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Hermeneutics at the Crossroads: Vanhoozer

First entry in a series exploring various chapters of Hermeneutics at the Crossroads.

Chapter one of the book, Hermeneutics at the Crossroads, is the only chapter that was not a part of the original summer seminar of 2002. Rather, Kevin Vanhoozer, the convener of the seminar, wrote the chapter after the summer conversations were completed. In many ways, I think, the chapter is an opportunity for Vanhoozer to flesh out and clear up some of his earlier conclusions. He refers to some of his prior commitments by hinting at a possible attitudinal if not conceptual shift: “While I am not yet ready to recant, I now see the need to supplement…”; “my earlier work suffers from certain conceptual imprecisions.” I am excited to follow his progress. I get the sense that he is beginning to think more seriously about the role of community in the interpretive process (and maybe in the concept of meaning?). This does not come completely clear in this chapter, but the impulse is there.

“Discourse on Matter: Hermeneutics and the ‘Miracle’ of Understanding,” is Vanhoozer’s initial go at a “descriptive” account of understanding as opposed to the more “normative” accounts found in his earlier work. Roughly, Vanhoozer distinguishes the two: “normative accounts tend to be epistemological; descriptive account tend to be ontological.” In a circular sort of way, Vanhoozer wants to UNDERSTAND how the Sache (the matter of the text) makes itself UNDERSTOOD. He asks, “to what extent is the event of understanding intelligible without recourse to the notion of authorial discourse?”

Vanhoozer’s structure is threefold. First, Descartes and Barth serve as case studies that introduce differing terms (“discourse” and Sache) as well as different approaches to understanding. Second, Vanhoozer examines Gadamer’s miracle of understanding and puts it into conversation with Descartes’ discourse and Barth’s Sache. Finally, Vanhoozer criticizes Gadamer’s appropriation of theological categories for philosophical hermeneutics.

Vanhoozer argues that Descartes understands understanding as something that subjects do by following method. But, the issue is muddled in Descartes. Vanhoozer is not sure if clarity, in Descartes’ Discourse on Method, appears or is achieved. One is not to accept any idea that does not appear “clearly and distinctly to the mind.” Yet, one is to follow a method to discover truth. The central question, for Vanhoozer, is how Gadamer would describe Descartes’ idea of understanding.

Vanhoozer gives considerably more space to Barth’s reflections in his commentary on Romans on authorial intention and the subject matter of Scripture. Several highlights are worth noting here, but they all ultimately point to the following conclusion: “The Sache of the Bible is not an object at our disposal. Interpreters are not merely ‘spectators’ of God’s Word but, in God’s grace, participants who may be caught up into the the subject matter (viz., the fellowship-creating triune economy).” That the subject matter of Scripture is itself an active subject is a central concept for Barth. Thus, the subject matter and not a method is normative for biblical interpretation. “The Word of God creates, as it were, its own hearer,” Vanhoozer summarizes. In response to the criticism that Barth too quickly moves to the revelatory referent, Vanhoozer notes that interpreters are not meant to interpret the author’s world. Instead they are to interpret the author’s word “in light of the subject matter to which the words bear witness.”

Gadamer’s Truth and Method develops a notion of understanding as participation in a conversation about the Sache. Understanding in Gadamer’s program is primarily agreement. Interpretation is engagement with the Sache. Gadamer promotes an openness to the other, but, as Vanhoozer notes, “it is not quite clear just what he locus of this otherness is.” It would seem to be that the Sache itself is an other. It is the agent of communication, not the author. “In sum,” Vanhoozer writes, “Gadamer describes the event of understanding as the self-presentation in language of the Sache to the interpreting subject.” Vanhoozer concludes that for Gadamer “the interpreting subject is caught up in a process that transcends his or her individual agency.”

One problem Vanhoozer has with Gadamer is that Gadamer does not apply his general hermeneutic to biblical interpretation. He has an “escape clause” claims Vanhoozer. Understanding Scripture for Gadamer “is ultimately a matter of faith and hence pure passivity.” Ricoeur, in like manner, perceives the event of understanding as a miracle. “Readers appropriate,” says Vanhoozer in describing Ricoeur’s notion of understanding, “but the text discloses; what is made one’s own is paradoxically given to the subject.”

