Wednesday 17 December 2008

Kevin J. Vanhoozer on First Theology

Kevin J. Vanhoozer, First Theology: God, Scripture and Hermeneutics (Leicester: Apollos, 2002), 384pp., ISBN 0851112676.

[An earlier version of this review was first published in Evangel in 2003 or thereabouts.]

With the exception of the first chapter, from which the book takes its title – ‘First Theology’ – all the chapters have been previously published as essays elsewhere. But we can be grateful to IVP for gathering them together between two covers rather than leaving them scattered to the four winds. That a number of the pieces have been revised for publication in this format, and indexes have been added, makes this an extremely useful collection.

First Theology provides much of the backdrop of the discussion against which Vanhoozer’s earlier-published work (Is There a Meaning in This Text? The Bible, the Reader and the Morality of Literary Knowledge [Leicester: Apollos, 1998]) can be understood. Both works rightly call us to be ‘hermeneutical about theology’ and ‘theological about hermeneutics’ (9). And it will come as no surprise to readers of the previous volume that the same sorts of themes and concerns crop up in these essays: the close and respectful, but still critical, engagement with postmodernity; the insights provided by speech act theory; the emphasis on the Trinity; God as a personal and transcendent communicative agent; Scripture as his communicative action; the careful deployment of philosophical concepts and arguments, which remain nonetheless governed by theological concerns. Unlike the earlier volume, this one also seeks to do some constructive theological work too, and includes occasional treatments of biblical passages. In that respect, the essays helpfully build on Is There a Meaning in This Text?, and some of them engage with early responses to it.

In the Preface Vanhoozer underscores the three areas of the subtitle: ‘We must not think about God – at least not for very long – apart from the authorized witness of Scripture. Similarly, we must not think about Scripture – again, at least not for very long – apart from its divine author and central subject matter. Nor must we think about hermeneutics – about interpreting Scripture – apart from Christian doctrine or biblical exegesis’ (10). Theology involves all three thoughts – ‘God’, ‘Scripture’, and ‘Hermeneutics’ – and these make up the three parts of the volume.

The first part on God contains essays on the Trinity and dialogue, the love of God, and the sovereign, effectual call of God to human beings. Among other things, the notion of God as a communicative agent provides a connecting thread. Much of what God does he does by speaking – promising, forgiving, calling, warning, commanding – which challenges easy distinctions between ‘God saying’ and ‘God doing’.

The second part, with two essays on Scripture, moves from God as a communicative agent to Scripture as his communicative action. Vanhoozer notes that one’s theology of Scripture is related to one’s view of God, theology proper. Scripture is the source of our knowledge of God, the place in which the Son is testified to, and the means of God’s gift of the Spirit. Scripture is the book of the covenant, the covenant of discourse, which establishes God’s relationship with his people, and through which we enjoy communion with him.

The third and longest section on hermeneutics includes discussions of specific biblical texts, particularly from John’s gospel, and some pieces on the areas of thinking theologically about culture and apologetics.

A cord of three strands is not quickly broken, and, although it’s fairly clear that the essays were originally produced as separate pieces and can be read individually and profitably as such, yet there is remarkable unity of thought and purpose among them. Even the inevitable repetition provides useful reinforcement. Vanhoozer is an evangelical scholar at the forefront of contemporary theological engagement with God, Scripture, and Hermeneutics; all those concerned with these areas will profit greatly from this volume.

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