Thiselton on Hermeneutics: The Collected Works and New Essays of Anthony Thiselton. (Ashgate Contemporary Thinkers on Religion: Collected Works). By Anthony C. Thiselton
Article first published online: 27 NOV 2008
© The author 2009. Journal compilation © Trustees for Roman Catholic Purposes Registered 2009
The Heythrop Journal
Volume 50, Issue 1, pages 127–128, January 2009
How to Cite
Briggs, R. S. (2009), Thiselton on Hermeneutics: The Collected Works and New Essays of Anthony Thiselton. (Ashgate Contemporary Thinkers on Religion: Collected Works). By Anthony C. Thiselton. The Heythrop Journal, 50: 127–128. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2265.2009.00438_9.x
- Issue published online: 27 NOV 2008
- Article first published online: 27 NOV 2008
Pp xvi, 827 , Aldershot/Burlington, VT , Ashgate , 2006 , £70.00
Anthony Thiselton has taught and written on hermeneutics for many years, as well as engaging in substantial inter-disciplinary research in biblical studies (NT), Christian theology, and philosophy of religion. He has published two major books on hermeneutics: his own doctoral work presented as The Two Horizons: New Testament Hermeneutics and Philosophical Description (1980) and an advanced-level ‘text-book’ review of the subject New Horizons in Hermeneutics: The Theory and Practice of Transforming Biblical Reading (1992). In addition he has co-written other hermeneutical tomes, single-handedly provided an excellent ‘concise encyclopedia’ of the Philosophy of Religion (2002), written widely on postmodernism and theology, and offered a state-of-the-art commentary on 1 Corinthians (NIGTC, 2000, running to over 1400 pages). For all this, much of his own research has appeared in journal articles: short and focused pieces bringing to bear on some particular issue the wider frameworks and understandings of his longer works. It is thus an excellent resource to have much of this more specialised thinking brought together and made more accessible in this weighty volume in Ashgate's ‘Contemporary Thinkers’ series, with the added benefit that he offers considerable further reflection and up-dating of some of the work reproduced here.
The volume offers some forty-two studies arranged into seven sections, the titles of which capture the breadth of concerns on display: 1. Situating the Subject; 2. Hermeneutics and Speech-Act Theory; 3. Hermeneutics, Semantics and Conceptual Grammar; 4. Lexicography, Exegesis and Reception History; 5. Parables, Narrative-Worlds and Reader-Response Theories; 6. Philosophy, Language, Theology and Postmodernity; 7. Hermeneutics, History and Theology. Each section concludes with a ‘retrospective reappraisal’ engaging with further thinking in the various areas. There are two other previously unpublished papers: one on aspects of the meaning of key terms in 1 Cor 12–14, and one on authority in a postmodern climate. Several essays here offer extracts from the earlier books: four from New Horizons, three from Two Horizons, and half a dozen from his other books. About twenty of the chapters are journal articles or contributions to edited volumes, though Thiselton himself exempts three of them from the status of ‘research essays’ when he introduces the two opening surveys and a later piece on ‘Language and Meaning in Religion’ (a 1978 dictionary article). In some cases there is editing of the original text, though this is always noted in the introductory remarks.
It would be dangerous to attempt a brief summary of the contents, and indeed it would miss one of the major points of the collection itself: that hermeneutics is a multi-sided collection of disciplinary perspectives not reducible to one particular key, question or approach. As one contribution puts it, ‘Reader response is not one thing’– how much more is this so of hermeneutical enquiry. Thus a major chapter here is a reworking of the two closing chapters of New Horizons, still bearing their original title ‘The Hermeneutics of Pastoral Theology: Ten Strategies for Reading Texts in Relation to Varied Reading-Situations’ (pp. 349–84) Here at least part of the point is that there is ‘a wide plurality of hermeneutical models’ according to various reading situations. In this newly edited and sharply focused version, this essay perhaps comes as near as any to summarising some of the overall concerns of Thiselton's hermeneutical work. (The edited version of the two chapters here appears to retain text advertised as ‘edited out’ on p.382, where one concluding point from the earlier book is retained as a solitary point (3).)
Among the plurality, certain dialogue partners loom large, and these will of course be familiar to readers of Thiselton's other works. He draws considerable support from Wittgenstein's careful work on the actual uses of language in particular forms of life. His reading of Gadamer and Ricoeur is always patient and judicious, and is broadly positive about their perspectives. The speech-act theory (or ‘performative’ uses of language) of Austin and Searle is much in evidence, and represents one area where Thiselton's own contribution has been immense. Bultmann's hermeneutical perspectives often serve as partial foils to more nuanced developments here put forward. As postmodern thinking comes into focus later in the volume, Thiselton engages with Derrida, Foucault, Rorty and others, always seeking to find more careful criteria and more reflective analysis of socio-pragmatic implications of such philosophical perspectives.
One interesting area which Thiselton notes concerns more recent work on ‘theological interpretation’, and he declares something significant about his own view in the following: ‘I have often wished that [my earlier books] had embodied a more explicit, rather than implicit, Christian theology. Yet how could I have achieved this in the face of Schleiermacher's contention, with which I fully agree, that the kind of hermeneutics that would best serve theology for the good of theology itself would be a transcendental, independent, critical discipline?’ (p.37) He suggests that several issues might need attention in any avowedly theological hermeneutic, including a consideration of the effect of human fallenness on the capacities of reason, judgement, wisdom and understanding, and a consideration of the contribution of ‘reception history’ after the work of Hans Robert Jauss (and which he then takes up at various places here). The theme is returned to at the very end of the collection, where perhaps the key concern is articulated thus: ‘hermeneutics must resist becoming assimilated into a prior system of theology, and … theology must avoid compromise by being shaped by an independent discipline of hermeneutics. … we need to find a way forward by facilitating a genuine process of dialectic between the two disciplines’. (p.802)
This volume will serve as a rich forum for exploring just such a dialectic, and deserves to take its place alongside Professor Thiselton's other major contributions in this area to a dialogue which, in the nature of the case, will remain ongoing.