There was a time when almost no scholarly work was being done to relate Christian theology and ethics to the Bible.[1] We therefore owe a great debt to George Lindbeck, who spent much of his career seeking to recover what he called the “classic pattern of biblical interpretation” for today’s church.[2] The mainline churches, Lindbeck contended, exist in a state of “methodological chaos” with respect to their reading of Scripture, wherein “disagreements over interpretive modes” have led to “the present crisis of biblical authority”—a “theoretical crisis that threatens to become a practical cataclysm, as the decline of the historically mainline denominations suggests.” What we need, Lindbeck suggested, is “criteria on how to proceed with the discussion,” in such a way that the traditional, precritical reading practices that remain integral to the church’s everyday life are preserved.[3]

In this essay, I attempt to recover the classic pattern of biblical interpretation by comparing the postliberal position of Lindbeck, the sophisticated contemporary evangelical position of Kevin Vanhoozer, and the classical Lutheran position of Robert Jenson. As my guide in these analyses, I enlist Allen Verhey, who observed that the discussion about theological interpretation of the Bible has tended to revolve around two foci, the canon and church criteria. It is widely agreed, Verhey points out, that all readings of Scripture should be placed within their canonical context. So too, it is largely agreed that the Bible is to be read within its ecclesial setting.[4] Our three interlocutors, I will contend, can be usefully sorted as representing three different takes on these criteria. Lindbeck’s attempt to resolve the “methodological chaos” he decries leans heavily upon the church criterion by focusing upon the meaning of Scripture within the “cultural-linguistic” world of the church absorbed by the biblical text. Vanhoozer, in contrast, argues that Lindbeck’s church in fact absorbs the biblical text, and he instead insists that the canon criterion must be supreme. Jenson, for his part, seeks to maintain the supremacy of the canon criterion without denying the necessity of reading the Bible within its ecclesial context; he places the canon together with the church’s creeds as the mutually constituted norma normans non normata (e.g., the “norming norm that is not normed”) of the church.[5] This last view, I hope to show, is the most satisfactory of the three. For it is necessary, as Vanhoozer indicates, to view the Scriptures as capable of speaking in judgment of the church, of being a site for what John Webster calls the viva vox Dei or the living voice of God.[6] But it is also necessary to read the Scriptures as they are used by the Triune God to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, and Jenson shows contra Vanhoozer that the church of the gospel needs both canon and creed to do so.

I begin with Kevin Vanhoozer, whose 2005 book The Drama of Doctrine can be viewed in large part as an evangelical alternative to Lindbeck that sets forth not a cultural-linguistic but a “canonical linguistic approach to Christian theology.”[7] This is necessary, Vanhoozer contends, because although Lindbeck sought to recover the authority of Scripture, “a closer inspection shows that he relocates authority in the church.” The problem stems from that wild-haired philosopher, Wittgenstein: “Lindbeck accepts Wittgenstein’s insight that linguistic meaning is a function of use, and that linguistic meaning varies according to the . . . cultures that users inhabit.”[8] While he agrees that meaning is “crucially related to language use,” the normative use that counts for Vanhoozer “is ultimately not that of ecclesial culture but of the biblical canon.” Vanhoozer emphasizes the Bible’s unique status as norma normans non normata, the norming norm that is not itself normed. Church traditions and practices, such as the rule of faith, creeds, and the catholic sensus fidelium—all of these should indeed be attended to with care, but for Vanhoozer the “turn to church practice” encouraged by Lindbeck has come “at the expense of biblical authority.”[9] By placing too much weight upon church practices as our hermeneutical key, Lindbeck’s church jeopardizes its ability to correct ecclesial malpractice. It is finally not the church’s use of Scripture that should serve as the primary “norming norm,” but instead God’s own use of Scripture as given to us in the linguistic practices of the canon.[10] In opposition to Lindbeck’s Wittgensteinian turn to church practice, Vanhoozer draws upon J.L. Austin’s analysis of speech-acts to argue that God has done things with Scripture’s words—in other words, in the Bible, God has given us canonically authorized “linguistic practices,” or speech acts—such that the appropriate response is to reverently seek out what God has said, instead of presuming that the meaning of God’s Word is found primarily in its uses within the practices of ecclesial culture.

