Volume 18 - Issue 2

New horizons in hermeneutics: a review article

By Richard S. Hess

Twelve years after the publication of The Two Horizons, which became a classic work in biblical hermeneutics, Thiselton has produced a major synthesis of the issues and people involved in the questions of interpreting texts. The importance of the work for readers of Themelios justifies a longer review, which can consider the content and some of the theses of the book.

Following an introduction which summarizes the contribution of the study, Thiselton investigates how texts function, both (1) to transform readers, as in speech-acts where texts carry the reader into their own world and may provide a reversal of expectations, and (2) to be transformed themselves through techniques such as intertextuality with changing language functions and pre-intentional backgrounds as well as through semiotics and deconstructionism. The difficulties of grasping an area of research so heavily laden with jargon should not be minimized (i.e. this is not a text for the beginner), but the discussion of its various usages and implications is one of the book’s strengths.

The chapter ‘What is a Text?’ surveys the developments in hermeneutics following on the traditional ‘classical-humanist’ paradigm which emphasized the author’s intention and its possibility of recovery through a study of the text and the context of its origins. The New Criticism challenged the recoverability of authorial intention and turned to a focus on the text itself. Northrop Frye introduced the postmodernist emphasis on the context of the reader or audience for understanding the text. The American development of reader-response theory suggested that the readers themselves create meaning from the text. Reader interests became dominant. In his application of these ideas to biblical studies, Thiselton considers the sense in which promises are given to Israel and to the church but it remains for the hearers to believe and to appropriate them. Further, he observes the Christian confession of the role of the Holy Spirit at work in the origin of the texts, in their transmission, and in the lives of the readers. The developments in hermeneutics imply that readers do their reading in the context of social communities, certainly the community of believers but others as well. Further, books such as Job and Ecclesiastes are written without a specific answer to the problems which they address. These texts invite the reader to participate in the problem, to wrestle with the issues. Thiselton argues that these approaches do not ‘foreclose questions’ about interpretations. However, he also affirms that the role of the authors and the biblical contexts must not be sacrificed in any reading and that these provide guidance to the interpreter.

In the chapter ‘From Semiotics to Deconstruction and Post-Modernist Theories of Textuality’, Thiselton provides a survey of the present landscape of how people deal with texts. Semiotics refers to the way in which texts presuppose a code or sign-system as a means to communicate. The ideas of Ferdinand de Saussure represent the foundation of semiotics, especially the principles that all signs are arbitrary in their value or meaning, that meaning is based on the differences or relations within the sign-system, and that concrete acts of speech (parole) are to be distinguished from the language system (langue) which is abstract and not found in the external world.

Thiselton goes on to trace the development of structuralism by Claude Lévi-Strauss and its Marxist application by Roland Barthes. He describes its successor, deconstructionism. However, Thiselton argues that deconstructionism is not a logically necessary consequence of semiotics.

Jacques Derrida argues for the absence of both signatory and referent in texts. The text is a mark of what has gone before and a trace of what is to come. However, the mark itself must be erased in an onward movement. Derrida suggests that writing has priority over speech. Even more, it has priority over the human psyche. At this point the discussion moves beyond a theory of textuality and into philosophy. Thiselton will allow for the use of deconstruction as a method in the interpretation of certain biblical texts, particularly those which are subversive, i.e. texts such as Job, Ecclesiastes, and the parables of Jesus, all of which challenge the accepted tradition. However, the method cannot function as an iconoclastic philosophy which denies any connection of self with the text and allows for any interpretation as equally valid. Thiselton comments (p. 122):

… what would or could count as counter-examples or as falsification in the face of such a theory? Once again, when deconstructionist and post-modernist insights of iconoclastic method become inflated into some world view which is allegedly anti-metaphysical but in practice comes to function as a metaphysic, the whole system becomes self-defeating, a mere negative against someone else’s positive. To set this up as a model of textuality as such is to imperialize all texts within a single system, while superficially rejecting any notion of system.

Thus deconstruction can be a useful method when applied to particular biblical texts, providing new insights and dispelling illusions that reading a text once provides mastery of it. However, it is a method and not a world view. As such it cannot lose contact with the speaking subject and the surrounding world of thought and life, which both reintroduces the possibility of misinterpretation and provides the social effect of its interpretation into life. Thiselton concludes the section with a caution regarding concepts of textual play. Again, it is important to recognize the purpose of a text. Some texts may serve such purposes but this is not an argument that all texts must. The multi-purpose nature of the biblical text must be recognized (pp. 131–132):

… the biblical texts transcend any single goal: they teach, but they also invite us to celebrate with joy the deeds and reign of God. They make truth-claims about the world and reality; but they also make us uncomfortable recipients of judgment and comfortable recipients of grace. They subvert our idols, but they also address us, heal us, build us, and transform us. Any theory of textuality which cannot make room for these textual functions cannot be given a paradigmatic place in biblical interpretation.

