Why Biblical Studies?

Earlier this week, Bryce Walker provocatively suggested that Biblical Studies shouldn’t exist as a discipline. I wanted to join the conversation, but I fear I dallied too long. He now has three posts, in large part engaged in a back-and-forth with Brian LePort at Near Emmaus.

Take this as a general apologia for Biblical Studies, inspired by the conversation but not directly tackling the challenges, rejoinders, and surrejoinders. However, the two basic complaints were that biblical studies masquerades as science and that its methodology is flawed. The hope for the future was articulated at one point was moving toward something akin to theological interpretation.

Here are a few thoughts in reply:

First, the idea that biblical studies or theology might be a science has a historical rooting. After the Enlightenment, when the Bible is no longer the norm for interpreting the world, why should a theology faculty continue to be a part of a university? That was a very real question, and part of the reply was to speak of it as a science.

However, anyone who still speaks or acts in this way has simply not caught up to the past 40-70 years of biblical studies. If the impression someone has of biblical studies is that it is a science, I can only say that one’s instructors have not been continuing to read since the time they were in seminary. And, of course, that one is not up to speed on the discipline that is being critiqued.

Thinking with Bryce

The pistis christou debate was mentioned. This is not, in fact, an area where most proponents act as though they are scientists with the answer. Richard Hays would say (while I was at Duke) that he was convinced about the subjective genitive. Four or five days a week.

Historical claims are always reconstructions, and though we argue vociferously, the idea of theology as a “science” is outdated and, in most quarters I’d say, dead.

The existence of biblical studies as a unique discipline also has a historical root. Critical study of the Bible arose at the same time people were claiming that theology is a science. Why? Because it was becoming increasingly clear that dogmatic commitments were hindering our ability to interpret the Bible.

Now, a good deal of that had to do with wanting to take the Bible apart into a million different historical pieces. And, much of this has been less than helpful in making sense of the Bible.

But the reason that Biblical studies has to exist as a separate discipline is, if nothing else, to keep reminding the church that the Bible is not a systematic theology, that the Bible is not a philosophy text, that the Bible is not ultimately a book of historical antiquarian interest, either.

Biblical studies at its best is simultaneously doing two things:

(1) Positively, it is continuing to keep the Bible as a book to God’s people located in particular times and places in front of the church. This means both: reading it as a book written for the people of God (there is a theological dimension and it calls forth certain praxis) and that it was written in the past to people in different situations.

(2) Negatively, it serves as a gadfly, showing the church where due to cultural, philosophical, and theological blinders, it has misconstrued the words in which it thinks it finds its validation.

Of course, in a healthy theological environment this is not an autocracy or dictatorship! At both points 1 and 2 the theologians and historians and ethicists and preachers and pastors will provide push-back, reinterpretation, and further reflections.

But the history of the church has shown that where Biblical Studies either does not exist as a separate entity or where it exists in a context where theology controls everything (such as a conservative confessional seminary) that the hearing of the Bible, and the hearing of the Bible as the word of God, suffers.

There is no methodological flaw in understanding the texts better as they were deeply contextualized in certain social settings, as they were written by authors whose tendencies we can sometimes discover, and as they were written as part of a larger narrative in which God reveals Himself as the one who saves in Jesus Christ.

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