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The Sackgasse of A-theistic Biblical Studies

Ein guter Theologe schwimmt jedenfalls nicht mit dem – säkularen oder kirchlichen – Strom, weshalb ich, ungeachtet vieler Versuchungen, nie römisch oder orthodoxen zu warden vermochte. Mindestens irdisch sind Protestanten stets unentbehrlich. – Ernst Käsemann

By Jim West
Quartz Hill School of Theology
June 2010

Hector Avalos and others have recently and infamously argued that biblical studies, as we know them, are at an end, or should be. I agree. With one minor caveat: Atheistic biblical studies are at an end: this because a-theistic biblical studies are a Sackgasse, a dead end.

Avalos previously wrote:1

"It is no secret that I have proposed to end biblical studies as we know it. Biblical studies, as we know it, is still largely a religionist and apologetic enterprise meant to serve the needs of faith communities. It is still part of an ecclesial-academic complex."

And again, I agree. Biblical studies, as we know it, needs to end. But Avalos is wrong concerning the reason because biblical studies isn’t at all primarily a religionist and apologetic enterprise in the academy, it is thoroughly “a-theistic’” (in the sense of the alpha privative prefix in Greek) in its approach and goals in the academy. Only a person who has never bothered to attend a meeting of the SBL or read the Journal of Biblical Literature or visited a Department of Religion (at, say, the University of North Carolina where Bart Ehrman teaches) could say without their tongue being firmly planted in their cheek that biblical studies is dominated by some sort of faith perspective. Indeed, I would submit for your consideration that in Colleges and Universities across the United States where Departments of Religion exist, that the preponderance of work is purely “a-theistic.”

The Bible is regularly and with delight approached as nothing more than a collection of ancient texts which hold nothing more than topics of interest to those with arcane gazes. It is simply ridiculous to assert that faith matters in university study of the Bible. And it has been that way for as long as I can remember (which is a good long while now).

To be sure, Seminaries and Graduate Schools which have as their purpose the preparation of clergy toss in faith talk; but let’s be real for a moment. Most pastors who have received even Seminary training are not really aided by it to do ministry and interpret Scripture to congregations purely because even in Seminaries not necessarily theistic approaches to Scripture dominate.

No, Avalos is dead wrong and his point of view limps and hobbles, crippled by cruel reality. It is not Biblicism or fideism which dominate, it is a-theism.

So where has this approach gotten us? It has gotten us a population utterly ignorant of the contents and meaning of the Bible. It has gotten us a generation of young people who can’t tell the difference between an Epistle and an Apostle. And it has gotten us learned societies which produce journals which propagate and promulgate a-theism to the exclusion of theism. Yes, faith is excluded, a priori, from most biblical studies enterprises. Even mocked in some quarters (as for instance, Avalos and Ehrman’s writings).

It is, then, not a faith approach that is a dead end and which needs to be concluded, but unbelief which is the true Sackgasse. When fideism ruled people on the street and in the classroom could be expected to be, and were in fact, biblically literate. Not so any longer and obviously because a-theism’s methodologies obscure the biblical text far more often than they illuminate it. So, once more, it’s time for a-theism qua dominant approach to biblical studies to come to a well-deserved end.

There are historical reasons for this. First, and foremost, the Bible is the Church’s book (and the Synagogue’s) (pace Philip Davies!). People of faith wrote it, preserved it, collected it, and passed it along. Faith is the string which holds the pearls (of texts) together. Atheists and unbelievers didn’t write a word of it, transmit it, preserve it, or pass it along. No one can argue with the fact that the Bible is the book of the people of faith. It belongs to us. Not to the atheists. They are now and have been and always will be outsiders to it. Their point of view, then, is as mere observers. Atheists are to biblical studies what television commentators are to a sporting event: they are off the field, in a booth, secure behind glass, opining concerning what others should have or could have done without ever bothering to take the field themselves.

Second, Scripture asserts its nature as “insider literature” and honest investigators have to take that assertion seriously. Paul writes to the Corinthians (1 Co 2):

"The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. (11) For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the man’s spirit within him? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. (12) We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us. (13) This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words. (14) The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. (15) The spiritual man makes judgments about all things, but he himself is not subject to any man’s judgment: (16) “For who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ."

It is verse 14 in particular that is relevant for our present purposes. The simple fact is, spiritual things require spiritual enlightenment which only the Spirit of God can provide. The Scriptures are “spiritual” texts and were written intentionally to be exactly that. I’m certain that even the most dishonest atheist will admit that. Given that simple fact, if we follow Paul’s logic, it takes a person endowed with the Spirit of God to understand, to interpret, them. Hence, spiritless exegesis is no exegesis at all. Atheist exegesis is, by definition, spiritless and therefore – according to the very texts which they attempt to interpret – empty, void, vapid, pointless, meaningless. Taking the word of an atheist concerning the meaning of Scripture seriously is like taking a man born blind’s word concerning the meaning of blue. It is absurdity.

To be sure, atheists can be excellent outside observers. They can examine context and history and “text” as “textual artifact”; but they cannot interpret, they cannot explain, they cannot exegete- for they lack the requisite tool- spiritual understanding. This is precisely, exactly why unbelievers cannot, and normally do not, and absolutely under any circumstances should not, write commentaries. Avalos and Ehrman have at least in their favor the fact that they haven’t attempted what for them would be an utter and absolute impossibility: the production of meaningful comment on biblical texts. Commentaries are about meaning. And atheists cannot hear, so they self evidently cannot speak plainly or clearly concerning the Bible.

Are biblical studies at an end? No. Should biblical studies become the purview of angry atheists? No. Those very angry atheists have led society down a dead end street. Their time is over. Their work becomes less and less meaningful the more they focus on the minutiae of meaninglessness. Essays by those whose understanding is blinkered by purely secular approaches in learned journals only serve the purpose of bolstering the sense of self-importance of those engaged in the industry of biblical studies. They speak to no one and they mean nothing.

Authentic biblical studies will more and more be found among the people of faith who value the bible and who understand it because they are endowed by the Spirit with the gift of understanding. Farewell, a-theism. You were amusing, for a while, but now you’re time is over and your discipline so completely fragmented that, like Humpty Dumpty, you can never be put back together again.

1 Hector Avalos, Bible and Interpretation,, accessed 17 May, 2010.