Tribute to Anthony Thiselton (1937-2023)

One of my major influences in Christian Theology is Anthony Thiselton, and I am saddened to learn of his death yesterday. He has featured many times on this blog and has been instrumental in my own theological formation, especially since one of my best friends is arguably Thiselton’s ableist interpreter.

His scholarly work was for decades world class, and his publication output was extraordinary to say the least. He specialised, among other things in the field of Hermeneutics, the art and science of interpretation. His keen sense of the western tradition was remarkable, and one of the most important lessons he shows forth in his work, is the importance of multiple streams of influence feeding into the epistemological framework that gives rise to what we believe about things, especially in relation to theology.

He was Professor of Christian Theology in the University of Nottingham, where he was also Head of Department for nine years. He was also Research Professor in the University of Chester, and Canon Theologian of Leicester and of Southwell and Nottingham. He holds three doctorates (PhD, D.D, D.D.), and has written many books, including a definitive commentary on the Greek text of 1 Corinthians and several volumes on hermeneutics, including a book on doctrine. He has lectured extensively in the USA and Canada, and in the Netherlands, Romania, South Africa and the Far East.

Professor Thiselton is a member of the Church of England General Synod (1995- present), served twenty-five years (some as Vice-Chairman) on the Church of England Doctrine Commission (from 1976), and serves on the Crown Nominations Commission (2000-2007) and the Board of Education. He was appointed by the Ministry of Health to the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (1995-99), and was elected President of the Society for the Study of Theology (1998-2000). Before holding the Chair of Christian Theology at Nottingham he was Principal of St John’s College, Nottingham and Honorary Professor in the University of Durham.

Durham University have published this response to his death:

“He was one of the leading biblical scholars of his generation, where his main contribution was in the area of hermeneutics but he had a wide range of interests with contributions in systematics, philosophical theology and ethics.  He was ordained a deacon in 1960 and priest 1961, and served the Church England in both parish ministry and at General Synod.  In addition to being Principal of St John’s Durham, he had also been Principal of St John’s Nottingham and head of theology at the University of Nottingham.  As well as a number of honorary degrees he was a Fellow of the British Academy.

The Principal, Rev Professor David Wilkinson paid tribute, ‘Anthony Thiselton was a well loved Principal of this College.  I owe him a great deal.  During my time as Principal he was encouraging and supportive as a friend and counsellor.  As a biblical scholar his work was foundational to the development of the subject not just in universities but also in the mission and ministry of the church.  For evangelical Christians his approach was at times provocative but always faithful to the text.  His work and commentaries on 1 Corinthians have had a profound impact on my own thinking, not least in articulating the Christian hope of resurrection of the body in new creation.   It is in the light of that hope that we assure Rosemary and the family of our thoughts and prayers at this time.’”

Here are some Thiselton quotes that I’ve collected over the years:

He once described biblical preaching as “dumbed down to the lowest level of memorable harmlessness”.

“The power of bureaucrats to define ‘norms’ and ‘acceptable’ procedures, together with the escalating of power which they gain through ‘surveillance’ and the possession of files and databanks makes it impossible for them to fail to exercise power-play.”

“Is there any truth in the critical jibe ‘The word became flesh, but we have made it word again!’”

“Part of the safeguard against self-deception and manipulation is the task of listening to other selves in mutuality and self-criticism….this has to do with moral and political responsibility in the context of community and traditions.”

Becoming a Christian can be “compared to coming out of the cold into a warm room. The heat is the decisive force, but pockets of cold have yet to thaw out.”

“Too often we attack or defend before we have genuinely understood.”

Via my friend Rob Knowles: “As Petersen says, “you cannot speak truthfully without offending somebody”. The real question is: if a critique is true, does a person have any right to be offended? Thiselton says not.”

“At a sermon class conducted by John Wenham, it was announced that the vicar had specifically asked for something in the preaching to be a challenge for unbelievers. John Wenham commented, “To imagine unbelievers at John-on-the-Wall defies the imagination beyond credulity!”

“On the whole the worst of the colleges were those that had “Quality Assurance Departments.”

“It is one task of theology, among others, to attempt to disentangle manipulative power-bids from non-manipulative truth-claims, and to distinguish evidence, argument, or valid testimony from modes of rhetoric which rely on seduction, disguised force, or illigitimate appeals to privilege.”

“Perhaps Church committee meetings are the best way of distracting committed Christians from their primary calling.”

“In some situations, we rightly understand doubt as absence of firm faith. For example, Jesus rebuked the disciples, “You of little faith, why did you doubt”? (Matthew 4:31). In very different situations, complete absence of doubt may indicate not so much firm faith, as unwillingness to undertake critical self-examination. This can lead in practice to arrogance, cock-sureness, or even bumptiousness.”

“We have long ceased to take every advance in science . . . as contradictory of belief in God” (Hans Kung). Christians need constantly to distinguish between the achievements of scientific method and the pretensions of a scientific worldview.”

“Whether we might wish for God or not, wish does not determine reality. Nothing exists or fails to exist merely because we may wish it.”

“Does our doctrine of God too easily reflect the particular culture of our church or of society?”

“Mere intensity of religious conviction is no guarantee of truth.”

“It is a practical disaster that in popular thought some view all doubt as a sign of weakness and lack of faith; while others, by contrast, extol doubt as always a sign of mature, sophisticated reflection.”

“For what counts as true for one group is often disparaged as a manipulative disguise to legitimate power-claims by another group. If different groups try to adopt different criteria of truth to determine what counts as true, or even what counts as a meaningful truth-claim, rational argument and dialogue become undermined by recurring appeals to what one group counts as axioms, but seem far from axiomatic for another. At this point argument becomes transposed as rhetoric. Rhetoric then comes to rely on force, seduction, or manipulation.”

“Ordinary people are too busy and too tired at the end of a hard working day to make time to check the validity of speculative or rash truth-claims, and they usually have no access to the kind of [resources] that might enable them to do so if they could.”

We give thanks to God for the life of Anthony Thiselton

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