Understanding = methodical plodding or miraculous revelation?

The last third of Vanhoozer’s article is spent trying to “activate theological categories, to make them operational rather than merely notional.” With Gadamer and Ricoeur, Vanhoozer believes “hermeneutics is ultimately a matter of discerning the discourse–what someone says to someone about something–in the text as work.” Thus for Vanhoozer, over against these two earlier hermeneuts, “one has to discern what the author said and did with regard to a particular subject matter.” The text is discourse; the text is the “site for a work of meaning”; the text is someone’s performance. We can understand authorial discourse. We should try to understand authorial discourse.

The notion of “miracle” in Gadamer’s account of understanding is faulty on several fronts. Primarily, though, Gadamer’s idea of understanding is “the self-presentation of the ‘inner word’ or Sache.” In this way, the author’s work is insignificant. The Sache is incorporeal and corporeal discourse is irrelevant; it is a means to an end. Vanhoozer finds it “difficult to see how an impersonal process could have the ability to disclose truth.” “The Sache itself does not literally speak or show itself to us,” writes Vanhoozer, “except when the subject is the sovereign speaking God (so Barth).” He eventually concludes that “Gadamer’s description of the hermeneutical condition ultimately fails unless it employs Christian categories and makes them not simply illustrative but operational.” Grace is that theological category Gadamer’s description suggests but never quite names.

Vanhooozer is emboldened enough to propose “that we employ specifically Christian categories not only notionally but operationally for the sake of a description of the miracle of understanding and of the being whose being consists in understanding.” Let us end with a quick look at these Christian categories.

First, if since Gadamer, hermeneutics is ontology, and if Christians believe that all things are new in Christ, then Christian notions of ontology should hold some significance for hermeneutics. Second, Vanhoozer proposes that we “explore the category of effective pneumatic consciousness.” Those virtues necessary for understanding to happen are fruits of the Spirit. Third, and in connection to the notions of ontology and pneumatology, Vanhoozer comes back to the agency of understanding. Here he resonates with Eberhard in saying, “Christian faith does not only seek understanding; it mediates it.” And, to this end, while hermeneutics says we are in conversation, a Christian hermeneutic understands that we are in Christ. Faith (one’s ontological location) is a Sache that the “subject gets involved in but never controls.” Fourth, Vanhoozer questions the notion that understanding is a “fusion of horizons” and appeals rather to the idea of love for an other. He writes, “Understanding requires love: not just interest in a person in abstracto but interest in and patient attention to what that person is saying.” Finally, Vanhoozer ends the chapter by drawing a line between understanding and salvation. Understanding, like salvation, is “an impossible possibility.” “In both cases,” Vanhoozer surmises, “there seems to be a kind of ‘grace’ involved, one moreover that involves both faith (being caught up in, an active surrendering to) and works (an active participation in) the ‘matter’ at hand.”

In sum, Vanhoozer acknowledges in these hermeneuts an agreement “that the miracle of understanding involves a kind of enlightenment.” But of what sort? For Descartes and his modern Western progeny, understanding is “a by-product of the active subject’s agency on the matter.” For Gadamer enlightenment is not something we do but something done to us; “it is the matter that enlightens the subject.” This makes perfectly good sense to Barth (and Vanhoozer!) “but only perhaps with regard to the matter of Scripture…for no other book has the self-communicating presence and action of God as its Sache as does Scripture.” In the end, understanding for Vanhoozer (and Barth!) is “conformity to Christ” that happens as the interpreter is neither wholly passive or wholly active, but rather as “the interpreter is located in an all-encompassing process (or rather a person?)”

I would like to end with one quick note about being in Christ. I would like to see Vanhoozer say more about how being in the all-encompassing process/person–how being in Christ!–necessarily involves some reflection about being in a community that is the body of Christ. Still, I am more than a little excited and impressed with Vanhoozer’s ideas in this chapter.

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