Vanhoozer turns to another Yale thinker, Nicholas Wolterstorff, to argue that Scripture is best understood as “divine authorial discourse.”[11] Some of the Bible, they contend, is God’s speech in a quite direct sense, such as the words of Jesus. But for most of the Bible, we are met with divinely appropriated discourse, much like that of an ambassador deputized to speak on behalf of a monarch. It is not necessary in such cases to regard every locution made in the appropriated discourse as assented to by its appropriator; for instance, by motioning to adopt the minutes of a discussion about corporate policy at a meeting of a board of directors, a board member may be assenting to the general thrust of the conversation and not to the whole of what was said. And the parallel to Scripture is clear: even though it may be acknowledged that the human words of the Bible do not at every point reflect what a loving, consistent, truthful God might say, that does not mean that such words are reflective of what God, the appropriator of the appropriated discourse, intended to say thereby.

By appropriating the canonical text of Scripture as a whole, God by a divine act of discourse takes up a complex yet distinct normative stance vis-à-vis the Bible’s readers and hearers: with these words, God enters into the human linguistic world and speaks a Word to us. Interpreting the divine discourse of the Bible is not a matter of attempting the fool’s errand of ferreting out the meaning of statements from within the dark recesses of authorial souls, nor is it an ascertainment of the supposed sense of the text in isolation from what its authors were trying to do with their words. Instead, it is a matter of ascertaining the public normative stance that authors take up as readers and hearers by way of making use of the linguistic conventions at hand. Agreement on just what that normative stance is will no doubt remain elusive at certain points, as it is no simple thing, for instance, to understand what God has said in the context of canonical Scripture by means of appropriating what St. Paul said to the church in Rome, but Vanhoozer contends that disputes of this nature would have the merit of achieving genuine disagreement rather than the confusion of methodological chaos.

For Vanhoozer, the crux of the matter is that God really speaks to us in the Bible. In agreement with Brad Kallenberg’s analysis of the Yale school, Vanhoozer insists that Lindbeck has not properly accounted for the theological claim that God has entered into the linguistic community of Israel and the church as a speaker.[12] Vanhoozer contends that we must recognize God as a speaker who has taken up a normative stance in the world, as an agent who has done specific things with words by appropriating the discourse of canonically authorized writers. Wolterstorff’s formulation allows us to recognize God’s genuine entry into the human community of speakers through commissioned prophetic and apostolic words and most directly through the teaching of Jesus, the Incarnate Word. By not recognizing this, Vanhoozer finds Lindbeck guilty of “ecclesial expressivism,” in that his “emphasis on letting the biblical narrative make sense on its own terms is eclipsed by his even stronger emphasis that only church practice gives the text its sense.”[13] The viva vox Dei, in other words, is eclipsed by the voice of the church.

Is Vanhoozer’s account of Lindbeck fair? Are his criticisms telling?[14] Closer examination of Lindbeck’s seminal book The Nature of Doctrine shows that some of Vanhoozer’s concerns are well founded. Lindbeck wrote the bookwith the aims of the ecumenical movement in mind, and he sought to provide an account of doctrine that made it possible to understand ecumenical agreements. Under Lindbeck’s model, ecumenical “reconciliation without capitulation” is possible because doctrines are not truth claims but historically conditioned rules for regulating Christian speech about God.[15] As such, in their doctrinal role they make no first-order claims about religious truth.

As Lindbeck well knew, these are startlingly strong claims—doctrinal statements about God, he writes, are characterized by “informational vacuity.” Lindbeck grounds his proposal in the tradition by drawing on Aquinas, whose “theory of analogical predication” means that although “what the divine names signify is truly found in God, their mode of signification is entirely different from any with which we are acquainted.”[16] The “whole enterprise” of the Summa is thus “entirely formal, purely vacuous and non-informative.” The point of religious language, then, lies in its function as the “vehicle of prayer and praise . . . in all these activities God is named, and thereby feelings are elicited and passions, attitudes and actions molded and directed.”[17] This applies not only to the nature of God but also to the “resurrection . . . creation, consummation, [and] etc.”[18] For instance, although “the claim that Jesus truly and objectively was raised from the dead provides the warrant for behaving in the ways recommended,” we must grant “the impossibility of specifying the mode in which those stories signify.”[19] Given that we cannot specify what the New Testament proposes concerning the “metaphysical Christ of faith,” it is compatible with various construals of Christ’s nature.[20] “What is taken to be reality,” Lindbeck sums up, “is in large part socially constructed and consequently alters in the course of time.” Social constructions of reality will vary so dramatically that although “different worlds, with their different definitions of the good and the real, the divine and the human” will be “redescribed within . . . the same framework of biblical narratives,” they will “continue to remain different worlds.”[21]

