Running Heads

From the editors of Cascade Books and Pickwick Publications at Wipf and Stock Publishers

Why Biblical Studies?

I’ve been following the blog exchange of Bryce Walker (pseudonym) and Brian LePort over Bryce’s critique of biblical studies. Their’s is not a new conversation. It flares up from time to time. It’s interesting this time, I think, because on one side we have an aspiring NT student (Brian) and one who describes himself as a scholar of intellectual history. Both come out of the evangelical subculture, which may or may not have anything to do with their positions. If my post here draws you into the conversation, please remember the medium. Bryce, Brian, and I are blogging. Many, if not most of the comments are “off the cuff”; although I am sure the issues raised have been knocking around in our heads for some time. For my own contribution I  am more thinking out loud, as it were, than trying to construct a solid argument. I have arguments to make here, to be sure, but they are not how I would want to say them in a published response. I take it that these sort of “off the cuff” essays are one of the things blogs are good for! Let me see if I can summarize the exchange so far:

  1. Bryce fires the first shot over the bow. He begins by positioning himself as an evangelical who is critical of biblical studies. I think this is important. I’ll return to this evangelical context later. Bryce has two major criticisms of biblical studies: a) it masquerades as a science; b) it has a flawed methodology. While admitting that the objectivity of science is questionable, it, nonetheless, leads to a confidence in results that come from the application of scientific methodologies in controlled environments. Biblical studies, like history, Bryce says, is more an art (he will clarify in a later post that he had in mind ‘liberal arts’ in using the term ‘art’). Believing that one can apply the tools of exegesis and empirically deduce “true” results leads to an overconfidence in things that ought to be “treated with at least a moderate level of doubt.” He believes “overvaluing of the tools and methodology in biblical studies leads to a premature calcifying of positions.” Bryce’s major concerns about biblical studies’  methodology are that it is too narrowly focused and gives pride of place to the contemporary reader. Biblical studies is too narrow in scope—it does not enough engage traditions outside of Judaism—and in chronology—it rarely looks beyond the first century. His critique about the valuing of the contemporary reader is not unique to biblical studies. His is really a critique of hyper-modernism, where progress is king—we know more than those ancient folk and so we read better than them! Bryce concludes that biblical studies needs to reconnect with theology. He sees hope for that in the field of biblical theology, but even here there is little more than repetition. This turn to biblical theology I find a little perplexing. Biblical theology is not something new, and as a field within biblical studies it appears to be in line with the “traditional” methods of the larger discipline. I wonder if Bryce would do better to see hope in what has often been referred to as “theological interpretation.” More on this below.
  2. Brian responds. He claims that students of biblical studies have a commitment to historicism. Reading theologically is fine, but it is not   biblical studies proper. Biblical studies, says Brian, is a part of historical studies, which he likens neither to science or art but a trade. It is limited to “asking what ancient works meant in their ancient context.” Just look at the Society of Biblical Literature. The SBL has “presumed presuppositions and shared guidelines for talking about the Hebrew Bible and New Testament as historical works.” Apparently Brian has overlooked SBL sections like Christian Theology and the Bible, Ethics and Biblical Interpretation, Theological Interpretation of Scripture, Ideological Criticism, Bible and Cultural Studies, and a whole host of other groups who seemingly do more than ask “what ancient works meant in their ancient context.” Maybe these sorts of groups ought to be pushed out of the SBL, or at least the SBL ought to dissociate from those auxiliary groups who wear their religiosity and/or contemporary interests on their sleeves. If Brian supports such a move, he would not be the first. Somehow, somewhere “academic” study of the Bible became synonymous with straightforward history.
  3. Bryce responds to Brian’s response. Here we start getting into semantics. “Science,” “art,” “trade.” Let’s get these terms hashed out so we can get on with it. Bryce concludes, “I am simply asking for the field to maintain a self-awareness that it is not a science.” OK, let’s move on. Bryce is struck that Brian has classified biblical studies under the category of historical studies. If that is the case, then, Bryce believes, it is all the more important to get biblical studies talking to philosophy and theology again because “[p]eople are naturally concerned with determining the meaning of a text and then judging its veracity,” especially the Bible! He repeats his earlier claim that “the rightful place of the field of biblical studies is as the first part of a two-part process that uses theology as its interpretive second stage.” With this Bryce seems to be conceding to Brian’s definition of biblical studies. In Bryce’s “two-part process” biblical studies (history?) comes first and then theological interpretation is second.
  4. Brian responds to Bryce’s response to Brian’s response. Brian steers the conversation in a direction that I think can be very important. He writes, “I advocate a both-and hermeneutic here that is determined by the concern of the reader.” He later says, “It depends on the aim of the researcher.” But then he gets back to the overly narrow characterization of the SBL. He writes, “the concern is with how something was (past tense) not how something is (present tense).” What happened to the “both-and hermeneutic that is determined by the concern of the reader”? It looks like the concern of the readers of SBL, at least as Brian imagines them, is to do away with the both-and hermeneutic. He does concede that, “[o]ur present interest determines historical value.” But one could also say to Brian, “These are pieces of literature. Cannot our present interest determine literary value? They are, for the most part, intended to be theological  texts. Cannot our present interest determine theological value? Why the limitation to history alone?” Brian then tries to parse out the difference between biblical studies in an academic context and biblical studies at the broader, popular level. The former informing the latter, I assume. How is this different from Bryce’s two-part process? And again, Brian admits the validity of “academic approaches that emphasize contemporary readings and meaning like AAR or even your local church or synagogue!” But somehow he understands the SBL as a body and biblical studies as a discipline to be apart from these sorts of “anything goes” approaches. I would suggest he take a closer look at the SBL program guide. He will find many sections given to the post-biblical and contemporary readings of the biblical texts. Brian ends his response by admitting, with Bryce, that “biblical studies inevitably moves from historical interest to contemporary interest” because the Bible matters! Given this, people like “Bart Ehrman, N.T. Wright, Craig A. Evans, Morna Hooker, James D.G. Dunn,” have to live in two worlds: one an academic, history-driven world; the other a world of “contemporary interpretation and explanation” with “claims on truthfulness based on their understanding of history.”

