Biblical Studies and Theology: A Rapprochement

By C.L. Crouch
University of Nottingham
February 2015

I am not a theologian.
On the face of it, this is perhaps quite obvious: I am a biblical scholar, not a systematic or philosophical theologian. Having spent nearly a decade in a faculty of theology, however, this realisation was rather slow to sink in. When asked ‘What do you do?’, the automatic response was ‘I am a theologian’.

Though this may seem a superficial error of category – a response relative to the disciplinary divisions of the university, rather than the actual object of study – it is one which was made possible in part by the almost complete lack of communication in the modern academy between biblical scholars and (actual) theologians. It never occurred to me that I wasn’t a ‘theologian’, because I had almost no occasion to meet one.

Indeed, the last fifty years or so have seen biblical studies and systematic theology diverge radically in their aims and motivations, with the end result that we now barely speak to one another. We reside under the same departmental roof, but little more – we and our postgraduate students pursue our specialised subjects with only the vaguest idea of what our neighbours across the hall are up to.

On the one hand, this separation has been essential to a fuller development of our (sub-)disciplines, especially for biblical studies. Like a rebellious teenager, we spent much of the latter half of the twentieth century rejecting our confessional roots – justifiably determined to break free of the limitations of theologically-dominated interpretation. This new-found independence has enabled an impressive range of approaches to our texts, and it seems no coincidence that the Hebrew Bible now boasts one of the most diverse cohorts of scholars of any field relating to theology and religious studies. Perhaps equally justifiably, however, the theologians cast a wary eye towards the resultant biblical scholarship – perceiving in our arguments concerning redaction layers, textual emendations and dubious historicities a set of surgeon's scalpels, hacking away at the text and leaving limping tatters in our wake.

At the same time, both parties turned outside the fold for conversation partners; as the theologians looked to the philosophers and critical theorists for insight and inspiration, we looked to the historians, the archaeologists and the anthropologists. Given these exciting alternatives, theology and biblical studies were left with little motivation and almost no inclination to attempt a rapprochement.

At first glance, biblical theology represents a notable exception to this parting of the ways. Closer inspection, however, suggests otherwise. Associated closely with the neo-orthodoxies of the mid-twentieth century, in recent years especially this subset of the discipline has been characterised by a deep-seated traditionalism, accompanied by a suspicion of many of the interests and much of the results of historical research in particular. Here has been the primary locus of the various canonical criticisms, which – whatever Childs’ original intent – have taken the existence of the texts' canonical forms as license to downplay, if not outright ignore, their historical origins and formation. Yet it is often the historical contexts of these texts which promise the greatest rewards for interpretation.

Even more problematic is that, despite the suggestion of biblical and theological cooperation, the world of biblical theology is overwhelmingly populated by biblical scholars working alone. Biblical theology is thus more properly a sub-discipline within biblical studies; despite these scholars’ avowed interest in theology, the dialogue between biblical studies and systematic theology has hardly been revived.

This is a fundamental problem: no more can we, the biblical scholars, call ourselves theologians than can a systematic theologian call him- or herself a biblical scholar (and we may readily imagine the howls of protest should one be fool enough to try). Our respective territories have grown too vast; the sub-disciplines into which we now divide ourselves were born not only of rebellion but also of necessity, in the face of the impossibility of polymathic mastery of burgeoning fields of scholarship. Thanks to our respective affairs with philosophy, archaeology and beyond, the challenge is now compounded even further.

In this the rapprochement between biblical studies and theology presents perhaps one of the most difficult of all interdisciplinary challenges. To get to grips with a century or two of anthropology or archaeology is one thing; to master the inheritance of two (and more) millennia of theological thought, or half a dozen dead languages and a thousand years of ancient Near Eastern history, is quite another. There is a reason we specialise.

Yet this specialisation need not be the end of the intellectual road. Without for a moment wishing to suggest that biblical studies ought to return wholly to the theological fold – our work is and must remain a legitimate end in itself – the insights of our diverse researches into the biblical texts have something to offer those colleagues across the hall. A socially and economically informed understanding of the orphan, the widow and the soujourner informs the discussion of what constitutes justice for the socially marginal and how this relates to divine justice; acknowledgment of the widespread continuity between biblical and ancient Near Eastern ideas of imago dei helps to tease out the significance of the biblical presentation for a modern theological anthropology. Reading from non-white, non-Western perspectives challenges assumptions about intention, meaning and significance, whilst the inherent and powerful diversity of the biblical texts suggests models for thinking about diversity today. Conversely, our systematic colleagues can help us to ask better questions of our texts, whose inevitably theological contexts can, paradoxically, be forgotten in our historical and other pursuits. Such is the genius of collaboration: bringing new eyes to old questions, altering enquiries in subtle but illuminating ways.

There is significant scope and immense potential for a revived conversation between biblical studies and theology, drawing on a wide base of systematic theologians and the diverse cohort which now constitutes the biblical guild. These combined efforts promise to expand our intellectual horizons and push us parties past the limits of our solitary pursuits. Now that the rebellious teenager has left adolescence and established its independence, it is high time to come back to the table and restart the conversation.

C.L. Crouch is Co-Director of the Centre for Bible, Ethics and Theology, which aims to integrate historical and biblical research with the work of systematic and philosophical theologians. More information on the Centre and its activities may be found online.

