Book Review – David Parris, Reception Theory and Biblical Hermeneutics

I won’t call this one a mini-review, because that proved false advertising on the last one.

However, I’ll try to be brief.  Reception Theory and Biblical Hermeneutics, by David Paul Parris (Princeton Theological Monograph Series 107; Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2009) is a great introduction to the topic, clearly and engagingly written.  You could say that it is the only introduction to the topic, because I can’t think of another that covers the same ground.

What exactly is the topic, you might ask.  Reception theory is the theoretical background to the trend quite evident in biblical studies in recent decades towards taking account of subsequent interpretation of a biblical text as we seek to understand the text itself.  The trend itself, usually called reception history for English speakers, also asks about the impact that a given text has had in societies where it has been heeded and interpreted.  This is an apt theory-and-practice pairing for biblical texts, for which we often have quite a string of strategic interpretations by many of the leading minds of the church, and have in various ways had a profound impact on ideas, culture, theology and history.  Reception history seeks to be a little broader than ‘history of interpretation’ by paying attention to forms of interpretation that go beyond straight biblical commentary and even beyond written texts per se, perhaps beyond the Christian sphere, perhaps beyond intentional interpretation to more accidental effects.

Now the theoretical side of this, reception theory, dwells within the broader field called ‘literary theory’, and for the uninitiated, it’s pretty disorientating.  Try to enter without good guidance, and it can be utterly perplexing.  Pick up Derrida and read him and you’ll see what I mean.  Parris does an excellent job, I think, at orienting the reader, not towards every voice in the field of literary theory, but to the key players for reception theory, Hans-Georg Gadamer and Hans Robert Jauss, along with R. G. Collingwood and others.  This is as clear and interesting a read as I have seen in this area, and a great introduction to the meaning or philosophy of this push towards reception history.

But one proviso: I don’t know how you would find it if you’ve had no introduction to literary theory at all.  I came to this book with a fair bit of background, and so the terms and ideas were familiar.  With little or none it might be a challenge.  If you want the ‘reception theory lite’ version, Parris has written that too: it’s called Reading the Bible with Giants (London: Paternoster, 2006).  Same basic idea, but more approachable, and just a thinner book.  I should mention that Parris is a New Testament man, so his examples mostly relate to his areas of study in Matthew.  But he uses examples abundantly, so in either book you will have many opportunities to see the theory at work in actual biblical interpretation.

This is an important trend in modern biblical studies, really a rediscovery in some ways of what the church’s best interpreters have done for centuries, but it’s positive, and I’d encourage you to familiarize yourself with it.

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