There are easy books which don’t teach you much, easy books which do teach you a lot, demanding books which don’t teach you much and demanding books which do teach you lots. Anthony Thiselton’s New Horizons in Hermeneutics falls into the latter category. I will happily admit that, for me, it was the most intellectually demanding one-volume read I have ever undertaken (and I love reading academic writing); I had to re-read the chapters on Derrida and Gadamer about three times to get my head around them. It was, however, one of the most intellectually thought-provoking and helpful books I have read in a while, and the difficulty certainly didn’t come from Thiselton’s inability to communicate; he has written a book which deal with very difficult concepts and, frankly, has done a fantastic job. I’m sure I will be coming back to it again and again in the future.
The subtitle of the book, ‘The Theory and Practice of Transforming Biblical Reading’, deftly summarises Thiselton’s aim. Texts, Thiselton claims, have the ability to transform readers (expand their Horizons), but readers can also have a tendency of transforming the texts through misreading. Thiselton’s aim is to navigate the theoretical minefield that is hermeneutics and to ‘include a description and critical evaluation of all the major theoretical models and approaches which characterise current hermeneutical theory, or which have contributed to its present shape.’ (p.1). This is an ambitious approach, but the size of the book and Thiselton’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the subject-area mean that if any book and any author will succeed in achieving this goal, these can.
The first couple of chapters provide good introductory material. Thiselton describes various ways in which the text itself can transform readers (one of the major ones being texts as performative speech-acts) and also how a text can be transformed by the reader. He then proceeds to survey the development of the idea of what a text is, from 19th-early 20th century views of the text as being understood in light of other data, to mid-20th century new-criticism, in which the text stands alone as an independent entity, through to more post-modern views, in which the reader himself gives the text a meaning.
Chapter 3 onwards is where the real meat of the book begins (it is also the most challenging reading in the book), and it would be overly ambitious to attempts a full summary of each. Chapter 3 reviews semiotic theories (the view of text as an interlocking system of codes) and questions whether they should in and of themselves lead to the idea of deconstructionism (i.e. no ultimate meaning in a text). Jacques Derrida pops up quite a lot in this chapter. Thiselton concludes that Derrida’s (and others’) deconstructionism is not ultimately warranted by semiotic theory.
Chapter 4 addresses pre-modern biblical interpretation, from patristic to medieval readings. Thiselton’s summary is very lucid and helpful and also helped put to rest a few myths about medieval readings of the Scriptures. Chapter 5 then addresses the reformers’ approach(es) to the Scriptures with their emphasis on the historical meaning and the ability of Scripture to question tradition (Thiselton is very clear, though, that the reformers did not reject tradition as a helpful way of dialoguing about Scripture).
Chapters 6 and 7 address Schleiermacher’s hermeneutics of understanding, in which the reader must try and place himself in the writers shoes since a text is an outworking of the author’s emotions (classic Romantic view). Schleiermacher’s contribution to hermeneutics was exceptionally important, as he was the first to make Hermeneutics a discipline in itself. For Schleiermacher, Hermeneutics involved both a feminine, intuitive (or psychological) approach and a masculine, methodological approach. One could not be used as the expense of the other. Thiselton shows how this approach is particularly helpful in Pauline texts.
Chapter 8 surveys the hermeneutics of self-involvement, including speech act theories. Rudolf Bultmann exemplifies this approach and claims that we must either have faith or historical understanding, not both. Thiselton critiques this extreme approach by claiming that particular assertions about Christ presuppose language which relates to truth-claims. Adopting Bultmann’s view as an all-encompassing theory would be disastrous for biblical studies. Thiselton then surveys Austin and Searle’s views of the idea of illocutionary acts – i.e. speech-acts which have causal power.
