In the Pictures at a Theological Exhibition Series I aim to provide brief summaries and reflections on the chapters of Kevin Vanhoozer’s work of the same title. Vanhoozer’s task in this book and my own task with Lead U have a great deal of overlap, so I hope in this series also to help elaborate on the mission of Lead U.
Chapter Two: True Pictures
In chapter two Vanhoozer tackles the difficult subject of the inerrancy of Scripture. If theology and the work of the theologian are rooted in the Word, one of the first steps is to understand properly the nature and function of Scripture. But it is precisely at this point that so much debate and confusion ensues. Vanhoozer makes an extremely helpful distinction between literal and literalistic. Literal relates to the intended meaning of the author and is a helpful way to approach the text of Scripture. If, for example, an author uses language symbolically, then literal interpretation takes into account his intent and reads it accordingly. Literalistic reading, however, takes everything at face value.
Many in the Church today use the word literal but read in a literalistic way, and it has become damaging to the Church’s worship, witness, and wisdom. When we insist that a passage be read in a literalistic way, we are forcing a hermeneutic on the text that it wasn’t meant to bear. Yet at the same time that such an approach is leading people to incorrect readings, this approach has simultaneously taken on a strong-armed, chip-on-the-shoulder type attitude towards others both in and outside the Church. When Vanhoozer speaks of “hermeneutical humility” and “Christian civility,” this problem comes to my mind (perhaps this chapter confirms that it comes to Vanhoozer’s mind as well).
One important step we can take towards living out a vibrant faith that is true to Scripture is to understand better the difference between literal and literalistic readings. If we could take the author’s intended meaning in his context, understand and internalize it, and develop evangelical imaginations rooted in sound theology, I think what would result from those collection of virtues would be both faithful and compelling visions of the good life according to God.