The Bible and the Crisis of Meaning: Debates on the Theological Interpretation of Scripture. By D. Christopher Spinks
Article first published online: 27 NOV 2008
© The author 2009. Journal compilation © Trustees for Roman Catholic Purposes Registered 2009
The Heythrop Journal
Volume 50, Issue 1, pages 130–132, January 2009
How to Cite
Briggs, R. S. (2009), The Bible and the Crisis of Meaning: Debates on the Theological Interpretation of Scripture. By D. Christopher Spinks. The Heythrop Journal, 50: 130–132. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2265.2009.00438_12.x
- Issue published online: 27 NOV 2008
- Article first published online: 27 NOV 2008
Pp. xi, 201 . New York and London : T&T Clark , 2007 , £60.00 .
Spinks offers a detailed study of the hermeneutical approaches of Stephen Fowl and Kevin Vanhoozer, focusing in each case on their 1998 books in which they set out contrasting proposals concerning meaning in theological interpretation. The study, based on research done at Fuller Theological Seminary in California, proceeds in five chapters.
The opening chapter is a review of some (very) recent trends in theological interpretation, fixing in due course upon the topic of meaning as a key issue, indeed an issue which makes it into the title of the book: the ‘crisis of meaning’. Chapter 2 explores Fowl's Engaging Scripture and his well-known advocacy of under-determined interpretation whereby meaning is cashed out in terms of interpretive interests (following Jeffrey Stout). Chapter 3 offers a somewhat over-long running paraphrase of the epic argument of Vanhoozer's Is there a Meaning in this Text, which Spinks describes as ‘rather difficult and … quite lengthy’. The focus here is on Vanhoozer's emphasis on the illocution (of speech act theory) as the bearer of a subtle form of authorial intention as meaning, though it did seem to me that the appealing simplicity of Vanhoozer's overall argument structure was somewhat underplayed. In chapter 4 Spinks proposes that meaning in the work of these two thinkers is ‘dyadic’– i.e. located either in authors or in reading communities, and that what is needed is a fuller conception of meaning as ‘triadic’. The resources for this he finds in speech act theory, and in particular in a relatively little known work by McClendon and Smith entitled Convictions: Defusing Religious Relativism, which offers a focus on the various elements of a speech act in the ‘total speech situation’, in no one of which may meaning be uniquely located. Chapter 5 develops the resultant notion of meaning as a form of mediation between various aspects of the total speech act represented in the text, developing it into a notion of conversation between author, text and ongoing traditions of readers. Various other approaches are brought into the frame of reference here, notably a nod in the direction of reception-history, and some thoughts about how historical critical methodologies might relate to the proposed ‘mediation’ model. Through all this, though, Spinks is consistent in urging that meaning is not to be dispensed with in theological interpretation, but is ‘everywhere observed and … abundant’. (p. 180)
Spinks has researched his two focal texts from 1998 thoroughly, and is aware of a good deal of significant literature in this burgeoning area. In particular he makes sane and cogent use of speech act theory in his discussions of a more wide-ranging notion of meaning than has sometimes been in view. On the back cover, Fowl himself commends the work as ‘judicious and careful … a first rate example of interpretive charity at work’.
