King's Evangelical Divinity School

15 September 2014

The Bible and the Crisis of Meaning

This review of mine was published in Evangelical Quarterly in 2009 (80.1, pp 81-82).  I'd forgotten all about it and only just now came across the PDF file sent to me by the publisher some time back, so I thought I'd share it. It will most likely be of interest to students of biblical studies, hermeneutics, language and culture.

The Bible and the Crisis of Meaning: Debates on the Theological Meaning of Scripture 
by D. Christopher Spinks (London: Continuum, 2007). xii+201pp. hb. £65, ISBN 978-0-5670-3210-2

If you acquire and read this cerebral book be prepared for some considerable exercising of the grey matter. D. Christopher Spinks delves into the thorny and highly theoretically complex issue of meaning. How does one define meaning, and where exactly is the meaning of the biblical text located? If with the author, in which part of the authorial process: the author’s thoughts, or perhaps the actual communication of ideas? Or maybe our quest ought to be more reader-response orientated so that meaning becomes subservient to the interpretative process by and for the reading community.

Throughout, Spinks’ discussion of meaning is wedded firmly to theological interpretation of the Bible, the recent inexorable rise of which is noted by Spinks at the outset. Given the inherently theological nature of the Bible, whether in its authorial for- mation or communal reading, Spinks makes clear we must move firmly beyond an historical-critical approach and matters lying ‘behind the text’ (though he does not eschew historical approaches as worthless) to a process thoroughly rooted in the theological interpretation of the Bible.

Central to Spinks’ discussion is his analysis of the approaches of Stephen Fowl and Kevin Vanhoozer to the meaning of the biblical text and their implications for the theological interpretation of Scripture. Fowl sets aside meaning in favour of the interpretative interests of and utilisation by the theological reading community itself. The danger here, of course, can be a postmodern pluralist relativism or subjectivism. Moreover, Spinks notes how Fowl, despite claims to the contrary, ‘works with an implicit theory of meaning’ (69). The book also explores Vanhoozer’s focus on authorial intent as the locus of meaning.

For Vanhoozer, though, authorial intent is far more than an historical-critical obsession with the author’s social, historical and psychological circumstances. Instead he focuses on ‘the principles of communicative action rather than the interests of the reader or the mental consciousness of the author’ (70). Drawing on speech-act approaches, Vanhoozer believes ‘meaning... is not the internal cognition of the author but the communicative actions the author performs’ (84), that is, on behalf of God. But as with Fowl, Spinks highlights problems with an exclusive embrace of this approach alone, not least because a focus on authorial intent relegates the reading community to nothing more than an ‘afterthought’.

Spinks believes that both approaches ‘are unable to articulate any normative function for the ongoing Christian community because they confine meaning to one place – either with a reader or an author’ (26). Instead he regards theological interpretation is ‘dialogical’ or ‘conversational’. ‘It is not academic or ecclesial; it is not history or theology; it is not reason or faith; it is not modern or postmodern. Theological interpretation must find a way to embrace both sides of these dyads, remain in conversation with the often opposing perspectives, and form a position that transcends both’ (31).

Thus Spinks posits a dialogical approach whereby a theologi- cal outcome or meaning is reached via a conversation between author, text and the reading community. ‘Meaning is neither synonymous with intentions nor interests, but it is also not a concept that can do without either. Meaning is the mediation of God’s truth that takes place between authors, readers, and the community of God of which they are all a part. It is neither a determined object not an open-ended idea’ (182-83).

Spinks’ book is a thorough and substantive theoretical discussion of meaning wedded to theological interpretation. But be warned, anyone without a solid grounding in hermeneutical theory, the philosophical debate surrounding meaning, and linguistics will likely struggle. The book is replete with discussions of various philosophers, while the debate is unashamedly theoretical in nature and short on illustration. At times I felt somewhat like a shipwrecked sailor swimming weakly in a sea of theory, desperately searching for some illustrative flotsam to which I might cling. Clearly, then, Spinks’ book is written with the expert in this field in mind (which is perhaps reflected in the book’s cost), and as such it is not one I would recommend to anyone other than the most able of students. Yet by the end of the book I felt all the richer for ‘hanging in there’.

In conclusion, Spinks offers a stimulating discussion which contributes usefully to the burgeoning field of the theological interpretation of Scripture. But be sure to avoid making it your night time reading with a cup of cocoa in your hand. Instead, ensure the lights are burning brightly and there is plenty of strong coffee (or something stronger) to hand. You will need your wits about you and the brain working at optimum level if you are to get out of this book all it has to offer.


Unknown said...

Calvin, I came by this gracious review by a circuitous route. Since publishing my dissertation nearly a decade ago, I've moved on to helping others publish books. That is, I became an editor. For the last nine years I've worked with Cascade Books and Pickwick Publications, imprints of Wipf and Stock Publishers ( Just today I began to proofread one of the projects in my queue. Written for Our Learning: The Single Meaning of Scripture in Christian Theology by Benjamin Sargent will be published in due time. As I started the proofing, I was reminded of my own earlier work on the subject of meaning. I wanted to reach out to the author and make that personal connection. In googling my book, in order to grab a URL to which to point the author, I came across this blog post of yours. I wanted to say thanks for the review written some years ago and re-posted last year. As with most dissertations, had I to do it over again I would go about things a bit differently—maybe even providing you some flotsam to grab a hold of! There is much that has transpired since the writing of my book, namely, the conversation on theological interpretation seems to have died down and biblical scholars, as well as theological interpreters, have got on with whatever it is that tickles their fancies. In that regard, I think Fowl's notion of "interests" has won the day. At any rate, thanks again. If you are interested in Sargent's book, please contact me. He's sure to come down on things differently than I. He has certainly reminded me that maybe the conversation has died down as much as I thought it had. At the very least, there might be another review for you to write!

Unknown said...

EDIT: "He has certainly reminded me that maybe the conversation has NOT died down as much as I thought it had."