Over the last several months, a number of blog reviews have appeared of a book that I co-edited with Stanley Porter, published by Paternoster and IVP:
I just thought I’d gather together those I’ve come across, and interact with them a little.
First, let me say that I like this book – I feel it came together how I hoped it would. And how is that? It enabled a number of scholars from different but overlapping areas to reflect together on a focused topic. Each contributor graciously agreed to produce a fresh piece of work, dealing with a single parameter of hermeneutical responsibility, considering also its relation to a bigger hermeneutical picture. These contributors were not randomly selected, but were variously associated with the hermeneutical thought of Anthony Thiselton. The result, which both surprised me and opened my eyes, was a volume that actually exhibited the hermeneutical model it was advocating with regard to the Bible: concordant polyphony. Rick Wadholm, in his review, rightly notes:
Essentially this volume proposes a sort of responsible “concordant polyphony” of interpretation (p.10). How these divergent voices are to be held in a sort of harmonic tension is another issue (as the editors note in their conclusion). The variant voices offered here tend toward a plurality of approaches to interpretation rather than simply a plurality of interpretations.
I had perhaps expected that each contributor would basically present the same overall hermeneutical model, into which they would fit their individual contribution. But as it happened, most emphasised their own assigned parameter of hermeneutical responsibility without being comprehensively explicit about how it related to others. In other words, each speaks with its own voice, and the reader is left to discern the symphonic concordance that arises from the whole – while acknowledging that various motifs find degrees of dissonance or independence. The editorial introduction and conclusion attempt to provide a guide for the reader in their listening.
In terms of individual contributions, Stanley Porter’s chapter on ‘theological responsibility’ seems to have been controversial among reviewers, with some (such as Wadholm) critical, and others (such as Patrick Schreiner) especially appreciative. Schreiner comments, in agreement with Porter:
biblical interpretation falls under the category of hermeneutics, but if there is no hermeneutics actually taught, then it is like teaching someone how to frame a house without first establishing the foundation. It is important to understand that these two are distinct, and students are impoverished if they are only getting biblical interpretation, and not biblical hermeneutics.
Wadholm comments (as well as showing appreciation for certain elements of Porter’s discussion):
The reason I do not find Porter’s chapter to be as helpful as others might be his (seemingly) over negative appraisal of theological interpretation in its contemporary trending. He argues for a “Biblical hermeneutic” against simply a “Biblical interpretation”…. Following his trajectory, he proposes a theological hermeneutic against a theological interpretation.
Porter’s strong critique of theological interpretation is certainly controversial. I am in agreement with him that biblical interpretation must arise from general hermeneutics, understood as a theologically-informed acknowledgement of the factors involved in human understanding in general. There are certainly very good things that have come out of the wide-ranging enterprise of ‘theological interpretation’ – and it should be noted that not all who utilise this terminology mean the same thing; but if the terminology is used to resist the applicability of general hermeneutics, then I find it problematic.
Another contribution that finds widespread appreciation in the reviews is that of Anthony Thiselton. So Wadholm and James at Thoughts, Prayers and Songs point to it as a highlight, and Chad Chambers rightly comments:
The book is most accessible to those with some familiarity with Anthony Thiselton’s previous works but Thiselton’s opening chapter provides a good entry point into the discussion.
Indeed, Thiselton’s chapter is intentionally longer and broader in scope than the others, providing a great overview of the area, and consideration of what the future might hold. Earlier this week at a conference, someone commented to me that as Thiselton’s career has stretched on, his works have been increasingly easy to understand! I think his chapter in this book is a great example of an end-of-career researcher who has no need for self-justification, and is able to encapsulate things simply and elegantly, yet with masterly expertise.
Joel Watts captures exactly the aim of Thiselton’s hermeneutical work – and this volume as a whole:
At no point should you understand that this book is going to tell you how to interpret according to this or that strategy. Rather, it is to teach you how to be responsible.
So what are the constraining responsibilities that should guide the (Christian) reader who acknowledges the insights of general hermeneutics and exists among a plurality of interpretative approaches and outcomes? Those included in this volume (by no means intended to be exhaustive) are summarised by Watts:
we encounter 7 areas of responsibility — theological, scriptural, kerygmatic, historical, critical, relational, and ecclesial. Easy essay is presented in an accessible way, to engender a better dialogue between the Church and the Academy, between the traditional and non-traditional approaches.
As well as Porter’s contribution mentioned above, reviewers drew special attention to the ecclesial responsibility discussed by Walter Moberly (see James Pate’s review in particular); the critical responsibility discussed by Robert Morgan (see Chad Chambers here and here); Richard Briggs’ discussion of scriptural responsibility (see Chambers here); and even my own chapter on kerygmatic responsibility got called ‘fascinating’ (thanks James).
One issue that came up a couple of times was the choice of contributors: why is it Anglo-male-northern-hemisphere heavy (see Watts and comments in the review at Thoughts Prayers and Songs). This is a question worth considering. I was disappointed that the women we contacted were not willing/able to be involved in this part of the project (although they were involved in the conference – so Canon Ann Holt spoke, for example). Also, we were limited to people who were able to participate in the event at Nottingham, and who had some connection to the work of Thiselton. But I find the reviewers’ comments helpful, and I agree that these voices are only part of the necessary discussion. Furthermore, the ‘constraining responsibilities’ represented in their topics are only some of those that need to be considered. Other topics that could be added would include ‘linguistic responsibility'; ‘cultural responsibility'; ‘neighbourly responsibility'; etc, etc.
I’m grateful to all of these reviewers for taking the time to read the book, think through it carefully, and respond creatively and critically. I’m encouraged that they all found it a worthwhile exploration.