Vanhoozer, research professor of systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, is the author of a previous work on hermeneutics and biblical interpretation, Is There a Meaning in This Text? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998). He now offers this present work as an attempt to bring together various strands of theology and exegesis into a coherent whole. First Theology is a collection of his published articles and lectures from the last eight years.
As the subtitle suggests, the book is arranged in three parts. Part one is preceded by an introductory chapter that lays out some foundational aspects pertinent to his expressed goal. Here the author defines his term “first theology” as “an argument for treating the questions of God, Scripture and hermeneutics as one problem.” Part one consists of three chapters pertaining to theology proper, especially in contrast to other non-Trinitarian theologies. Vanhoozer defends the distinctive nature of God as Trinity, the ramifications of these distinctives, and the advantages of this theology over other religious concepts of God. To handle this task he engages a variety of thinkers from across the theological spectrum, and the result is his display of the Trinity as the crucial foundation for the task of theological construction.
Part two is a relatively short section comprising only two of the work’s twelve chapters, although it is viewed as the key section by the author. Here the author’s goal is to establish a paradigm for understanding God’s communicative action to His creation. To serve this need the author utilizes contemporary linguistics and speech act theory to argue that God’s communication is not merely propositional, but is also elocutionary in its nature. He emphasizes that God is not concerned primarily with relaying information but with performing actions leading to effectual results. For Vanhoozer, understanding language according to its elocutions is the key task of genuine interpretation.
The six chapters in part three discuss the relationship between special revelation and general hermeneutics (chap. 7), test cases from the Gospel of John (chaps. 8–10), the interplay of culture and hermeneutics (chap. 11), and issues of Christian mission, martyrdom, and “the epistemology of the Cross” for successfully staking truth-claims in the post-modern world (chap. 12).
Of special note is chapter 10, “Body Piercing, the Natural Sense and the Task of Theological Interpretation.” Vanhoozer works through a variety of thoughts on the question of what role theology and community play in the interpretive process. Here evangelical interpreters will probably be pleased that he makes a strong argument for placing priority on the authorial intent in biblical texts over against varying interpretations offered by various communities. However, Vanhoozer does not rule out the place of a “rule-of-faith” approach. But he qualifies it so that he is comfortable that no one interpretive community can force the Bible to sing its own theological tune.
Beginning theological students will find many parts of this book tough reading. The book has quite a breadth of information from a variety of academic fields and theological persuasions with which many students may not be familiar. Even for advanced readers the issues involved in Vanhoozer’s argumentation will demand effort. He works through his argumentation with a good measure of sophistication. This book can be recommended to those who have already worked through some preliminary concepts of theology and biblical interpretation. Thankfully the author’s writing style is at times engaging, as he is thoughtful and playful in his word crafting and uses numerous contemporary illustrations and word pictures.
One can sense a certain lack of continuity between some subjects, reflecting the fact that the book is a collection of smaller works given in different arenas.
Vanhoozer’s effort to bring productive union between exegesis and theology should be warmly welcomed by evangelicals. This treatment shows that all theology is necessarily hermeneutical and hermeneutics is necessarily theological—and careful attention to both is needed by Christian theologians and Bible interpreters.