7.21.2005

Dissertation Introduction

What at one time I was calling my abstract has now become my introduction. Sorry, not filled with hyperlink yet. Still would appreciate feedback.


In recent years theological interpretation of Scripture has found new life in the post-Enlightenment freedom from pure objectivity and the reaction to the modernist tendency to segregate the theological disciplines. Theological interpretation wrestles with hermeneutical questions from an explicit position of faith. It seeks to guide reading practices in a way that puts the readers in a position to live with and know God and fellow believers. Among theological interpreters the task of guiding the practices of reading communities is a highly contested one, and tensions exist on a number of levels. The concept of meaning is central in this debate and thus has much to do with the outlook of theological interpretation.

Chapter one introduces theological interpretation as a re-emerging branch of biblical studies growing out of a renewed interest in the hermeneutical significance of viewing the Bible as sacred texts and the believing community as the proper reading location. The chapter considers the shortcomings of ‘modern’ and ‘postmodern’ approaches in taking adequate account of the theological aspects of scriptural interpretation. Concepts of meaning, including critiques of such concepts, are seen as central to the task of theological interpretation, and the chapter displays why a study of concepts of meaning is warranted.

Chapters two and three describe and analyze the concepts of meaning in two competing proposals for theological interpretation. Chapter two examines Stephen Fowl’s suggestion that theological interpreters abandon the search for meaning in biblical texts in favor of interpretive aims and interests. Fowl’s critique of meaning results in certain habits and practices as the defining traits of theological interpretation. In chapter three I examine Kevin Vanhoozer’s realist conception of meaning, especially through his understanding of authorial intention by way of speech-act theory.

Chapter four identifies that both of these competing proposals have strengths and weaknesses, and ventures to understand meaning in a way that Fowl and Vanhoozer may be seen as a dialogical pair. To this end, the chapter suggests that a more holistic conception of the term “meaning” reflects the nature of felicitous speech acts and the realities of the total speech situation, thus allowing the theological interpreter to maintain the necessity for authorial intention with Vanhoozer and the reading community with Fowl.

Chapter five concludes the project by assessing the debate about meaning as one based on a false dyad. It asks about the shape of theological interpretation if Fowl and Vanhoozer were to read Scripture together, establishing what challenges this conversation offers for the theological interpretation of scripture and performing a theological analysis of what such debates about meaning themselves suggest about what role the Church plays and ultimately about who God is. These exercises lead to tentative challenges for biblical scholars and theologians to begin working more closely together on issues of urgent importance for the contemporary church and world.

4 comments:

Gail said...

My husband is brilliant. Having gone through this journey with him--from the inception of his rough outline to the now-imminent completion--I must say that the end product is better than that for which he gives himself credit. Of course, I'm happy that he's finishing up! But I'm also happy that he now has a new medium for the outlet of his literary creativity--blogging. If you haven't noticed, he's good at it.

Chris Spinks said...

Thanks honey!

hannah said...

This is actually David.

This subject of meaning seems to pose the same challenges as discussing time travel. That is, I once heard the theory that the moment a time machine is invented, it will be destroyed, because at some point the inventor (or someone else) will go back and prevent its existence. Anyway, do you ever feel like the very instance you try to discuss the meaning of meaning, that it destroys the...well...meaning?

Beyond that, I'm interested to see how Fowl and Vanhoozer's approaches are "competing" as you say, rather than providing options.

Finally, is your overall thesis saying that the most accurate theological interpretations are achieved only by implementing the "best" of the different schools of interpretation? Or that the meaning of the text should guide our interpretation, not the different proposals?

Or is it putting a spotlight on the debate, focusing on meaning playing a central role?

Either way, I'm most interested in your conclusions, or exercises, though I hope they're closer to conclusions.

Sounds intriguing nevertheless.

Chris Spinks said...

To hannah's ID, which is actually channeling David's reflections:

Thanks for the questions. They actually get at part of the dilemma (for me at least) with the whole idea of "meaning". Let me explain by replying to your rfelctions and questions.

The analogy to time travel is a clever one, and in some ways I think it gets at the idea that meaning, like a time machine, can never be had. The problem with the analogy is that even if a time machine would be destroyed the moment it was created, we all can still agree on the concept of time travel. Time travel is the idea that one can go back (or forward) in time. Easy enough, even if we will never actually do it.

But, what is meaning? There seem to be a lot of ways this word can be used. The question I am highlighting in my dissertation is what image of meaning will govern the interpretive decisions and methods we follow. This, I believe, becomes even more significant (and really more difficult) when we ask which ruling image is best suited for the interpretation of sacred texts. In other words, "What concept of meaning is best suited for the theological interpretation of scripture?"

Fowl and Vanhoozer propose different concepts of meaning in their differing descriptions of theological interpretation. Fowl actually believes "meaning" at the textaul level is not a helpful term, though he is okay with its use as an everyday term. He concludes that instead of pursuing the authors' intentions and calling them "meaning" as interpreters have done, theolgical interpreters should be governed by the theological interests and aims of the reading community. Attempts to locate meaning within one objective point in time leave the texts sterile and unable to communicate to today's communities. I am inclined, however, to say that even eschewing meaning is itself a concept of meaning at play, and so I identify Fowl's concept of meaning in his appeal to interpretive interests. Vanhoozer, on the other hand, believing proposals like Fowl's lead to an unwelcome level of relativism, insists that theological interpreters continue the pursuit of authors' intentions (even the intentions of the divine author!) because the loss of the author is tantamount to the death of God. However, he avoids the notion that we can somehow get in the head of the original authors and instead employs concepts of speech act theory to recover and bolster the idea of meaning as authorial intention. In short, Fowl's notion of meaning is connected to readers' interests (though chastened by the broader community) and Vanhoozer's is connected to authors' intentions (though chastened by a less psychologizing theory). So, in a sense Fowl and Vanhoozer represent competing concepts of meaning for theological interpretation. We might say they are providing options, but adopting one excludes the other and so I think they are in fact competing for the proper notion of meaning and the approach to theological interpretation that would result.

I'll wind it up and maybe we can talk later. What I ultimately want to do is propose a way to see meaning as mediation. In this way I hope to show how Fowl and Vanhoozer can be understood to be proposing various parts of a larger image of meaning, one that accounts for the objective intentions of the author and the subjective interests of the reader. Kind of like a conversation needs at lest two parties to be a conversation.