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Hermeneutically Speaking

Simon and Family

Simon Jooste is an MDiv candidate at Westminster Seminary California. He is an avid surfer from South Africa and loves to watch shark videos for some odd reason. He is a member of New Life Presbyterian Church in Escondido pastored by Rev. Ted Hamilton, Rev. Kevin Daane and my (Phil’s) archery instructor Rev. Ripp Pratt.

From Descartes to Vanhoozer: A Search for a Firm Foundation


Throughout the ages Christianity has sought a firm ground upon which to rest its claim on truth. Modernity gave rise to an unprecedented philosophical drive to establish knowledge upon a foundation of indubitable beliefs – and thus the birth of foundationalism. Foundationalism in the Western philosophical sense is the “doctrine that in a rational noetic structure every non-basic belief must ultimately be accepted on the basis of a-cultural and universally compelling beliefs or realities, themselves in need of no support.” Following the cue of Rene Descartes, modern theological inquiry embraced the scientific/ rationalistic method characterized by the Enlightenment’s search for certainty. History, however, has proven that the Cartesian dream of absolute certainty remains an unrealized one. The Nietzsche-induced skepticism that followed has set the stage for the postmodern turn.

The church finds herself more anxious than ever to establish the story of Gospel redemption upon firm ground. Some have stayed the Cartesian course in search of an indubitable granite foundation, based on so-called timeless universal propositions extracted from the Scriptures. Others, however, have heeded the criticisms of the linguistic turn and have sought to locate theological authority in church practices. It is the contention of this paper that the authority of the Scriptures is derived neither purely from its propositional content nor the church practices they effect. Kevin Vanhoozer shows how the modernists have allowed the proposition to crack their foundationalist enterprise and how the postliberals have liquid beneath theirs. In seeking firmer ground, Vanhoozer has proposed a canonical-linguistic approach to theology. In doing so, he looks to George Lindbeck to provide the necessary cultural-linguistic “filler” for the cracked foundation laid by modernist theologians; while offering further reinforcement by his employment of polyphonic canon as the ultimate regulator of both proposition and practice. Vanhoozer’s approach is the result of a careful piecing together of various building blocks from various theological traditions.

In order to better understand how the Biblical proposition amassed so much dangerous weight and the corresponding correction from George Lindbeck, we need to have some understanding of the foundationalist blueprint laid by Rene Descartes.

Descartes’ Timeless, Universal, Acultural, Extra-linguistic Blueprint

Widely recognized as the father of the philosophical revolution that led to the Enlightenment, Rene Descartes (1596-1650) was intent to establish a method of “investigation that would lead to the discovery of those truths that were absolutely certain.” Descartes was a man of his times. Living in the midst of ecclesiastical as well as inner spiritual turmoil, Descartes hoped to employ his method of self-doubt and rational inquiry to arrive at a foundation of epistemological certainty for himself and the church.

Descartes’ epistemological method was modeled after mathematics and was marked by an emphasis on the primacy of reason. Rodney Clapp makes the keen observation that Descartes (Leibniz and others) must have gravitated toward mathematical logic in large part because pure mathematics is “possibly the only intellectual activity whose problems and solutions are ‘above time’ and heedless of place.” It was Descartes method that was laying the seeds for modern foundationalism and its quest for a foundation of indubitable self-evident beliefs – which in turn are timeless, universal, acultural and extra-linguistic. Descartes believed that “from this sure foundation one might reliably deduce truth on any number of otherwise controvertible matters, across the range of human endeavor” – which included the modern theological enterprise.

It is quite evident that there is strong link between Descartes and modern “classic” foundationalism – out of which the cognitive-propositional approach to theology has arisen. Theologians of this persuasion have sought to establish a foundation of indubitable self-evident beliefs based upon universal and timeless propositions extracted from the pages of Scripture. However, in the light of the postmodern turn, many have begun to see the cracks in the modernist foundation.

cracked foundation

The cracked foundation of modern foundationalism

Philosophers and theologians alike find themselves in the twilight of modernity. Descartes method of doubting the existence of God (to arrive at God) opened the door to the skepticism of Nietzsche, Hume and others. The modern Enlightenment enterprise has in the eyes of many, failed. Philosophers and theologians alike have entered into what Paul Ricoeur called the “desert of criticism.” Standing on the shoulder’s of the likes of Neitzche and Feuerbach, postmodern philosophers such as Wittgenstein, Derrida and Rorty, have exposed the glaring cracks in the modern Cartesian foundation. The critique of postmodernity has rightly reminded us that we are inescapably situated in a body, a culture, a tradition and a language.

