Even Heretics Know Hebrew

May local churches become places where readers are formed not to be partisans of earthly kingdoms but martyrs of the kingdom of heaven, able to say with Luther, “Here I stand,” with a boldness tempered by an openness to being corrected. Learning how to embody these interpretive virtues is sanctification too—and perhaps the best way to proclaim biblical truth in a culture rife with partisan pride and systemic suspicion.

ABSTRACT: In today’s intellectual milieu, pride and sloth are the two chief interpretive vices. Partisan pride protects its beliefs behind the shield of identity politics, while systemic sloth shrugs indifferently at the pursuit of truth itself. In response, today’s Bible interpreters need more than the right kind of method; they need to be the right kind of people: readers marked by interpretive virtue rather than interpretive vice. With boldness, they oppose systemic sloth and proclaim what God has said. At the same time, with humility, they resist partisan pride and remain humbly open to correction. Meanwhile, local churches have the opportunity to become cultures of virtuous reading, places that form Bible readers to be people of interpretive virtue.

For our ongoing series of feature articles for pastors and Christian leaders, we asked Kevin Vanhoozer, research professor of systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, to describe a hermeneutics of boldness and humility.

Of the writing of books about reading the Bible there appears to be no end. Twenty-five years ago, I published one such book: Is There a Meaning in this Text? The Bible, the Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge.1 It was the high noon of postmodern theory, and I wanted to provide a Christian alternative to two deadly sins of interpretation: modern pride (a too confident belief in reason, truth, and method) and postmodern sloth (a too dubious disbelief).

I believed then—as I still do—that biblical Christianity, by definition, depends on being “biblical,” that being biblical requires a high view of Scripture and the wisdom to read it rightly, that reading rightly is challenging in every age, and that reading rightly requires you to be more of a saint than a scholar.2 I also believe that fulfilling Jesus’s Great Commission to make disciples of all nations involves helping Jesus’s followers to follow God’s word where it leads with minds and hearts, thus becoming readers and doers.

There is a place for exegetical methods in learning to read the Bible rightly, but even heretics may know how to parse verbs, diagram sentences, and so forth. Methods alone are no guarantee of truth, which is why I ended my hermeneutics text with a section on the importance of humility and conviction—qualities of the reader, not steps in an impersonal process.

From Intellectual to Interpretive Virtue

Hermeneutics may be “the science of textual interpretation,” but good reading, like good science, requires readers to have certain personal qualities. So does good knowing, as I discovered in Linda Zagzebski’s Virtues of the Mind.3 I knew about moral virtues—characteristic traits and habits of a “good” person—but even though I studied philosophy in college, I had never heard of intellectual virtues. Opinion became knowledge (so I was taught) thanks to the process of justification. By way of contrast, Zagzebski defined knowledge as what a person attains by acting with intellectual virtue (“a state of cognitive contact with reality arising out of acts of intellectual virtue”).4 Intellectual virtues are habits of thinking that lead to truth rather than away from it, habits that accord with the mind’s “design plan,” the way it should work in order to achieve its proper good: knowledge.5 Put simply, an intellectual virtue is what leads to an intellectual good.6

My proposal (which I believe was the first to make explicit mention of interpretive virtues7) was similar: an “interpretive virtue” is a personal characteristic or habit that leads readers to the interpretive good of understanding. It all starts with a heartfelt desire for the interpretive good of understanding: “making cognitive contact with the meaning of the text.”8 Good readers respect both the author’s intention and what is objectively there in the text rather than trying to come up with self-serving interpretations.

Reading relates to virtue in two distinct ways. Some people read the Bible (the proverbial “good book”) for the sake of virtue formation. William Bennett’s The Book of Virtues is a compilation of hundreds of character-building stories whose tales help children and others learn the importance of moral traits like self-discipline, loyalty, and compassion.9 Karen Swallow Prior does something similar in her book On Reading Well, pairing classic novels with virtues (e.g., Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities and justice, or Shusaku Endo’s Silence and faith).10 Prior knows there is a difference between reading for moral virtue and reading virtuously, and she deals with the latter in her introduction: “Reading virtuously means, first, reading closely, being faithful to both text and context, interpreting accurately and insightfully.”11 We can read about virtue, and we can also practice virtue while reading.

The latter possibility is our concern here. The key premise should be obvious: how you read is related to the kind of person you are. When it comes to hermeneutics, the who (the kind of person you are) is as important or even more important than the what (the particular method you use).

To avoid modern interpretive pride, our certainty must be tempered by hermeneutic humility; to avoid interpretive sloth, our skepticism must be tempered by hermeneutic conviction. Both boldness and humility are appropriate in biblical interpretation because, as James Eglinton observes, the form of theology must be suited to the subject matter.12 A theologian’s voice must be bold when reporting what God has said, and modest when claiming to say what it means: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord” (Isaiah 55:8).

The Situation Today: An Old and New Challenge

Getting the delicate balance right of a hermeneutics of humility and conviction is more important than ever. Pride and sloth remain the chief interpretive vices, infecting yet another generation, even if 25 years on they have mutated somewhat to adapt to a new cultural situation. Pride now expresses itself as uncritical partisanship that breeds distrust; sloth has developed into systemic skepticism, cynicism, and apathy.

Bonnie Kristian’s Untrustworthy calls out the knowledge crisis that, in the words of her subtitle, is “polluting our politics and corrupting Christian community.”13 Americans no longer trust experts or institutions—unless they agree with their identity politics. Instead of giving reasons for what one believes, one has simply to wrap oneself in the mantle of one’s identity (e.g., “Speaking as an X”). This is what I mean by partisan pride—the idea that me and my tribe are in a special position to know. Unfortunately, if you disagree, you become my antagonist: “Speaking as an X, I am offended that you claim B.”14 To a proud partisan, every disagreement is a hostile act. You are either for or against me; there is no neutral third space for impartial dialogue—or rationality.15

Partisan pride does not need to listen to others; it already knows. Partisan pride is not only tribal but destructive of true democracy. In a culture of identity politics and partisan pride, people on the other side of the aisle—whether in Congress or in church—are not interlocutors, but potential enemies. It’s not even safe to talk about the weather anymore, at least not if you connect the dots between record flooding and climate change. A Chicago Tribune headline declares, “Meteorologists Feeling the Heat from Viewers.”16 Forecasters are without honor in their hometowns. Apparently, whether or not you trust your local weatherman is a function of your party politics.

Twenty-five years ago, I suggested that sloth was the signature temptation of postmodern theorists. Since then, however, the suspicion that truth claims are in fact power plays has become something of a fixture in public consciousness, resulting in systemic skepticism and cynicism—an inability to trust or believe in anything or anyone: “Whereas pride claims knowledge prematurely, sloth prematurely claims the impossibility of literary knowledge.”17 Postmodern suspicion has spread, like a virus, from the labs of French literary theory to Main Street.

To think that no one is in a position to know what texts, including the Bible, really mean is disheartening. Why begin to climb a mountain if you know you’ll never make it to the top? Why start a game of chess if you know the best-case scenario is a stalemate? What began as a hermeneutics of suspicion has developed into systemic skepticism, and it breeds what theologian Uche Anizor calls a “culture of apathy,” which does not merely tolerate but nurtures “an attitude of indifference” toward what used to be important.18 What distresses Anizor is the extent to which this attitude of indifference, even toward spiritual things and biblical truth, has become normal.

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