Thiselton on textual interpretation and the self

Continuing my reading of Thiselton’s Interpreting God and the Postmodern Self: On Meaning, Manipulation and Promise, I have come upon a very interesting series of points on textual interpretation. Thiselton presents a model that seems to reverse the usual direction in interpretation, which moves from the — supposedly objective — interpreter towards the text as an object to be examined. In a chapter, which he entitles "Five Ways in which Textual Reading Interprets the Self", he offers the following list:

  1. First of all, the text conveys information and impressions about the author to the reader. This, however, seems to be a rather subordinate function in Thiselton’s model.
  2. As the text talks to its reader, it has an effect on the person of the reader himself. Of course, this point (as well as all of the following), seems especially important when we’re talking about a Biblical text, where the word of God is certainly supposed to have an effect on the reader.
  3. As soon as the text begins to touch on the realm of the self’s understanding, the reader begins to learn new things about himself by means of the text. In the words of Ernst Fuchs, the text first becomes the translator of the self before the self can even begin to translate the text.
  4. Next, the interpreting self reveals a lot about himself through the interpretation. People can be seen as belonging to a certain community, for example, just by looking at the way they will handle a particular text.
  5. Finally, the text transforms the individual. In hermeneutical terms, the text — or rather, whatever the reader gathers from it — becomes part of the reader’s set of presuppositions, pre-judgements, and prejudices, which will influence his reading of any other text from now on.

So far, I am not entirely sure what to make of Thiselton’s list. I’ll have to think about it. To be sure, it presents an interesting alternative to the one-sided empiricist view of textual interpretation which stands at the basis of modernity. However, while this might provide a much needed counterweight, I think it’s jumping the ship on the opposite side: What I am missing is a clear indication of the role the informational content of the text is supposed to play in the whole of interpretation. Of course, Thiselton does say a couple of words on this in the last paragraph of his chapter, namely, that a certain understanding of informational content might even be a prerequisite for transformation. Yet, I still get the feeling that this is not enough.

As so often, the truth between the two extremes seems to lie somewhere in the middle (Shannon Buckner should love this: "It’s all about balance …").

Über Christoph

Christoph Fischer (* 1978) ist Pfarrer der Evangelischen Landeskirche in Württemberg auf der Pfarrstelle „Erlöserkirche“ in Albstadt-Tailfingen.

Christoph ist verheiratet mit Rebecca. Gemeinsam haben sie drei Töchter.