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The Power of Pictures in Christian Thought, by Anthony C. Thiselton

15 March 2019

John Saxbee considers correct interpretation of biblical imagery

IN THIS heartfelt and erudite study, Anthony Thiselton addresses the place of picture language and visual imagery in communicating the Christian message.

In so doing, he offers encouragement — and a warning: “Pictures, illustrations and analogies strike home with vividness and power, where words alone might be less effective. . . However, pictures may also seduce and mislead us. . . Everything depends on how the picture has been interpreted.”

The book is in three parts, and, given that Thiselton is that rare example of an accomplished biblical scholar equally at home in the worlds of ancient and modern philosophy, Part One is entitled “Philosophical, Hermeneutical and Literary”. The argument and analysis here is fairly dense and forensic, and it would be a pity if this were to deter those who will undoubtedly enjoy and benefit from the riches on offer in Parts Two and Three.

In fact, Part One is fascinating as a concise historical account of how pictorial language and imagery have fared in linguistic and literary theory from ancient times to the era of postmodernism. This tour d’horizon serves to provide a sound theoretical foundation on which to build his case in relation to the use and abuse of pictorial imagery in the Bible and theology.

Part Two focuses on the Bible and ways in which pictures, images, and symbols from the Old Testament, the teaching of Jesus, the epistles, and Revelation of St John have been catalogued and interpreted.

In relation to the Old Testament, prophetic symbolism is particularly important, and involves action as well as visual content. But here, as elsewhere, attention to context and the author’s intention is vital if misrepresentation is to be avoided.

The parables of Jesus have assumed paradigmatic status when it comes to evaluating the power of pictures in Christian thought. Thiselton skilfully surveys the extensive literature on the parables from patristic allegory through C. H. Dodd’s “single point” to “plurivocal postmodernism”.

Making extensive use of Herbert Gale’s influential Analogy in the Letters of Paul (Philadelphia, 1964), Thiselton provides a close reading of numerous pictures and images deployed in the Pauline corpus, from “like a nurse” in 1 Thessalonians, via the sound of a military bugle in 1 Corinthians, to snares and traps in 2 Timothy.

While most readers will be familiar with the use of pictures by Jesus, not so many will be alert to this dimension of the epistles, so often perceived to be abstract and prosaic. Here, then, is rich resource material for any preacher keen to expound St Paul, but doubtful about his pictorial potential. But contextual and culturally sensitive interpretation is crucial, if not always easy or straightforward. For example, no fewer than ten meanings have been proffered for the picture of the triumphal procession in 2 Corinthians 2.14-16.

When it comes to Revelation, Thistleton relies extensively on Natasha and Anthony O’Hear’s Picturing the Apocalypse (Oxford, 2015). They suggest: “Rather than finding oneself in the midst of a straightforward linear narrative, one is plunged into a kaleidoscope of fantastic images and themes. . . The images have the vividness and potency of dreams — but also, at times, the elusiveness of dreams.”

Thistleton identifies no fewer than 440 images in Revelation’s 404 verses, and concludes: “it far outstrips the relevance of any other biblical book for demonstrating the power of pictures and images” — and, of course, in exemplifying repeatedly over the centuries the potential for dangerous abuse and misinterpretation.

Part Three traces the use of pictorial imagery in patristic and Gnostic writings, the medieval mystics, and modern Charismatic movements. The use of allegory is seen to be seductive but misleading, while appeal to dreams and visions to stimulate personal opinion and behaviour can be positively dangerous. That health warning again.

Thiselton’s series of books on biblical interpretation began in 1980 with The Two Horizons, which emphasised the importance of the interaction between the horizon of the biblical text and the horizon of the modern reader. This concern for the reader as well as the text, while remaining sceptical of more extreme forms of post-modernism and Reader-Response Theory, characterises his several contributions to the effective interpretation and communication of Christianity for today. It bears repetition in the interests of honest preaching and theological integrity.

The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.

The Power of Pictures in Christian Thought: The use and abuse of images in the Bible and theology
Anthony C. Thiselton
SPCK £30
Church Times Bookshop £27

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