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A hermeneuticist faces death

02 April 2012

Martyn Percy finds a recovered confidence on ultimate matters


The Last Things: A new approach
Anthony C. Thiselton

SPCK £17.99
Church Times Bookshop £16.20

ANTHONY THISELTON is one of the world’s leading hermeneutical thinkers. This new book arises directly out of his traumatic experience of a near-fatal stroke. For most people, recovery from such an event merely induces some mild paradisaical ponderings. But for Thiselton, it has prompted a reflective tome that now shapes our thinking on the Bible’s teaching on eschatology. It is both a personal and scholarly journey, and represents a rich interweaving of the subjective and cerebral. It is faithful to Christian tradition, and yet brimming with insightful exegetical imagination.

Thiselton’s theological genius lies in his extraordinary capacity to help us see familiar issues afresh, and deepen our sense of truth. His work unfailingly moves us from apprehension to comprehension, and yet in a style that is firm and fair, without being overly imperative. Thiselton’s method — both his pedagogy and theology — is to “guide” the student or reader, giving him or her new vistas, insights, and nourishment for the intellectual journey ahead, as the argument gradually, then steeply, ascends. His work has always had that sense of building up — layer upon layer — until new heights are reached.

What is also welcome about this latest book from Thiselton is the sharp, sanguine, and serious way in which currently unfashionable and neglected theological ideas are addressed. Heaven, hell, death, and judgement are, traditionally, the Four Last Things of Christian theology. But it would be hard to find a church today in which any of these receives serious attention. As the novelist David Lodge once quipped, hell disappeared in the 1960s, and no one noticed. So it is all the more refreshing to see a large measure of theological confidence restored in issues that will always concern us.

Thiselton’s book, therefore, examines death and what comes after it; what it might mean to be ready for Christ’s return; why the second coming of Christ, and the resurrection of the dead, is important; how hell, judgement, and the wrath of God, along with heaven and the new creation anticipated in scripture, are scripted into the nature of eternity.

Thiselton is comfortable traversing great spans of theory and method: biblical exegesis, patristic tradition, historical theology, linguistic theory, and philosophy. Yet it is in this work particularly that he has brought his mind and heart together, and over such crucial (but often neglected) themes. Yet to say that this is simply valuable would be to understate the case for the book, and completely miss the point. As all the clergy know, everyone dies — but not everyone lives his or her life. It is in this book that we glimpse something of what it might mean to face death fully, in order to begin living differently now. As St Paul once said in a letter to friends in Philippi, “To me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”

Canon Professor Martyn Percy is Principal of Ripon College Cuddesdon, WEMTC, and the Oxford Ministry Course.

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