According to Lindbeck, the cognitive-propositional approach of foundationalism can be faulted for its rigidity in that it provides no room for doctrines to develop over time, does not aid in determining how old doctrines can be interpreted to fit new circumstances, and is not conducive to ecumenical discussion. Vanhoozer has also spotted the cracks in the modernist foundation, thanks also to the critique of the linguistic turn.

Vanhoozer’s canonical-linguistic approach finds fault with classic foundationalism on two fronts. Firstly, foundationalism abstracts propositional truths from Scripture by overlooking how they have been canonically mediated through various literary genres. Foundationalism strips the Bible of its incarnational, polyphonic and dramatic nature. Secondly, foundationalists estrange the knower from the process of acquiring knowledge. With a Platonic lust for universals, foundationalists run roughshod over the particulars (of text, location and identity of the exegete) in the acquisition of knowledge. In the end, all that matters to the foundationalist are naked/ timeless propositions and scientific-like procedures in extracting them from the pages of Scripture. Vanhoozer sees the faulty foundation and asks: “Will the exegete get – make cognitive contact with – the meaning? Will the exegete relate to, and do, the truth?”

It comes as no surprise to see that the pendulum has, for many, swung from theory to practice in theological inquiry. The weight of the proposition has cracked the foundation and the linguistic turn has chastened the modern epistemological enterprise. One of the most notable responses to modern foundationalism has been Lindbeck and his cultural-linguistic approach. While his reaction has been predominantly against the liberal experiential-expressivist form of foundationalism, his critique extends to the cognitive-propositional as well. Lindbeck has helped provide the much needed “flex” in the all too rigid modernist foundation.


“Flex” in the foundation: Cultural-linguistic insights of George Lindbeck

The cultural linguistic approach of George Lindbeck finds its home in the Western theological movement called “postliberalism” and has roots in the (not so homogenous) “Yale School.” At its heart, the postliberal agenda is anti-foundational (rejects the notion of a universal foundation of knowledge), communitarian (in so far as it appeals to “the values, experiences, and language of a community, rather than prioritizing the individual”), and historicist (“in that it insists upon the importance of traditions and their associated historical communities in the shaping of experience and thought”).

Leaning on the insights of William C. Placher, Alister McGrath helps identify the three fundamental features of post-liberal thought, which include the following :
(1) the primacy of narrative as an interpretive category for the Bible;
(2) the hermeneutical primacy of the world created by biblical narratives over the world of human experience;
(3) the primacy of language over experience.
To locate Lindbeck in the postliberal movement is to be better understand his cultural-linguistic approach to theology.

Lindbeck’s approach to theology can be characterized by three dominant themes as it pertains to cognitive-propositionalism and the search for a firm foundation. Firstly, Lindbeck denies that there is some universal unmediated human experience or belief which transcends human language and culture. Secondly, because humans are linguistically and culturally-bound creatures, he argues “that the heart of religion lies in living within a specific historical religious tradition, and interiorizing its ideas and values.” It is through the narrative of tradition that the church finds meaning and theological authority. Thirdly, instead of timeless propositions forming the regulating authoritative norm for the church, the church community is governed by so-called “grammatical rules” of doctrine the church dictates by way of her Spirit-led practices. Lindbeck’s regulative role of doctrine informs the church community’s speaking and thinking of God – as opposed to informing her of what God has done or what he is like. In the end the community ends up driving the formulation of doctrine and church practices take on a magisterial role.

Lindbeck’s cultural-linguistic approach to theology provides important “flex” to a so-called modernist foundation that has cracked from a-cultural and a-linguistic rigidity. However, as we shall see, Lindbeck allows for too much liquidity and makes any sort of firm foundation elusive.

Liquid modernity : Deficiencies in the cultural-linguistic approach

Lindbeck has helped the church navigate through the relativity of the linguistic turn. However, Vanhoozer believes that Lindbeck has in turn capitulated to the culture. What follows are the three main deficiencies that Vanhoozer sees in the cultural-linguistic approach to Scripture.

Firstly, Lindbeck misapplies Wittgenstein’s dictum: “Practice gives the words their sense.” Along this line, Vanhoozer makes the following observation:

Lindbeck takes a fateful step beyond Wittgenstein’s account, however, when he suggests that the meaning of stories is similarly a function of their community use. To equate the meaning of a narrative with its use is to collapse the story’s extratextual meaning into its reception in an interpretative community. Lindbeck ultimately fails to distinguish between textual meaning and habits of reading.

