Humility and Conviction

In kindly noting my post Why Character is as Important as Method, Tim Bulkeley puts forward the disposition of humility as the key characteristic of the reader. He suggests that it may be seen as summary of the four interpretive virtues discussed by Vanhoozer.

I’m sure he is correct, and in the final chapter of Is There A Meaning In This Text? Vanhoozer presents ‘A Hermeneutics of Humility and Conviction’.[1] In line with the nature of interpretation as human communication and in response to the dangers of overconfidence and extreme skepticism in regard to our interpretive efforts, Vanhoozer puts forward humility and conviction as prime interpretive virtues.

Humility is borne out of recognition that we do get it wrong, an acknowledgment of the partiality and limits of our knowledge, and as such a disposition that leads us into attentive reading and open dialogue. Humility must be balanced with conviction, because much can be known and knowledge mediated through the Scriptures requires obedience; ‘the uncommitted interpretation is not worth having.’[2]

Without humility we may fall to overconfident pride in our interpretations, without conviction we may fall to skepticism with regard to knowing the truth. Both of these lead to a failure to responsibly attend to the text.[3] Our knowledge must be tempered by humility and our skepticism countered by conviction.[4] And he cites Michael Polanyi’s (much cited) statement in this regard:

‘The principal purpose of this book [Personal Knowledge] is to achieve a frame of mind in which I may hold firmly to what I believe to be true, even though I know that it may be concievably be false.’


[1] Is There A Meaning In This Text? The bible, the reader, and the morality of literary Knowledge. Leicester: Apollos, 1998. pp. 455-68

[2] Pg. 465

[3] Vanhoozer’s brief account of the ‘deadly sins’ of pride and sloth is well worth a read in regard to character. See pp. 462-3

[4] Pg. 462

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