The Relationship Between Biblical Studies and Theology

“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.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Bob-MacDonald/1043189517 Bob MacDonald

    ouch – don’t choose between German and Hebrew. Hebrew is essential – don’t wait till your 60 like I did. German at least you can pick up by immersion. My son-in-law (who reads in over 20 languages) said to me 6 years ago – just study 15 minutes a day – every day and in two years you won’t recognize yourself – the foundation for growth will be there. Well – I did that for the first two or three months when it was really hard to start. Then I was caught and spent more like hours a day – but that’s my age and stage. And I don’t have the advantage of the academic environment (though I do go up to UVic frequently since my Sabbatical fellowship there in 2011). Learn it all – especially Hebrew. Learning Hebrew will also make Greek easier – (hah!).

    Anyway – whether you do or not – enjoy the learning.

    • CWtheology

      Thanks Bob!

  • Eric Ortlund

    In my opinion, it’s because biblical studies within and after the Enlightenment saw traditional orthodoxy as a *barrier* to reading the Bible correctly. In its devotion to autonomous reason and its anti-supernaturalism – it’s commitment to read the Bible as if it were no different from any other text – any tradition claiming the special spiritual status of a book will mislead you and blind you to what it really is. Biblical studies has not yet exorcised this ghost; even Christian biblical scholars inherit habits from it. Mark Gignilliat’s A Brief History of Old Testament Criticism can help chart the history (you can totally borrow my copy if you want).

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  • http://www.facebook.com/rick.wadholm Rick Wadholm Jr

    I was asked just last year what I call myself, a theologian or a Biblical scholar. I call myself a “theologian” because I see that as standing in continuity with the Church even if my specializations have been in Biblical studies (though also focusing on theology). This was not to denigrate my friend who acted incredulous toward my reply because he had always thought of me as a Biblical scholar (or at least one up-and-coming). My own Biblical studies work is saturated in the explicit theological reflections of others (Bonhoeffer, Barth, Torrance, etc.). I don’t see it as an either/or, but many of my seminary class-mates thought in such a dichotomy and treated the “others” with disdain. They would often not even considering reading authors specializing in the “other” field. Quite sad if you ask me, and it leads to a fractured notion of Scripture reflection and practice. IOW, I fully agree there needs to be far more integration of the specializations.

  • Thomas

    Amanda, great post. Glad I stopped by and read it!

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