Review of Thiselton on the Two Horizons

by Vern S. Poythress

[Published in the Westminster Theological Journal 43/1 (fall 1980): 178-180. Used with permission.]

Anthony C. Thiselton: The Two Horizons. New Testament Hermeneutics and Philosophical Description with Special Reference to Heidegger, Bultmann, Gadamer, and Wittgenstein. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; Exeter: Paternoster, 1980. xx, 484. $22.50.


Anthony C. Thiselton has now given us, from an evangelical perspective, a major work analyzing the contributions of philosophical hermeneutics to New Testament studies. He includes extensive expositions of the writings of the earlier and later Heidegger, Bultmann, Gadamer, the new hermeneutic, and the earlier and later Wittgenstein, always with an eye to implications for New Testament studies. What is the unifying thread among the writings he discusses? All are concerned, in varying ways, to make us aware of the contribution of the interpreter to interpretation and understanding. In particular, in the study of a text like the New Testament, we should become aware of the fact that there are two historical and cultural “horizons,” not just one, to take into consideration. There is the historical context in which the New Testament was written, and there is the context in which the interpreter stands. It is impossible for the interpreter to eliminate his modern context by means of a pure objectivism. Precisely by becoming aware of the modern context and its influence on the way one reads the text, one may come to a fresher, more accurate, and deeper understanding of the text.


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In my opinion, Thiselton has succeeded well in communicating these concerns. In fact, it is hard to find words to praise Thiselton’s book highly enough. The book excels, first of all, in the clarity of its expositions. The topics related to philosophical hermeneutics are notoriously complex and difficult to discuss. But Thiselton’s remarkable clarity of expression seems to make it easy. Thiselton also from time to time illustrates the hermeneutical principles by means of examples from New Testament study. I could wish that there were even more illustrative examples. But those that there are will be of great use in bringing home to the exegete and the pastor the genuine relevance of philosophical hermeneutics.

The book shows strength not only in its clarity, but in its impressive mastery of the literature, the penetration of its analysis, and the incisiveness of its critiques. An outstanding example of this is to be found in Thiselton’s analysis of Bultmann’s hermeneutic (chaps. 8–10). He shows convincingly that Bultmann is dependent in a complex way on a host of earlier thinkers, including neo-Kantianism, liberalism, nineteenth-century Lutheranism, dialectical theology (Barth), and Heidegger. Most of the distortions in Bultmann’s theology and program of demythologization come, in fact, not from Heidegger (as is often thought) but from a neo-Kantian dualism of fact and value.

Now, it seems to me, we need a further book that will integrate Cornelius Van Til’s work with the developments delineated by Thiselton. Why do I mention Van Til? Well, Van Til’s idea of presuppositions is in fact closely related to Heidegger’s “pre-understanding” and Wittgenstein’s “scaffolding of our thoughts,” “form of life,” “grammatical utterances.” Van Til focuses on only one area of pre-understanding: religious commitment. By contrast Heidegger, Gadamer, and Wittgenstein are interested in the entire spectrum of presuppositions, basic commitments, assumed verities, priorities of interest, attitudes, and tone of life. Both Van Til and the others stress how basic commitments, many times unconscious, pervasively influence interpretation. In one sense, then, Van Til represents only a special case of the problem. Superficially he seems to be aware of only one aspect of the interpretive horizon. But this one aspect is also the “one thing needful.” The crucial missing element in the hermeneutical spectrum that Thiselton covers is a stable, transcendent, personal, accessible source of authority. Without this, Heidegger, Gadamer, Wittgenstein, and the lot are one step away from pure relativism. One can always point out that their own analysis of the entire hermeneutical circle is rooted in their historical and cultural

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horizon. They are, of course, well aware of this. But how can they know that they are right about anything? They must presuppose (arbitrarily?) the possibility of finding truth by autonomous reflection within their own horizon. And how can they claim to be descriptive and not evaluative? What they put forth as descriptive rather than evaluative contains an implicit negative evaluation of (say) positivism, Platonism, animism, Islamic fate, Christian science, out-of-body experiences, and the disappearance of stable world and ego in the writings of Philip Dick and Jorge Borges. They presuppose a cultural horizon that has excluded or made marginal such “forms of life.” On what grounds do they give these evaluations? By what authority? Within their own “forms of life,” there is no genuine transcendent reference point, hence no answer to these questions.

Religious commitment to Jesus Christ is in fact the only ultimate valid basis for interest in, as well as evaluation of, the problems brought up by philosophical hermeneutics. Precisely because of our loyalty to Christ and his word, we must work hard to overcome the distortions and limitations in understanding his word, caused by our sin individually and collectively. Evangelicals ought to read Thiselton’s book. There is much to learn there.

Vern Sheridan Poythress
Westminster Theological Seminary,

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