Monday, 1 August 2011

Virtuous Reading

To be good readers and interpreters then, we must cultivate interpretive virtues.[1] “An interpretive virtue is a disposition of the mind and heart that arises from the motivation for understanding, for cognitive contact with the meaning of the text.”[2] Although I agree with this description of interpretive virtue, I wish to add the above insight that these virtues are not necessary to just engage the meaning of a text, but rather to engage the voice of a person or community that is represented in and through the text. If texts are “an extension of one’s self into the world, through communicative action,”[3] then the ethics of interpersonal communication come into play as we seek to read and interpret faithfully. Here we are helped by Vanhoozer who notes four specific virtues that will aid our reading and interpretation.


Vanhoozer calls attention to the interpreters prior commitments and presuppositions in reading and interpreting texts. He calls for interpreters to be clear about their own aims and interests and how these may affect our understanding as we read and engage with texts. Above all he notes that “a dishonest interpreter is less likely to be receptive to those texts that appear to challenge one’s most cherished beliefs or habits or desires. A dishonest interpreter is more likely to drown out the voice of the other.”[4]


This virtue refers to our ability to hear and appropriate the insights, questions, concerns and objections raised by other interpreters. “Readers display interpretive openness when they welcome the text as other, with courtesy and respect, and when they entertain other interpretations as well.” He also notes that openness implies a willingness to change one’s own understanding in response to the text and other readers. He then notes that “closed-mindedness is an interpretive vice; closed-minded readers are either unwilling or unable to go beyond themselves.”[5]


“Paying attention to the text is itself a form of respect and involves a number of related virtues, such as patience, thoroughness, and care.”[6] Rather than being self-absorbed or too preoccupied with our own interpretive interests and agenda’s, we should seek to carefully and attentively hear the specific nuances and details of the voice of the author which is embodied in a text. An author might be making a single statement within the context of a much larger project and thus we should look for the contours and shape of the author’s presentation in the text, seeking to understand how each part fits together within the whole narrative.


Every text follows various conventions and conforms to various types of genre. Here the reader must seek to read with the grain of the text, seeking to understand the text on its own terms. “The obedient interpreter is the one who follows the directions of the text rather than one’s own desires.”[7] If there are conventions at play which may affect the understanding of the text, then we should seek to follow those conventions.[8]

Implementing these virtues does not guarantee success in the interpretive process, but it does set us off in the right direction as we seek to understand the communication of the other. With that in mind, Vanhoozer notes that,

Indeed, interpretation ultimately depends upon the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. Faith, that there is a real presence, a voice, a meaning in the text; hope, that the interpretive community can, in the power of the Spirit, attain an adequate, not absolute, understanding; love, a mutual relation of self-giving between text and reader.[9]
We are thus developing a relational hermeneutic which respects the voice of the other, and seeks to understand it on its own terms before we raise our issues and concerns. As noted before by Wright,

Each stage of this process becomes a conversation, in which misunderstanding is likely, perhaps even inevitable, but in which, through patient listening, real understanding (and real access to external reality) is actually possible and attainable.[10]
This position stands in strong contrast to the deconstructive and detached models of reading advocated by some postmodern theorists. In the next post we shall not engage with these voices, but merely note how their concerns and objections can be alleviated so that the miracle of understanding may continue.


[1] Vanhoozer, Is there a Meaning in this Text?, 377.

[2] Vanhoozer, Is there a Meaning in this Text?, 376, italics original.

[3] Vanhoozer, Is there a Meaning in this Text?, 229.

[4] Vanhoozer, Is there a Meaning in this Text?, 377.

[5] Vanhoozer, Is there a Meaning in this Text?, 377.

[6] Vanhoozer, Is there a Meaning in this Text?, 377.

[7] Vanhoozer, Is there a Meaning in this Text?, 377.

[8] Vanhoozer notes that apocalyptic literature should be read with that in mind, the same for history, for poetry, and other genres.

[9] K. J. Vanhoozer, “The Spirit of Understanding: Special Revelation and General Hermeneutics” in Disciplining Hermeneutics: Interpretation in Christian Perspective. Ed. Roger Lundin. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 131-165, here 161.

[10] Wright, NTPG, 64.


  1. Although Vanhoozer mentions patience under the general heading of attention, I think this needs to be unpacked more fully (and not having yet managed to read "Is there a meaning in this text", which I decided to take another run at today, perhaps he does).

    By patience I mean two related but (I think) distinct tasks. Patience in jumping to an interpretive conclusion, but, perhaps less obviously, patience in jumping to an ethical conclusion.

    It seems to me a practical outworking of this ethic is to suspend judgement of the author's view as "right" or "wrong" until one has come thoroughly (at least as is pratically possible) to grips with the argument. To begin attributing value (in term's of the "rightness" or "wrongness" of the author's argument/viewpoint) to a text before one has fully understood the intention of the author is to bring, to early, one's own arguments, presuppositions and agenda to the text. You cannot help but begin looking for his errors, or his correctness, in a way that will draw your attention away from the author's own flow of argument, to your own agenda, thereby distorting the reading of the text.


  2. Beautiful wisdom Gareth. I concur. Just the other day I was reading an article and found some qualifications and nuances at the end of the argument that changed my whole perception and understanding of the person's work. Now this won't always happen, but I'm delighted that the attentive patience paid off, as it's a virtue I have to especially practice, as it doesn't come easy.