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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?

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