Anthony Charles Thiselton (13 July 1937—7 February 2023) was a New Testament theologian and scholar, as well as an Anglican priest, who is most known for his work in hermeneutics and New Testament theology. Having grown up in England, he received a BD and MTh from King’s College London, and a PhD from the University of Sheffield. He also received two honorary doctorates from the University of Durham and the University of Chester, and was a Fellow of the British Academy, an honor he particularly cherished as it indicated recognition from his peers. Thiselton taught at various universities in the United Kingdom, including St. John’s College at Nottingham, St. John’s College at Durham, the University of Sheffield, the University of Chester, and most importantly at the University of Nottingham, from which he retired in 2001. At each institution, Thiselton markedly raised the level of scholarship of the institution. Thiselton continued to be active in writing and publishing well into his retirement. However, in around 2010, he suffered a major stroke but miraculously and nearly fully recovered from it so as to continue writing and publishing. One book he wrote in relation to his stroke and recovery of it is Life after Death: A New Approach to the Last Things (Eerdmans, 2012). On the back cover of the book, it states: “Writing in the wake of a near-fatal stroke, eminent theologian Anthony C. Thiselton addresses a universally significant topic: death and what comes next.” He continued to publish several other books after that.
However, Thiselton’s first book, and probably still one of his most influential, is The Two Horizons: New Testament Hermeneutics and Philosophical Description with Special Reference to Heidegger, Bultmann, Gadamer, and Wittgenstein (Eerdmans, 1980), a revision of his PhD thesis at Sheffield. In it, he emphasizes the importance of understanding philosophical categories as a biblical interpreter. The two horizons of biblical interpretation, Thiselton notes, are the text itself and the interpreter, where the problem lies in the pre-understandings of the interpreter that he/she brings to the text—but that the text also corrects and reshapes the interpreter’s own questions and assumptions. The sequel to Two Horizons was New Horizons in Hermeneutics: The Theory and Practice of Transforming Biblical Reading (Zondervan, 1992). An advanced work on hermeneutics, it surveys major approaches and models and attempts to apply some of these to the biblical text. This is where Thiselton develops his view of speech-act theory, which was originally meant to be applied to oral discourse but which Thiselton believed was profitable for the written text as well. He wrote several other books on hermeneutics, including a volume on postmodernism, a shorter introduction to hermeneutics, and a major work entitled The Hermeneutics of Doctrine (Eerdmans, 2007), in which he examines Christian doctrine from a thoroughly philosophical hermeneutical perspective. In many ways, this last volume stands out among Thiselton’s works because it brings hermeneutics to bear in new and unusual ways.
Thiselton received a Festschrift in 2013, presented by Stanley E. Porter and Matthew R. Malcolm (eds.), Horizons in Hermeneutics: A Festschrift in Honor of Anthony C. Thiselton (Eerdmans, 2013). Shortly before, in June 2012, there was a conference at Nottingham on the subject of hermeneutics, where Thiselton opens the conversation with his essay entitled “The Future of Biblical Interpretation and Responsible Plurality in Hermeneutics.” The other presenters then responded to Thiselton from a variety of viewpoints, such as theological, biblical, kerygmatic, historical, critical, relational, and ecclesial perspectives on the future of hermeneutics. The proceedings were later published as Stanley E. Porter and Matthew R. Malcolm (eds.), The Future of Biblical Interpretation: Responsible Plurality in Biblical Hermeneutics (Paternoster/IVP, 2013).
It will be interesting to see how Thiselton is remembered within biblical studies and within the field of hermeneutics as the years pass. His major work on 1 Corinthians is probably sufficient for him to be remembered favorably in New Testament studies. Many of his works on hermeneutics also deserve to be remembered, because there simply are no other works that are as comprehensive in scope as are his.
If one were to try to summarize the major aspects of Thiselton’s career, several areas come to mind. The first is that he was probably the major figure who introduced hermeneutics to British biblical scholarship. His lectures on hermeneutics at Sheffield, while not widely attended, were serious explorations of the topic. The second is that he was compendious and encyclopedic in his treatment of a topic, especially in hermeneutics or Christian doctrine. Thiselton’s works are not easy going, because he digs in and presents the detailed arguments of those with whom he interacts. Thiselton, third, was multidisciplinary in his approach, before such a thing was fashionable. Building on his strong classical educational background, he had facility in biblical studies, linguistics, literary theory, and philosophy, among others. Fourth, he brought his scholarship to bear on all areas of his research and writing. His comprehensive volume of collected essays illustrates this, for example, when he disputes the supposed power of words (the title of one of his articles). Fifth, his major interpretive model, and one that he returned to time and again, including in his substantial commentary on 1 Corinthians, is speech-act theory. Thiselton attempted in various ways to show how his action model of language could help interpreters of the Bible. As a result of his work in hermeneutics and theology, sixth, Thiselton became one of the leaders in the movement toward a more theological interpretation of Scripture, a form of theological hermeneutics that continues to grow and develop.
One cannot mention Thiselton without remembering that he was a dedicated churchman in the evangelical tradition. In fact, he originally went to study theology because he was believed he was called to the pastorate. Even though he became an active academic, he never lost his enthusiasm for the church, and was actively involved in both the larger Anglican hierarchy and in his local church. Thiselton sat on a number of important committees of the Anglican church, including its doctrine committee, and he took every occasion to preach.
I, Stan, had the privilege of studying with Thiselton at the outset of my PhD. When I was exploring doctoral study, I decided on studying in the UK, and the person who fascinated me most was Thiselton, because I was interested in hermeneutics in its various forms, and he seemed to be about the only one who had a major interest in the topic. I originally intended to write my thesis as a response to reader-response criticism but soon found that the topic, at least at that time, was not robust enough to warrant such a full-scale investigation. As a result of this turn of events, I was suddenly without a thesis topic living in Sheffield, England. No doubt because of his own interests in linguistics, Thiselton introduced me to one of his colleagues in linguistics, and I became fascinated by the topic of verbal aspect. Despite this major shift in thesis topic, I retained my fundamental interest in hermeneutics, to the point that I framed my doctoral research as an exercise in hermeneutics. Even though Thiselton left Sheffield before I finished my PhD, I continued to reflect upon his hermeneutics. Thiselton is no doubt responsible for my hermeneutical orientation to life and scholarship. Over the years, I have come to appreciate Thiselton’s thorough and encyclopedic approach to hermeneutics, in which he progresses an argument based upon a thorough response to the major voices.
We thank Tony, as he was known to his friends and colleagues, for his contribution to biblical interpretation and for his dedication to interpreting the biblical text in a responsible and informed manner. We are confident that he is now joyfully realizing the things he imagined and wrote about in Life after Death.
—Stanley E. Porter and David I. Yoon
It is a great loss, but still touching to know the history between two great scholar. Thank you for sharing.
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Thank you for this; a great loss indeed. May he rest in peace and rise in glory.
A small note. I am always intrigued at this statement: ‘speech-act theory, which was originally meant to be applied to oral discourse’. I seem to remember that one of Austin’s examples of performative verbs was ‘bequeath’. The ‘act’ is felicitous only if ‘bequeath’ is written 🙂
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Thanks for your comment. Austin had predecessors, and “speech act” is a term that can be traced to others before him. However, “bequeath” is an act that may relate to a will, but I can say it, and you can say it, and lawyers can read it, and others use it, so it must be something that can be spoken and mean something!