Is There a Meaning in This Text? by Kevin J. Vanhoozer. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998. 496 pages.
Kevin Vanhoozer is a Blanchard Professor of Theology at Wheaton College and Graduate School. He is the author or editor of sixteen other books, including the Drama of Doctrine and the newly released Remythologizing Theology. Is There a Meaning in this Text? was chosen to be the first volume in a new series of Zondervan reprints of “recent classics.”
Is there a meaning in this text? No really, is there a meaning in the computer generated pixels of black dots that you are staring at on your screen (or paper) as you read this review? The question might seem ridiculous, even absurd, to those of us who have spent a good portion of our lives reading and explaining texts. Yet sadly, this very question, which began as a whisper in the stodgy halls of academia, is answered by many today with a resounding, “No!” They claim that there is no meaning in this text or any other for that matter. Objective, knowable meaning is nothing more than a pre-Enlightenment fairy tale. Everything is interpretation. The only thing in a text is what the reader brings to the text. Meaning is always deferred – words simply refer to other words that refer to other words. A reader’s “understanding” is simply a construct based on one’s experience, cultural norms, and personal biases. The consequences of such thinking for those who hold the Bible to be the revealed Word of God are obvious. Vanhoozer’s goal in this book is to help the reader clearly understand the postmodern challenge to interpretation and to “respond, from an explicitly Christian theological point of view, to the modern and postmodern challenges to biblical interpretation by marshaling a host of interdisciplinary resources and bringing them all to bear on the problems of textual meaning: Is there a meaning? Can we know it? What should we do about it?”(10).
The book is divided into two parts. The first part of the book (37-196) explains in great detail the shift from modernism to postmodernism and describes the major challenges to traditional hermeneutics that have arisen in the past century from philosophers like Jacques Derrida and Stanley Fish. In successive fashion Vanhoozer outlines how literary criticism has attacked the author (chapter 2), text (chapter 3), and reader (chapter 4) and then convincingly shows how the attack on meaning “relies not only on philosophical assumptions but on assumptions that are implicitly theological as well” (25). In other words, the crisis in meaning is at its heart a theological crisis and the postmodern approach to language (and reality) is really nothing more than an anti-theology. The claim that there is no meaning in the text is the logical consequence of claiming that there is no God in the universe. As the author says, “Deconstruction may be the death of God written into language” (213). After patiently presenting contemporary views on hermeneutics, Vanhoozer reveals the arrogance, inconsistencies and hypocrisy of postmodern thought and presuppositions in a penetrating and insightful way.
The second part (197-496) of the book charts a way forward by taking an Augustinian approach (“I believe in order to understand”) to “resurrect” the concept of the author (chapter 5), the text (chapter 6), and the reader (chapter 7). In his response Vanhoozer wisely sets off in his own direction and refuses to let postmodern language theory set the agenda for his reconstruction of hermeneutics. He explains, “I wish instead to make a fresh start on the question of textual meaning, inspired by a Christian understanding of God, language, and transcendence…My contention, briefly stated, is that because the undoing of interpretation rests on a theological mistake, we need theology to correct it” (199). However, while he might start with theology to “resurrect” hermeneutics, his approach relies heavily, perhaps too heavily, on the secular philosophy of John Searle, E.D. Hirsch and Paul Ricoeur. After part one, which revealed the weaknesses of secular approaches (both modern and postmodern) to hermeneutics, it was a bit surprising to see how much Vanhoozer relied on aspects of secular language philosophy in his response.
Overall, this book was incredibly well-researched and provided a tremendous depth of insight into language and interpretation. This reviewer especially appreciated Vanhoozer’s presentation of text as a communicative action, rather than just an impersonal sign system (for the most part, the modernist and postmodernist view). The book stressed that words are more than black marks on a page; they are the intentional actions of authors who mean things by participating publicly in rule-governed behavior. We are citizens of language, and language is a covenant to be honored. Interpretation is really a moral activity and ultimately deconstructing a text fails to show love and respect for the author and the language gifts that God has given us. Readers of this review might also be interested in sections of this book that are pertinent to discussions on choosing a Bible translation, especially Vanhoozer’s understanding of the literal. He explains, “For too long the literal sense has been identified with ‘the sense of the letter,’ which in turn has been identified with the objects to which individual words refer. I propose that we instead define literal meaning as the ‘sense of the literary act.’ On my view, literal interpretation is less a matter of identifying objects in the world than it is specifying communicative acts – their nature and their objects” (304). The author sees interpretation as a multi-layered affair that involves context, authorial intent, and effect and should not be reduced to an impersonal sign system. The book ended on a high note with a call to a hermeneutics of humility and conviction in the last chapter. “The church should be that community of humbly confident interpreter-believers whose consciences, seared and sealed by the Spirit, are captive to the Word, and whose commentaries and communities seek progressively to embody the meaning and significance of the text” (467).
This book is not easy reading, especially for someone who is not immersed in philosophy and language theory. But the hard work of following the author’s line of argumentation was often rewarded with gems of depth and insight. While some have claimed that postmodernism is on its way out, the hermeneutical questions addressed in this book will be with us as long as we have language. For the pastor who has a strong interest in hermeneutics, or who is regularly challenged by postmodern theory, this book would be worth the time and effort.