Anthony Thiselton, Hermeneutics: An Introduction, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 424 pages.
I would like to thank Eerdmans for providing me a review copy.
Hermeneutics: An Introduction is Anthony Thiselton’s latest in a long and distinguished list of publications on hermeneutics. New Horizons in Hermeneutics is perhaps his most well-known work on the subject, though in 2006 he published an 800-page collection of articles and essays, and 2013 saw the publication of a festschrift in his honor, Horizons in Hermeneutics, and the proceedings of a conference in his honor, The Future of Biblical Interpretation. Thiselton is an ordained minister in the Church of England. He writes as a Christian scholar.
This book is billed as an “introduction,” but that is somewhat misleading. A better term is a “survey,” or, perhaps, an introduction to the history of hermeneutics and hermeneutical philosophy. The first three chapters function as a brief introduction to the subject: the first chapter discusses the “aim and scope” of hermeneutics, the second discusses the place of hermeneutics in different fields (e.g., philosophy and Biblical studies), and the third seeks to illustrate different hermeneutical approaches to the parables of Jesus. The following thirteen chapters discuss the hermeneutics of a particular time, starting with Judaism and the Greeks, and proceeding on through the NT, the early church, the Reformation, and into the modern period with postmodernism, liberation theology, feminist and womanist hermeneutics, and more. A few chapters give particular attention to an important individual (e.g., Bultmann and Ricoeur).
Thiselton notes that he sought to avoid duplicating any of his previous work, especially from the two books above. “No previous book of mine has been open while writing this” (xiii). Those who have already read Thiselton’s other words will appreciate his care not to tread ground already covered—some authors seem to recycle their ideas in book after book. Those who have not read Thiselton’s previous works may become frustrated and confused, especially when his all-too-brief treatment of a subject is attended by a footnote pointing to a lengthier discussion in one of his other works.
I have already indicated that the subtitle, “An Introduction,” is misleading for one reason—namely that it is more of a survey of the history of hermeneutics than an introduction to the subject itself. There is very little in this book in which Thiselton positively lays out what we should think about hermeneutics and how we should go about it. Occasionally, while writing on some other scholar or movement, Thiselton does note problems and suggest a better way to think about the subject. However, these are brief and often merely suggestive.
There is a second reason why, “An Introduction,” is misleading—this book is very difficult to understand for one not already fully introduced to the subject. The material is dense, very dense, and often includes many references to other scholars or concepts that are not explained. For instance, of Richard Rorty Thiselton writes: “…Rorty writes with joyous gusto in his neopragmatic version of postmodernism” (344). In the preceding sentence Thiselton notes that he has written about pragmatism elsewhere. However, for those like me who have neither read Thiselton’s previous works nor are well-versed in philosophical pragmatism (or philosophy in general, for that matter), this sentence will remain opaque. This is merely one example among many in which Thiselton tries to elucidate his subject using terms and concepts that are as difficult to understand as the original subject, if not more so. Like a Hebrew scholar trying to “introduce” Hebrew by referring to features of the Akkadian language. For those with a strong grasp of pragmatism, Richard Rorty’s hermeneutic is all the clearer; the rest of us remain in the dark.
Much of the impenetrability of Thiselton’s discussion must be shared by Thiselton’s subjects themselves. Philosophers of hermeneutics need to learn the proverb that Jesus quotes—“Physician, heal thyself.” Thiselton’s chapters are mostly around 20–25 pages, and it is a tremendous feat to accurately summarize the hermeneutics of these periods and persons in such a short space. Thiselton is to be thanked for applying his impressive intellect and knowledge to this task. The subject matter does not lend itself easily to clear and understandable explanation. Nonetheless, whatever Hermeneutics is, an introduction it is not.
Thiselton’s evaluative comments are very helpful, demonstrating his analytical ability. Unfortunately, they are all too brief. I appreciated his insistence on the importance of eschewing an “overconfidence in human reason” (i.e., modernism) on the one hand, and “a quasi-determinist view of socioeconomic forces” (i.e., postmodernism) on the other hand (p. 18 and cf. the chapter on postmodernism).
Thiselton is always charitable when offering criticisms and he seeks to find something appreciative to say. He does not shy away from dismissing a view as unhelpful when he judges it to be so, but he usually manages to find something worth commending, even in the more extreme hermeneutical approaches (for example, see his chapters on liberation theology, feminist/womanist theology, and postmodernism).
I cannot recommend this book for anything but an upper-level Masters or PhD class on hermeneutics. It is an invaluable resource as a survey of the history of hermeneutical philosophy, but requires too much pre-knowledge to really count as an introduction. To mine the precious stones in this book, one needs to have a more-than-introductory level knowledge of philosophy and a proper introduction to hermeneutics—that is, an introduction that sets out positively what hermeneutics looks like. With these two blocks in place, I am sure Hermeneutics would yield a high return on investment. Without these blocks, it will yield frustration and sleep.