Kevin Vanhoozer on 4 Interpretive Virtues

The following is an extended quote by Kevin Vanhoozer on 4 interpretive virtues need for people to do good Christian reading:

Respect for what is there in the text (viz., its enacted intention and its implicit invitation) is a moral virtue. There are other virtues that further characterize readers who follow the text rather than their own inclinations. Let us refer to these as the “interpretive virtues.” 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. An interpretive virtue, in other words, is one that is conducive to literary knowledge. When readers display interpretive virtue, their cognitive capacities exemplify not merely proper function but excellence. I have already discussed the importance of faith, hope, and love for hermeneutics. To these theological virtues we can add four others:

(1) Honesty.

Honesty in interpretation means, above all, acknowledging one’s prior commitments and preunderstandings. Readers need to be clear about their own aims and interests (in this regard honesty is a form of internal clarity). 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.

(2) Openness.

The open-minded reader is willing to hear and consider the ideas of others, including those that conflict with one’s own, without prejudice and without malice. Closed-mindedness is an interpretive vice; closed-minded readers are either unwilling or unable to go beyond themselves. They thus thwart the ability of the text to transcend and transform the reader. Readers display interpretive openness when they welcome the text as other, with courtesy and respect, and when they entertain other interpretations as well. Note that openness implies a willingness to change; literary knowledge is provisional, not certain.

(3) Attention.

The virtuous reader, far from being self-absorbed, is rather focused on the text. Paying attention to the text is itself a form of respect and involves a number of related virtues, such as patience, thoroughness, and care. The attentive reader must be observant, which means attending to the details, being sensitive to the various levels of the literary act, and having insight into the nature of the whole.

(4) Obedience.

The obedient interpreter is the one who follows the directions of the text rather than one’s own desires. This does not necessarily mean doing what the text says, but it does mean, minimally, reading it in the way its author intended.

It means adopting a reading genre that corresponds to the genre of the text. It means reading history as history, apocalyptic as apocalyptic, and so on. Only obedient readers can indwell the text and so gain whatever other knowledge it has to give.

How can readers cultivate these interpretive virtues?

For C. S. Lewis, the purpose of great literature is to train our feelings and our imaginations to perceive the world and ourselves correctly. Literature trains us to see, for example, the difference between right and wrong, between the noble and the naughty, between the real and the fanciful. We meet here yet another version of the hermeneutic circle: reading develops the interpretive virtues; the interpretive virtues help us to become better readers. Developing interpretive virtues is not a matter of following, say, “thirty-six steps to better exegesis.” It is not a matter of following rules or procedures, but of acquiring skills and learning good practice. To this end, readers must be apprentices of texts and of their authors. Right reading—reading that both fosters and exemplifies virtue—is ultimately a matter of cultivating good judgment, of knowing what to do when. This is as much a spiritual as an intellectual and interpretive task. Indeed, moral and interpretive virtues alike are ultimately in the service of wisdom. Wisdom, in turn, is the virtue whereby human beings live as they ought, in a way that fits into the created order, resulting both in human flourishing and in the glory of God. The wise reader knows not only how to interpret, but more importantly, what interpretation is for. Wise readers see themselves in the mirror of the biblical text as they actually are, and they respond appropriately.

Vanhoozer, Kevin J.. Is There a Meaning in This Text? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 1998), 376-78.