Book Review: The Power of Pictures in Christian Thought, by Anthony Thiselton

Ash Cunningham 28 Apr 19

Thiselton has provided us with a fantastically readable textbook that acts as an exponent for the world of traditional academic hermeneutics whilst keeping a firm foot in practical 'what does this mean' biblical exegesis.

The Outline

This begins (somewhat ironically) with a lengthy examination of the phrase 'a picture is worth a thousand words' (which, by its own rules, should probably have been replaced with 1.5 pictures). The rest of the first chapter continues in this ponderous vein, but readers should not be tempted to skip, for it lays the foundations of the deeply practical work that follows. Readers new to the world of hermeneutics and epistemology would gain from a slow reading of this chapter, with pen in hand, and feel free to speed up thereafter.

The book is divided into three sections: 

i) Philosophical, hermeneutical and literary

ii) Biblical pictures, symbols and imagery

iii) Communication in history and today

This format demonstrates the journey it takes from theory to practicality - seeing that process is valuable in and of itself - as it should be the aim of any student to be able to translate the theoretical to the spiritually practical. This is an active demonstration of how the Christian scholar can use their studies to honour God and serve the Church.

The Gist

Pictures, of course, are susceptive to more interpretation than the written word, although Derrida et. al. have gone quite some way to levelling the playing field on that point. However, we are faced in the first chapter with Voltaire's insistence that words, in their primacy, are actually subject to images:

"What is an idea?... it is an image that paints itself in my brain." (p.9)

Thiselton is quick to disabuse readers of the notion that pictures are mere analogies, but often have a parable-like quality that can just as easily reveal something in the hearer as it can reveal something in the text: "For good or ill [symbols] are transformative, and convey a surplus of meaning beyond the literal. Symbols hide and reveal; they disguise and show; they conceal and disclose." (p.23)

With that in mind, Thiselton goes on to treat the reader to an extraordinary array of analyses of biblical pictures - a symbolic overview of the Old Testament is followed by dozens of mini-examinations of metaphors in Paul's epistles, almost every one of which has lent a pencilled note in the margins of my Bible.

The penultimate chapter on Revelation could earn the price of the book all by itself which begins with by swiftly erecting safety nets around various 'poor' ways of going about reading it. John is, Thiselton reminds us, instructed to write what he sees - there is no argument being put across, but then neither are the images subject to random projections of the reader. A written picture has a level of cognitive accuracy. Thiselton does not allow for Revelation to be tidied away into a meaning-defying genre, building on Cassirer's work, he writes "'Mythical thinking comes to rest in the immediate experience'; mythical thinking is essentially uncritical... but when we reflect on [John's visions] critically and retrospectively, insights often begin to emerge." (pp.169-170)

The Verdict

This book will greatly benefit biblical studies students and preachers alike - this is not regularly trodden ground for the evangelical, much to our shame and detriment - add it to your bookshelf and read it soon!

The Power of Pictures in Christian Thought can be bought here.

Disclosure - SPCK publishing kindly provided Theology Network with a copy of this book to review but offered no stipulation as to the contents of said review - it just so happens that the book is excellent!

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