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The Academy and the Church: Different Methods

In the last post, I looked at one of the major goals of the academy and the church. In this post, I will look at the methods we use to arrive at these separate goals.

To make a potentially persuasive case in academia, I think that it is important to do two things. First, outline clearly what methodological approach you are utilizing. Are you engaged in a historical argument, looking at what historical reconstruction of specific events makes the most sense of the surviving data we have or asking specific questions about a source (e.g. what oral or written traditions influenced it, who wrote or edited it, when and to whom was it written, how was it received down the centuries, etc.)? Are you looking at the final form of a text and asking the kind of questions about its narrative that would interest a literary critic? Are you using models informed by social theory to examine the social makeup of ancient Christian congregations or how they might differ from their modern counterparts? Are you bringing your data into dialogue with a later interpretative community in order to see what new meanings may be unearthed when a new set of lens is applied to it? Whatever theoretical approach you take, it is important that it is falsifiable, and hence testable, whether at the level of the theory itself or of its explanatory scope in regards to the actual data.

Second, since scholars do not all share the same background, it is necessary that the arguments I make or the evidence that I cite can be evaluated by my academic peers who may or may not share my own presuppositions. An example would be if I did research on the Nag Hammadi Library. I do not personally hold these writings as divinely inspired and they do not inform my own Christian beliefs and practices at all. However, if I am to act as a historian, I need to study these texts with empathy and use my historical imagination to ask what historical and social factors explain the production of these texts and their positive reception among some ancient (and some modern) readers. Someone who identified as a contemporary “Gnostic” may have a love for and a thorough knowledge of these texts, but I can only engage his or her scholarship on them if we are playing the game using the same rules or standards of evidence, regardless of our private beliefs about these texts.

What about the theological interpretation of the Bible? In this case, I am cognizant of the fact that I am located within and trying to build up a specific community of faith. Given the shared theological worldview that the biblical writings are Scripture for the church, I am concerned about the implications that biblical scholarship might have for how to better understand these texts and how it might impact contemporary Christian beliefs and practices. Since there is a historical gulf separating the world of the biblical authors from the present, a key interpretive concern is how to translate scriptural principles for contemporary Christians living in a very different cultural context. Moreover, the scholarship that I produce within the church may be explicitly built on Christian presuppositions that are also held by my (intended) readership, but with the recognition that this is what I am doing and that it may not get traction among scholars outside my faith tradition (or I may become “data” for Religious Studies scholars answering a different set of questions).

I am just thinking aloud in these last few posts. Does it help to clarify what I see as the distinctive yet equally valuable work that goes on both the academy and the church or have I just muddled the waters further?


The Academy and The Church: Different Goals

In light of the online debate about whether there is an anti-traditional bias in biblical studies, I wanted to write a few brief posts outlining my thoughts as someone who works in both the academy and the church. This post will look at the different goals of each institution and the next post on the different methods to achieve these goals.

As I see it, the purpose of the Humanities in the University is to study different subjects that help to illuminate what it means to be human, including the psychological, social, cultural, and ethical dimensions of human existence. Religious Studies is one branch of the Humanities that examines the formation and development of particular human communities around a set of beliefs and practices in specific contexts. The ultimate goal of the academy is to produce new knowledge, whether breaking down older paradigms or advancing new lines of research based on different ways of interpreting the same data or fresh discoveries.

Churches, on the other hand, act as custodians that guard what they see as the treasure entrusted to them (2 Timothy 1:14) or the faith handed down to the saints (Jude 1:3). This is preserved and protected by a canon of scriptural writings, creeds, common rituals, and trained clergy. However, it is also true that churches will always be changing as they enter into dialogue with the traditions that they inherit from within different historical, social, and cultural contexts.

It may seem like the goal of these two institutions, the academy and the church, are antithetical. Indeed, there may be some core convictions by which a certain Christian scholar has been shaped that may differ from his or her peers coming out of a different tradition. However, from my Christian standpoint, I think we ought to acknowledge that our understanding is always only limited and partial, that we see through a mirror dimly and know only in part until eternity when we see face to face and have complete understanding (1 Corinthians 13:12). Thus, this can be an invitation to continually explore and test what we think we know and to see if we can arrive at a greater understanding of some matters in every generation. All truth is God’s truth, even in the areas that have yet to be explored or fully grasped.

July Biblical Studies Carnival

The Biblical Studies Carnival for the month of July has been posted by Reuben Rus at Ayuda Ministerial/Resources for Ministry. It highlights a select number of posts and will not take too long to go through all of the links, so check it out.

Anti-Traditional Biases in Biblical Studies?

Joshua Berman charges the biblical studies guild with an implicit bias against allegedly “conservative” approaches that defend the coherence, antiquity, or historicity of a biblical narrative, while not critically interrogating readings that may support allegedly “liberal” agenda, in his essay “The Corruption of Biblical Studies.” This provoked several responses from all over the scholarly spectrum including Marc Z. Brettler’s “Biblical Studies: No More Corrupt than any Other Discipline“, Jon D. Levenson’s “Deeper Reasons for the Bias in Biblical Studies“, David M. Carr’s “Academic Biblical Criticism is not Corrupt“, Craig Bartholomew’s “Why Biblical Scholar’s Should Declare their Worldviews“, and Benjamin D. Sommer’s “Biblical Scholars are Open to Self-Correction, and They Listen to Conservatives, Too.” As a New Testament scholar, I do not share the expertise in the Hebrew Bible exhibited by the distinguished scholars who have written the pieces above. I do, however, have some thoughts about the relationship of the academy and the community of faith since I have one foot each in both worlds. Before I offer some thoughts, have a read though the articles to see what you think about the issue.