I’ve peppered this rather lengthy summary with my own commentary. I couldn’t hold off. But here I’d like to throw in a couple more cents.

  1. I think both Bryce and Brian have drawn lines that are overly stark. On the one side we have science/history/biblical studies; on the other art/contemporary interests/theology. Of course, I am running the risk of drawing stark lines as well in trying to describe their positions. They both eventually come to see a separation of biblical studies and theology, and they both advocate a movement from one to the other, as far as I can tell. This movement is nothing new. There are loads of commentaries that follow that same sort of flow from biblical studies to theology, or exegesis to application. It is rare to see an explicit movement in the other direction. Not that the movement is not there; it is just not explicit. I would like to suggest that the lines are not as stark and that the movement is not one-way.
  2. This depends in large part on the context. Bryce hinted at that with his stance as an evangelical. One cannot take that position, or any position of assumed Christian faith, and deny having one’s reading of the Bible be influenced by a theology. Of course, Bryce does not deny this. In fact he advocates for a closer relationship between the two; although I question whether his two-step process is as simple as it seems on the surface. Brian, in contrast, at least within the “academy” (whatever that is), wants to keep the two at arms length. Yet, he opens the door a ways with his concession about the aims of the reader. He seems to be saying, however, that the only allowable aims of the readers within the academic world of biblical studies are historical ones. Why can’t there be other aims? Is biblical studies not wide enough to allow anything other than historical pursuits?
  3. They have only slightly touched on a matter that I have considered elsewhere: meaning. Bryce claims people want to determine meaning and then judge its veracity. What does he mean by “meaning” here? I tend to follow Stephen Fowl, who relies on Jeffrey Stout in advocating the elimination of meaning as the goal of interpretation and instead focusing on the interests and purposes of reading. If one is interested in the author’s intention, fine. Go after it. But don’t claim to be in a search for meaning by doing so. In other words, I think Bryce and Brian both would do well to state up front what are their concerns in studying the Bible. That is, ask the question in the title to this post. See Fowl’s Engaging Scripture. This does not seem to be too unlike Brian’s “concern of the reader” or “aim of the researcher.” See also Fowl’s Cascade Companion, Theological Interpretation of Scripture, especially ch. 2, “Theological Interpretation and Its Relation to Various Other Concerns.” Again context is key. Biblical scholars have all sorts of contexts which give rise to all sorts of concerns and aims. It would be a shame if “biblical studies” was limited to the academic context and historical aims. It would be a shame if within the academic context “biblical studies” was limited to historical concerns. Related and as sort of a side suggestion, I think Markus Bockmuehl’s Seeing the Word: Refocusing New Testament Study in Studies in Theological Interpretation is the best recent treatment of “the tension created by dialogue between systematic and historical-critical perspectives” (Graham Stanton’s phrase from a back cover blurb).
  4. I think we spend too much energy trying to classify “biblical studies.” Is it an art? a science? a trade? a waste of time? Why can’t it simply be biblical studies, a field with all sorts of aims, concerns, methodologies, sub-disciplines, etc. all orbiting the same body of texts? Of course one can say that in being open to too much it becomes nothing at all. This is a risk. I think our conversations would be more productive, however, if we focused on the many and various answers to the question with which I titled this post, rather than concerning ourselves with rightly categorizing the term “biblical studies.”
  5. I’ve now gone on too long. I’ve got books to edit! Many of them with historical interests. Many of them with interests elsewhere. Most of them rightly categorized for shelving as Biblical Studies.


  1. Chris: Thanks for taking time to read and thoughtfully engage the discussion. I’m working on a response that will incorporate your post that should be up within an hour or so.

  2. As Bryce said, thank you for joining the discussion. After Bryce responds I will try to do the same!

  3. Thanks for the response, Chris. And great to find this blog, I didn’t realize you guys had one.

  4. Glad you dropped by, Bobby. I didn’t know you had a blog either. I’ve added it to the Author Blog Roll we’ve got going in the far-right column. Come back and spread the word!

  5. Hey Chris,

    Great, thank you, and I will spread the word about your blog; I’m glad to see you guys in the wonderful world of the blogosphere! 🙂

  6. Chris,

    By the way, I’ve been blogging for about 7 years; Myk Habets and I came into contact through my blog, and so the genesis of our book coming to be, initially started because of blogging 🙂 … and then of course your guys’ work which brought it into a published reality. Thank you for all of the hard work you (and all of you at Wipf and Stock/Pickwick) did in regards to the preparation and publishing of our book; Myk and I are both very pleased with how it came out!

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