Lindbeck’s approach ultimately relegates doctrine to a second-order relationship to the use of Scripture in the church. Communal practices take precedence in determining the doctrinal rules for correct speech about God. And Vanhoozer warns that:

It would appear that there is little or nothing to prevent the grammatical rules for correct speech about God from simply reflecting the church’s cultural conventions.” “Lindbeck’s emphasis on letting Biblical narrative make sense on its own terms is eclipsed by his even stronger emphasis that only church practice gives the text its sense.

Lindbeck’s approach leaves the church asking questions such as: which church community is ultimately authoritative? If meaning is found in action, then is it possible to be a hypocrite?

Secondly, and closely linked to the first criticism, is the question of whether the community/ culture that acts as the receptor of divine truth is a reliable one (in faithfully expressing “true doctrine” and passing it on to the next generation)? Unfortunately cultures are not “closed systems”, “insular” or “internally inconsistent.” The liquidity of post-modern culture and the inherent flux of history make it almost impossible to locate a culture marked by distinctively “Christian” beliefs and practices. “If one examines the church across a variety of times and cultures, one sees that Christians have not everywhere and at all times believed the same things or acted in the same way.”

Thirdly, Lindbeck dismisses too quickly the insights of the cognitive-propositonalalism. He draws a fateful distinction between performative and propositional utterances, and fails to see that performative utterances have propositional content. And, along with traditional propositionalists, Lindbeck also fails to see that “larger literary forms have cognitive significance that consists of something other than conveying propositions.”

While Lindbeck has helped steer the church into a region where more authoritative theologizing can be done, his emphasis on church practices as regulative norm still leaves the church treading the quicksand of postmodernity. In the next section Vanhoozer’s canonical-linguistic approach to Scripture will serve to pull together the necessary building blocks of proposition and practice – with canonical practices as regulative norm. Faith’s search for understanding is finally approaching firmer ground.

Part 3

Regulation of proposition and practice: The canonical-linguistic approach of Vanhoozer

The nature of Vanhoozer’s canonical-linguistic approach to Scripture has already been explicated to a large degree by way of his critique of foundationalism and George Lindbeck’s cultural-linguistic approach to theology. Vanhoozer would affirm with Lindbeck that foundationalism is a failed enterprise and that the linguistic turn has forced the church to recognize her situatedness in time, culture and language. However, in contrast to Lindbeck, Vanhoozer does affirm a place for the proposition and locates the regulative norm for doctrine in canonical (versus church) practices. It is to Vanhoozer’s use of canonical practices that we now turn. A look at Vanhoozer’s use of canon as regulating norm both rounds out our description of his approach and provides the much needed balance in erecting a foundation of confidence for the church today.

Canon as regulating norm

Vanhoozer’s treatment of covenantal canon emerges as the regulative norm in determining the church’s faithful participation in the divine drama. Vanhoozer is concerned to direct the church to the authoritative content of the canon, as it dramatically testifies to redeeming work of Christ. Key to this regulative norm are the interpretive practices within the canon which should guide ecclesial interpretation and practice today. Before explaining further how Vanhoozer argues for canonical regulation in church practice, it is important to understand how covenant informs his use of canon – as well as language.

Canon as inherent in covenant

Drawing on the insights of recent scholarship in ANE treaties, Vanhoozer reminds us that we are in covenantal relationship with our Suzerain Lord. In this context, we understand that the canon recounts God’s past dealings with his people as well as regulates his ongoing relationship with them. The canon is the unalterable supreme authority which “documents” the privileges and responsibilities of the two covenantal parties, Suzerain and vassal. It also becomes apparent that God has chosen to communicate covenantally through language.

God has chosen to engage his creation through the polyphonic use of canonical language which richly engages the whole man in summoning him to Lord Jesus. We learn that God is a linguistic being as well. And instead of the community “lording” itself over the canon, the Lord rules over the community by his canon and demands a response. The church community ends up being shaped and changed by the Gospel story as it is applied by the Holy Spirit. Vanhoozer argues that the church is bound by covenant to regulate its interpretive practices by those found in the canon.

Canonical interpretive practices as guide for ecclesial interpretation today

According to Vanhoozer, it is the canon that should help the church “discern and describe what God is doing as author of the biblical texts.” He points out how the church’s method of interpretation should follow Christ’s canonical practice of interpreting “the things about himself in all of the Scriptures” (Luke 24:27). Jesus’ canonical practice, and not tradition, established the rule that Philip followed in Acts 8 and supports Paul’s penning of 1 Cor. 10:11 , where he calls the church to heed what God is saying to her through the history of Israel. Vanhoozer shows that the canonical script goes further than testifying to and giving understanding of the works of God throughout redemptive history. It provides regulative direction for the church’s participation (interpretation, doctrinal formulation and corresponding practice) in its ongoing drama.
The church’s theology should be born out of interpretive practices that are modeled and checked by the canonical-practices of covenantal canon. Church doctrine that takes its cue from the canon should in turn create faithful practice within the church.