Vanhoozer’s concerns, then, can be seen as touching upon matters that are in fact rooted deeply in Lindbeck’s project. By allowing that such biblical teachings as creation, the nature of Christ, and the resurrection can be construed in almost infinitely variable fashions within various cultural-linguistic frameworks, Lindbeck allows the world to absorb the text rather than the text to absorb the world. By not adequately instructing the church to attend to God’s self-attestation in Holy Scripture, Lindbeck permits us to remain within our own descriptions of what we take to be reality, rather than allowing Scripture to turn our world upside down and place us in a strange new one.

Vanhoozer’s proposal for preserving the viva vox Dei, however, is not without problems of its own. Chief among them has to do with Verhey’s observation that discussion of the “canon criterion” has opened up into what Richard Hays calls the “synthetic task,” the attempt to understand canonical Scripture as a whole.[22] Although the details of Vanhoozer’s own “theo-dramatic” construal are largely persuasive, he too acknowledges that the Bible is a polyphonic text that leaves room for a wide variety of construals.[23] Canonical polyphony, then, requires a certain level of ecclesial polyphony: “the church would be a poorer place,” he opines, “if there were no Mennonite or Lutheran or Greek Orthodox voices in it.”[24] Yet among all readings and cultural contexts, certain core convictions ought to crop up, such as “the ultimate significance of Jesus of Nazareth” and “the special use of water, bread, and wine.”[25] “Individuals” would be “unwise” to depart from the historic creeds, but as “we cannot take for granted that the content of the apostolic tradition is found in the tradition of the church,” Vanhoozer cannot rule such departures out.[26]

Vanhoozer is too careful to dismiss creeds and church practices wholesale, but we see here the results of his refusal to allow any such practices to function as necessary hermeneutical keys. To take his example, Mennonites and the Greek Orthodox may well not assent to each other’s Christian identity. Mennonites have often held the Greek Orthodox to be “Constantinian,” claiming that they fail to follow the footsteps of the nonviolent servant king Jesus. The Orthodox, for their part, would likely regard the “special use of water, bread, and wine” among the Mennonites as a seriously deficient eucharistic practice. Such divergences are at least prima facie serious, and Vanhoozer assumes too quickly that they are justifiably diverse. To say that canonical Scripture is “divine authorial discourse” does not go far enough toward accomplishing the “synthetic task” and establishing an account of what the wholeness of Scripture consists of, an account of the gospel proclaimed and embodied in which the church finds its common mission.[27]

We are left, finally, with the great midwestern Lutheran sage Robert Jenson to solve our perplexities. While Lindbeck speaks of the “co-inherence of Bible and Church, of their mutually constitutive reciprocity,”[28] Jenson instead speaks of the mutually constitutive reciprocity of biblical canon and creed. For Jenson, the church most basically is “the community of a message:” the gospel news that “the God of Israel has raised his servant Jesus from the dead.”[29] In the first century or so of the church’s life, Jenson writes, the church’s possession of this message was not generally problematic. But in the church’s second century, first-hand memory of apostolic gospel witness began to die out. In this period, attention was paid to the formulation of a biblical canon and explicit statements of faith.[30] What became known as the regula fidei “was a sort of communal linguistic awareness of the faith delivered to the apostles,” and it was this that Irenaeus drew upon in his defense of the canonical writings against the Marcionites.[31] From the outset, then, the argument was virtuously circular: “we are to trust the presence of truth in the community because it is confirmed by the Gospels and apostolic letters; and we are to trust these documents because they come from those whose witness forms the community. Canon confirms creed, and creed confirms canon.”[32]

This for Jenson confirms the general principle: “the canon without the creed will not serve to protect the church against perversion of the Gospel, and neither will the creed without the canon.”[33] This means, for example, that when the creeds identify Jesus as the Son of God, we need the canonical narratives to specify who Jesus is. It also means that the canon contains for us “all things necessary to salvation . . . only if in reading Scripture we let the structure of the creed guide us to Scripture’s overall Trinitarian structure, and also let the teaching of the creed determine our reading” of particular passages.[34] We are to read, then, for what Jenson (with Jason Byassee) calls the “Christological plain sense” of Scripture, in the assumption that “the way the words go” is in fact a witness to Christ.[35] The creed should function as the “critical theory for Scripture,” as it identifies for us God’s use of the text to proclaim the gospel.[36] So for instance, when Gabriel announces to Mary in Luke’s Gospel that her son will be called “holy . . . the Son of God,” the creed directs us to understand this not only as a messianic title for the newborn Jesus but also as indicating the child’s status as God the Son and Mary’s status as theotokos, the mother of God.[37] Though historical critics might blanch at taking at face value texts often regarded as secondary, “theological” accretions that grew up like luxuriant weeds amid the pristine garden of historical fact, Jenson regards a creedally normed canon as in fact the church’s best guide for hearing the good news of what God has done in history for our salvation.

