2 Corinthians: A Short Exegetical and Pastoral Commentary
By Anthony C. Thiselton
Cascade Books. Pp. 172 $22
Review by David Ney
Anthony Thistelton is an important figure for evangelical Christianity and for Anglicanism. Thistelton was one of the first English evangelicals to seriously engage the epoch-making work on philosophy of language and hermeneutics produced by continental thinkers in the middle of the 20th century. Thistleton disseminated the work of scholars such as Heidigger, Wittgenstein, Gadamer, and Ricœur to speakers through seminal works on hermeneutics such as The Two Horizons (1980), New Horizons in Hermeneutics (1992), and Interpreting God and the Post-Modern Self (1995). Since these groundbreaking works, he has continued to publish widely in the fields of hermeneutics, theology, and biblical studies, and his mastery of all three disciplines makes him unique among contemporary scholars.
The present volume is part of an initiative Thistelton began later in life. Thistelton published his first commentary, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, in the year 2000. In the 21st century, he has continued to develop his previous work in hermeneutics and theology, but his engagement with biblical studies is arguably the most prominent feature of his recent work. Since The First Epistle to the Corinthians, Thistelton has published 1 Corinthians: A Shorter Exegetical and Pastoral Commentary (2006), Discovering Romans (2006), The Living Paul (2009), 1 and 2 Thessalonians through the Centuries (2011), and now, 2 Corinthians: A Shorter Exegetical and Pastoral Commentary (2019).
The Thistelton of 2 Corinthians is the emeritus Thistelton who has returned home having fought his battles and seen the world. Home for him is the biblical text. This is not to say of course that Thistelton wasn’t conversant with the Bible in his early work — far from it. But we see him leaving behind the philosophical and theological discourse which captivated him as a young man in order to sit and rest beneath the easy yoke of the Bible (Matt. 11:30). This biographical note images a crucial point which Thistelton wants Christians interested in hermeneutics to hear: the object of hermeneutics is not to create or engage a science of interpretation but rather to apply this science to texts so that they might be more fruitfully interpreted.
Thistleton loves the Bible. He has chosen to publish this second short exegetical and pastoral commentary because he wants others to love the Bible too. His commentary on 2 Corinthians is designed to initiate the non-technician into the discourse of contemporary biblical studies and to help him or her find proper edification in the text. Thistelton follows Margaret Thrall in insisting that the entire letter is genuinely Pauline, and he follows David Hall in further arguing that it is not composite (Thistelton 2017, 9). His exegesis of what he regards to be Paul’s most neglected letter divides the text into six sections: introduction (1:1-11); defense of Paul’s conduct (1:12-2:17); authentic ministry described and defended (3:1-7:4); the arrival of Titus (7:5-16); the collection for poor Christians in Jerusalem (8:1-9:15); Paul confronts his opponents (10:1-13:13). Much of Thistelton’s commentary is concerned with technical exegetical debates about historical, syntactic, and semantic matters, but these heady reflections are always concluded with pastorally-oriented questions for reflection, which presumably could be engaged devotionally and corporately.
Thistelton’s method must be understood with reference to his first major work, Two Horizons: New Testament Hermeneutics and Philosophical Description with Special Reference to Heidegger, Bultmann, Gadamer and Wittgenstein (1980). Thistelton begins Two Horizons with a straightforward question: why should the New Testament interpreter concern himself with philosophy? He turns to Gadamer for an answer: we can no longer “innocently talk about understanding an ancient text, or a past tradition, in isolation from a responsible consideration of the philosophical problems that have emerged with the rise of historical consciousness” (Thistelton 1980, 5). Thistelton proceeds to introduce hermeneutics as the discipline that is spawned by an awareness of the two-sided nature of historical locatedness: “the modern interpreter, no less than the ancient text, stands in a given historical context and tradition” (Thistelton 1980, 11). He complains that while continental thinkers understand this intuitively, a number of British and American scholars think of hermeneutics simply as a theoretical pursuit. “If a text,” Thistelton insists, “is to be understood there must be an engagement of the two horizons” (Thistelton 1980, 15).
The irony is that in 2 Corinthians Thistelton shows no more or no less sensitivity to hermeneutical and theological issues than other British or American biblical scholars: the only place Thistelton consistently considers the horizon of the reader is in the few questions of application which come subsequent to his exegesis of the text. For the Thistelton of 2 Corinthians, exegesis is the work of engaging the horizon of the text, and application is the work of engaging the horizon of the reader. Thistelton thus gives a very different answer to the question “should we bother with philosophical issues of interpretation?” than the answer he gave at the outset of his career. The answer now is simply “don’t.” In what might be described as a second naïveté, Thistelton seems now to have dealt seriously with philosophical hermeneutics only because doing so provides him with credible justification to put it aside.
Thistelton’s rationale is clearly articulated in his 2005 work, “Can the Bible Mean Whatever We Want It to Mean?” The impetus of this work is Thistelton’s worry that hermeneutics had become something of a Pandora’s box for some of his contemporaries: once they had begun to attend to the horizon of the reader they proceeded to strip the Bible of interpretive constraints. Thistelton’s antidote is to appeal to the distinction between “open texts” and “closed texts.” Open texts are texts like parables, poetry, hymns, and psalms which invite creative responses from readers. Closed texts, on the other hand, are didactic, creedal, and communicative (Thistelton 2005, 12). Here Thistelton has in mind texts such as Paul’s letters, and he proceeds to offer an exegesis of 1 Corinthians as a closed text to demonstrate that closed texts can only be understood when they are interpreted according to the constraints of their historical contexts (Thistelton 1995, 13).
Thistelton’s distinction between open and closed texts is fundamental to his exegesis of 2 Corinthians. It propels him to focus exclusively on the original meaning of the letter as a closed text with reference to Roman Corinth (Thistelton 2019, 4-8). Serious engagement with the horizon of the text along these lines replaces serious engagement with the horizon of the reader. My concern is not that Thistelton should have written about Gadamer rather than Roman Corinth (though that might have been a good idea). My point is that Thistelton has not merely left behind hermeneutics as a topic of study. He has left behind its fundamental insights, insights which he first brought to our attention. Hermeneutics is more than a discipline or topic of discussion. It is the uncomfortable truth that we cannot get outside of ourselves regardless of whether our exegesis engages Gadamer or Roman Corinth, whether we assess the texts we read as open or closed, or whether we define our reflections as exegesis or application.
Meaning is always generated at the intersection of reader and text. To proceed on the basis of this insight is not to give way to relativism. It is simply to humbly concede that even the most serious engagements with the horizon of the text are conditioned by the horizon of the reader. This is not an embarrassing concession — far from it! It is extremely good news. When we hide ourselves beneath the veil of objective exegesis we inadvertently work to conceal ourselves from divine address. Yet when we stand naked before the Word of God we open ourselves up to being exegeted by the text: with open hands and open hearts we can joyfully exclaim with Paul, “these things . . . were written down to instruct us” (1 Cor. 10:11).
The Rev. Dr. David Ney is associate professor of church history at Trinity School for Ministry.