Spirit through canon creates community

As Meredith Kline once said: “The canon literally constitutes the covenant community”: “canonicity precisely and properly defined is a matter of community life norms.” Leaning on the insights of Kline and others, Vanhoozer notes that just like the early church, God is still creating and sustaining his covenant community by the Spirit-empowered application of his canonical-word. The Scriptures are no less important today than at Pentecost, as the church today finds herself joined together by the Spirit with our apostolic forefathers in the faith.

While Vanhoozer would affirm that tradition does not serve as an infallible guide for the church, it does reveal to more or less a degree the “fingerprints” of the Holy Spirit; and is a necessary part of the foundation upon which the church must rest. Therefore, Vanhoozer’s approach gives significant credence to church performance throughout the ages – but never out of reach of the regulating norm of covenantal canon. “As the earthly Jesus depended on the Spirit to fulfill his earthly ministry, so the risen Christ depends on the Spirit to complete and perfect his redeeming work.”


Vanhoozer’s canonical-linguistic approach to theology will surely serve as a much-needed directive for the church’s search for a firm theological foundation. Neither the naked propositionalism of modern foundationalism nor the Spirit-led church practices of the cultural-linguistic approach establish a Biblically sufficient grounding for the church. The former cracks under the weight of propositions that are piled one on top of another as the church ascends above language, culture and time, on a univocal and unmediated trajectory doomed to failure. And the latter descends into the liquid relativism of postmodernity.

What the church needs is a return to the Gospel-testifying canon as the firm foundation, “For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 3:11). It is the regulative norm of covenantal canon which should govern the church’s theologizing and her corresponding doctrinal performance. For covenant creates canon and canon church community. Scriptural interpretation within the covenant community must in turn be based upon the infallible guide of canonical practices.

The church today finds herself in the Spirit-shaped tradition of the apostolic church (Eph. 2:20). Her task is to continue to discern, by faith, the operation of the Spirit (as graceful agent of tradition) in her past and present: with its rich organic heritage of creeds and confessions that span across many cultures, languages and denominations. In the church’s search for a firmer foundation she would be wise to draw upon her rich theological heritage in formulating faithful doctrine that governs local performance in different times and places. This always being regulated by the practices found in “canonical Christology and the Christological canon: what God has done in Jesus Christ.”

4 Comments leave one →
  1. 28 August, 2007 8:07 pm

    Now that is definately something I need to chew on awhile…you take archery???

  2. creedorchaos permalink*
    28 August, 2007 10:07 pm

    Yeah, it’s deep stuff but Simon is a very clear writer.
    I had a few lessons with Southern California’s version of Daniel Boone (Ripp Pratt the Great). I hate to say this for fear of being stoned to death by over zealous wave-riders, but I think I enjoyed it as much as surfing. Now to save up for a bow.

  3. Yvonne permalink
    27 November, 2007 8:38 pm

    Surely the dialogue between postliberals and evangelicals have some positive impact on evangelical hermeneutics and doctrine formulation? What do you think those are? Is not Vanhoozer’s approach a direct result of Lindbeck’s influence as well? Where can evangelicalism go beyond foundationalism?

  4. Simon permalink
    30 November, 2007 6:32 pm

    Hello Yvonne:

    I apologize for the delayed response. It is crunch time with seminary papers and finals to follow. You ask good questions. However, unless I am reading them too simplistically, I believe your questions are answered in my original post.

    Yes, evangelical hermeneutics and doctrinal formulation do benefit from the postliberal and evangelical dialogue. Vanhoozer’s canonical-linguistic approach is informed by the proposition and linguistic turn alike (while not giving absolute credence to either). At a summarial level, the proposition keeps truth anchored in the canon (and avoids relativism). Regulated by covenantal canon, Lindbeck’s insights on communal practices force the theologian to look for hermeneutical authority in spirit-empowered canoncial practices (cf. Acts 8; Luke 24).

    Ultimately, God emerges as the chief linguistic player, whose polyphonic word creates a covenant community. Theology and practice is in turn informed by Christ, the incarnate Word.

    I think that Vanhoozer’s ‘Drama of Doctrine’ and Michael Horton’s ‘Covenant and Eschatology’ are important works in going beyond foundationalism.

    If you have any further comments I may be even more sluggish in response with deadlines and exams looming large. Maybe one of the other able CC contributors will respond.

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