“In the modern period, but especially in the last few decades, the disciplines of biblical studies and systematic theology have grown so far apart as to seem hardly within shouting distance of each other. The two disciplines are natural partners who have lost the means of effective communication with each other, so absorbed have they become in their own issues.” Richard Bauckham in R Bauckham and C Mosser, eds. (2008) The Gospel of John and Christian Theology.
The chasm between biblical studies and theology continues to baffle me. Why do so few biblical scholars interact with, reference, or acknowledge theologians who reflect on or exegete Scripture?
Take my recent work on Karl Barth. For those of you who are not in the loop, my research focuses on Barth’s use of his original exegesis of John 1:14 (found in the book Witness to the Word which is his lecture notes from his class on John) in the Church Dogmatics. Barth is no exegetical slouch. In fact, exegesis is at the very heart of his theological method. And yet, as I navigate through the Johannine scholarship there is very little reference by Johannine scholars to the exegesis done by Barth. Indeed, only in the above cited book, The Gospel of John and Christian Theology, have I found much reference to Barth.
Is there value to be had in including theological exegesis such as Karl Barth’s? Is exegesis done by theologians always useful? Not necessarily.
Take for example John Owen’s exegesis of Hebrews 4:10. Here, Owen suggests that “the one having entered the rest” refers to Christ and not to the Christian believer. Modern translations and most modern commentaries all understand this verse to be in reference to the Christian believer. Owen seems so focused on cramming Christ into an already Christological passage (Hebrews 3:1-4:16) that he actually does injustice to the text through his excessive Christocentrism. Most biblical scholars don’t even entertain or interact with Owen’s exegesis. And when they do it is, I think, to rightly dismiss it. For example, Paul Ellingworth considers the Christological interpretation of Hebrews 4:10 and rightly notes, “It is difficult to understand why, if the author had wished to speak of Christ’s entry into God’s place of rest, he should not have done so plainly.” (The Epistle to the Hebrews, 257.)
But this kind of interaction with theological exegesis is rare. What would happen if there was more cross-over and collaboration between biblical studies and theological studies? Of course, part of it requires theologians to spend time learning the biblical languages and doing exegesis, which many seem loathe to do. But why is there more emphasis put on learning theological German than on learning Greek and Hebrew? (says the theology grad student who knows that learning German is going to be an inevitable requirement for further study, even though I’d much rather learn Hebrew). Likewise, it requires biblical scholars to be explicit in their commentaries that in doing their exegesis they are also doing theology.