Would Vanhoozer spy out here yet another example of collapsing biblical authority into the church? He very well may, but Jenson is more careful than Vanhoozer and Lindbeck alike on this count. Jenson carefully distinguishes between dogmas and creeds, holding that although church dogmas are authoritative guides for reading Scripture, it is yet possible for them to lead us astray. In such a case, Jenson says, “our recourse must be to a norma normans, canon and creed together.”[38] Is it “naive,” as Vanhoozer alleges, to assume that the church in her creeds preserved apostolic teaching?[39] If it is, Jenson would reply, “then the church lost its diachronic self in the early fourth century at the latest, and the whole enterprise of Bible reading is moot.”[40]

Although Vanhoozer is probably correct to be suspicious of over-confident claims by today’s sadly divided church to speak for the Spirit (as one of Lindbeck’s students, Ephraim Radner, would remind us),[41] Jenson’s proposal is well suited to our predicament. For the “methodological chaos” that Lindbeck diagnosed has a very great deal to do with our chaotically and sinfully divided church, and Jenson’s proposal pushes us to press the discussion beyond methodology alone. Though Vanhoozer’s attempt to return the church to the Scriptures is commendable, in the end his sophisticated hermeneutical apparatus runs the risk of substituting a theory of interpretation for the church, as Stanley Hauerwas has warned us against.[42] In his yeoman’s work to defend the merits of authorial-discourse interpretation,[43] Vanhoozer has contributed a great deal to ameliorating the church’s “methodological chaos,” but methodology alone will only take us so far. Jenson recalls us to an ancient theological assumption that should resonate with Vanhoozer’s insistence that we view God as one who has entered into the linguistic community of Israel and church as a speaker—namely, that God is doing something with the words of the Bible, ensuring the proclamation of the good news that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself . . . and entrusting the ministry of reconciliation to us” (2 Cor. 5:19 NRSV). Jenson’s reliance upon the early church’s communal self-consciousness, formulated for us in the creeds, as our necessary guide to reading the canonical Scriptures well in this time of estrangement and division is the better part of wisdom and a crucial step toward regaining the gospel-centered ecclesial unity that will also require repentance for the many sins by which we have divided Christ’s body.

[1] This classic complaint was of course made by James Gustafson in 1965; cited in Verhey, “Scripture and Ethics: Canon and Community,” Union Seminary Quarterly Review 58 (2004): 13.

[2] Lindbeck, “Scripture, Consensus, and Community,” in The Church in a Postliberal Age, ed. James Buckley (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 202.

[3] Lindbeck, “Postcritical Canonical Interpretation: Three Modes of Retrieval,” in Theological Exegesis: Essays in Honor of Brevard S. Childs, ed. Kathryn Greene-McCreight and Christopher Seitz (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), 40, 45, and 51.

[4] Verhey, “Scripture and Ethics: Canon and Community,” 19–20. As such, discussion of the church criterion has opened up into the “inquiry concerning the hermeneutical significance of the practices that accompany the reading of scripture in the gathered community” (20).

[5] Jenson, Canon and Creed (Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010),69.

[6] Webster, Word and Church (Edinburgh, UK: T&T Clark, 2001), 75.

[7] Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2005), emphasis added.

[8] Ibid., 10.

[9] Ibid., 16.

[10] One may wonder, of course, precisely what Vanhoozer means by “canon,” as the various Christian churches are not entirely agreed on the matter. Vanhoozer addresses this concern by making three points: First, the Bible itself displays a “canonic consciousness,” or “an awareness of being a discourse ‘set apart’ from other words, and of being intimately related to other set-apart discourse” (Vanhoozer, Drama of Doctrine, 142). Second, by the time of about 200 C.E. “the practice of treating certain books as belonging to a new sacred canon was everywhere accepted, as was, with just a few exceptions, the actual list” (Vanhoozer, Drama of Doctrine, 142-143; citing Nicholas Wolterstorff, Divine Discourse, 294). Third, “Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant churches today agree on the common canonical core,” such that the question of which books are in or out is “surprisingly unproblematic” (Vanhoozer, Drama of Doctrine, 143). He concludes: “The real point of debate today is not which books are in or out but rather how the Scriptures virtually all Christians acknowledge as canonical ought to be used in theology and in the church” (Vanhoozer, Drama of Doctrine, 143).

