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.)

Rowan Williams on Reading Paul

Thanks to Jim for pointing me in the direction of Rowan Williams' recent lecture at the Birmingham Centre for Anglican Communion Studies. The lecture overall is a brilliant account of what constitutes theological education, and of what a theologically educated person should be able to do. As such, it may well become required reading for a new unit that we will be teaching next academic year. But the quotation I want to capture is about reading Paul and his letters. I once wrote an article about Romans 11.33-36 in which I think I said much the same thing, though not as well as this:

Frequently as I read Paul's epistles I read the impatient inarticulacy of someone whose vision is bigger than his language and that is what makes Paul so intensely worth reading, so inspired, so much a vehicle of God's spirit. Watching him struggle, sometimes very impatiently, with ideas that are getting away from him is precisely to be drawn into what Paul sees and what Paul knows – to meet Paul's God. There is an extraordinary moment when Paul realises that he has dug himself in far more deeply than he originally intended to in an argument and suddenly breaks away saying "I don't know where this is going but …" as he does, of course, so memorably at the end of his most agonised excursions – Romans 9-11. How am I going to bring all these ideas together, Paul asks at the end of 11 when he has been wrestling with the fate of Israel and he can say only, "O the depth and mystery of God". And it is not a short cut because you have watched him getting there. I had a friend years ago who complained about the way in which theologians would revert to talking about mystery when things were getting difficult and it is a good discipline I think for any theologian to save the language of mystery, if you like, until the very last moment. That is to say to follow through argument, definition, refinement of terms as bravely and consistently as you can and not to give up too soon. Only when you have demonstrated that you are at the end of that story can you afford to say with Paul that you don't know where to go but God does.

I start to teach an online unit on Paul from next week. I think I will use this as an introduction.

Update: if you don't have time to read the whole article then Jason has a good summary here.

First Issue of Relegere: Studies in Religion and Reception

The new online journal exploring aspects of reception history and religion, Relegere, has been launched. Congratulations to the editors on getting the project to this stage, for a provocative and suggestive editorial, and for securing what looks to be a clear and attractive online presence for the journal itself.

The TOC for the first issue is as follows. There is also an extensive review section. Instructions for contributors and books available for review can also be found on the home page. I wish the journal every success and would encourage anyone interested in the theory and practice of reception history to take a look.

Vol 1, No 1 (2011)

Table of Contents


Beyond Christianity, the Bible, and the Text: Urgent Tasks and New Orientations for Reception History PDF


Rethinking Premodern Japanese Buddhist Texts: A Case Study of Prince Shōtoku’s "Sangyō-gisho" PDF
Mark Dennis 13-35
David and Jonathan between Athens and Jerusalem PDF
James E. Harding 37-92
Life of Brian or Life of Jesus? Uses of Critical Biblical Scholarship and Non-orthodox Views of Jesus in Monty Python’s Life of Brian PDF
James G. Crossley 93-114
Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, the Bible, and Docetic Masculinity PDF
Gitte Buch-Hansen 115-44


Reading the Bible Intelligently PDF
Philip R. Davies

Laidlaw College Colloquium on Theological Interpretation of Scripture

I am not sure how I missed news of this forthcoming Colloquium in New Zealand, and can't go there myself. However it is not too late for others to sign up:

Colloquium on Theological Interpretation

Laidlaw College, Auckland, New Zealand, 19-20 August 2011

Announcement and Call for Papers

Sponsored by Laidlaw-Carey Graduate School, Auckland, New Zealand and the Department of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand


Featuring Joel Green and Murray Rae as keynote speakers and respondents, two scholars who have been prominent in the development of theological interpretation as a discipline.

This colloquium will explore the theory and practice of the theological interpretation of Scripture. The contributions by our two key note speakers/respondents will be supplemented by papers from scholars in New Zealand, Australia and the Pacific and from further afield. Potential papers might cover, but are not limited to, the following types of areas:

  • Theological interpretation of particular texts.
  • Issues relating to the practice of theological interpretation.
  • Questions of method and theological interpretation.
  • The history and landscape of theological interpretation as a discipline.
  • Cross cultural reflections on theological interpretation.
  • Contemporary social, cultural and political reflections from a perspective of theological interpretation of Scripture.
  • Theological interpretation, church and mission.

Papers should be designed to take 30-35 minutes to deliver with 10-15 minutes for discussion following. Abstracts of papers should be submitted no later than 31 March 2011, and should be sent to Tim Meadowcroft:

There will be limited accommodation available at Laidlaw College but recommendations can be made for accommodation in West Auckland. Our intention is to publish a book of essays on theological interpretation based on the offerings at the colloquium.

More details about registration here. The full announcement and CfP can be downloaded here.

Baptists and the Bible: Call for Papers

27-29 June, 2011
The Bible and Baptists
Readers, Teachers and Preachers
2011 is the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James
Authorised Version of the Bible.  Such an anniversary provides an
excellent opportunity for reflection on the place of the Bible among
Baptists.  How have we and do we interact with the text of the Bible as
‘lay’ readers, professional teachers and preachers?  Papers are invited that
explore this theme historically, theologically and pastorally, or provide
examples of how Baptists are currently undertaking any or all of these
tasks.  The audience at the Forum will hopefully include not only those
engaged in theological study, teaching and ministry, but also thoughtful
Christians ready to participate along side the ‘professionals’.
Keynote speakers will be Professor Sean Winter, graduate of Bristol
Baptist College and Professor of New Testament at the Uniting Church
Theological College, Parkville, Victoria; and Dr George Wieland lecturer
in Biblical Studies, Mission and Cross-cultural Field Education at Carey
Baptist Theological College, NZ,.  We are also negotiating to have an
academic from Asia present at the Forum.  It is proposed that a book of
papers from the Forum will be published as the third ABRF publication. 
Presentations at the Forum will be no more than 20 minutes long with 5
minutes question time.  Final papers should be no more than 5000 words
including footnotes and written for thoughtful Christians.
Abstracts due:     15 March, 2011
Confirmation of Papers Accepted:  31 March, 2011
Final Papers Due:    3 June, 2011
For further information, or to submit abstracts please contact
Dr Graeme Chatfield
Suite 4 Level 6, 51 Druitt Street
Sydney, NSW 2000, 
Phone: 02 92627890
The Australasian Baptist Research Forum is to be held in conjunction with the
2011 Whitley College School of Ministry
Whitley College, Melbourne.

