Kevin Vanhoozer on “Literal” Interpretation

As soon as I posted my last post on Michael Horton’s approach to speech-acts and Biblical interpretation (wherein I lamented how simplistic many interpreters are when they cling to an undefined “literal” interpretation of scripture), I remembered a nugget of pure gold by Kevin Vanhoozer on how “literal interpretation” should actually be defined:

The literal sense of an utterance or text is the sum total of those illocutionary acts performed by the author intentionally and with self-awareness.

There are many ways to study discourse, but not all are germane to the task of describing communicative action.  Genuine interpretation is a matter of offering appropriately “thick descriptions” of communicative acts, to use Gilbert Ryle’s fine phrase.  A description is sufficiently thick when it allows us to appreciate everything the author is doing in a text – that is, its illocutions.

Typically, historical-critical commentaries describe either the history and precess of a text’s composition or “what actually happened.”  According to the traditional “picture theory” of meaning, the literal sense would be what a word of sentence referred to.  On my view, however, the literal sense refers to the illocutionary act performed by the author.  The important point is that the literal sense may require a fairly “thick” description in order to bring it to light.

Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “From Speech Acts to Scripture Acts: The Covenant of Discourse & the Discourse of the Covenant,” in First Theology: God, Scripture & Hermeneutics, 178-79. (Bold emphasis mine)

It is unfortunate that many who would praise “literal interpretaion” of scripture would probably criticize Vanhoozer of being too heady, convoluted and/or slippery with a this description of how to interpret a text literally.  Most, however, seem unwilling to do the hard work that a “thick description” actually requires.


2 thoughts on “Kevin Vanhoozer on “Literal” Interpretation”

  1. Very interesting!

    I figured your heart would be warmed … but were the cockles of your heart warmed?! [grin!]


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