Vanhoozer, Kevin. Is There a Meaning in This Text? The Bible, The Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1998.
Rightly did Zondervan publish Kevin Vanhoozer’s Is There a Meaning in this Text? as a part of their Landmarks in Christian Scholarship series. Along with E. D. Hirsch’s Validity in Interpretation, Vanhoozer’s seminal Is There a Meaning contains an invaluable and thorough defense of hermeneutic realism. This work has become one of the most important works in the field of hermeneutics. Importantly, this work was written by a scholar of the highest caliber. Vanhoozer earned his MDiv from Westminster Theological Seminary and then earned his PhD from Cambridge under the supervision of Catholic Scholar Nicholas Lash (http://www.theopedia.com/Kevin_Vanhoozer accessed on January 23, 2015). Between his terminal degree and his present post as research professor in Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, a position he has held since 2012, Vanhoozer has served as Senior Lecturer in Theology and Religious Studies at Edinburgh where he also served on the Panel of Doctrine for the Church of Scotland (http://divinity.tiu.edu/academics/faculty/kevin-vanhoozer/ accessed January 23, 2015). Thus, the reader may be sure that Is There a Meaning was written by a thorough scholar committed both to sound reason and reformed theology.
Is There a Meaning is divided into two equal and parallel parts that both consist of three chapters each: chapters 2 and 5 address the metaphysical issues surrounding the role of the author in interpretation, chapters 3 and 6 address the epistemological issues that surround the role of the text in interpretation, and chapters 4 and 7 address the moral issues that surround the role of the reader in interpretation. In part 1, Vanhoozer tackles the deconstruction of the author, text, and the reader. In part 2, Vanhoozer attempts to “resurrect” the author, “resurrect” the text, and “reform” the reader. Vanhoozer intends for both parts to support his thesis that “the crisis in contemporary interpretation theory is actually a theological crisis” (p. 25).
In chapter 2, Vanhoozer “presents the postmodern case against the author and against hermeneutic realism” (p. 26). He begins the chapter with a discussion of the historical interest through the pre-modern and modern eras in the author as originator of meaning and the authority over meaning. However, in the late modern period, the foundation that supported the throne of the author began to crack. Kant exposed the false assertions of naïve realism and created a divide between things we can know and things we cannot. However, for Vanhoozer, the master villain is Jacques Derrida, who deconstructed philosophy and argued for hermeneutic skepticism. Hermeneutic skepticism reads a text with a thoroughgoing doubt of finding truth from the author’s lips. This chapter traces the transition for literary critics away from a fascination with the author to a fascination with the text. This transition was made possible by the theological claim by Nietzsche that God had died.
In chapter 3, Vanhoozer “examines arguments for hermeneutic relativism” which argues for textual indeterminacy (p. 27). He presents the hope of literary criticism to find meaning in the text after the death of the author. However, once the authority of the author had been cast off, then the next logical step was to cast aside the authority of the book. Vanhoozer claims that literary critics cast aside the book (a closed canon with a closed meaning) in favor of the text (an open work with an open meaning). The literary critics, then, react against the book and aim to find deeper hidden meanings in the text through any means necessary. This, Vanhoozer claims, amounts to nothing less than the reader bringing his own meaning to the text. Vanhoozer argues that his transition is a direct result of the theological decision by the critic to disallow the Word of God from speaking.
In chapter 4, Vanhoozer “relates the ethics of interpretations to questions concerning human freedom and responsibility and to issues of politics and ideology” (p. 28). After the death of the author and the opening of the text, the only one left to provide meaning is the reader himself. According to reader response critics, a text has no meaning whatsoever until a meaning is provided by the reader. This results in a great plurality of meanings. This focus on the reader intends to create freedom for those who read, but Vanhoozer argues that this placement of meaning upon the shoulders of the reader has amounted to an ethical dilemma in hermeneutics where the author and his text are both suppressed.
In chapter 5, Vanhoozer counters the arguments against the author by arguing that “the concept of authorship is ultimately theological” in light of the doctrine of the imago Dei (p. 26). Vanhoozer argues that, “a word or text only has meaning (noun) if some person means (verb) something by it” (p. 202). By making this claim, Vanhoozer places emphasis squarely on the author as the originator and determiner of meaning. Vanhoozer appeals heavily to Speech Act Theory in support of this claim. Words come from an author, who has a desired effect. Thus, the meaning can come only once the author is recognized and placed back into his position of authority over his text. In this chapter, then, Vanhoozer establishes the metaphysics of meaning. Meaning exists and it comes from the author.
In chapter 6, Vanhoozer counters the arguments for hermeneutic relativism by offering “a revised understanding of interpretation and literary knowledge based on the notions of communicative rationality and of the text as a communicative act” (p. 27). Vanhoozer presents the epistemology of literary knowledge. Understanding does not have to be based on absolute certainty. Instead, Vanhoozer claims that adequate knowledge is sufficient for understanding. Of note is Vanhoozer’s appeal to the common sense realism of Reid. The reader can trust that knowledge can come from an author because of the basic nature of communication that readers rely on every day (pp. 289–291). Vanhoozer, then, is making the case for the presence of meaning within a text because it was written by an author who had intentions and used the conventional means of communication.
In chapter 7, Vanhoozer counters the undoing of the reader by presenting a “theory of hermeneutic responsibility” (p. 28). Vanhoozer makes the claim that once it is realized that the author is the originator of a meaningful text then “everything hinges on the reader’s response” (p. 367). What kind of response should he have? Vanhoozer claims that there is an ethical demand for the reader to hear the author and respond in humility to his text. According to Vanhoozer this ethical demand includes allowing the text to speak and following its demands. These two actions amount to respect for the text. Finally, Vanhoozer claims that proper reading of the text of Scripture is ultimately dependent upon the reader’s relationship to the Spirit of God who convicts, illumines, and sanctifies the reader (p. 413).