Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Book Review: Hermeneutics: An Introduction

Anthony Thiselton is the leading conservative voice in the field of hermeneutics, having written several major books and countess articles on the topic. Additionally, he has written a major commentary on 1 CorinthiansHermeneutics: An Introduction comes to us as his attempt to write an introductory text for the student and general reader.

The book begins in the first two chapters by laying a brief theoretical foundation for further discussion. Hermeneutics, according to Thiselton, is focused on the entire event of communication, encompassing author, text, and reader. Thiselton advocates a philosophical hermeneutics built off of Speech Act Theory and this is clear from the beginning. He also presses home Grant Osborne's notion of a hermeneutical spiral, the need for us to be aware of what we bring to the text both in terms of perspective and pre-understanding.

The third chapter covers Jesus' parables. Thiselton placed it in the book as a case study to try to give readers an idea of how to put hermeneutics into practice. Thiselton marches through the variety of interpretive methods applied to the parables and weighs in on what he sees as strengths and weaknesses. This is done as he examines many of the key interpreters of the 20th century. Thiselton seems to favor a variegated and flexible hermeneutic that cobbles together the best parts of a variety of approaches.

The remainder of the book functions as a history of hermeneutical theory, beginning with Second Temple Judaism all the way to the present. As he did in the chapter on parables, Thiselton works through major figure after major figure (or major document like the LXX). Some figures get very brief treatment (the patristic and medieval period get one combinded chapter). Others, like Gadamer and Riceour get whole chapters to themselves. He begins by providing brief biographical material and then detailing their hermeneutical methods. He concludes by assessing their work. These assessments cover both hermeneutical and theological matters as Thiselton is concerned with the impact hermeneutics has on theology and is concerned to uphold historic orthodoxy.

Thiselton concludes by examining matters that he could not fit into the book in other places (like a brief discussion of inspiration) as well as a look forward at 'politeness theory,'  which he views as a potentially positive development in linguistics.

There is a lot to like and a lot to dislike about this book. It's jammed with great material. It's amazing that Thiselton could boil down so much material into such a short space (relatively speaking) without oversimplifying matters. Additionally, I appreciate his emphasis on historical context, not just of the biblical text, but of the people he writes about. The way Thiselton writes helps convince you of his method.

However, as was my concern with his introduction to Paul, he hasn't completely hit his audience. There is absolutely no way that the general reader could work through this book. One of the ways Thiselton saves space is by frequently not defining terms and concepts, or by only making passing references to sources of influence, like 'Via advances the actants of Propp and Greimas' (199 - emphasis original). After that sentence a new paragraph starts. Prior to that the word actant had appeared once, and was undefined. How many general readers would understand his point? Even how many masters students would?

I also wish that the book was about twenty or so pages longer with more summary, especially when dealing with the earlier history of hermeneutics. I would have rather read an overview and assessment of main trends within patristic hermeneutics than read a collection of brief overviews of different people, overviews that I probably could have gotten out of a good dictionary.

As you can tell, this book is an introduction to hermeneutical theory. It is not the practical book that Osborne's hermeneutical spiral is. So know that before you pick it up. However, if you have some background, this could be a good introduction to philosophical hermeneutics. Additionally, as it does cover a who's who of hermeneutics and key biblical interpreters, it's an invaluable bibliographic resource. For that reason I could see using it as text in an advanced class on hermeneutics in a seminary very profitably. 

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