On Determinate Meaning in Texts: A comparison of the hermeneutic theories of Kevin Vanhoozer and Stephen Fowl


This paper will attempt a brief interaction between the views outlined in Kevin Vanhoozer 's "Is There a Meaning in This Text?" (Zondervan Publishing House, 1988) and Stephen Fowl's "Engaging Scripture" (Blackwell Publishing, 1998). Conclusions will be drawn regarding their degrees of compatibility and whether or not one can coherently hold to both hermeneutics simultaneously.

on the denial of the referent

Both authors clearly posit their hermeneutic out of a similar conviction that recent or historic trends in Biblical interpretation require a hermeneutical reformulation. Their respective descriptions as to why this necessity exists, however, evidences a difference of perspective and methodology which is found throughout their work.

Both authors are quick to refute those radically deconstructive hermeneutic theories which have emerged in the "postmodern era". Fowl distinguishes his hermeneutic from what he deems "anti-determinancy". His desire to make this distinction is a reaction to the latter's refusal to recognize any role of the referent in the reader's formation of ideas about the text and its meaning. Vanhoozer also immediately distances his hermeneutic from what he deems "anti-realist" theories which locate the sole onus of the text within the instability of the reader's own (according to anti-realist views) ungrounded experiences and ideas.

Thus neither author condones or suggests a denial of the role of the referent in the formation of interpretations. Rather, both agree that the interpretive project must, in some way at least, recognize the formative role of the text.

Vanhoozer on defining the primary hermeneutical question

On the question of how and to what degree the text is formative, our authors' fundamental disagreement emerges. Both authors choose to present their answer to the question of formation after outlining an historical context which each sees as demonstrative of the need for a new hermeneutic (or perhaps a new defense of a traditional hermeneutic).

Vanhoozer's decisive use of the terms realism/anti-realism as the paradigm for his argument creates a very clear spectrum, the extremes of which are determined by epistemological options (and faith in God). In setting forth this spectrum as the context for his discussion, Vanhoozer locates the central question in one's acceptance or rejection of the notion of an external object's ability to carry meaning for the observer. Simply put, anti-realists deny this notion, realists embrace it. If such an ability is successfully argued, it would remain only for Vanhoozer to demonstrate that Scripture is in fact such a meaning-laden object which of its own nature is able to form in the reader ideas of meaning and thereby could act as a source of significance.

Without denying a unique role to Scripture as divine revelation, Vanhoozer proposes a general hermeneutic which attempts to solve the question of meaning in, not only biblical interpretation, but the interpretation of texts in general. This solution is attempted through the equation of meaning with "communicative act". This equation not only places the author and his intent securely in any discussion of meaning, but also allows one to equate texts with meaning, since texts are clearly communicative acts. On the equation of meaning and texts, Vanhoozer provides the following definitions:

"To be precise, meaning is a three-dimensional communicative action, with form and matter (propositional content), energy and trajectory (illocutionary force), and teleology or final purpose (perlocutionary effect". (218)
"What is a text? We are now in a position to provide a definition. A text is a complex communicative act with matter (propositional content), energy (illocutionary force) and purpose (perlocutionary effect). " (228)

This equation is a fundamental necessity to Vanhoozer's thesis for it is here that texts are defined as by nature constituted by meaning to the same degree any other communicative act is said to be so. Although one must distinguish between communicative acts according to the value of the various authors' intentions, no fundamental distinction can be made between spoken and written acts. A text is simply "a communicative act fixed by writing". (229)

Vanhoozer supports this unity by emphasizing the "incarnational" nature of texts through which an aspect of the author is literally embodied within the text. It is important to note that while suggesting this expectation of an incarnational nature derives from Christology, Vanhoozer applies this expectation to all human texts. He writes, "A text is an extension of one's self into the world, through communicative action. The divine author embodied his message in human flesh... Is the word of human authors not incarnational too? The text is a kind of "body" of the author. It is this body, this medium of authorial agency, that I have sought to resurrect." (229)