International SBL London 2011: Paper Proposal 1

I am still waiting to confirm the status of one other proposal, but I do know for definite that I will be giving a paper in the Bible and Its Influence: History and Reception unit at the International SBL Meetings in London in July (for which, byt the way, registration and housing details are now available; I'm planning to slum it in the dormitory accommodation at Kings).  The paper is entitled 'The Reception History of the Pauline Epistles: Beyond the Commentary Tradition' and the abstract is as follows:

The study of the reception history of Paul’s letters is a difficult task. For understandable reasons (notably the paucity of obviously relevant works of art, literature, music and film that bear explicit hallmarks of Pauline influence) those who approach the letters through the interpretative lens of reception history are drawn to the significant and fascinating explicit history represented by commentaries, homilies and exegetical discussions from the patristic, medieval and Reformation and early modern periods. In this paper, I argue that, while valuable, this narrower focus on what Luz describes as the text’s ‘history of interpretation’ (Auslegungsgeschichte) is insufficiently broad and that reception history work on the Pauline letters should pay greater attention to two further sources that provide insights into their history of influence (Wirkungsgeschichte). First, greater attention should be paid to the homiletical reception of the Pauline texts in sermons from all eras of Christian history (and not just those of the patristic and Reformation eras). Second, the effective history of the epistles in relation ‘the church’s activity and suffering’ (Luz) should be accorded a greater degree of interpretative significance. Examples from the reception history of 2 Corinthians relating to both of these concerns will be given as a part of the paper.

Coming Your Way Soon: Essays on Baptist Hermeneutics

Today I receieved the proofs of my contribution to a volume of essays entitled The 'Plainly Revealed' Word of God: Baptist Hermeneutics in Theory and Practice. The link to Amazon for those who want to preorder is here. The blurb for the book is as follows:

From their earliest decades, Baptists have been proud to declare their reliance on scripture. The 1644 Particular Baptist London Confession affirmed that ‘[i]n this written Word God hath plainly revealed whatsoever he hath thought needful for us to know, beleeve and acknowledge, touching the Nature and Office of Christ.’  This commitment to ‘plain reading’ of scripture became the dominant characteristic of Baptist hermeneutics in the centuries that followed, with successive generations seeking to appropriate the ‘plain’ meaning of the text for their own context. Baptists have therefore found themselves drawn back to scriptural texts rather than ecclesiastical interpretative traditions in order to adjudicate their hermeneutical debates. However, they have resisted the adoption of systematic statements which would control the outworking of this hermeneutical approach. This absence of normative Baptist hermeneutical statements has created a vacuum which might otherwise be occupied by overt discussion on the theory and practice of Baptist hermeneutics.

With this in mind, in January 2009, a international group of Baptist theologians met in Cardiff, UK, for a colloquium to explore the theory and practice of Baptist hermeneutics. Drawing primarily from the British Baptist community, the group’s work was enhanced by insights from participants from the USA and Eastern Europe. Participants brought a diversity of scholarly and pastoral interests to the colloquium, and through presentation and discussion explored together the nature of Baptist hermeneutics. The resulting volume addresses five core thematic areas. The first section surveys the way in which Baptists have engaged with the Bible both in their early history and more recent past. Section two analyses some specific examples of Baptist hermeneutics in practice, while the third section turns attention to an exploration of theoretical approaches to the hermeneutical task in Baptist contexts. The problem of how to negotiate interpretative difference within Baptist reading communities is addressed in the fourth section. Finally, concluding responses to the project from two non-Baptist theologians challenge both contributors and readers to consider the wider implications of the volume for contemporary Baptist life.

My own chapter is entitled 'Persuading Friends: Friendship and Testimony in Baptist Interpretative Communities'. Here is the conclusion:

In sum, the church’s existence depends on the covenantal action of God who calls this  community into existence and whose love sustains the covenantal relationships within the community. To speak this way of the church is to speak of it as a community of friends and thus as a place where diversity, disagreement, and even conflict are inevitable, but not ultimately destructive. Scripture’s authority within this community is established by virtue of its role within God’s covenant-making relationship with us. Thus, our diversity, disagreement, and even conflict over the meaning of scripture are inevitable, but not ultimately destructive. Although the church is often tempted to seek definitive adjudication of competing interpretations, this is a temptation that ought to be resisted. Although the conflict of interpretations can be avoided by an appeal to the all-pervading importance of good relationships, the inevitable downplaying of the need for the church to search the scriptures is too high a price to pay.

When we read, interpret, talk, and argue about what the Bible means, we are actually engaging in the process of conversation and argument that should, when rightly understood, hold the church together. For as long as we are responding to these texts, we are responding to the God who speaks through them. There is always the need for vigilance, lest scripture is elevated or demoted to a place that distorts its overall role within the divine economy. But as we read in the community of friends, we do well to heed the imperatives to “be attentive, be intelligent, be responsible, be loving, and, if necessary, change."