[11] Vanhoozer, Drama of Doctrine, 11. Vanhoozer draws extensively upon Wolterstorff’s 1995 book Divine Discourse.

[12] Vanhoozer, Drama of Doctrine, 99 and 177; Kallenberg, “Unstuck from Yale: Theological Method after Lindbeck,” Scottish Journal of Theology 50 (1997): 191–218.

[13] Vanhoozer, Drama of Doctrine, 97, 172–3, and 294.

[14] It should be pointed out, in Lindbeck’s defense, that he regarded the Bible as capable of resisting “definitive capture by even communally self-interested misreadings,” since “the centrality of the stories of Jesus and the typological application to the present Church . . . of the Old Testament tales of God’s wrath, as well as mercy, against his ceaselessly unfaithful people confer self-correcting potential on communal interpretation” (Lindbeck, “Scripture, Consensus, and Community,” 206).

[15] Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1984), 18. Ecumenical reunion, given this model, only requires that churches come to see their doctrines as rules intended to regulate situational discourse rather than as propositional claims about God.

[16] Ibid.,67, 49.

[17] Lindbeck, “Discovering Thomas,” Una Sancta 24/1 (1967):.,50-51.

[18] Ibid., 67. Lindbeck acknowledges that this goes “beyond anything Aquinas says” (67).

[19] Ibid.

[20] Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine, 120.

[21] Ibid., 82.

[22] Verhey, “Scripture and Ethics: Canon and Community,” 19–20. Here, Verhey is drawing upon David Kelsey’s discussion of the need for a “discrimen” in Proving Doctrine: The Uses of Scripture in Recent Theology (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International), 160.

[23] Vanhoozer, Drama of Doctrine, 37-56 and 272-276.

[24] Ibid.,275.

[25] Ibid.,132.

[26] Ibid.,209 and 164.

[27] Stephen Fowl, for his part, has professed skepticism that Vanhoozer’s authorial discourse method is adequate, in large part because of the difficulty of answering this question. See Fowl, Theological Interpretation of Scripture (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2009), 14.

[28] Lindbeck, “Scripture, Consensus, and Community,” 205.

[29] Jenson, Canon and Creed, 3.

[30] Ibid.,4-5.

[31] Ibid.,15 and 34.

[32] Ibid., 34. Such confidence in the nascent canon emerged “from the earliest church’s immediate awareness of her truth, at the last moment when that awareness could by itself settle the issue” (34).

[33] Ibid.,32.

[34] Ibid.,50.

[35] Ibid.,82. Jenson here indicates his reliance upon and basic agreement with Jason Byassee’s Praise Seeking Understanding (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), which began life as a Duke PhD dissertation.

[36] Jenson, Canon and Creed, 79-87.

[37] Ibid.,106–7.

[38] Ibid., 69.

[39] Vanhoozer, Drama of Doctrine, 164. Vanhoozer endorses Kathryn Tanner’s argument that church practices and traditions are too varied to serve as a stable norm for theology (Vanhoozer, Drama of Doctrine, 121).

[40] Jenson, “Scripture’s Authority in the Church,” in The Art of Reading Scripture, ed. Ellen Davis and Richard Hays (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), 29.

[41] See particularly Ephraim Radner’s book The End of the Church: A Pneumatology of Christian Division in the West (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), and his more recent book A Brutal Unity: The Spiritual Politics of the Christian Church (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2012).

[42] Stanley Hauerwas, “The Church as God’s New Language,” in Scriptural Authority and Narrative Interpretation,ed. Garrett Green(Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1987), 179. Cited in Vanhoozer, Drama of Doctrine, 236.

[43] Vanhoozer points to the fact that Lindbeck himself, nearing the end of his career, signaled his openness to the merits of the authorial-discourse interpretation, though without clarifying how or whether this represented an implicit critique of his earlier work (Vanhoozer, Drama of Doctrine, 166–67; citing Lindbeck, “Postcritical Canonical Interpretation”).