Matthew: The scope of your book Hermeneutics: An Introduction (Eerdmans: 2009) is, to put it flatly, breathtaking. What is the intent of this book, and how does it serve those who are interested in the field of hermeneutics?
Thiselton: The book follows fairly closely my lectures on Hermeneutics, given at Nottingham University for M.A. and final-year B.A. special option. I gave my last course in 2010-11, and become Emeritus (i.e. retired) Professor on 31st August 2011. Hence I aimed to produce a text-book, which those who wish to teach or to learn the subject could follow.
Matthew: Hermeneutics is a complex discipline that cannot be performed with an overly reduced concept of the term. Indeed, it draws on many fields for its practice and coherence. Will you, briefly, outline what hermeneutics is and explain its relationship to other disciplines both scientific and artistic?
Thiselton: Although it entails, first, biblical hermeneutics, it is vital that Biblical Studies is not isolated from Systematic Theology. This occurs all too often, to the impoverishment of both. Hence the second discipline is Theology. Third, Linguistics has to be studied for a serious Hermeneutic. Fourth, because modern Hermeneutics since Schleiermacher is “the art of understanding”, it must involve epistemology, or the theory of knowledge. The fifth essential discipline is sociology of knowledge, since all interpretation is not purely “objective”, but depends on pre-understanding, or what Habermas calls “interest”. Preliminary understandings (English, rather than German!) can be negotiated like “horizons”; they are not fixed like “presuppositions. Nowadays, sixthly, Literary Studies are indispensible, both for an understanding of genre (as in Umberto Eco), but also on “intention” and Reader Response Theory.
We might add, seventh, Reception History or Reception Theory, which has now become a sub-discipline in Biblical Studies, Theology, and Literary Theory. I cannot think of any of these eight which we can easily omit. It is tragic that some relegate Hermeneutics only to a branch of Biblical Studies or oh Church History. I have explored more on the Hermeneutics of Doctrine in my book, The Hermeneutics of Doctrine (Eerdmans, 2007).
Matthew: When you explain define hermeneutics, you make the point that it is often impossible to separate the practical from the theoretical. Why do you make this assertion?
Thiselton: The best way to explain this is to give an example. At Chester University I gave a lecture (now published) on “Can the Bible Mean Anything that We Want it to Mean?” I can think of no more practical question today, yet to answer it demands some knowledge of Hermeneutical Theory. The same applie when many speak too glibly with total approval about Reader Response, or even Author’s Intention. Both of these depend on biblical genre, and a host of other questions.
Matthew: Hermeneutics is generally speaking an ancient practice, but its recognition as a proper philosophical endeavor is a recent phenomenon, relatively speaking. What, in your opinion, was the single most important event that led to the rise of the discipline?
Thiselton: Although I do not agree with his theology, and even some of his Hermeneutics, Friedrich Schleiermacher was the founder of modern Hermeneutics, who rightly argued that we should not only turn to Hermeneutics to justify an interpretation that we have already accepted. Then Gadamer signals a second turning-point in Hermeneutics.
Matthew: Hans Georg Gadamer is mentioned repeatedly in your various works on hermeneutics and is uniquely important figure in hermeneutics. What did he contribute, specifically, that makes him so significant in the history of hermeneutics?
Thiselton: Gadamer turns the traditional Epistemology of Hermeneutics, learned from Renė Descartes, on its head. Traditionally and usually we, as active subjects, scrutinize the biblical text as a passive object. But as Karl Barth pointed out, following Luther, God, through the Bible, confronts us as Subject, to speak to us as object. We ought to listen to it; not (only) scrutinize it.
Here is a true anecdote: A deputation of students who had finished the course came to the authorities to ask if it could not be a first-year course “because it has changed our whole way of approaching the Bible, and we wish we had known this at the beginning. None of our Old and New Testament courses even hinted at this”. Another true anecdote: Joint-Honors with Philosophy often answered well on Gadamer, but those Philosophy students who were wedded to Rationalism or Empiricism often found it difficult to appropriate the point.
