Thursday 1 October 2009

Kevin J. Vanhoozer on Exegesis and Hermeneutics

Kevin J. Vanhoozer, ‘Exegesis and Hermeneutics’, in T. Desmond Alexander and Brian S. Rosner (eds.), New Dictionary of Biblical Theology (Leicester: IVP, 2000), 52-64.

This is just one essay from the collection of extremely helpful lead articles in the first part of IVP’s New Dictionary of Biblical Theology.

This post is less a summary of the article itself and more a reflection on it; the headings (and, I think, the shepherd example, are mine).

1. Defining exegesis, hermeneutics, and biblical theology
Vanhoozer is one of an increasing number of scholars who – far from setting aside their theological convictions when they come to Scripture, and far from ignoring the fact that they believe in God, Christ, sin, salvation, church, and Spirit, and far from reading the Bible like any other book – are self-consciously reading Scripture from the perspective of faith, theology, and church tradition.

Thus, in terms of defining exegesis, hermeneutics, and biblical theology, Vanhoozer is concerned to include a theological agenda where it’s not always been included. As he says at one point, ‘biblical theology is nothing less than a theological hermeneutic: an interpretive approach to the Bible informed by Christian doctrine’ (63). Hence, part of his problem with the popular distinction between ‘what it meant’ and ‘what it means’ is that it was a distinction that only really came to prominence in the enlightenment, and particularly in the hands of those who wanted to separate biblical studies from theology – which Vanhoozer wants to bring together again.

2. Doing exegesis, hermeneutics, and biblical theology
In terms of doing exegesis, hermeneutics, and biblical theology, Vanhoozer writes about different ‘levels of biblical theological description’ (56-62). This long section is the real heart of the article, where Vanhoozer discusses four levels of describing biblical texts: (a) words, (b) events, (c) literary genres, and (d) the canon as a whole. It becomes clear that the last two are particularly important for Vanhoozer.

What’s needed, he says, is a ‘thick description’ of the text which embraces…

(a) Words
The sub-section on ‘biblical words’ (56-57) makes the fairly well-worn point that biblical theology must do more than load whole structures of thought into individual words. A theology at the level of words only (what does ‘shepherd’ mean?) would be a thin description.

(b) Events
Equally thin would be a theology at the level of events only (how does what is depicted in Psalm 23 relate to what is known historically about shepherds and shepherding, or what might have been going on in the historical context which brought about the composition of Psalm 23?). Hence, the sub-section on ‘biblical events’ (57) encourages us to move beyond a restricted focus on what’s going on ‘behind the text’.

Words and events are important, but a thick description takes many different levels into account, including genre (what kind of literature is Psalm 23 and how does it function?) and the canon as a whole (how does Psalm 23 relate to the rest of Scripture, and to Jesus in particular?). Hence…

(c) Literary genres
The sub-section on literary genres (57-60) is probably the most innovative part of the article. The ‘literary’ aspect of the Bible has not figured much in discussions of biblical theology. The main point being made in this section, as Vanhoozer himself says, ‘is that the Bible is made up of a variety of texts that need to be described not only at the linguistic but also at the literary level’ (59).

(d) The canon as a whole
The final sub-section (60-62) considers what is often understood to be the most distinctive facet of biblical theology: looking at Scripture as a whole, particularly in its collective witness to Christ.

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