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Monday, September 10, 2012

Hermeneutics by Thiselton

Hermeneutics: an Introduction
by Anthony Thiselton

"Hermeneutics seeks to establish bridges between opposing viewpoints" (5). Thiselton delves into the topic of hermeneutics in this volume and brings the reader into contact with a variety of different methods and their proponents. He uses this book less as an introduction to the hermeneutical method and more as a overview of philosophical and hermeneutical thought. The methods which are discussed here are in relation to those who have espoused them or disagreed with them.

In the first two chapters Thiselton lays out the aim and scope of hermeneutics. "Hermeneutics explores how we read, understand, and handle texts, especially those written in another time or in a context of life different from our own" (p. 1). Fundamentally, hermeneutics consists of questions. Biblical, philosophical, literary, social and theoretical questions must be raised in the effort to understand the text.

Several of the key thinkers are introduced right in the beginning. Schleiermacher, Gadamer, and Ricoeur are mentioned in order to begin the reader on the journey. What the studies in the past two hundred years have taught us is that we must see ourselves, the text, and the distance in between. Each of these individuals have played a significant role in the discussion, and Thiselton is keenly aware of the valuable contributions they have each brought. He is cautious concerning some of the results, but sees the turning points as having been helpful.

Chapters three deals with the hermeneutical questions surrounding parables. A variety of methods are presented and the author reminds the reader that no single method is able to encompass them all. Rather, the reader must remember that different texts demand different readings. A single hermeneutical "method" is not sufficient. This can be seen in the hermeneutical practices of early Judaism (ch. 4). The New Testament itself shows the diverseness of interpretation. The Old Testament is used in a variety of ways by the authors of the New. Allegory, typology, prophetic fulfillment and others were considered valid by the New Testament authors (ch. 5). The horizon of the authors writing the New Testament must be considered as many of them viewed the Scripture through an apocalyptic light.

From the New Testament authors, Thiselton breezes through the next thousand years of hermeneutical method. From Hippolytus to John Crysostom, Bede to Nicholas of Lyra, the author highlights the variety of approaches taken in this vast swath of history. The Reformers and the rise of biblical criticism are dealt with briefly in chapter seven as the Thiselton seeks to arrive at some of the greatest influences of today's hermeneutics, Schleiermacher and Dilthey. Schleiermacher believed that "hermeneutics is part of the art of thinking" (Schleiermacher, Hermeneutics, p. 97). He saw it more than a dissection of the text, it was experiencing the mind of another. This monumental figure in the hermeneutical debate changed the face of the discussion forever.

The work examines another key giant in the field of hermeneutics, Rudolf Bultmann. Significantly influenced by liberalism, Bultmann accepted much of his view of history from Dilthey and Collingwood. After reviewing the thoughts and contributions of the man, Thiselton summarizes, "in spite of their seriously dated excesses, Bultmann's proposals deserve a critical hearing for some positive insights they contain" (184). Barth, Fuchs and Ebeling are examined as well, revealing the rise of the "new hermeneutic."

A second great turning point is considered at length with Hans-Georg Gadamer's Hermeneutics (ch 11). Gadamer rejects science as the source of all knowledge and reacts to the Enlightenment's movement. One of the ideas with which Thiselton disagrees with Gadamer is his understanding of the relation between language and reality. "Gadamer is too ready, in my view, to divorce language from life, even if he claims that it remains historically conditioned" (222). Gadamer has moved the reader past the illusion of the powers of science which were established by Descartes and the Enlightenment.

Thiselton presents another key thinker, Paul Ricoeur. He posits that Ricoeur may have an even greater impact than Gadamer in the coming discussion (228). Ricoeur sees the reader as an active participant in the text, as though he were the conductor reading a musical score (252). Thiselton's appreciating for his work is understandable in light of the idea of horizons and historical distance. Ricoeur follows along the transition which had been taking place, and had been clarified by Gadamer.

Chapters thirteen through fifteen deal with the rise of liberation theology, feminist hermeneutics and reader response. Although these look much different in their fruit, they all stem from the same root. As the years progress more and more authority is placed in the hands of the reader, and less remains with the author. As this authority changes hands, truth moves from inherent to perspective.

Thiselton completes his whirlwind tour of hermeneutics with a look at postmodernism. He notes the presence of four postmodern schools of thought, namely, Derrida, Lyotard, Foucault, and Rorty. His conclusion after the recognition of the variety of ideas within postmodernism itself is that there are certain aspects which Christians may appreciate, but others which deserve great caution. In response to those who have questioned whether or not we can accept postmodernism, Thiselton states, "we cannot generalize about postmodernism" (346). In another interview he expresses his thoughts this way, "I must confess that I suspect all "-isms" as over generalizations. I speak to my students only specifically about Lyotard, Derrida, Rorty, Foucault, and others...But specifically on Hermeneutics I have some sympathy with Vanhoozer's exposure of Derrida as too near to atheism, and I would add Lyotard on incommensurability and the plurality of "paganism" as negative. In the U.S.A., I find it difficult to find merits in Rorty and Fish."

The author concludes the book by offering a few comments which could find no other place in the book such as the Holy Spirit, inspiration, and typology.

Thiselton's work provides a valuable tool for the reader. His broad view of the history of hermeneutics allows the reader to be exposed to a variety of thinkers and their thoughts without having to read deeply in the original works. His bibliography and brief introduction to each author help to provide background for future study.

The shortcomings of this book are fairly evident as well. The "introduction" mentioned in the title would be better replaced with "background." He does not specifically lay out any particular hermeneutical method, but perhaps he is merely following in the steps of Gadamer who rejected the idea of a method. The writing is also choppy, as though he took a bag of names and works and shook them up before dumping them out. This is not necessarily wrong considering the nature of the work, but just difficult.

Because of the nature of the book, the viewpoints of Thiselton himself are often times masked. Perspective questions are raised at times in the introductions and conclusions of the chapters. His own ideas sometimes come through disguised as under-the-table comments or comparisons. The reader is able to piece together a general idea of Thiselton's own view. Thiselton is clearly in favor of the Gadamerian swing from the Enlightenment, and for good reasons. He is sensitive to the approaches of perceptive reader-response ideas. He understands the difficulties presented to underdeveloped nations.

From my time in Hermeneutics and Two Horizons, I believe that Thiselton has not fully embraced the new hermeneutic or postmodern mindset. He is clearly wary of some of those movements as mentioned in the final comments of each of those chapters. He is sensitive to the Gadamerian idea of context and history, but he also critiques him in the area of language.

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