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Vanhoozer’s “Is There a Meaning In This Text?”

I give my highest endorsement to:

Vanhoozer, Kevin J. Is There a Meaning in This Text?: The Bible, the Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998.


You’ll notice that this is not a new book. No matter.

I’m just finishing the book and I’m finding it to be:

  • an understandable exposition of epistemology as it relates to interpreting what we read
  • a practical portrayal of critical realism, something I’ve been looking for since I read NT Wright’s first big book
  • a devastating (yet kind) deconstruction of deconstruction, that is, the kind of reading that ends up with subjective meaning and plural meaning
  • a cogent demonstration that fundamentalist interpretation is also deconstructive in many ways

Highly recommended if you are up to the task of a heavy read.


The opening chapters of Genesis are exceptionally important for understanding the rest of the Pentateuch. Apart from setting the initial scene, Genesis 1–3 determines the trajectory for all that follows. For this reason, it is vitally important to clearly comprehend the essence of these chapters within their present literary context. Unfortunately, discussions of Genesis 1–3 are too often hijacked by those who are almost exclusively preoccupied by the modern debate on the relationship between the biblical view of creation and that of contemporary science. [emphasis mine] Though this issue needs to be addressed, we should constantly remember that the author of these chapters penned them as an introduction to the narrative that unfolds in the books of Genesis to Kings. As we shall presently see, this narrative begins with the expectation that humans were created to build for God a temple-city on the earth. Unfortunately, God’s plans are almost immediately thrown into chaos as Adam and Eve betray their Creator and subsequently their descendants pursue their own agenda by constructing God-less cities.

Alexander, T Desmond. From Paradise to the Promised Land : An Introduction to the Pentateuch. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012.

Being Quite Practical

You and I can both read the Bible. Let’s say we are reading a particular passage and discussing it.

Undoubtedly there will be some points at which we agree about what the author meant when he (no sexism intended, just stating reality) wrote the passage we are reading.

And undoubtedly there will be some points at which we disagree. I’ve never known two thinking Christians to agree about everything.

So there are three possible states: I might be wrong. You might be wrong. We both might be wrong.

There is one impossible state: We both might be right. That cannot happen. We might both be close, but if we disagree we cannot both be right.

Now for the most important part. The fact that we disagree should not separate us. It should not be cause for stopping the discussion. In fact, it should be the impetus for more discussion.

When we break koinonia (with-ness, mutuality, commonality) over disagreements like our hypothetical one under discussion here, we violate the basic tenets of following Jesus.

If we aren’t going to be humble enough to admit that we might be wrong, we may as well stop reading the Bible altogether.


Taking the Bible literally means reading for its literary sense, the sense of its communicative act.

 Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text?: The Bible, the Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998), 312.

In other words, taking the Bible literally means reading the Bible the understand what the author (both the human author and God) meant to say. Reading the Bible is not an exercise in creativity, whereby we find new meanings and significances that have never been found before. We are trying to find out what the author meant.

We have one job. And there is one meaning. Don’t overthink it. And be humble.

Interpretive Diversity

In Protestantism we have a ton of differing biblical interpretations for a ton of different texts and passages. That’s why we have ton of denominations that disagree about all kinds of stuff.

Here’s the deal: all those interpretations could be wrong, but they cannot all be right.

Sound Familiar?

One common response to the conflict of interpretations is to judge one’s own interpretation correct and all others wrong. The most radical believers in determinate meaning posit not only the possibility of a single correct interpretation, but claim to possess it. Interpretation on this view becomes a form of absolute knowledge, with clear-cut “right” and “wrong” answers. However, it is precisely this claim to absolute knowledge that invites the Undoer’s skeptical response.

Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text?: The Bible, the Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998), 294.

Cain’s Choice

If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.


(The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989), Ge 4:7.)


God accepted Abel’s sacrifice, but not Cain’s. Who knows why? Any guess is just a guess.

God is dealing with Cain about a heart issue. Cain has a choice to make. He is a free human being, able to decide. God advises him to master the sin that is trying to overtake him.

Cain is not to give in to this lurking sin. He is to master [timšol] it. The sense of the Hebrew form (2nd masc. sing. imperfect) is ambiguous; it may be read as a promise (“you shall master it”), as a command (“you must master it”), or as an invitation (“you may master it”). Although each of these is quite possible, notice that Cain does have a choice. He is not so deeply embedded in sin, either inherited or actual, that his further sin is determined and inevitable. The emphasis here is not on Cain as a constitutional sinner, one utterly depraved, but on Cain as one who has a free choice. When facing the alternatives, he is capable of making the right choice. Otherwise, God’s words to him about “doing well” would be meaningless and comic. Should he so desire, Cain is able to overcome this creature who now confronts him. The text makes Cain’s personal responsibility even more focused by its use of the initial emphatic pronoun: “you, you are to master it.


(Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1990), 228.)


I want to do a better job of resisting sin than Cain did. I have a choice too.