Review of Thiselton’s New Horizons in Hermeneutics

by Vern S. Poythress

[Published in the Westminster Theological Journal 55 (1993) 343-346. Used with permission.]

Anthony C. Thiselton: New Horizons in Hermeneutics.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992.  xii, 703.  $29.99.


About a decade ago Anthony C. Thiselton produced a major work in philosophical hermeneutics, The Two Horizons (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), which focused particularly on the continental hermeneutics of Heidegger, Gadamer, Bultmann, and the new hermeneutic.  Building on this earlier work, Thiselton has now written another major work of even greater significance, namely New Horizons in Hermeneutics.

This book serves as an advanced textbook in hermeneutics.  It undertakes the mammoth task of including “a description and critical evaluation of all the major theoretical models and approaches which characterize current hermeneutical theory, or which have contributed to its present shape” (p. 1).  The book has a particular interest in how major hermeneutical theories may apply to biblical interpretation, and so it has the subtitle “The Theory and Practice of Transforming Biblical Reading.”

After introductory chapters briefly describing the major types of hermeneutical approaches, the book provides separate chapters on a host of different areas: semiotics and deconstruction (chapter 3); the hermeneutics of tradition among the church fathers (chapter 4); the Reformation and the rise of the modern era (chapter 5); Schleiermacher (chapters 6-7); existentialism and speech act theory (chapter 8); “metacriticism” and the universality of hermeneutics in Gadamer and Pannenberg (chapter 9); Paul Ricoeur (chapter 10); socio-critical theory (Habermas and Apel) and socio-pragmatic hermeneutics (Richard Rorty) in chapter 11; liberation theologies and feminist hermeneutics (chapter 12); literary theory, including new criticism, formalism, structuralism, deconstruction, and intertextuality (chapter 13); reader-response theories (Iser, Eco, Holland, Bleich, Culler, Fish) in chapter 14.  The concluding chapters 15 and 16 suggest ways in which a multiplicity of models may prove fruitful in the interpretation of biblical texts.

The work is valuable not only for its scope, but for other noteworthy strengths.  First, it endeavors to classify the many currents in hermeneutics, so that one may find one’s way through the variety of positions.  Second, it endeavors to describe all the different approaches fairly and sympathetically, even in cases where the description remains brief.  It helps readers to understand the underlying concerns that drive theories, including theories that at first glance might look outrageous to many.

Third, it suggests ways in which all of the theories may prove useful in biblical studies.  It provides a number of specific examples of how a given theory might work when applied to a biblical text.  The book helpfully suggests that some genres of texts may invite particular kinds of reading.  For example, “reconstructionist models” aim at reconstructing historical circumstances and thereby understanding the import of an author’s communication (pp. 558-562).  These models prove most fruitful in cases “in which biblical texts serve primarily as transmissive and communicative vehicles to express the thought of an author,” as in “Paul’s pastoral and didactice advice” (p. 561).  , Existentialist models do best with texts like Genesis 22 and Job that disrupt conventional morality and conventional assumptions (pp. 563-66).  Theories that focus on how narratives create “worlds” may illumine the process of reader involvement in narrative, especially fictional narrative.  Liberation theologies illumine situations where a culturally subordinate group has had interpretive meanings imposed on it by a dominant group.  And so on.

Thiselton endeavors both to appreciate the strengths and insights of various theories, and to point out their one-sidedness and limitations, particularly when they are used as master keys applying equally to all types of texts in a reductionist fashion.

Thiselton introduces an especially useful distinction between “socio-critical theories” of Marx, Habermas, and Apel, and “socio-pragmatic hermeneutics” of Richard Rorty and Stanley Fish.  The former theories endeavor to provide transcendental criteria by which the interpretations of texts and communicative acts may be critically sifted.  The latter approaches regard all knowledge as historically and socially conditioned in such a way that no transhistorical or truly transcendental critique is possible.  Both sorts of approach have roots in Gadamer, and both prove influential in connection with developments in liberationist and feminist hermeneuticis.

Thiselton has put his finger on a truly crucial issue, namely the issue of transcendent standards for hermeneutics and interpretation.  All theories must in one way or another commit themselves.  If there are no transcendent standards, stable meaning disintegrates.  Everyone does what is right in his own eyes.  Thiselton keenly points out that this result in the long run will prove deeply unsatisfying to nearly everyone, but especially to the liberationists who have espoused it: “pragmatic hermeneutics is diametrically opposed in practice to the deepest theoretical concerns which lie behind liberation hermeneutics: those whose readings of texts win the day can only be the power groups: the most militant, the most aggressive, the most manipulative” (p. 603).

Moreover, Thiselton recognizes here the danger of idolatry.  “Socio-pragmatic hermeneutics transposes the meaning of texts into projections which are potentially idolatrous as instruments of self-affirmation” (p. 550).  That is, this hermeneutics makes the reader or the reader’s values or the reading community’s values into an idol to which all texts are forced to bow down.

At this point Thiselton clearly sides with the socio-critical strand as opposed to the socio-pragmatic strand.  But he recognizes in passing that there are potential idolatries on the other side.  “The human life-world of interactive communication [as in Habermas’s theory] is seen theologically as corporately fallible and structurally flawed by self-interest.  Co-operative interaction need not always be for good, but may serve corporate self-interest” (p. 392).