As to where theological hermeneutics falls within this general incarnational hermeneutic Vanhoozer admits that the Bible can be viewed as Scripture only from within the believing community. To attribute the Bible the status of Scripture, however, does not impact its basic nature as incarnational fixed communicative act. The difference between the believing and unbelieving reader of the Bible is found solely in the fact that for the believer "Scripture... functions in a way that leads to Christ and to the righteousness of God. To call the Bible Scripture does not make its warnings or its promises something other than warning and promises." (380)

The reader's responsibility toward statements in the Bible grounds in the nature of the text itself rather than in something belonging to the members of the believing community. Vanhoozer suggests that one's responsibility toward any text grounds in one's ability to understand what a text by nature is and what a particular text's author intends through it. (see 395)

Armed with an understanding of these two fundamental truths, the reader is enabled to encounter that which transcends him and has the capacity to transform him, granted, Vanhoozer adds, that the reader approaches the text in the right spirit.

Fowl on defining the primary hermeneutical question

Just as Vanhoozer's chosen spectrum (realism/anti-realism) significantly (and rightly) determines the content, style, and argument of his work, so also Fowl's spectrum of choice determines his own argument.

Although Fowl's spectrum shares both poles with Vanhoozer's, which in Fowl's terms are those of determinism/anti-determinism, he distances himself from both equally and proposes the centrist perspective of "under-determinism". Unlike Vanhoozer's realism, Fowl's underdeterminism stems not from a critical analysis of alternative epistemological theories, but from a humanitarian critique of the history of biblical interpretation. Fowl's argument against determinism (and thus the realism of Vanhoozer, who writes, "My thesis is twofold: that texts have determinate natures, and that authors determine what these are". (228)) is grounded in what he sees as "an overwhelming series of errors" committed by deterministic interpretations of Scripture, errors which result not simply in heated seminarian debate but in bloodshed and the unjust estrangement of people groups.

In positing his argument, Fowl does not make a case against determinism in terms of its implausibility or the superior plausibility of an alternative, but in an appeal for the conscientious recognition of the less-than-christian manner in which biblical interpretation has been historically wielded by various and certain groups within the Church.

Fowl's proposal for a hermeneutic of underdeterminancy stems from what he sees as a fundamental systemic error within determinate approaches. Simply put, this error is the claim that humanity's hermeneutic endeavour can ascertain and possess the determinate meanings of texts. It is precisely when those holding a determinate hermeneutic pursue this meaning and make claims to possessing it that those outside the group are estranged and degraded. The more the claim to possession of the truth becomes mainstreamed, the greater the injustice inflicted on those outside.

Fowl identifies the cause of determinism's fundamental error in its belief that meaning is a property of the nature of a text. Once such a property is attributed to the nature of the text it is but a short step to defending reason's universal ability to apprehend a nature's properties. (This is, in fact, the exact argument we have seen from Vanhoozer in his appeal for realism.) Fowl recognizes that if this understanding of "meaning" is pervasive throughout the interpretive communities, as seems to have occurred in certain eras of church history, hermeneutical agreement generally ensues. However, Fowl notes, once this definition of textual meaning is questioned, those of the determinate camp have no recourse but to brand those diverging from the traditionally agreed upon interpretation as "anarchists".

