Monday, January 12, 2009

Thiselton on Hermeneutics, Book Review

Thiselton on Hermeneutics: Collected Works with New Essays. By Anthony C. Thiselton. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006. 827 pages. Hardcover, $85.00.

While participating in a faculty forum at Union University, Anthony Thiselton was asked whether he regretted anything about his academic career. Thiselton responded by expressing his regret over “the higher ratio of research articles to books over the years” (xv). In Thiselton on Hermeneutics, he seeks to remedy this perceived disparity. As its title suggests, this volume is a compilation of articles, essays, and selections from Thiselton’s larger works. Aside from his major monographs, Thiselton has produced and published articles and presentations since the early 70s. His primary goal in gathering these various writings into one volume is to provide “a structured and consistent account of hermeneutics as a developing and multi-disciplinary subject area” and of his attempts to contribute to this synthesis (xv). Accordingly, in selecting the material for this volume, Thiselton strove to include the articles “that best serve the coherence and distinctive multi-disciplinary themes of the present contribution” (xvi).

Thiselton divides the book into seven parts. Each section contains a number of essays grouped around a particular theme or topic. The first section “situates the subject” of hermeneutics in the field of theological study and serves as a programmatic introduction to the rest of the book. Part two contains studies on the relationship between hermeneutics and speech-act theory. Part three relates hermeneutics to semantics and conceptual grammar. Part four investigates lexicography, exegesis, and reception history. Part five interacts with parables, narrative-worlds and reader-response theories of interpretation. Part six engages philosophy, language, and postmodernity. Finally, part seven treats hermeneutics, history, and theology.

Building upon his previous work, Thiselton uses this volume to further his thought in certain areas. One of Thiselton’s continuing concerns is the “respect for the other” in interpretation. He ends the first section by arguing that the “heart of the hermeneutical endeavor” does not involve “the way of self-assertion, self-affirmation and a ‘mastery’ that understands the other in terms of self and self-interest” (50). Rather, hermeneutics should seek “to renounce manipulative ways of understanding and communicating” in favor of modes of interpretation which meet the text on its own terms (50). Thiselton also sees the reception history of texts as an important area of discussion. Here, his concern is for the “impact of texts and of successive readings and interpretations of texts on subsequent generations of readers after a first reading” (40). Further, Thiselton investigates throughout this volume the possibility of formulating a “theological hermeneutics” that respects the discrete witness of both theology and the interpretive task (36-39; 769-807).

Perhaps the most unique strength of the book is the access it affords to Thiselton’s own self-reflection. Thiselton guides the reader through his writings by providing a new reflective essay at the end of each section that reevaluates and interacts with the preceding material. Far from an afterthought, these essays are both substantive and instructive, as they benefit from hindsight and further development in the field. In addition to these new essays, Thiselton supplies a brief annotation before each selection that discusses his motivation in writing this particular piece and provides additional critical reflection. Within the reproduced essays themselves, Thiselton inserts descriptive headings designed to highlight for the reader the structural flow of his thinking. These elements provide insightful clarity in most cases and function as an autobiographical guide to Thiselton’s treatment of a broad range of hermeneutical issues.

Part of the achievement of this work is its demonstration of the interdisciplinary nature of hermeneutics. Throughout his editorial comments, Thiselton underlines his concern for relating the interpretive task to the full range of disciplines available to the interpreter. In his major works, Thiselton reflects this interest. His earlier book The Two Horizons deals with philosophy of language and hermeneutical theory. His massive commentary on The First Epistle to the Corinthians engages in biblical studies, and his recent Hermeneutics of Doctrine investigates the task of theology. The scope of the essays included in this volume allows the reader to appreciate the foundational framework and methodological context in which these larger works were written. Thus, it proves a fitting companion resource to these seminal works.

A possible drawback of this volume is its formidable size and substantial price, which may discourage some readers from purchasing the book. Additionally, most of this material has been published elsewhere in journals or in symposium books. However, the fresh reflective content along with the previously unpublished papers give this volume considerable new material, and despite the density and size of the collection, Thiselton’s work maintains a refreshing clarity of style and argument. In light of these considerations, even someone who has followed Thiselton throughout his career will want to read this collection for his editorial commentary on and critical self-evaluation of his own corpus. One absent feature that would have improved the volume in this regard is an appendix containing a comprehensive bibliography of all of Thiselton’s publications to date.

Thiselton on Hermeneutics is not geared toward the beginning or casual participant in the hermeneutical conversation. Rather, the book will prove most helpful to one desiring to grapple with the important trends and issues at stake in current hermeneutical debates. Accordingly, a serious student of hermeneutics convinced of the interdisciplinary nature of the interpretive task will find the fruit of Thiselton’s prodigious career both instructive and rewarding.

Ched Spellman
In SWJT 50.1 (Fall 2007), 121-23.

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