Matthew: Conservative biblical interpreters, especially in America, often stress the literal “what the author intended” reading of the text and, at least functionally, understand it as a scientific endeavor in which very certain answers can be found. What weaknesses does this approach hold for those who wish to understand the biblical text as an inspired/authoritative religious text? What strengths?
Thiselton: The answer above shows the limits of merely “scientific” approaches. The shadow of Hodge looms too large here. The whole issue hinges on genre. On an Epistle “Author’s Intention” is precisely what we want. English literary theorists are quite wrong to speak sweepingly of “the intentional fallacy”. But when they first used the term in the 1940s, English theorists applied it strictly only to Poetry and fictional narrative.
“Author’s intention” does not apply to every biblical genre, especially to Poetry. Many claim that “Intention” is known only to the author, and is an unviable concept. But what happens when we use “intentionally” as an adverb? To say, “I did it intentionally” means that my will produced the writing with an aim. Paul Ricoeur shows the role of will in writing a text. So “author’s intention” is broadly right, but not applicable to all biblical texts. It is worth comparing the School of Antioch (author-oriented) with the School of Alexandria (often reader-oriented), to assess the value of each.
Matthew: Postmodern thought has been preoccupied with the task of hermeneutics and the relationship of readers to texts. Yet, many in Christian circles have had a difficult time recognizing the value it might add to our reading of texts generally or to the Bible specifically. What positive contributions (if any), in your view has postmodernism made to hermeneutics?
Thiselton: I must confess that I suspect all “-isms” as overgeneralizations. I speak to my students only specifically about Lyotard, Derrida, Rorty, Foucault, and others. For the most part, I am grieved that many Evangelicals retreat from robust, rational discussion because many postmodernists say that I can say only how it is with me, i.e. testify to what has worked for me. But there are some positive features: (1) an attack on the standardization of knowledge, especially making everything correspond to technology (especially Lyotard); this applies to what is said above about “science”. (2) I share their dislike of generalities; but we need caution about rejecting all “meta-narratives”, of which the Bible may be one. (3) Roland Barthes’ early work o “Mythologies” is fascinating, and assists Ricoeur’s “Hermeneutic of Suspicion”, although this may be too early to call it “Postmodern”. (4) Jean Baudrillard exposes fantasy and simulacra, together the idolization of utility and media-created, and media-centred “celebrities”.
But specifically on Hermeneutics I have some sympathy with Vanhoozer’s exposure of Derrida as too near to atheism, and I would add Lyotard on incommensurability and the plurality of “paganism” as negative. In the U.S.A., I find it difficult to find merits in Rorty and Fish.
Matthew: Debates concerning the Bible and its nature often revolve around questions of infallibility, authority, and inerrancy. In what ways does your study of hermeneutics inform these questions, and could we be asking better questions about the Bible?
Thiselton: Many years ago, most Protestants had to read books on the Fallibility of the Church. It was part of their required weaponry in debating with Roman Catholics. Now even the Vatican has softened its approach. But if the Church is fallible in its interpretation of the Bible (why is one commentary better than another?), the infallibility of the texts they interpret becomes a much more theoretical and hypothetical question. As Tom Wright argues, it is more helpful to speak of the infallibility of God, who speaks through his Word. One of the admitted difficulties about Hermeneutics is the lesson that all interpretation is provisional, and corrigible. Yet we must still distinguish between texts about Geography and perhaps History from those about Theology. I am less persuaded that God would allow his people to be deceived in matters pertaining to salvation than to the questions of curiosity that we can ask about Geography or World-History.
Matthew: In recent years a number of books and/or popular magazine and news articles have discussed the ways in which we form our perspectives, beliefs, and prejudices from a physiological or scientific point of view. These mainly address the “hard functioning” mechanistic functionality of our brains. Do you see a point at which the scientific understanding of neural functioning will coalesce with the discipline of hermeneutics?
