Anthony Thiselton on Reception Theory

Anthony Thiselton's books have long been placed in the category of 'books-I-think-I-probably-should-read'. I have lots of them, and haven't ever enjoyed reading a single one. It started with The Two Horizons, and carried on from there. At first I thought it was because I was thick, and didn't understand any of it. I now think it is down to other aspects of his writing that I find just plain infuriating.

As an example, consider his recent 'textbook' Hermeneutics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009). Bear in mind the proposed genre for this work. Both publisher's and readers' (Moberly and Torrance) use the word 'textbook' to define it. That suggests to me that, in relation to the topics covered in the book, we should find within its pages a clear, concise, accurate and fair treatment of the topic or issue, and the various ways in which it has been approached in scholarship.

The section on Reception Theory (pages 316–325), in the light of this expectation, comes across as, frankly, quite bizarre. It begins well enough with a statement about the overall aim of Reception Theory, a clear and necessary mention of Luz's distinction between Wirkungsgeschichte and Auslegungsgeschichte and a nod to Gadamer. But then we find the following sentence; "Reception history was founded, in effect, by Hans Robert Jauss" (316). This is misleading because of the shift from "theory" to "history" and is liable to give the impression that Jauss was the first person to formulate an act of biblical reception. Anyway, as David Parris has shown, Ernst von Dobschütz was arguing for an approach to the Bible via a study of its reception in the early 1900s.

What follows this very brief opening is a short biographical summary of Jauss's career (a favourite tactic in Thiselton books and one which adds precisely nothing to the student's understanding of the theory under discussion). This leads into a one and half page summary of Jauss's inaugural lecture "Literary History as a Challenge to Literary Theory". Half way through we get the line: "This takes us through the first twenty pages of Jauss's lecture". Then Thiselton lists the seven theses that emerge in the rest of the lecture. What one looks for, in vain, is any sense that Thiselton is telling the (student?) reader what Reception Theory actually is. What is offered (and this happens time and again in his work) is an account of what someone else once thought about stuff that clearly has something to do with Reception Theory and biblical hermeneutics. But there is no real attempt to interpret, analyse, systematize or formulate a clear argument. The discussion of Jauss ends by mentioning his "next essay" (i.e. the next one in Toward an Aesthetic of Reception) and concludes with the admission that Jauss nowhere asks how his work applies to the Bible. Regrettably, Thiselton does not step up to fill in.

The next section describes how "reception theory or reception history has recently begun to seize people's imagination" (which people?). Mention is made of the EKK series (but only Luz and Wilckens are mentioned by name), Thiselton's own 1 Corinthians commentary (the sections of which are largely accounts of the letter's Auslegungsgeschichte rather than anything broader) and the Blackwell's Bible Commentary series some volumes of which are then (rightly) criticized for being "only a history of interpretation". [A side note: Thiselton mentions three of the BBC volumes: those on Judges, John and Revelation, and then states that "two or three" of the recent volumes do not measure up to Luz's definition and offer an "abitrary" selection of texts. Given that only three volumes are listed, The impression is that these volumes are guilty as charged, which in the case of two of them I would suggest is a mistaken assessment]. The IVP Christian Commentary on Scripture series is dismissed as a "random history of interpretation", whereas in fact it gathers in one place a rather handy and sometimes fairly comprehensive set of excerpts from patristic commentaries in a contemporary English translation. Thiselton then declares reception history to be so new that it fails to appear in The Dictiionary of Biblical Interpretation edited by John Hoyes (sic: it should read Hayes) or the Dictionary of Theological Interpretation of the Bible.

And that is it, as far as a general treatment of the topic goes. The next section gives some examples of reception history at work. Given Thiselton's criticisms of early volumes of the BBC, you might expect something other than what we are offered:

Childs on Exodus 2:11–25 and 3:1–4:17: examples of reception discussed = Gregory of Nazianzus; Tertullian; Ambrose; Aquinas; Calvin; Irenaus; Luther; James Barr

Luz on Matthew 1:18–25 and 2:1–12: examples = Luther, Calvin, Jerome, Schleiermacher, a general statement about post Vatican II Catholic biblical scholarship (with Fitzmyer's name spelt wrong in the footnote; perhaps that is where all my students learn how to misspell it, as they almost always do); Justin (Justin who? the undergraduate may well ask); the Medieval and Reformation periods and 'art'. Lovely closing sentence: "The text itself has little influence on its reception" (322) – Huh???

Luz on Matthew 5:1–18: examples = Clement of Alexandria; Gregory of Nyssa; Luther; Post-reformation Pietism; Athanasius.

Thiselton on 1 Corinthians 15: examples = Ignatius; Polycarp; Didache, I Clement; Justin Martyr; Treatise on the Resurrection; Irenaus; Tertuallian; Origen; Luther (in one Luther footnote the English LW series is fully cited, for the second and third, a cross reference to WA is also provided); Barth.

Throughout this section one has the feeling that one is reading Thiselton's research notes. The final straw comes when he mentions Judith Kovacs treatment of 1 Corinthians with the faint praise tnat it "remains relevant" and then points out that both Stephen Fowl and David Parris, whose books are mentioned, "were my formerly successful Ph.D. candidates" (325). Final mention is given to Ormond Rush's book The Reception of Doctrine for reasons that are less than clear.

The result? In my view, mystification for anyone who is coming to this topic for the first time, and frustration for anyone who is working in the area. And in addition, a strong sense that there is a real need for an introductory textbook that introduces students to the theory and practice of reception history in a clear, accessible and instructive way. Anyone looking to Thiselton to provide the necessary introductory information and discussion will leave this book, I suspect, not much the wiser (although they will know the topic of Jauss's Habilitationsschrift.)