After sections that helpfully explain the exegetical methods of the patristic and Reformation eras, Thiselton moves to the modern period, with Schleiermacher. He identifies the contributions of Friedrich Schleiermacher as being the first to set hermeneutics in the context of theories of knowledge, to ask how we know as part of the interpretive process. He brought questions of who the author was and what was the language-world in which the author wrote. However, his theories were more comprehensive than only concern for the ‘genetic’ aspects of hermeneutics. In addition to the author of the text, Schleiermacher took account of the original audience, the later reader, and the effects of the text upon each. His approach to the Bible was one which saw these hermeneutical questions as applicable to the Bible, just as they were to other texts. His distinction between grammatical and psychological interpretations argued that both are necessary and that the goal of hermeneutics is always an approximation of certain understanding. There is the whole context and the specific elements of it. Both inform one another, and together they constitute Schleiermacher’s hermeneutical circle. He believed it was possible to understand a text as well and even better than the author. The first phase of interpretation implied a commitment to historical and grammatical inquiry. The second considered elements behind the text, which may not have been conscious to the author. Thiselton concludes that Schleiermacher’s idea of background, like his other emphasis on psychology, is one aspect of hermeneutical theory, rather than a comprehensive theory.

Thiselton considers existentialist approaches to interpretation. He critiques them as inadequate in their lack of concern for the interpreting community and in their polarization between descriptive and proclaiming transforming functions of language. The existential categories limit the NT’s confessions of ‘Jesus is Lord’ and of the kingdom of God. These have an element evoking personal response but they simultaneously point to someone who bears the title or a divine reign which is yet to come. Without the latter reality, the former would be meaningless or idolatrous. This leads to Thiselton’s discussion of the speech-act theory of J.R. Searle and others. Rejecting a putative Hebraic power of words magically to perform actions, Thiselton recalls his previously published arguments that the irrevocability of blessings by Jacob and Balaam are grounded in generally recognized institutional functions of the world of the Bible. Just as in Western Christendom there is no service of ‘unbaptism’, so in the biblical world there is no operation of ‘unblessing’. Speech-act distinguishes between assertions in which the words match the world and promises or commands in which the world is made to match the word. Thiselton notes various biblical statements which operate in both directions. In the OT this is especially true of promise and covenant, e.g. in God’s promises to the patriarchs and in the covenantal language of Hosea. Pre-eminently, it appears in the NT with the enfleshment of the divine Word and its ongoing reality through the mediation of the Holy Spirit.

Thiselton finds Pannenberg more satisfactory than Gadamer, and critiques both. He follows his student Luckmann in recognizing a third horizon of interpretation in Pannenberg, that of the eschatological. The text, and especially that of the NT, must be understood in the context of the future, as well as the past and the present. This distinction between the present and the future removes these texts from the arena of the mythological. Thiselton finds justification for this eschatological emphasis upon interpretation in the Epistle to the Hebrews and its hope for a city with foundations (4:1–11; 6:13ff.).

Paul Ricoeur’s theory is the next one to fall beneath Thiselton’s lens of examination. The symbols of the text have the power to produce thought but also to generate idols. There is a strong element of Bultmannian existentialism in Ricoeur’s biblical interpretation, in which religious language is understood primarily to redescribe the human experience. Hermeneutics becomes a struggle against the idols of ideologies and other illusions at the same time as it is an act of listening to a language which we no longer hear.

Thiselton’s analysis of liberation hermeneutics begins with a chapter which explores the theories of Habermas, Rorty and Apel. Habermas sought the foundations of social science in the theory of communication. In so doing he emphasized the social context of speech-acts. Rorty represents American liberal pluralism with its abandonment of any truth values outside of social contexts, other than a pragmatic universal of ‘success’. However, Thiselton observes critiques of this approach in (1) a concealed authoritarianism in Rorty, which uses liberal rhetoric to define an authoritarian message of its own; and (2) the absence of any means to challenge the status quo on the basis of universals: as Rorty acknowledges, there is no answer to the question, ‘Why not be cruel?’ Apel follows Habermas in his recognition of transcendent rational norms.