In Chapter 9, Hans-Georg Gadamer’s approach is delineated. This chapter make for difficult reading. Gadamer sought to make Hermeneutics a meta-critical discipline (i.e. not just thinking of methods for interpreting texts, but ranking these methods metacritically). Gadamer stresses that the hermeneutical problem is universal in that all understanding is language bound. He also dislikes the idea of scientific method for approaching texts. For Gadamer, the text itself only becomes actualised in its performance (i.e. reading). But like a play it is never read twice the same way. This does not force Gadamer to collapse reading into relativism. Instead, a text can be understood by common-sense (aristotle’s phronesis) and by the ongoing dialogue of community. Thiselton notes that although Gadamer is right to stress the role of the community and common-sense in interpreting, it is ‘very seriously unsatisfactory that no criterion for textual interpretation can be found other than the “performance” of the text itself, alongside some role accorded to human judgment in the context of community and effective-history’
Chapter 10 traces Paul Ricoeur’s hermeneutics of suspicion and retrieval. The fallibility of human understanding was significant in Ricoeur’s hermeneutics. This means a hermeneutic of suspicion is needed (i.e. suspecting the reader of distorting the text). Ricoeur makes much of metaphor as double meaning (drawing on Freud’s psychoanalysis). Hermeneutics is meant to retrieve the meaning of the symbols in the text. In a very helpful summary, Thiselton writes: “What remains central for Ricoeur is the double function of hermeneutics: the hermeneutics of suspicion which unmasks human wish-fulfilments and shatters idols, and the hermeneutics of retrieval which listens to symbols and to symbolic narrative discourse.” (p.372)
Chapter 11 looks at the idea of socio-criticla hermeneutics. Jürgen Habermas, in particular, contributed to this theory. Habermas views all language as social (i.e. about social interaction). Within a social frame it is impossible to critique (actors cannot step out of the frame to critique the play). What is needed is a system which transcends the social to critique social norms. Thiselton applies this idea to the Law in Romans 7. The system of the Law critiques and transcends social norms. Richard Rorty’s socio-pragmatic view is also taken into account, here. For Rorty, society defines what counts as rational; there is thus no way of transcending this and critiquing from the outside. Thiselton, quite incisively, claims that this hermeneutic doesn’t sound as appealing to cultures that are extended in time (e.g. UK) as it does to those that are extended in space (e.g. US). History teaches that no outside critique of society is a scary thing.
This socio-critical hermeneutical agenda moves the book nicely onto a discussion of the hermeneutics of liberation (Chapter 12). In this lengthly chapter, Thiselton surveys Latin-American liberation hermeneutics, black hermeneutics and feminist hermeneutics. All three, ultimately, share common features: (1) A particular experience; (2) this experience becomes a critical principle; (3) biblical texts are understood in light of this principle; (4) an eschatological perspective. Care must be taken, Thiselton argues, to not collapse a so-called socio-critical hermeneutic (critique of a life-world, or use of texts) into a socio-pragmatic hermeneutic (use of texts to support an existing social agenda). This is a danger into which many liberation hermeneutics end up falling: the socio-pragmatic tool of the oppressor simply gets turned around and put into the hands of the oppressed.
I found chapters 13-14 particularly illuminating. They deal with the hermeneutics of reading and reader-response theory. Thiselton helpfully underlines some of the huge benefits of literary theory in biblical interpretation, not least in narrative interpretation. Chapter 13 also surveys structuralist narrative views (i.e. all narrative is objectively made up of a matrix of narrative codes). Once interpreters realised that these codes themselves were usually socially conditioned, the way was paved for a hermeneutic which would work in terms of the reader’s response, rather than the text or author’s view.
Chapter 14 surveys these reader-response theories. Wolfgang Iser, for example, views certain details in texts as left open to the reader to fill in (e.g. the text speaks of a table but doesn’t specify what kind of table). He also envisages that text has an “implied reader” – a reader who has all of the presuppositions which enable the text to have its full effect on him. Umberto Eco reaches a not-disimilar viewpoint by appealing to semiotics. For him, texts envisage a “model-reader” who shares with the author the various semiotic codes of the text. Thiselton then moves onto more radical reader response theories (such as Holland and Bleuch). However, the ultimate proponent of reader-response theory is Stanley Fish. Fish questions the idea of the text having a given meaning: he claims that “reader-response is not to the meaning; it is the meaning.” (p.539) Thiselton critiques this extreme view by claiming (as Wittgenstein does) that some language-games (i.e. the socio-linguistic context and performance) transcend culture (Thiselton gives the example of pain). Fish’s theory would be devastating for biblical studies if it were the only model to be used.
The last two chapters (15-16) are entitled The Hermeneutics of Pastoral Theology. They are the most practical in the book, applying the various models viewed to different biblical texts and situations. Thiselton’s doctoral students have claimed they would be willing to give the rest of the book up for these two chapters and I can see why. Thiselton argues that we cannot apply one model of hermeneutics to all biblical texts. In the final few pages he emphasises that the cross and resurrection of Christian theology provide the meta-critique which socio-critical hermeneutics searches: ‘In this sense, the cross and resurrection stand not only as a critique of human self affirmation and power, but also as a meta-critique which assesses other criteria, and which transforms the very concept of power.’ (p.615)
There is so much more to say, but (1) I wouldn’t do it justice and (2) it would take a very long time. Personally, as I said above, I found this a tough read, but exceptionally worthwhile. It has helped me to realise the importance of thinking not just about how we approach a text critically, but about how we even think about what counts as a correct way of interpreting the scriptural text. It has also enabled me to understand what stands behind more post-modern and reader-oriented views of the text. Anyone who wants a thorough, balanced and intellectually rigorous treatment of hermeneutics will not be disappointed.