humble yet confident” (p. 462).  The author believes that if a text is read in context (pp. 250-259), according to “speech act” theory, which focuses on the use of words in a sentence, not on the words themselves (pp. 208-209, 217ff), literalisically but not overally literal (pp. 311, 324), that adequate, if not perfect, interpretation can be found.  Concerning Scripture, while it can be read like any other book to a degree, the fact that it is “living” and inspired by the Holy Spirit demands saintly living for true understanding (pp. 378-380, 411, 455-457).  And while the Holy Spirit never changes the meaning of the biblical texts He applies it to our lives, and without His work true meaning is not possible (pp. 407-416, 427).  In summary, “An interpreter, then, is one who bears true witness to textual meaning” (pp. 439, 460).

When all the dust has settled I am not certain that many will be satisfied with the author’s conclusions.  The deconstructionists, such as Derrida and Fish, will not accept Vanhoozer’s theory and will cling to their uncertainty.  The Fundamentalists, with whom Vanhoozer fears he will be identified and is chastened for their literalness and confidence (pp. 294-296, 306-314, 424-431), will protest that they have been misunderstood.    And the dispensationalist will reject Vanhoozer’s Sensus Plenoir, or fuller meaning of Scripture (pp. 263-264, 313), which leads him to spiritualize Old Testament promises to Israel (pp. 411, 429-430).  Still Vanhoozer’s sensitive engagement with interpretation in light of deconstructist challenges is commendable.  He is correct that Christians must pay attention to postmodernity rather than dismissing it as nonsense (pp. 85, 174, 182).  And his conclusion that adequate, if not perfect understanding of texts is possible is on target.  Readers of Scripture need not give up on finding meaning in the text but they should approach it humbly, in context, avoiding over-literalism and aware of the challenges before them.   If readers desire a book that addresses these interpretive concerns and especially deconstructive opposition, Is There a Meaning in This Text?  would be recommended by this reviewer.

Is There a Meaning in This Text?  The Bible, the Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge by Kevin J. Vanhoozer (Grand Rapids: Zondervan 1988, 1998), 496 pp.+XVI, paper $26

Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor-teacher, Southern View Chapel