Friday 29 May 2009

Kevin J. Vanhoozer on Theology, Culture and Hermeneutics

Kevin J. Vanhoozer, ‘The World Well Staged? Theology, Culture, and Hermeneutics’, in D.A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge (eds.), God and Culture: Essays in Honor of Carl F.H. Henry (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 1-30.

We don’t have a God’s-eye view, and so must interpret, playing the role of critic and actor at the same time (1).

And the word as well as the world has to be interpreted (2). Theology is in the business of cultural interpretation.

And, of course, theologians are themselves culturally located.

Vanhoozer explores the role of theology in the interpretation of culture, and our culture of interpretation. He reviews the ways in which culture has been interpreted by some theologians, historians, sociologists, and philosophers. Theology, he argues, needs to be an interpreter and critic of culture, but also needs to champion a counterculture that should be embodied in ‘ecclesial existence’ – the church (2).

‘It is only as we interpret Scripture that we will be able to establish an effective counterculture, which itself will be the most effective critique of the dominant culture. Ultimately, the interpretation that counts most is one’s “performance” of the biblical text. The theologian as interpreter-critic is thus a player on the stage of world history’ (4).

Towards the end of the essay, he returns to this theme. He argues that theology (carried out by the hermeneutical community of the church) must be involved in the reconstruction of culture.

‘Hermeneutics… involves not only the explanation of textual meaning but also its appropriation. It is not enough to explain what a text means; one must decide what it means today. Meaning must be applied – to the church, to the world, to oneself. Hermeneutics, in the broadest sense of the term, pertains not only to “hearing” but also to “doing” the word. The most important interpretation of the Bible is the way we live our lives. We appropriate the meaning of a text when we let its world into ours, when we put its pages into practice. We apply a text’s meaning to our lives when we perform the text. Our response to a text constitutes its “lived meaning” (26).

Echoing George Lindbeck and the postliberal school, Vanhoozer writes:

‘The believing community “reads” the world in the light of the Word of God. In other words, the church interprets the world and the surrounding culture through the lens of the biblical text. But just as importantly, its hermeneutics of faith issues in a community performance of the biblical text. To repeat: it is not enough to hear and understand; one must also appropriate the meaning of a text and “do” the words. To understand the Bible properly is to “follow” it, and this in two senses: first, we follow a text when we understand it, when we grasp its meaning. But “follow” also means going along a particular path or way. To follow the word in this sense is to put it into practice, to perform it. The hermeneutics of faith demands nothing less than discipleship. Faith comes from hearing and reading the Word of God. To have Christian faith means having your thinking, imagining, language, and life shaped by the biblical texts – by biblical law, wisdom, songs, apocalyptic, prophecy, gospel, and doctrine. These literary forms are constitutive of Christian identity and practice alike’ (29).

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