An Overview of Anthony Thiselton – Part 1

Anthony Thiselton

Those of you who read between the lines of some of my blogs, tweets, and statii, will know that I am very interested in Imago Dei/Theological Anthropology. This interest was, in part, spawned out of engaging with 1 Corinthians and also my longer-existing interest in Systematic Theology. Anthony Thiselton, a well known Anglican evangelical theologian, has published an impressive commentary on 1 Corinthians, as well as numerous important work on Hermeneutics, and elements/hints of Systematic Theology. So, because of the importance he plays in some of my academic work, I thought it might be interesting to collate an overview of his work…

This, the first part of my overview, is based on watching this YouTube video, from St John’s College’s online ‘Timeline project’, which is part of a larger two-part interview with Anthony Thiselton, which is behind the ‘Timeline’ paywall…

Thiselton was initially interested in ‘The New Hermeneutics’, coming out of the work of especially Ernst Fuchs and Gerhard Ebeling. He observes that there is here many good things about how to apply the text, especially the notion of ‘the language event’. There was also a negative side; when they spoke/wrote of philosophy of language, they didn’t mean this, they meant ‘Heidegger’s philosophy of language, which was a limited and narrow scope! Hence the observation that Pannenberg notes how absurd that such a narrow basis of language swept the whole continent, resulting in a gulf between Germany+France/UK+USA. This intial interest in the New Hermeneutic was alongside an interest in Wittgenstein. This prompted Thiselton to consider the need for an awareness of a detailed rather than general look at hermeneutics. After observing that all books at time on Hermeneutics written by radicals, such as Dennis Nineham ‘The Use and Abuse of the Bible’ (about which John Stott allegedly commented was mostly abuse!(, Thiselton was surprised that no more moderate or conservative scholars had a go. So he had a go! As well as coinciding with his interest in Gadamer in the late 60’s, Thiselton authored his first major work, ‘Two Horizons‘. This is a major work, additionally engaging with Schliermacher/Bultmann as well as his primary interests in the work of Gadamer and Wittgenstein.

An important element of Thiselton’s theological approach is his commitment to engagement with the Church. He gave a paper at an evangelical Anglican gathering at the University of Nottingham to mixed reception! Some found his comments really interesting, some were a bit wary, but senior evangelical Anglicans were impressed. John Stott asked people to affirm it! David Watson made jokes, but Stott (and Packer) thought it fundamental regarding the authority of the bible (how to use it) and so a vote was taken. The result was interesting: 75% applauded and affirmed it, whilst 25% led by David Watson thought it was a silly fashion that would waste their time. To understand Thiselton’s impact, it is worth being aware of his key book The Two Horizons:

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The Two Horizons – New Testament Hermeneutics and Philosophical Description 

  • longer book than intended
  • starts with general questions about herm
  • general questions about exegesis, systematic theology and philosophy
  • unity of whole thing to brign an engagement between horizon of the text and the horizon of the reader
  • not a passive learning engagement
  • notes that Robert Knowles has produced 600 page book engaging with Thiselton – first of five phases…
  • quite a bit of exegesis – concerned to anchor hermeneutics in what we actually do with it
  • difference between Thiselton and VanHoozer is that V stresses systematics and T stresses NT exegesis on specific passages
  • seeks to resolve the alleged ‘contradiction’ on Justification by Faith Alone Paul/James
  • always been interested in eschatology – his solution to above derives from Wittgenstein
  • 200 pages on theology of Rudolf Bultmann
    • demythologisation only one element of his thought
    • also form criticism
    • consideration of his contribution to historical Jesus
    • hang together as a whole
    • argues that Bultmanns attempt to de-mythologise is really very misguided
    • delighted by Pannenberg’s demolition
    • see also Graham Stanton
    • Thiselton claims Bultmann is self contradictory.
  • Colin Buchanan ‘everyone has it on their shelves but noone has read it
  • gets the point – people say its important, but only recently have people have been talking meaningfully about the actual arguments very well

This first major work was followed by ‘New Horizons in Hermeneutics‘, which despite sounding similar is an importantly different work. It came about as the result of Thiselton taking a research fellowship at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, where he worked especially with two scholars of English, and was introduced to all sorts of literary and critical theory. During this time he did also write two smaller books, ‘The Responsibility of Hermeneutics‘ and ‘The Promise of Hermeneutics‘, with contributions from other scholars, and met Nicholas Wolterstorff. This period convinced Thiselton of the multidisciplinary nature of hermeneutics. Latterly, Thiselton was invited by Ian Torrance to give some lectures on Postmodernism – which became his book ‘God and the Postmodern Self’ (which I used in my MA dissertation, and have leant on at other times..

Thiselton’s views on Postmodernism are quite important, and worth noting. He observes two risks, and suggests a way to engage it;

1) Do not write postmodernism off as useless

2) Do not get too excited about it, adulating it unnecessarily

Due to the flaws and advantages of it, Thiselton notes that the responsible way to tackle it is a balance sheet of pros and cons.

The next important work though, as noted above, was New Horizons, so I will end this post with a brief summary of it.

New Horizons in Hermeneutics – the Theory and Practice of Transforming Biblical Reading 

  • New Horizons is NOT a revision of Two Horizons!
  • ‘the theory and practice of transforming biblical reading’, the subtitle declares the purpose
  • wants to be a transforming way of reading
  • different genres needing different Hermeneutical methods
  • difference between open text and closed texts
  • chapters 15 and 16 are the climax (last 100 pages)
  • ten hermeneutical models fitted to ten types of texts
    • eg narrative has for subsections
      • draw you within a world – the Parable of the Labourers in the vineyard

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If this has whet your appetite somewhat, then you might enjoy my reviews of some of Thiselton’s work. I have tentatively reviewed his excellent “The Hermeneutics of Doctrine“, which has been vital in my formulating of my MA dissertation concept and also a conference paper. The other book review that lives on this blog is of Thiselton’s overview of eschatology, “The Last Things“.

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