Thiselton: Certainly not! Here Gadamer enters the stage again. He compares the supposed objectivity of statistics. Statistics, he argues, depend on Hermeneutics. For the “answers” that emerge from statistics always depends on how you have programmed them, on what you have fed in, on the questions that you ask. Personally, that is why I often refuse to fill in questionnaires; they often ask the wrong questions (cf. Collingwood, Gadamer, and Waismann), and depend on Hermeneutical understanding, which their designers seldom possess. Gadamer contrasts the two main traditions of philosophy: that of Descartes, who gives privilege to a mathematical and scientic model of knowledge, and that of Vico, who begins with one from the humanities, history, and community. The mechanistic model is one of hubris and individualism.
Matthew: You recently published The Living Paul (IVP Academic: 2010) which provides a comprehensive, if not short, introduction to Paul’s thought. The first chapter deals with what is becoming a major issue for many Christians, namely, the relationship between Paul and Jesus. There you make it clear that you see no reason why we should pit the one against the other. Why do you believe that doing so is an error? And for those who do place them at odds, what hermeneutical factors do you think lead them astray?
Thiselton: Paul never wrote as “the second founder of Christianity”. He frequently appeals to earliest Apostolic Tradition, not least on the Resurrection “which I received”, and the Lord’s Supper. He refers back to the same Old Testament tradition as Jesus did. He refers to Jesus in various ways: his Jewishness (Rom. 9:5); his birth under the Law (Gal. 4:4); his ministry (Rom. 15: 8); his descent from Abraham (Gal. 3:16); and of David (Rom. 1:3); his meekness and gentleness (2 Cor. 10:1); his obedience and endurance (2 Thess 3:5; Rom. 5:19); his role as Passover Lamb (1 Cor. 5:7); his atoning work (Col. 1:22; Gal. 3:13); and … when am I to stop? The key hermeneutical question is one of context. Paul refers to Jesus when it serves his argument to do so. Had Paul foreseen the claims that were only later to arise, no doubt he would have answered them. (This point may apply to your earlier question about what kind of truth we seek in the Bible. It is all conditioned by historical circumstances).
Matthew: In 2000, you published The First Epistle to the Corinthians [NIGTC] (Eerdmans) which has become both a classic exposition on Paul’s letter to the intractable church and a masterful implementation of hermeneutical artistry in interpreting the biblical text. How did your expertise in hermeneutics help you make interpretive decisions in writing this commentary?
Thiselton: Most of the work for this commentary was theological, historical, and linguistic, and textual-critical. But Hermeneutics was informing my judgments, especially in the overwhelming quantity of secondary literature which I read. Reception History was a useful part of this, because too many rely on only what the latest studies and commentaries suggest, instead of also considering the Church Fathers and Reformers.
Matthew: In 2006 you also published 1 Corinthians: A Shorter Exegetical and Pastoral Commentary (Eerdmans). Were there any significant differences between the two commentaries? Looking back over the course of a decade to The First Epistle to the Corinthians [NIGTC] are there any changes that you would make today?
Thiselton: The greatest change was to add the practical and devotional questions and suggestions, which [required] longer to formulate than the exegesis. I had to avoid being patronizing and simplistic on one side, and being “preachy”, obscure, and pious on the other. The “practical” part required at least three drafts. The one major shift in exegesis concerns 1 Cor. 12: 3. Who supposedly would “curse” Jesus? In my larger commentary I discussed thirteen views, concluding that Cullmann’s notion of a persecution context was perhaps one of the two most likely, the other being W. van Unnik’s suggestion of belief an “accursed” or atoning Jesus (cf. Gal. 3: 13), without belief in the resurrection.
In the 2006 commentary, I had time to digest Bruce Winter’s brilliant suggestion arising from the discovery of lead “curse tablets” near Corinth, which prayed to pagan deities to curse rivals in business, love, or sports. There is no verb at all in the Greek, hence we may read, “May Jesus curse” or “Let Jesus be cursed”. I believe that Winter’s explanation is the most likely. No one would ask Jesus to curse a rival, by or in the Holy Spirit.