One could wish that Thiselton had developed his criticism of socio-critical theory at greater length.  In fact, socio-critical theory represents the other horn of the same dilemma in which socio-pragmatic theory is caught.  It postulates critical standards for sifting interpretation.  But how can the critical standards projected by any theory be known to be transhistorical and truly transcendent, rather than a socially conditioned human projection?  The projected standard is just one more idol.  From the standpoint of socio-pragmatism, it is just one more item included within a socially conditioned whole.  The illusion of transcendence is all the more dangerous because it is masked.

Thiselton is most sympathetic with the philosophical work on language and communication stemming from Wittgenstein, Austin, Searle, and Recanati.  And indeed, through common grace there are insights here as in other theories.  But here also there is potential idolatry.  For these theorists the most ultimate framework for appeal appears to be “the common behaviour of mankind” (p. 541).  But there lurks behind this expression the potential for the humanist idolization of humanity in general.  From a Christian point of view, the commonness of fallen human behavior is not the ultimate measuring rod.

Another potential idolatry lurks in the background when Thiselton acknowledges his situatedness in a British environment “where so-called common sense philosophies have often prevailed” (p. 122).  Within such an environment it is tempting to rely on philosophers who make much of the analysis of the ordinary.  But for earnest people searching for radical remedies to what they feel is a radical problem, the ordinary itself must come under critical scutiny (as Thiselton himself elsewhere acknowledges).  We must be prepared to deal with idols of complacency and self-trust behind what we consider “ordinary.”

Thiselton himself, as a Christian believer, knows that the answer must come in the form of divine revelation.  At the end of the book, he quite rightly notes that this revelation centers in the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  The cross challenges every form of human self-sufficiency and empowers our transformation into the image of Christ (p. 619).  We look forward to the final judgment, which is the final “unrevisable divine evaluation” on the entire hermeneutical enterprise (p. 618).

In one sense, however, the conclusion to which Thiselton comes at the end of the book requires us to reassess everything that goes before.  As Thiselton makes clear, the cross and the resurrection are not just symbols to be manipulated in academic literary and philosophical games.  People’s lives are transformed when they meet and submit to the risen Christ.  They die with Christ.  As they are transformed, they begin to see the depth of their sin and the subtle pervasiveness of their idolatry.

It is but a small step to see that sin and idolatry contaminate the entire modern discussion of hermeneutics and indeed the entirety of modern scholarship.  We hope to save ourselves through hermeneutical self-consciousness and sophistication.  The cross condemns such self-reliance.

To put it another way, sin and idolatry produce blindness.  Sinful blindness invades hermeneutics as well as all other disciplines.  We suppress the knowledge of God (Rom 1:18-21).  We suppress the fact that God addresses us in the Bible and in general revelation, that the eternal Word of God is the ontological foundation of language, and that the Holy Spirit invades the most personal space of our minds and our unconscious.  Almost without exception hermeneutical theorists want us systematically to forget these realities.  The fundamental blindness cannot be overcome by merely human keenness of insight, sweet reasonableness, or persuasive rhetoric about the nature of hermeneutics.

The cross of Christ frees us from sin and transforms us.  In this transformation, modern hermeneutical theory itself will inevitably be transformed away from its idolatries.  What will such transformation mean?  Only another book could explore what lies ahead.

I fear, however, that Thiselton’s book may give the impression to some readers that pealing away hermeneutical idolatry is merely a matter of taming hermeneutical excesses.  At one point the book usefully distinguishes between deconstruction as method and as world view (p. 125).  Similarly we may distinguish a hermeneutic of suspicion (as method) from a Freudian or Nietzschean world view, we may distinguish positivist method from positivist world view, and so on (pp. 125-26).  It may then appear that the book wants us to use the techniques and insights offered by all the various hermeneutical methods, after they have been distinguished from the attached world views.  Each particular method is tamed by becoming one method among many, and by being paired up with particular genres of texts where it proves most fruitful.  Unfortunately, the world views color the whole of hermeneutics in a way that only a death and resurrection of hermeneutical practice could sort out.  Hermeneutical redemption is not as easy as it might appear.

Within the framework of presuppositional apologetics and the work of Cornelius Van Til, one might redescribe Thiselton’s book as an attempt to learn as much as possible from modern hermeneutical theories on the basis of common grace.  The emphasis lies primarily on the elements of truth that are present in each of the theories on the basis of common grace.

But Van Til also enjoins us to become conscious of the ethical antithesis between belief and unbelief.  That antithesis can be seen in Thiselton’s closing appeal to “the unrevisable divine evaluation” at the last judgment (p. 618).  It then remains to spell out what effects this antithesis has on the evaluation of hermeneutical theories.  In addition to the present wide-spread emphasis on openness and learning from others, we need to be bold enough to bring forward offensive biblical teachings about the Lordship of Christ over scholarship, and about God’s wrath, sin, hell, heresy, and excommunication.  Some hermeneutical theories and some biblical interpretations are in rebellion against God.  We need to say so and demonstrate in action that our belief is serious.  Inclusivist tradition may be commendable in some ways (pp. 590, 592), but surely not when it gives legitimacy to attacks on the faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3).


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