Fowl's denial of meaning as a property of the text is the foundation for his proposed underdeterminancy. Underdeterminate hermeneutics is characterized by the explicit admission that given the ambiguous nature of the text, interpretational differences will inevitably arise. According to Fowl, virtuous hermeneutics, even at its best, cannot eliminate such disagreement, but instead "provides part of the context in which disagreements can best be articulated" (87). This being the case, "our discussions, debates, and arguments about texts will be better served by eliminating claims about textual meaning in favor of more precise accounts of our interpretive aims, interests, and practices". (56)

In the same way Fowl rejects the notion that texts have meaning as a property, he denies that texts themselves have ideologies. Ideological interpretations, those interpretations which inevitably give rise to an unjust treatment of those outside, derive solely through the interpreter's confused interpretive concerns. It is for this reason that the underdeterminate hermeneutic must emphasize, as mentioned in the previous quote, the evaluation of the interpretive community's aims and practices. Unchecked aims coupled with an inescapable inability to locate a determinate textual meaning can only lead to an abuse of the text's granted authority. This, according to Fowl's presentation, is precisely the prognosis of the history of biblical interpretation.

on the spirit of theological hermeneutics

It is clear that both Fowl and Vanhoozer, though starting at very different points within their shared hermeneutical spectrum, eventually arrive at a shared recognition for the necessity of a "right spirit" (Vanhoozer) or "hermeneutical virtue" (Fowl) through which the interpreter must go about his task. However, as one might expect, distinct descriptions of what this virtue entails are offered and grounded within their respective hermeneutical frameworks.

One point of commonality in their descriptions of hermeneutical virtue is found in the need for an honest evaluation of what Vanhoozer terms "one's prior commitments and pre-understandings" (377). This mirrors a portion of Fowl's call for underdeterminancy's emphasis upon one's interpretive aims and practices, and supports an agreed upon notion that unchecked interpretive aims quite often, if not always, results in a misappropriation of the Bible's granted authority. For Vanhoozer, this misappropriation results from the unchecked interpreter's unwillingness or inability "to be receptive to those texts that appear to challenge one's most cherished beliefs" (377). For Fowl the misappropriation results from attributing Scripture one's own ideological interpretation. Whereas texts do not possess their own ideologies, any interpreter which espouses an ideology must succumb to a "truthful, critical self-reflection". (79) Thus it is clear that for Fowl, one's ideology or pre-understanding does not stand corrected by the Bible in the same way it will for Vanhoozer, for the former disallows the notion that any correct ideology exists within the text whereby one's own might stand in comparison. For Fowl, the Bible's sheer lack of ideology should provide within the interpretive community the conviction that one's own ideological stance, no matter how certainly it is held, be held only provisionally. The acceptance of this provisionality is for Fowl the initial step in approaching virtuous hermeneutics. That Fowl here differs from Vanhoozer is perhaps better accentuated by the fact that for Vanhoozer, it is precisely the positive (positum) meaning of the text which challenges the reader rather than the recognition that the text (by its nature) argues against claims to meaning.

Vanhoozer does speak of provisionality in a second character of virtuous hermeneutics, that of "Openness". Openness for both Fowl and Vanhoozer implies a sincere recognition that differences exist among interpretations and interpretive communities. For Fowl, the opposite of openness is clearly Dogmatism, and in particular, the dogmatism of determinancy. He writes, "a charitable interpreter will both recognize interpretive differences and refuse temptations to reduce or rationalize those differences and disputes away". (88) In reference to the temptation to rationalize, Fowl later identifies it as that which "presumes that all disagreements are basically reducible to single solutions which only the irrational or the perverse will refuse to accept". (88) Simply put, Fowl here denies the reducibility of differences due to his rejection of a single meaning of the text. The "presumption" he here decries is not of the inferiority of those who disagree with one's interpretation, but that a single interpretation can and should be had.

This notion of openness differs significantly from Vanhoozer's in that for Vanhoozer the text must remain a source of its single (intended) meaning. Here the dogmatism of determinism is not contrasted with openness but rather a closed-mindedness which is unwilling "to hear and consider the ideas of others". Here it is clear that Vanhoozer does not have in mind dialogue between interpretive communities as the primary evidence of interpretive openness, but instead the reader's openness to the ideas of the text "as other". Whereas Fowl clearly emphasizes the existence of differences and from it extrapolates the call for irreducibility, Vanhoozer clearly views difference in juxtaposition to meaning and idea. For Vanhoozer, interpretive difference clearly results from differing degrees of "literary knowledge" rather than any inherent ambiguity within the text. (377)

In addition to Honesty and Openness, Vanhoozer lists two other characteristics of virtuous interpretation, both of which refer exclusively to the relation between reader and text. The third characteristic, Attention, is that quality whereby the reader focuses on the text as opposed to being self-absorbed. The fourth characteristic, Obedience, is that quality whereby the text is read as it was intended, and the reader submits to the directions implied by the text rather than to his own ideas.