Chapter 12, ‘The Hermeneutics of Liberation’, offers 60 pages of analysis and critique of hermeneutic approaches found in liberationist readings of Latin American, black and feminist theologies. The common elements which Thiselton finds in all of these are those which Gutiérrez outlined in his The Theology of Liberation—an empathetic understanding of the oppressed, a criticism of society, the centrality of scriptural themes of liberation such as the exodus, and the biblical language of promise and eschatology as a means of transformation of the world. Thiselton identifies three corresponding methods in these movements (pp. 410, 462): critiques of frameworks of interpretation found in the dominant traditions, reinterpretations of biblical texts from the standpoint of a particular context of experience, and the use of critical tools to unmask interpretations which serve social interests of domination and oppression. In all this, Thiselton constantly asks whether the critiques are socio-critical and therefore part of a larger critique with universal significance, or whether they are socio-pragmatic, designed to serve the interests of the particular group concerned. A second key question is whether the method used is made into a universal philosophy or world view, or whether it remains controlled and employed only as a particular method. For example, Leonardo and Clodovis Boff affirm that they use Marxism purely as an instrument, submitting it to the judgment of the poor, rather than as a philosophical or political programme. A similar claim is noted by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza in her feminist hermeneutic. However, Thiselton’s examination of her leads him to challenge this and to charge her with (p. 445) ‘clearly selective discussions of different explanatory hypotheses which might account for the same textual and historical data’.

Special note should be made of Thiselton’s critique of the approaches of Fiorenza and of Phyllis Trible’s depatriarchalizing method. In so doing, he reviews the feminist critiques of Elizabeth Achtemeier and of Susanne Heine. Thiselton’s own recounting of his earlier analysis and critique of Bultmann’s demythologization forms the basis for a similar critique of depatriarchalizing. Some feminist applications of Ugaritic and Canaanite goddess-systems to the OT and of Gnostic sexual symbolism to the NT and especially to the early church serve to critique ‘androcentric’ biblical language. But it is not clear that androcentric biblical language does not serve ontological purposes of describing the nature of God and of God’s relation to creation which have nothing necessarily to do with human masculinity as opposed to the feminine. Such language is often androcentric only if conventional modern stereotypes of masculine and feminine are read into the text. Further, as Heine observes, the usage of feminine imagery for God in the prophets serves not to depatriarchalize the texts, but rather to affirm the God of Israel as all-sufficient and therefore to discount any need for a mother goddess in Israel.

Thiselton’s introduction to the hermeneutics of reading is an attempt to justify its importance. On the one hand, he refers to Terry Eagleton’s comment (p. 472), ‘hostility to theory means an opposition to other people’s theories and an oblivion of one’s own’. On the other hand, he observes the sophisticated philosophies which lie behind many literary theories. He notes the tendency to replace meaning with rhetoric, as in Derrida and Fish. But Thiselton also finds some positive contributions in modern literary theories, including the restoration of the importance of the imagination in reading, the greater attention to metaphor, the role of ambiguity and indirectness, and the development of theories of narrative which can take into account items such as irony. He observes the manner in which these approaches have served ‘to sharpen contrasts in hermeneutics with historical-critical and especially source-critical approaches’ (p. 479):

As Alter, Moberly, and many others have pointed out, literary considerations may suggest that apparent doublets or duplications, for example, may be due not to clumsy editing in conflating dual sources, but to a narrative technique of juxtaposing two foci of vision which may even stand in tension, because the vision as a whole transcends either of the two single strands of narrative as flat statements.

Rising out of Roland Barthes’ concerns with how the text is made, structuralism developed in biblical studies in the 1970s. However, Thiselton observes that this method was subject to critique from several directions: (1) it lacked the generally recognized requirement of a scientific theory, the possibility of falsifiability; (2) it took no account of socio-cultural factors; and (3) for all its efforts it was not very productive in terms of its results. The emergence of intertextuality reasserted the importance of the larger context; indeed, there was no clear means of designating where to draw boundaries in the search for other texts. This itself created a problem with intertextuality for it seemed to allow an infinite variety of interpretations with no criteria to judge one in relation to another. Indeed, the advent of the term ‘reading’ a text as a replacement for interpreting or understanding a text suggested a loss of communication and judgment in favour of semiotic effect. Texts become ‘matrices’ from which any of a variety of meanings can be developed. Thiselton argues that some biblical texts—poetry, for example—lend themselves more easily to a variety of readings, but other biblical texts, like modern traffic signs, do not so readily leave the matter of meaning with the reader.

