Thursday, April 3, 2014

On Reading Scripture in Translation: A Brief Critique of Vanhoozer

In their book Reading Scripture with the Church: Toward a Hermeneutic for Theological Interpretation, coauthors A. K. M. Adam, Stephen Fowl, Kevin Vanhoozer, and Francis Watson each contribute a constructive essay and then offer a response to the others' essays. In Vanhoozer's response to Fowl, he takes up Fowl's approving treatment of Thomas Aquinas's reading of the prologue to the Gospel of John, where Thomas affirms a number of legitimate interpretations of the literal sense. Vanhoozer writes:
Fowl is in favor of many (but not too many!) legitimate interpretations Yet throughout his essay, he makes a special point of saying that Thomas has no problem ruling out some interpretations to be inadequate or mistaken. How can we delimit what God intends to be understood by the words that are written? The general idea is that, instead of delimiting, we should rather accept as many true meanings as possible. There is, however, an important caveat: "Do not violate the context."

Fowl examines Thomas's suggestion that "in the beginning was the Word" (John 1:1) has (at least) three literal meanings and asks whether Thomas was"right." Specifying criteria for interpreters "getting it right" is, in my book, what hermeneutical theory is all about. So, does Fowl succeed both in establishing many literal senses and in providing a criterion that halts their endless proliferation? Readers will have to judge for themselves. Let me call attention to one interesting fact. Thomas derives his three interpretations of John 1:1 on the basis of the various ways of using the term principium. But this is a Latin term, and the author of the Fourth Gospel wrote in Greek.

"Determinate" means limited in time and space. Is it not a violation of the context of John 1:1 to lift the text from its original time and place, not to mention its original language? There is a christological point here that should not be missed. God makes himself known and communicates to humans not by transcending space and time but by entering into the human condition. To divorce Scripture from its historical context is to suggest that it has the mere appearance of human discourse. This way lies hermeneutic Docetism. In order not to violate the text, must we not eventually say that the eagle has landed in some determinate time and place?

Fowl is right to insist that the divine intention ultimately transcends that of the human author. I argue in my own essay that theological hermeneutics is a matter of "discerning the divine discourse in the work." Where we still differ, perhaps, is in the way that we respond to the injunction not to violate the context. For me, context refers to the historical, literary, and canonical settings of biblical discourse. It is not entirely clear to me how Fowl would appeal to context—which contexts?—in order to delimit the plurality of possible divine intentions.
I want to leave aside Vanhoozer's larger point about delimited meanings and criteria for right interpretation. Instead, I want to focus on his critical comment about language and the proposed christological warrant for it, because I think Vanhoozer is wrong in important and revealing ways here.

The upshot of Vanhoozer's comment seems to be that strong interpretive judgments about scriptural texts should not or even cannot be based on a translation, because to do so is to violate one of the principal contexts within which the text makes sense, namely the language in which it was originally written. This latter justification is given warrant by reference to the incarnation: God neither remains distant in heaven nor comes near in appearance only, but becomes in actual fact a particular flesh-and-blood human being in a particular time and place. Hermeneutic docetism follows christological docetism when it abstracts from the particularities of historical being—time, place, language, finitude, community, culture, social convention—as so much husk masking a transcendent kernel; the reader supposes the text's features are accidental to the substance of what it says, rather than part and parcel of its meaning. On the contrary, what a biblical text says is inseparable from how its said, which includes how the original human author said it in the language in which he wrote.

The positive import for contemporary biblical interpretation is clear enough: basically, a qualified endorsement of the tools and methods of historical criticism as crucial for properly Christian reading of Scripture—though without, of course, endorsing the whole program, especially some of the theological and philosophical presuppositions that tend to underwrite it. The negative implication is twofold. More broadly, the original historical context of a scriptural text's composition (and initial reception?) is one delimiting factor for its right interpretation. More specifically, readings like Thomas's that make exegetical judgments based on a translation of a scriptural text are called into question, perhaps not wholesale, but at least to the extent that the onus is on them to justify their translation-exegesis—particularly if it is controverted or arguable in some important way—at the bar of original-language-exegesis. Principium bows to archē.

This line of reasoning is very surprising, given Vanhoozer's work elsewhere (I'm thinking of The Drama of Doctrine in particular), and it isn't clear to me that he has traced the consequences to their logical conclusion. In short, if Christians can't make strong exegetical judgments when reading Scripture in translation, then one might as well throw out nearly the whole pre-Reformation theological tradition as well as almost every sermon, class, popular book, or personal devotion in the church's history. Most of the East for most of the last two millennia has read the Old Testament in Greek, and most of the West for much of the same time read the whole Bible in Latin. What of their theologies, their ecumenical creeds, their dogmas, their pastoral and ethical decisions? Almost every ordinary church member, in every church on every continent since the church's founding, has heard Scripture read aloud in translation. What of their faith, their edification, their sanctification, their knowledge of Christ and his gospel? When literate Christians read the Bible—say, the prologue to the Gospel of John translated into English, where it says "In the beginning" and not En archē—should they qualify their time spent prayerfully with God's word with the proviso, "So long as the Greek bears it out"?

Doubtless Vanhoozer would have much to say on this; and I know that he values the work of missiologists like Lamin Sanneh and Andrew Walls, who emphasize the inherent translatability of the gospel and its Scripture. But the theological point is crucial, and at least in the quote above, he seems not only to miss it but to presume against it. One way of putting the point is this: When the Bible is read in the gathered assembly, and the lector concludes the passage by saying, "The word of the Lord," to which the congregation responds, "Thanks be to God," there isn't any sleight of hand. There isn't an asterisk with fine print that reads, "A translation of the word of the Lord." When Christians hear (and read) Scripture in translation, what they hear (and read) is the word of the Lord—full stop. Holy Scripture in translation is Holy Scripture, pure and simple. That this is so not only helps to make sense of nearly all Christian experience, devotion, worship, and theological reflection, but is integral to the missionary character of the faith. When the gospel is proclaimed to the nations and women and men believe the good news, they do not get second-rate gospel if they happen not to speak (ancient!) Greek or Hebrew. The gospel is essentially translatable, and so is the book set apart to bear its message to the world.

What are the implications for biblical exegesis and for theological judgments made on the basis of reading Scripture in translation? That's a good question, and one well worth attending to; but it is secondary, insofar as it follows the prior, more determinate and catholic affirmation about Scripture's inherent ability to be translated without material loss.

Are Protestants able to make that affirmation? Do they have sufficient grounds—bibliological and ecclesiological not least—to do so? Is there something genetic in evangelicalism, especially of the Reformed variety, that would keep it from doing so? I wonder.