Comments (6)

There is no such thing as a true Biblical scholar who is not at the same time a theologian. Anyone who calls themselves such, is simply a scholar of ancient literature who just happens to study the canonical Hebrew text. Many exist, they are mere philologists.

In the same way, any theologian who eschews the vital importance of Scripture study is more philosopher than theologian.

- Joshua Madden, Ph.D. candidate in Biblical Studies (minor in systematic theology) at Ave Maria University

#1 - Joshua Madden - 02/20/2015 - 17:32

Well said. As a biblical scholar and lecturer there is a lot here that I recognise and can identify with.

#2 - Richard Goode - 02/20/2015 - 19:16

RE Joshua Madden:

As an agnostic Syro-Palestinian archaeologist who knows quite a few agnostic biblical scholars, I would ask you to please not exclude those of us who lack faith from the realm of the "biblical."

The Bible is a cornerstone of faith for many religious communities. But for anyone who lives in a culture of Judeo-Christian origins, it is also a foundational cultural document even if we do not believe it to be the Word of God. It is not simply "ancient literature" in the way that Gilgamesh is. It can never be that. Gilgamesh does not pervade our political lives. The Bible does.

Politicians in the United States who seek to deny gays the right to marry and to deny women the right to control over their own bodies do so on their understanding of biblical authority. These texts have political and cultural authority over us whether we believe in them or not. For that reason alone, non-believers who study the Bible have both the right and the duty to call themselves biblical scholars.

To claim otherwise is to claim possession of this document for believers alone, and deny it to the millions of non-believers whose lives are still affected by it.

#3 - Robert M. Jennings - 02/24/2015 - 04:13

RE Jennings

The problem with that assertion is that the only reason that us moderns even have a "bible" is because of the community in which it was written and preserved (Israel and the Church). If one does not assent to the basic claims made in the text (e.g. that there is a God, and that he has revealed himself), then one must, by necessity, prescind from taking that text seriously.

This is not to say that one cannot study the texts that have come down to us, but one should at least be honest that it is a fundamentally different thing for a believing Jew or Christian to study the Old/New Testaments than it is for one who does not put their faith in it.

The fact is that the Bible is "not" the possession of unbelievers: it's a possession of the Church. In the same way, the Quran is "not" mine, it is the possession of the Muslim. This is of course not to say that the Bible is not important to those who do not believe; you are correct that it is one of, if not "the," foundational piece of literature for Western culture. However, for the unbeliever, the only difference between the Bible and the Epic of Gilgamesh (or Shakespeare for that matter) is accidental: it is simply one of historical and cultural contingency. The Bible just so happens to be a major influence because it was Christianity that lasted. If the bible pervades our lives and yet is not the inspired word of God, it's simply a historical accident.

Biblical study that is not properly theological can be of some use historically/philologically/culturally/politically/etc..., but, in the end, that just misses the whole point. as the entire Tradition has taught, "Scripture must be read in the same spirit in which it was written." Anything else falls short of the mark...

#4 - Joshua Madden - 02/24/2015 - 20:29

RE Joshua Madden:

1) The Qur'an is not simply the possession of Muslims. More than ever, it (along with the 1300 years worth of interpretive tradition that come with it) belong to anyone who is affected by it, particularly if those persons live in the Middle East. Christians and Yezidis suffering at the hands of ISIL could use some access to the Qur'an its associated interpretive traditions. My secular Turkish colleagues certainly would not agree with you that they have no possession over the Qur'an or Qur'anic interpretation, especially as the current Erdogan regime in Turkey is using it as an excuse to make their lives miserable.

2) The fact that there would be no Bible without the Church does not mean it is the property of the Church, especially when that Church has a tendency to claim that there is no salvation outside of it and use its cultural capital to invoke the Bible in political debates where it doesn't belong. Historical contingency or not, the Bible still has power for the rest of us, and you have no right to claim it for yourself exclusively.

3) Despite your lip service to Judaism in one paragraph, your constant invocation of "The Church" indicates that you are operating from a very narrowly Christian perspective.

My perspective still allows you to have possession of the Bible, you just have to share it with the rest of us. You seem either unwilling or unable to do that.

#5 - Robert M. Jennings - 02/25/2015 - 13:55

Joshua Madden wrote: "'Scripture must be read in the same spirit in which it was written.' Anything else falls short of the mark…" Within a religious context, this seems sensible, but within a purely academic one it strikes me as nonsensical. How does one KNOW one has the "spirit" of composition properly identified? And what if that "Spirit" appears after investigation to call into question what one believes about God, the Universe and so forth? Does one follow the logic of investigation or tradition?
Scholarship into religion is not necessarily the same thing as the practice of religion. And in those cases in which it IS the same, is that scholarship really the same thing as the study of religion from the outside, according to the secular principles that guide the humanities, social sciences? I think not. To construe 'Biblical Studies' as an essentially religious activity is to badly misrepresent and essentialize it. Indeed, I prefer Philip R. Davies distinction between religious intellectual engagement with the text, that he calls "Scripture" study from the secular, scholarly biblical studies.
If a tradition establishes that a text means x, y, and z, and that no further debate is profitable, what should the scholar do? Simply accept that? To mark things, places or ideas as holy and beyond thorough scrutiny is a religious, and not scholarly activity. Scholarship must query such constructs. It is inherently transgressive. To constrain it by the very boundaries it is meant to cross is to really to abandon, and not refine, the scholarly task.

#6 - James Linville - 03/02/2015 - 23:03

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