James Crossley over at Earliest Christian History has a thoughtful post on secularism and scholarship entitled, “Sheffield and the Secular.” His post is in response to Michael Bird‘s post, “Secularism and Biblical Studies.” Michael’s point of departure is a recent article by John Barton (“Biblical Theology: An Old Testament Perspective” in The Nature of New Testament Theology [eds. C. Rowland and C. Tuckett; Oxford: Blackwell, 2006] 27-29), where Barton notes the significant place theology has had historically in Old Testament studies and how that will likely continue to be the case. He notes, “But I still think that the most important aspect of the OT is the theological content of most of its texts, and that it is therefore natural for this to continue to be the focus of interest in the future as it has been in the past.” Michael then goes on to raise a few points about secularism in biblical studies, including that secular scholars will always be the minority since the object of study in biblical studies is, lo and behold, the Bible — one of the religious texts par excellence — and therefore religious people will be attracted to academic biblical studies.
James offers a response to Michael in his post and while he agrees with much that Michael writes, he notes that “we should not forget what the discipline [i.e., biblical studies] missed out on in comparison with other humanities (e.g. history) because of a lack of secular perspectives.” I would agree with James to a certain extent, though I’m not sure we’ve missed out too much — and considering the lag typically associated with biblical studies, perhaps it is yet to come! 🙂
Now here are some of my own quick observations:
Theology and Biblical Studies. It is not just secular scholars who eschew theology; there are many religious biblical scholars who favour the historical critical method and thus avoid theological issues (at least in their published scholarship). That being said, it is fair to say that scholars involved in “biblical theology” (whether OT or NT) will almost without exception be religious. This is especially the case for biblical theology in Old Testament studies since one of the major tasks historically for the discipline has been to explore the relationship between the testaments.
Skepiticism and Scholarship. James rasies this issue in connection with Ben Witherington’s post on doubt in scholarship (see my comments on Ben’s post here). James notes that one of the benefits of secular scholarship is that “the biblical texts are open to a much more critical reading, critical in the sense of deconstructing their ideologies etc. and being ready to entertain the possibility that the texts are just irrelevant, at least in a historical context ideological approaches to biblical interpretation.” I can agree with James to a certain extent here, though I am not sure that radically skeptical approaches that constantly read against the grain are ultimately very fruitful. I think some skepticism is healthy and necessary, though when it obscures understanding more than facilitates understanding, it should be discarded (or at least relagated to the “that’s interesting” pile). Thus, if you conceive that the goal of biblical studies is to better understand the biblical texts, then an empathetic hermeneutic may be more appropriate than one of suspicion. Don’t get me wrong — I’m not saying that we should priveledge the Bible over against other texts, or that we should forget that they are ancient texts. I am saying that we should look at any text we are trying to understand with a good dose of emphathy.
All in all an interesting discussion.