Thiselton considers the work of Holland and of Bleich. Regarding Holland, who emphasizes the individual reader, he expresses concern over the possibility of creating an idolatry out of the text in which we project our own interests on it. Thiselton finds examples of this in the work of Bleich, whom he accuses of a socio-political agenda. In the end (p. 535), ‘the most militant pressure-group actually carries the day about what satisfies their pragmatic criteria of “right” reading’. In Fish, there is the example of an interpreter who has carried socio-pragmatism to its final conclusion, that the community alone is the interpretative authority of a text. Therefore, there are no transcultural or trans-contextual meanings. Thiselton raises questions about language of pain, remorse, sincerity and lying, all of which he sees as having universal communicative power. Observing the implications of this in biblical studies, Thiselton goes on to identify some ‘disastrous entailments’ of Fish (pp. 549–550), of which three may be identified:

(i) If textual meaning is the product of a community of readers, as Fish concedes, texts cannot reform these readers ‘from outside’. In this case the Reformation then becomes a dispute over alternative community life-styles.

(ii) Prophetic address as that which comes ‘from beyond’ virtually against human will is either illusory or to be explained in terms of pre-conscious inner conflict.

(iii) It would be impossible to determine what would count as a systematic mistake in the development of doctrine. Pragmatism allows only the view that what gave rise to our past and present must somehow have broadly been right. Social pragmatism accepts only social winners as criteria of truth.

The last 70 pages of Thiselton’s text offer the reader a number of directions for the application of what has been surveyed throughout the book. This is the first place to which many who read this work will be likely to turn. Thiselton begins with a defence of reconstructing the original context of the text and its life-world. He accepts that many biblical texts express a form of address or goal, thus inviting examination of their original intention without committing the intentional fallacy. He reiterates Schleiermacher’s emphasis to preserve both horizons of the text and of the reader. Thiselton moves through various models of reading, illustrating Kierkegaard’s existentialist approach in his famous model of the interpretation of Genesis 22, Fear and Trembling. He suggests four sample areas in which narratives can address readers: in catching us off guard and reversing our expectations, in explaining personal identities (including that of the God who acts), in stimulation of the imagination to explore new avenues, and in speech-acts of various sorts. Much of this, as well as the remainder of the book, was already considered in earlier chapters. However, there are new applications: for example, Jung’s use of symbols and their identification can serve to integrate and to encourage further exploration of texts.

More importantly, Thiselton is concerned to affirm and to retain both the existence of universals in the interpretation of texts and the need for criteria to evaluate the success or failure of different methods as they are applied to texts. The concern for universal elements in interpretation leads him away from the reader-response theory of Fish toward a speech-act theory in which promises, confessions, and other types of texts move beyond the textual world alone and address commitments in the lives of authors, speakers and readers, i.e. readings of texts which call for self-involvement. The second major area of concern involves a distinction between what Thiselton calls socio-pragmatism and socio-criticism. Both address concerns of liberation and justice in specific communities. However, socio-pragmatism does not admit to universals and therefore concerns only a particular community. By the same token, it cannot be judged or evaluated and thus runs the risk of setting up its own system of injustices. On the other hand, socio-criticism admits as valid only those principles and critiques which are capable of judgment and application in all contexts.

The search for the appropriate model leads Thiselton back to the cross with its manifest value of power-in-weakness. It is combined with a promise of what is to come, the universal eschatological judgments and salvation. Thiselton concludes (p. 619) that in this context ‘the Spirit, the text, and the reader engage in a transforming process, which enlarges horizons and creates new horizons’.

There are two areas which could profit from further exploration, however. The first of these is the rapidly expanding areas of related study and their methods. For example, what role do methods such as modern linguistics have in interpretation? What role is played by ideological/sociological approaches, especially those which retain an author-centred hermeneutic but apply socio-criticism to the ancient contexts by examining the societies for which the texts were supposedly written? Whether this is still hermeneutics or whether it is something else, it is becoming an issue of increasing importance in OT studies. A second area of further exploration concerns Thiselton’s appeal to the cross. Even if this is intended as a change to a Christian perspective, it would be helpful to have more elaboration as to the epistemological basis for an appeal to the cross and to the ‘third horizon’ of future judgment and salvation. Are these a basis for ranking and evaluating other hermeneutical theories? If so, how can they be justified? How does this avoid the criticism of being the product of one interpretive community?

Thiselton’s study is vast in its scope and competent in its content. His criticisms will need to be considered by scholars who work in the field. However, his approach is irenic and appreciative, even where there is clear disagreement. There is much to learn from this book. It well serves his goals of providing biblical scholars with a first-hand acquaintance of hermeneutical theoreticians and with acquainting the reader with a diversity of hermeneutical models. It provides a contemporary discussion of this constantly expanding field which is both critical and comprehensive.

Richard S. Hess

Denver Seminary, Denver