Saturday, January 3, 2015

Review Vanhoozer's First Theology

Kevin Vanhoozer (KV) bases this prolegomena off of speech-act theory.   He is working from several methodological presuppositions, all of which I think are sound:  our understanding of God and our understanding of Scripture presuppose one another (or are correlates). This is helpful because it alleviates the problem of whether we need to start with God or Scripture.
His book has three parts:  God, Scripture, and (Cultural) Hermeneutics.


KV raises the problem of whether the Trinity belongs in a philosophy of religions.  He advances the standard claims against pluralism: whenever a pluralist defines a “core” of all religious beliefs, that core is inevitably exclusivistic–it excludes other categories (57).
Drawing from themes by Robert W. Jenson, KV places God’s identity in his self-identifying acts as the God of Israel.   Before that he notes the problem of the term “identity.”  Does it mean ontological sameness or self-constancy in the case of God?  According to Paul Ricoeur, the God of the Philosophers is the God of idem-identity (bare essence; ground of being, the ineffable One swallowing the Many).  This makes differentiation of any sorts (persons, relations) a movement towards non-being. By contrast, the God of Israel is the God of ipse-identity (constancy, covenantal fidelity).  God identifies himself as Israel’s God and ties his name to a promise.  This is not the god of the philosophers.  Very fine section.

Effectual Call as Case Study

KV perceptively notes that the doctrine of effectual call is simply an example of the problem of the God-world nexus. Does God operate on the world in a causal manner merely, or is the relation one of calling, speech?  As Descartes noted, the God-world nexus is seen in the following problem:  how does the mental (God, mind, spiritual, etc) have any effect on the physical?

KV proposes we see this relationship in communicative categories.  If there is a God-world nexus, the “calling” is the “communicative joint” (118).  The Word that summons has both content and illocutionary force (energy).

Speech Act Terminology

Before continuing it will be helpful to explain key speech-act terms.  A perlocution is what one brings about by one’s speech act (120).  Locution is the speaking (154).  Illocution is the content and intent of the Locution.

Scripture as Speech-Act

KV proposes that speech-act theory allows us to transcend the debate between revelation as content and revelation as act, since Speech-Act includes both (130).
He has some good responses to high-church readings of Scripture and tradition:  “I see no reason that cognitive malfunction could not be corporate as well as individual” (223).   He notes the Anabaptist claim to “read in community” is not that materially different from the Romanist/EO claim that the Church reads the Bible.
This claim to “self-referentiality is artificial; it disconnects the text from the extratextual world and from the process of reading…[quoting Francis Watson] To regard the church as a self-sufficient sphere closed of from the world is ecclesiological docetism” (Vanhoozer 216).
Indeed, such a position reduces to “interpretive might makes right.  One may very well question the grounds of such optimism: the believing community in Scripture is too often portraryed as unbelieving or confused, and subsequent church history has not been reassurring either” (219)
And Vanhoozer asks the most painful and unanswerable of questions:  how can we guard against the possible misuse of Scripture?  If we have to read the Bible with the church, we have to posit the corollary:  the church’s interpretation is what counts.  But what are the criteria so we know the church interpreted it correctly?  The Holy Spirit will guide it.  Well, what about Heira?  That doesn’t count.

It’s kind of like the definition of pornography:  I’ll know it when I see it.


The book is mostly magnificent.  The final sections on Cultural Hermeneutics have promise, but only if you are already interested in that topic.


  1. Have you read Helm's critique of Vanhoozer?

    This is a work critiquing specifically Vanhoozer and John Franke, and IN THE OPENING OF THE PREFACE, he suggests that what these men write is "sufficiently unclear to prevent serious implementation" and "would be disastrous if carried through consistently. They embody a series of philosophical errors, mostly of a fundamental and, dare I say it, of an elementary kind, as well as some regrettable errors of fact".

    Now, I've read some of his recent blog articles, critiquing Frame and Oliphint (among others) on the Doctrine of God, and I've not gotten far enough into this work to know what he's really talking about. (And given some of my other commitments, nor am I motivated to move too quickly into this).

    But I wanted to bring this to your attention.

  2. I haven't read the whole critique. Helm is good when he deals with Hodge and Old Princeton. He is the best in the world on that topic. Not so much when he moves outside his field.

    It is not fair to lump Vanhoozer in the same sentence with Franke. Franke is a radical postmodernist who denies sola scriptura and inerrancy. Vanhoozer affirms both.

    And Speech-Act theory is simply a verbal Trinitarianism, found in guys as diverse as Horton and Wolterstorff.