Saturday, July 02, 2005

Vanhoozer and Hermeneutics

I really enjoyed Kevin J. Vanhoozer’s recent essay “Lost in Interpretation? Truth, Scripture, and Hermeneutics” in the recent issue of JETS 48.1 (2005): 89-114.

Vanhoozer’s book Is There a Meaning in this Text? is equally good and it saved my gluteus maximus on several occasion during my doctoral studies when I had to defend a critical realist epistemology for reading the Gospels to uncover a historical Jesus!

What I admire about Vanhoozer’s article is that he refuses to bend the knee to postmodernism, but is willing to admit where it is right! His critique of Charles Hodge and Carl Henry for using the Bible as a resource for churning out theological propositions is on target. The propositionalists imply that there is something deficient in the Bible’s canonical form which warrants the necessity of propositionalizing it. I have often wondered how much of evangelicalism is simply a response to Modernism and the outcome has been some degree of acculturation at least in terms of evangelicals adopting a foundationalist epistemology, a naïve hermeneutical objectivism, and using the inductive/empirical method in theology. I like Vanhoozer’s words: ‘Without some propositional core, the church would lose its raison d’etre, leaving only programs and potlucks. At the same time, to reduce the truth of Scripture to a set of propositions is unnecessarily reductionistic. What the Bible as a whole is literally about is theodrama – the words and deeds of God on the stage of world history that climax in Jesus Christ’ (pp. 100-1).

But Vanhoozer is no postmodernist either. He writes: ‘nothing is to be gained simply by exchanging masters! Evangelicals should no more emerge out of postmodernity than modernity. On the contrary, we should be prepared to diverge from modernity and postmodernity alike in order to preserve the integrity of our witness to the truth of the gospel’ (p 113).

There are several areas where I know I disagree with postmodernism.

(1) That truth is merely a function of community, a socially constructed entity, and does not necessarily denote any correspondence to reality. Of course that statement itself might well be just a social construct!
(2) Epistemological relativism. The diversity of all beliefs does not demand the relativity of all knowledge. Relativism is also conceptually incoherent in that it denies the existence of universals whilst making a universal claim. Relativism is self-stultifying since it regularly participates in the evaluation of other conceptual systems whilst implying that it has no basis for doing so.
(3) Hermeneutical Anarchy. I never cease to tire of the irony of authors who strenuously insist that when it comes to reading texts there is no such thing as authorial intent, and they continue to argue this point by writing books and articles somehow expecting their authorial intent to be discernible, lucid, understood, and compelling to the reader.
(4) Religious pluralism. To be honest – this is what scares me the most. Postmodernists like to tout themselves as inclusive and tolerant, like a big friendly life-size teddy bear. But there’s a catch. Everyone is affirmed in their belief as long as it operates within the bounds of pluralism and does not foster any kind of exclusivism or criticism – ‘it’s true for you, but not for me’ is as nasty as you can be. Religious pluralists cannot tolerate those who are not pluralistic and they are quite happy to put the thumb screws down on anyone who fails to worship at the pantheon of pluralism and pluriformity – the teddy bear becomes a big mean hairy ogre with little provocation. If you don’t believe me, look at the religious vilification laws in Australia, Scandinavia and soon too the UK. Religious pluralism is no longer the philosophy of the intelligentsia it is now law! On the one hand religious pluralism is okay if you mean the freedom to choose and practice your own religion – but when you start legislating what criticisms you can and cannot make about other religions I get really nervous!


Scot McKnight said...

Michael, the problem with disagreeing with postmodernism is that by all accounts it is nearly impossible to define. Hard or soft, relative or quasi-realistic?

Michael F. Bird said...

I know. Defining postmodernism is like trying to nail jelly to the wally. Etymologically postmodernism means post (=after) modern (=what is new) - so defining pomo as "after-what-is-new" is a kinda weird phrase in anybody's language.

I think you could say at the basic level it includes a rejection of modernity, esp. the pretentious claims to absolute truth - everything after that is up for dispute.

Maybe pomo needs to determined functionally in terms of the kinda beliefs that it sometimes generates?