Yesterday Chris Spinks wrote a post titled, “Why Biblical Studies?” It was a response to a conversation that I have been having with Bryce Walker on that topic. Earlier this week Walker wrote a post criticizing the field of biblical studies (see “A Critique of the Field of Biblical Studies”). I responded (see “A response to a critique of the field of biblical studies.”). Walker responded to my response (see “Responding to LePort’s Response to my critique”). I responded again with some clarification (see “Another response to Bryce Walker”). In order to understand Spinks post you may want to familiarize yourself with these previous posts.
I have been enjoying this conversation. It is a good example of what Mark Goodacre recently dubbed, “horizontal” blogging (see “Vertical Blogs vs. Horizontal Blogs”). He said that vertical blogs are top-down. Often a senior scholar uses his/her blog to “to set out the issues for the broader public.” It is rare to see these types of bloggers taking the time to interact with other people’s blogs. If they do join a conversation it is with those who comment on their blog. Horizontal blogging is more community based. It allows various bloggers to use their blogs to talk with one another. I think this conversation is a good example of horizontal blogging and I hope our readers are enjoying it!
Spinks post was very helpful to me. It allowed me to see where my statements in previous posts may be misunderstood. In this post I will attempt to respond to what he wrote. Also, Walker has written a response to Spinks with which I will interact briefly at the end.
First, Spinks says that Walker and I have “drawn lines that are overly stark.” We have created a (false?) dichotomy between biblical studies as science/history and as art/contemporary interest. In other words, the one-two step from historical research to contemporary interpretation/application is not as clearly divided as we suggest. I do agree with this. When I have written on the agenda of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) being committed to “historicism,” it is more descriptive than prescriptive. This is why I had hoped to emphasis that I advocate a both-and hermeneutic, not an either-or.
Spinks notes that within SBL there are groups like “ Christian Theology and the Bible, Ethics and Biblical Interpretation, Theological Interpretation of Scripture, Ideological Criticism, Bible and Cultural Studies” that are concerned with contemporary interest. I am not denying that. Nor do I deny that they are valuable. I attended a “theological interpretation” section at SBL in San Francisco last year and I enjoyed it. But I do think these are “specialty items,” rather than central tenants to SBL. I do not agree with those who wish to band such meetings from SBL. That is a silly idea. But I do agree that historicism is what tends to make SBL “big tent.” If we look at groups like the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) it is quite evident that SBL prides itself on not being committed to a theological or confessionsal emphasis.
I am thankful that Spinks noted these exceptions though. I do not want to be mistaken as undermining them or denying their relevance or place within SBL. I do think we all agree that these groups do not represent what has been central to SBL though.
Second, I do think there is some necessity for separating biblical studies from contemporary interest in some settings. As I said, I do not denounce a theological reading of Scripture. I am a Christian. I do read Matthew 28.19 as referring to “the Trinity” even if the Evangelist himself in his historical context would not have developed something as in-depth as the doctrine of the Trinity. But when I go to a SBL session where there are people who meet primarily to discuss what ancient documents mean in ancient context it would complicate matters if I decided they should hear my thoughts on contemporary applications as well. In other words, we share a broad commitment to historicism, so in that context that is what we will address. This is why I appreciate the existence of the groups Spinks mentioned because it is nice to be able to break away with people of a shared perspective to discuss other hermeneutical approaches to Scripture. Again, this is not the core of academic biblical studies though.
So to answer Spinks question, “Yes, biblical studies is broad enough.” But the center of biblical studies in the academy is particular.
Third, it is important that we state our objectives. This is part of the point I tried to make. Spinks notes this when he acknowledges my language regarding the “concern of the reader” and the “aim of the researcher.” And this is what I am saying about SBL. In general, I think the objective of most scholars who are part of SBL is to do historical/literary work. I don’t think most people worry about ethics, primarily. Yet I hate to hear someone say something as absurd as the only scientific, objective way to read the Bible is through the historical-critical method. That is a lie. There is no scientific, objective approach. All approaches have agendas. All approaches have methods dictated by their aims.
Finally, Spinks may be right that we spend too much time trying to define biblical studies. But it is better than not defining it at all. Should SBL be open to Beth Moore presenting one of her Bible studies? I am sure we’d agree that this would be a bad idea. That is not to say that Beth Moore is a bad teacher or that her materials are not useful. It is to say that to do biblical studies academically is different than merely reading the Bible.
In a post titled “And the Conversation Rolls On…” Walker gave his own response to Spinks. It was nice to have an explanation on what Walker means when he refers to something being “scientific” in its methodology. I agree that some forms of biblical studies seem to try to mimic the assured results of science. I was concerned with this language because, in part, science is not about the assurance of repeated experimentation alone. There are things like human origins that demand a lot of reconstruction based on the evidence. It may be more stable that most forms of historiography, but it can be similar. That said, I understand Walker’s point and I don’t have a problem with it.
Walker writes that, “…if [biblical] scholars are going to engage interpretation and cross over into philosophy and theology, they need better training within those fields.” I agree. I like to think about philosophical matters, but I know I am not a philosopher. Sadly, many biblical scholars do not know this. It is true that it is all too easy to move from biblical interpretation to theological/philosophical conclusions while remaining completely ignorant of how philosophers and theologians have addressed these matters. It could be said that with all the discussion around “Adam” many biblical scholars think they are scientists as well. Those of us who do our work in the field of biblical studies sometimes make the same mistake as pastors in pulpits all across the country. We think that because we can interpret the Bible we are now the local expert on science, philosophy, ethics, politics, and so forth. We are not, but it is hard to avoid being drunk on our own knowledge when so many people see the Bible as a book that does address these other disciplines.