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Biblical Studies and Theology: A Rapprochement

By C.L. Crouch
University of Nottingham
February 2015

I am not a theologian.
On the face of it, this is perhaps quite obvious: I am a biblical scholar, not a systematic or philosophical theologian. Having spent nearly a decade in a faculty of theology, however, this realisation was rather slow to sink in. When asked ‘What do you do?’, the automatic response was ‘I am a theologian’.

Though this may seem a superficial error of category – a response relative to the disciplinary divisions of the university, rather than the actual object of study – it is one which was made possible in part by the almost complete lack of communication in the modern academy between biblical scholars and (actual) theologians. It never occurred to me that I wasn’t a ‘theologian’, because I had almost no occasion to meet one.

Indeed, the last fifty years or so have seen biblical studies and systematic theology diverge radically in their aims and motivations, with the end result that we now barely speak to one another. We reside under the same departmental roof, but little more – we and our postgraduate students pursue our specialised subjects with only the vaguest idea of what our neighbours across the hall are up to.

On the one hand, this separation has been essential to a fuller development of our (sub-)disciplines, especially for biblical studies. Like a rebellious teenager, we spent much of the latter half of the twentieth century rejecting our confessional roots – justifiably determined to break free of the limitations of theologically-dominated interpretation. This new-found independence has enabled an impressive range of approaches to our texts, and it seems no coincidence that the Hebrew Bible now boasts one of the most diverse cohorts of scholars of any field relating to theology and religious studies. Perhaps equally justifiably, however, the theologians cast a wary eye towards the resultant biblical scholarship – perceiving in our arguments concerning redaction layers, textual emendations and dubious historicities a set of surgeon's scalpels, hacking away at the text and leaving limping tatters in our wake.

At the same time, both parties turned outside the fold for conversation partners; as the theologians looked to the philosophers and critical theorists for insight and inspiration, we looked to the historians, the archaeologists and the anthropologists. Given these exciting alternatives, theology and biblical studies were left with little motivation and almost no inclination to attempt a rapprochement.

At first glance, biblical theology represents a notable exception to this parting of the ways. Closer inspection, however, suggests otherwise. Associated closely with the neo-orthodoxies of the mid-twentieth century, in recent years especially this subset of the discipline has been characterised by a deep-seated traditionalism, accompanied by a suspicion of many of the interests and much of the results of historical research in particular. Here has been the primary locus of the various canonical criticisms, which – whatever Childs’ original intent – have taken the existence of the texts' canonical forms as license to downplay, if not outright ignore, their historical origins and formation. Yet it is often the historical contexts of these texts which promise the greatest rewards for interpretation.

Even more problematic is that, despite the suggestion of biblical and theological cooperation, the world of biblical theology is overwhelmingly populated by biblical scholars working alone. Biblical theology is thus more properly a sub-discipline within biblical studies; despite these scholars’ avowed interest in theology, the dialogue between biblical studies and systematic theology has hardly been revived.

This is a fundamental problem: no more can we, the biblical scholars, call ourselves theologians than can a systematic theologian call him- or herself a biblical scholar (and we may readily imagine the howls of protest should one be fool enough to try). Our respective territories have grown too vast; the sub-disciplines into which we now divide ourselves were born not only of rebellion but also of necessity, in the face of the impossibility of polymathic mastery of burgeoning fields of scholarship. Thanks to our respective affairs with philosophy, archaeology and beyond, the challenge is now compounded even further.

In this the rapprochement between biblical studies and theology presents perhaps one of the most difficult of all interdisciplinary challenges. To get to grips with a century or two of anthropology or archaeology is one thing; to master the inheritance of two (and more) millennia of theological thought, or half a dozen dead languages and a thousand years of ancient Near Eastern history, is quite another. There is a reason we specialise.

Yet this specialisation need not be the end of the intellectual road. Without for a moment wishing to suggest that biblical studies ought to return wholly to the theological fold – our work is and must remain a legitimate end in itself – the insights of our diverse researches into the biblical texts have something to offer those colleagues across the hall. A socially and economically informed understanding of the orphan, the widow and the soujourner informs the discussion of what constitutes justice for the socially marginal and how this relates to divine justice; acknowledgment of the widespread continuity between biblical and ancient Near Eastern ideas of imago dei helps to tease out the significance of the biblical presentation for a modern theological anthropology. Reading from non-white, non-Western perspectives challenges assumptions about intention, meaning and significance, whilst the inherent and powerful diversity of the biblical texts suggests models for thinking about diversity today. Conversely, our systematic colleagues can help us to ask better questions of our texts, whose inevitably theological contexts can, paradoxically, be forgotten in our historical and other pursuits. Such is the genius of collaboration: bringing new eyes to old questions, altering enquiries in subtle but illuminating ways.

There is significant scope and immense potential for a revived conversation between biblical studies and theology, drawing on a wide base of systematic theologians and the diverse cohort which now constitutes the biblical guild. These combined efforts promise to expand our intellectual horizons and push us parties past the limits of our solitary pursuits. Now that the rebellious teenager has left adolescence and established its independence, it is high time to come back to the table and restart the conversation.

C.L. Crouch is Co-Director of the Centre for Bible, Ethics and Theology, which aims to integrate historical and biblical research with the work of systematic and philosophical theologians. More information on the Centre and its activities may be found online.