As the conference for the Society of Biblical Literature approaches, I am reminded of the debate among SBL’s members about the role of faith in biblical studies. It seems like every so often someone makes a case for getting rid of the groups, sessions, and affiliated meetings that are too explicitly faith-based. I think a part of bringing faith into the public sphere of academic discourse is acknowledging the biblical literature as sacred texts of faith and allowing for their treatment as such. This of course means handling all the necessary associations that come with this acknowledgement. J. D. G. Dunn, in a discussion of the term “Scripture,” sums up this very point and suggests some responsibilities “faith”-ful interpreters will need to accept as they wrestle with the issues of sacred texts and experiences of faith:
The very term “Scripture” makes the same point: we are talking not simply about “writings” (graphai), which is the primary sense of the term in Greek; we are talking about writings regarded as sacred, which is always how the term graphe/graphai is used in the NT. The implications which follows immediately is that such writings cannot be adequately appreciated and understood unless they are treated theologically. That in turn means that the interpreter must have a sensitivity to the character of the texts being interpreted as theological, as Scripture, a capacity to appreciate the fundamental theological convictions which have shaped the whole, and an empathy with the experiences of faith from which the texts emerged and which they express (“Ex Akoes Pisteos,” Ex Auditu 16 (2000) 35).
It seems to me that if the SBL has as one of its aims “Facilitating broad and open discussion from a variety of critical perspectives,” then it ought to be encouraging more faith-based association. Not so that the SBL will be influenced and steered by these groups, but so that in associating with the SBL these groups will have healthier engagements with their sacred texts. That is, by rubbing elbows with the SBL and its variety of perspectives, faith-based groups develop better levels of the “sensitivity…capacity…and empathy” Dunn mentions. So rather than seeing these groups as cancerous and detrimental to the life of the SBL, it could see itself as providing a service and fostering a culture in which all who are associated with it become better and more careful readers of the Bible, even those who consider the Bible sacred.