Book Review: The Hermeneutics of Doctrine

Thiselton The Hermeneutics of Doctrine

Before I even being writing, its worth making it very clear that I am not really qualified to write this review, at least from an academic standpoint, and so my doing so is as much a recommendation and a recognition that it is an immensely helpful book, rather than specifically and critically engaging with the thrust of Thiselton’s argument. That said, this isn’t necessarily an inaccessible book, it is just very technical and the product of a long career wrestling with Hermeneutics!

I was privileged to have taken Anthony Thiselton’s last ever undergraduate module – on Systematic Theology – in the second year of my B.A. He is a fantastic thinker, and a great lecturer. A well known authority on hermeneutics and general theology, Thiselton is also a relatively prolific author! One of his most recent books was on “The Last Things”, which was his study of heaven, hell, judgement and all that. I thoroughly enjoyed reviewing it, not least as it brought his very technical and thorough way of writing to a larger audience, and in a very readable way. In contrast, perhaps, is the book that is the topic of today’s review, Thiselton’s 2007 work “The Hermeneutics of Doctrine”! This is a dense, technical, 600+ page volume that (as the title suggests!) blends Hermeneutics and Doctrine into one (sort of) readable whole. It proved a valuable companion to Thiselton’s module, but is a useful guide for navigating some of the more esoteric ends of theological hermeneutics.

Thiselton’s introduction sets the tone, “From Abstract Theory to Life-Related Hermeneutics“, which is in itself a fascinating essay on how we can go from rather odd theoretical discussions to applicable, real-life usage of words. This project is birthed out of Thiselton’s blend of experience in five British Universities and his involvement with the Anglican Church at every level. As introductions go, this one is very helpful, setting Thiselton’s project in wider context, and giving us a roadmap of his intentions. 

The main body of this brick-like tome (at over 600 pages this is a big object, in addition to being a big treatment of some massive topics!) is divided into three parts. The first of these is “Reasons to Explore the Hermeneutics of Doctrine“. In this section Thiselton essentially puts together the framework on which hill will later build his exploration of Christian Doctrine. Whilst necessarily intellectually dense and occasionally mind-boggling to this blogger, this is a book that those with an understanding of Hermeneutics and an appreciation of the issues involved will be able to read. Thiselton, even in this incredibly rigorous and engaged theoretic discussion is not removed from the actual experience of the Christian faith. In part 1, we often come into discussion of context, formation and community, as Thiselton clearly relates the issues and excitement of hermeneutical theory to the reality of the lived Christian life.

The second ‘part’ to the body of this text is “Replies to Possible Objections“. Here Thiselton (in a manner reminiscent of Calvin in his Institutes, magisterially demolishing objections) goes through some possible objections to his argument. The first section of this second part engages with the issue of “Dialectic in Hermeneutics and Doctrine: Coherence and Polyphony“, echoing the never-ending discussion of tension within Doctrine and the practice of Hermeneutics. We then end with objections under the heading of “Can Doctrine as “Science” Remain Hermeneutical and Promote Formation?“. This section covers some of the objections to the main use of Thiseltons work here: the issue of relating theory to practice, and the application of Doctrine to Formation. There is some fascinating stuff here, deserving of Theology’s old title, Queen of the Sciences.

The final part of this book is the most practically useful, and by far the most readable. “Major Themes in Christian Doctrine” does exactly what it says on the tin. Thiselton applies his Hermeneutics to Doctrine and works through central issues in Christian theology. This comes across roughly as a miniaturised Systematic Theology, and indeed some of his lectures followed the content and form found here. This part of the book is in many ways worth the cost of entry alone (and is in fact around 400 pages in and of itself!), as it really grapples with and explains the terms that lie behind the Doctrines that form the Christian faith. The final section, on Eschatology, noticeably forms the basis of Thiselton’s more popular recent book, “The Last Things“, which I reviewed and thoroughly enjoyed.

I have not done this important book justice in this relatively short review. Largely because I don’t have the experience and knowledge of Thiselton to be able to fully engage with it. It is a mark of the author’s writing skill that I can understand what he is saying, and appreciate it. This is a helpful example of Christian engagement with Hermeneutics, and the impact that really understanding Hermeneutics can have on issues of Doctrine. If that is something you are looking for, then this book is a safe purchase!


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