Thursday, 5 March 2009

Is there meaning in this text?

It’s a great book, but Kevin Vanhoozer does take a few swipes at ‘fundamentalism’ in order to distance himself from it, and some of these swipes are not really fair…

A ‘recent Potifical Commission document’ claims that sola scriptura is a distinguishing characteristic of fundamentalist interpretation (424).

Vanhoozer, who wants to hold onto a version of sola scriptura, then criticises fundamentalists for…

• craving ‘objective certainty’ (424)
• encouraging ‘individuals to interpret the Bible for themselves’ (424)
• assuming that truth = correspondence to historical fact (424-5)
• uncritically privilege the interpretive community to which they belong, which is a natural result of being sure that they, and only they are right . Ironically they sound like Stanley Fish in this, he who radically claims that meaning is entirely in the hands of the present interpretive community (425)

Number 1, fair enough. Let’s be more provisional and humble about some of the things on the fringe of our noetic structure, and let’s dispense with modernistic categories, or at least with the pretence that those categories are categorical.

Number 3, Vanhoozer over-presses in his passing comments on inerrancy. Implying that belief in inerrancy means that one must take all biblical ‘narratives as accurate historical and scientific records’ (425) suggests that he hasn’t read the Chicago Statement in Biblical Inerrancy! It also suggests that he is playing fast and loose with some big words (accurate, historical, scientific) which may only be there for padding, if what he really means is “I don’t believe Methuselah was 969 when he died.”

Number 2, it all depends on what you mean (!) by ‘for themselves’. Since uniquely personal interpretation, unconditioned by others, is pretty much impossible, and since authority structures in history have monopolised the reading of texts for dubious political ends, encouraging individuals to have a go is probably no bad thing. Inevitably that’s going to happen in a community, against a background of expectation and possible thoughts, shaped by others’ input, childhood experiences, whatever. Such a process (the power of the interpretive community operating on the reader) is what he criticises them for swallowing in the final point, so it’s hardly fair to blame the poor fundamentalists for both!

Number 4, true enough, fundamentalist interpretation thinks that it is right and no one else is. And if fundamentalists miss the community hermeneutic angle then they have been blind. But isn’t thinking you’re right a hallmark of life itself!? The anti-fundamentalists are also trying to persuade us of the truth of their interpretations (even if only to assert that all are true – and if that’s so, why not the fundamentalists’ one as well!?). What’s the essential difference? Fundamentalism’s methodology represents one way of attempting to guarantee the text’s perlocutionary effects. Fundamentalists do what Vanhoozer later praises as good ‘Spiritual Constraints’ on interpretation (437-8), which include obedience, discipleship and a recognition of holiness as more important than hermeneutical method. Just look at any weeny Fundamentalist church website and you’ll see plenty of exhortation to those things! hey are very fond of insisting that the text must be obeyed and that membership of the fundamentalist community is necessary…

‘Interpretation both requires wisdom and contributes to it’. Isn’t Vanhoozer being rather fundamentalist in insisting that his method (wisdom and cultivation of interpretive virtues against a background of critical realism) is what is needed to get the right meaning? He just disagrees on what wisdom looks like, and on what the meaning is in certain places (which I suspect is the real issue). To be fair, the ‘fundamentalists’ he quotes don’t play up the role of wisdom, they do seem to expect the meaning to come straight off the page. But the bottom line is that his criticisms of fundamentalism only seem to apply to some of those who call themselves fundamentalists. Plus, general guilt-by-association attacks on dispensationalism and separatism hardly scratch textual fundamentalism as an attitude because they don’t get to heart of the matter.

For a brief, provocative case that Scripture is not inerrant in the Chicago sense (because the writer finds this an incoherent and silly position) see this article on the Kuyper Foundation website. These guys are not ‘fundamentalists’ but they do espouse some beliefs about theology and politics that go way beyond the loudest 'fundamentalist' (and I suspect that Vanhoozer would not approve!)