I am less convinced, though, that it offers an analysis that moves us forward in a substantive way, and there are several features of the book which could have profited from greater attention both to detail and overall framing of the argument. I mention five. First, Spinks' orientating opening discussion offers little insight into the real mechanics of the long stand-off between historical-critical and theological interpretation. Perhaps it is just that I happened to read this book a day after revisiting Peter Stuhlmacher's 1976 work on Historical Criticism and Theological Interpretation of Scripture, which offers a lucid brief account of historical trends in this area, that it was striking to me how little of the historical context of biblical interpretation is in view here. Spinks is unduly vague on the ‘recent movement’ of theological interpretation. Secondly, he is even more vague on what it is interpretation of: apart from a cursory look at the opening to the parable of the Good Samaritan on the first page, no scriptural texts are in view, and it was not clear to me, at any rate, what an actual interpretation of a text would look like under his proposed scheme. In this regard it was unnerving to read, 8 pages from the end, ‘On a very practical level, I am not challenging biblical interpreters to change their activities.’ I wondered how Spinks would characterise, say, Kasemann's commentary on Romans (1980), or von Rad on Genesis (1972), let alone anything by Bultmann or Barth. If all this was theological – and it was – then what is new in this new theological interpretation? And is there really anything new in saying that ‘no one interpreter has the right to claim that he/she fully possesses the meaning of the text’ (p. 183) when, as far as I recall, Kasemann, von Rad et al never did say this. Thirdly, if biblical studies is not given much of a hearing, neither is dogmatic reflection on a doctrine of scripture, leading to the familiar question one can put to philosophically-orientated accounts of meaning, which is whether it makes any difference in Spinks' scheme that the text in view is the two-testament Christian Bible? Perhaps his approach would work for any text, and does this matter? If not, what is it that makes the triadic approach germane to ‘theological interpretation’ (as per the book's subtitle, no less) rather than just interpretation which happens to work also for texts in the Bible?
Fourthly and perhaps fundamentally, I was simply not convinced that there is a ‘crisis of meaning’ in theological interpretation. Fowl's proposal to do away with substantive focus on concepts of meaning, which has arguably been stated in various places with an undue polarisation against other views (and Spinks allows this) nevertheless seemed to me to gain in appeal as I read through this attempt to conceptualise meaning. Oddly, the best philosophical discussion of meaning I know of, Austin's ‘The Meaning of a Word’, is referenced here, but not at the point where Spinks is expending his energy on defining meaning, and it might both have simplified and to some extent deflated matters. In the end, it is not meaning which is the key issue, but the sache or subject-matter of the text. Ironically, Vanhoozer's later work offers some of the most insightful ways of saying this, but Spinks seems for some reason to refuse to move much past his 1998 book. He cites Vanhoozer's 2001 essay, ‘From Speech Acts to Scripture Acts’, but does not take note of its own admission that Vanhoozer is developing his 1998 work with a lengthy account in which ‘there is almost complete absence of the term meaning’ (his note 11). Faced with this I could not follow why Spinks thought meaning was always key, and his assertion that Fowl cannot get away from meaning was just that: an assertion, not an argument. (In a 2005 article in the International Journal of Systematic Theology Vanhoozer goes further with respect to the sache of scripture, though it may be that this was not available to Spinks). In the end I was left with the impression that Spinks was retranslating both Fowl and Vanhoozer back into a relatively unhelpful framework which did not advance the discussion. That framework, finally, is speech act theory, and this is handled well, but perhaps I may enter a caveat when Spinks says that none of the authors he discusses (including myself) discuss McClendon and Smith's book. In my own work I did offer not just what Spinks describes as a ‘distancing from their goals’, but in fact an argument that they have flattened all forms of speech-act self-involvement unhelpfully into one type of tradition-constituted construction (see my Words in Action, p.17, 212 and 213). The way to demonstrate that such a claim could be defeated might best be to offer some readings of biblical texts using their approach, but this is not done. (I was also not convinced that the categories of speech act theory were as vague as Spinks sometimes wants to say, and in fact I agreed with the critique of this view offered to him by Nancy Murphy, which he cites here (p.164 n.41) but does not really answer – indeed he seems to prevaricate on what constitutes his triadic approach: it is not limited to a ‘specific triptych’ (p. 164 n.42), which seemed odd.)
In all this is a book which demonstrates considerable reflection on an interesting area, but does not persuade that it has cut through to the core issues, or that it knows how to go on and actually practise theological interpretation. Perhaps such developments may be forthcoming in further work. This might yet be a fruitful thesis, but the fruit is hard to foresee at present.