Vanhoozer's thesis is both epistemologically and ethically grounded in a particular definition of the nature of texts. The equation of meaning and communicative act coupled with the equation of communicative act and text provides the core of Vanhoozer's thesis wherein meaning is said to naturally reside in texts. This location of meaning within the nature of texts requires not only the recognition (or at least expectation) of universal access to such meaning via the rational capacity, but also the reader's moral responsibility when confronted by the text. That the nature of the text is the ground for the reader's moral response is clear from Vanhoozer's primary (if not exclusive) emphasis upon the relation of reader and text ("as other") in his discussions of each of his four characteristics of interpretive virtues.

Though several common themes emerge in the interaction between Vanhoozer and Fowl, all but the denouncement of anti-determinism refer to the need for recognizing one's own interpretive framework or the results emerging from a lack to do so. And as we have seen, even on the cause and cure of this potential malady our authors differ significantly.

Whereas Vanhoozer clearly places the nature of the text at the center of his thesis, Fowl turns to the role of the Spirit to sustain his notion of virtuous interpretation. For Fowl, the Spirit's interaction upon the reader must precede the Bible's influence. That Fowl emphasizes this priority is to be expected since he has denied the Bible a specific meaning whereby a single "Church" might be formed. Rather than the Bible, the Spirit is that which enables the formation of an ecclesiastical or theological community which then takes up the Bible to interpret it.

That, for Fowl, what is formative of a virtuous hermeneutic is something other than the text (as it was for Vanhoozer) is clear from this description of the "formation of virtuous interpreter":

"When Christians' convictions and practices regarding sin, forgiveness, repentance, and reconciliation are in good working order, the recognition of oneself as a sinner work's toward keeping one's eye single. Further, this recognition draws one into a collection of practices designed to restore, reconcile, and subsequently deepen one's communion with God and others. As a result, Christians will find themselves transformed by the Spirit to conform more nearly to the image of Christ. As one might expect, growth in virtue will demonstrate itself in scriptural interpretation as well. Indeed, it is ultimately through the formation of virtuous interpreter of scripture that Christian communities can combat the temptation to read scripture in ways that underwrite sinful practices." (86-87)

For Fowl, this symbiotic interplay between Christian community, individual and interpretation evidences the need to avoid prioritizing biblical interpretation as the sole formative factor. Thus, Fowl argues, "theological convictions, ecclesiastical practices, and communal and social concerns should shape and be shaped by biblical interpretation." (60) This need stems not from a recognition for a "hermeneutic spiral" but from a recognition that the text of the Bible cannot function as the primary formative operator within the individual or community.

Although brief, this paper has made clear the fundamental points of divergence between Vanhoozer and Fowl. It is the opinion of this paper that although both authors recognize the need for hospitable treatment of diverging views, they cannot both be coherently held by any one individual. Whether Fowl limits the application of underdeterminancy to only texts or whether he would extend this notion to any claim of determinate knowledge, he does not state. But even when limited to texts, it is clear that for Fowl, the ground of knowledge and moral responsibility are significantly different than the ground Vanhoozer posits. The basic distinction between these two centers on whether or not the Biblical text is attributed universally accessible meaning. Vanhoozer's thesis cannot be sustained without this attribution, whereas Fowl's cannot stand with it. For this reason, it is the conclusion of this paper that despite certain common recognition of hermeneutic error and human sin, they are at their core irreconcilable.

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