Virtues Needed For Interpreting Scripture

Is There a Meaning in This Text?: The Bible, the Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge In his helpful book, Is There A Meaning In This Text?, Kevin Vanhoozer talks about reading Scripture ethically.  He argues well that readers of the Bible should respect the text for what it is; we are followers of the text who should let the text have its way.  He says these are “interpretive virtues:”

“An interpretive virtue is a disposition of the mind and heart that arises from the motivation for understanding, for cognitive contact with the meaning of the text.”

When we read Scripture, we should have faith, hope, and love.  Here are other virtues Vanhoozer says we should have when interpreting Scripture:

1) Honesty.  Honesty in interpretation means, above all, acknowledging one’s prior commitments and preunderstandings.  Readers need to be clear about their own aims and interests.  A dishonest interpreter is less likely to be receptive to those texts that appear to challenge one’s most cherished beliefs or habits or desires.  A dishonest interpreter is more likely to drown out the voice of the other.

2) Openness.  The open-minded reader is willing to hear and consider the ideas of others, including those that conflict with one’s own, without prejudice and without malice.  Close-mindedness is an interpretive vice; closed-minded readers are either unwilling or unable to go beyond themselves.  Thus they thwart the ability of the text to transcend and transform the readers. …Note that openness implies a willingness to change; literary knowledge is provisional, not certain.

3) Attention.  The virtuous reader, far from being self-absorbed, is rather focused on the text.  Paying attention to the text is itself a form of respect and involves a number of related virtues, such as patience, thoroughness, and care.   The attentive reader must be observant, which means attending to the details, being sensitive to the various levels of the literary act, and having insight into the nature of the whole.

4) Obedience.  The obedient interpreter is the one who follows the directions of the text rather than one’s own desires.  …[This means, minimally,] reading it in the way its author intended.  It means reading history as history, apocalyptic as apocalyptic, and so on.  Only obedient readers can indwell the text and so gain whatever other knowledge it has to give.

Later Vanhoozer says, “Reading [the text] develops the interpretive virtues; the interpretive virtues help us become better readers.”  Right!  I appreciate this perspective on reading Scripture.  We should pray for Christian interpretive virtues as we read, study, hear, and memorize the Word.

These points can be found on pages 376-377 of Is There A Meaning In This Text? by Kevin Vanhoozer.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

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