Thursday 11 December 2008

Introducing Theological Interpretation 1

[The first of three posts introducing theological interpretation, a subject that has occupied much of my attention for the last ten years or so.]

The story of biblical theology as told from Gabler through Wrede to Stendahl maintains that the discipline is inevitably sidetracked by the influence of confessional traditions, and that scholarly biblical interpretation should be set free from the constraints of dogma. Discussion of ‘faith-based scholarship’ by members of the Society of Biblical Literature in Spring 2006 shows that this issue has not gone away. Michael Fox sparked the debate:

‘In my view, faith-based study has no place in academic scholarship, whether the object of study is the Bible, the Book of Mormon, or Homer.’

Michael V. Fox, ‘Bible Scholarship and Faith-Based Study: My View’, in SBL Forum (March 2006).

It is not that persons of faith are unable to contribute to study of the Bible, but faith-based study should play no methodological role in scholarship.

Fox shares Jacques Berlinerblau’s affirmation of a secular, religiously-neutral hermeneutic. Berlinerblau (The Secular Bible: Why Nonbelievers Must Take Religion Seriously [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005]) is concerned that theological convictions render study of the Old Testament anomalous in the secular academy. Biblical literacy, however, remains necessary for secular intellectual culture: due to the political challenge of the growth and vibrancy of religion, scholars need to know the Bible well enough to point out its contradictions and incoherence.

In this respect, note also the critique by Hector Avalos (The End of Biblical Studies [Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2007]), for whom the worldview of the Bible is so fundamentally opposed to that of contemporary society and inapplicable to human concerns, that the discipline of biblical studies as currently practised should be abandoned. In an earlier volley (‘The Ideology of the Society of Biblical Literature and the Demise of an Academic Profession’, SBL Forum (May 2006), Avalos wrote of the ‘ever-growing irrelevance of biblical studies in academia’.

Similarly, Wayne Meeks, in his 2004 SNTS presidential address, asked ‘Why study the New Testament?’ Why indeed? He notes the current trends of multiculturalism, pluralism, and postmodernism, along with the demise of the Christian majority, and proposes that ‘we should start by erasing from our vocabulary the terms “biblical theology” and, even more urgently, “New Testament theology”’.

Wayne A. Meeks, ‘Why Study the New Testament?’, New Testament Studies 51, 2 (2005), 155-70, here 167.

Notably, of course, in recent years, Heikki Räisänen (Beyond New Testament Theology: A Story and a Programme, 2nd edn. [London: SCM, 2000]) has argued that New Testament study should be a historical programme of the ‘history of early Christian thought’.

Old Testament theology too has run its course, it is said; confessional readings should be abolished in the academy. So, recently, Gershom M.H. Ratheiser (Mitzvoth Ethics and the Jewish Bible: The End of Old Testament Theology, Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies 460 [London: T&T Clark International, 2007]). As the title indicates, Ratheiser suggests replacing confessional readings informed by Old Testament theology with a descriptive study of the commandments – ‘a non-confessional and historical-philological mitzvoth ethics of the Jewish bible’ (160).

Not all are convinced, however, and not merely because of the obvious begging question as to whether there might be such a thing as neutral, value-free scholarship. Markus Bockmuehl, for instance, has been prompted to comment:

‘Here I claim no crystal ball with which to prognosticate. It merely seems worth considering from the outset that an interpretation of Scripture determined to operate wholly without reference to the historic Christian ecclesial context is particularly prone to misapprehend the nature and purpose of its very object of study.’

Markus Bockmuehl, Seeing the Word: Refocusing New Testament Study, Studies in Theological Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 76.

Such a procedure, he notes, is akin to ‘restricting the study of a Stradivari to the alpine softwood industry of Trentino’, which ‘can be intellectually respectable and may even have a certain complementary scientific or sociological interest. But it has by definition little light to shed on the instruments actually played by a violinist like Itzhak Perlman or a cellist like Yo-Yo Ma’ (77).

Bockmuehl is one of an increasing number of specialists in biblical studies to challenge fellow scholars to focus their discipline in a more theological direction.

His assessment of the current state of New Testament studies is largely negative (see 27-74, ‘The Troubled Fortunes of New Testament Scholarship’). Even so, he claims, despite ‘unresolved weaknesses’, reading the New Testament as the Scripture of the church ‘really does have a future, both in terms of its working relationship with other theological disciplines and in terms of its potential to integrate and offer an intellectual home to a variety of different methods’ (64).

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