Scholarship of the Bible and the Church

Recently, I read Peter Enns’ book The Evolution of Adam. I found it to be a rather interesting read, and a helpful addition to the field. One idea that Enns uses in understanding the Bible is the calibration of various parts of the Bible so that we can know what to expect from that particular text. For example, Enns calibrates Genesis 1-11 with Ancient Near Eastern mythologies. He shows similarities and differences and uses these other texts to help us understand what we can rightfully expect from Genesis 1-11. I think that from the perspective he starts with his work in this area is pretty solid. However, I found I didn’t know how to calibrate what Enns is doing in this book.

Growing up in a relatively conservative church and school, I didn’t end up hearing very much about any of the various forms of critical or historical scholarship about the Bible. If I did it was probably to say that it was just a liberal view of the Bible (liberal generally meaning anything less conservative than the beliefs of that particular denomination). In college I encountered some of this type of scholarship about the Bible but I just wrote it off as heresy and didn’t give it a second look. Now I’m in graduate school at Biblical Theological Seminary and I am paying more attention.

One particularly helpful lesson I learned is that there is a separation of scholarship about the Bible and theology. I always assumed that the same people that do translation of the Bible and the like were the same people writing books about theology. I thought that you couldn’t really have one without the other, but I see that it is more like a chasm with a few bridges for the adventurous to cross back and forth. As part of this divorce it seems a lot of the evangelical churches have gone towards the side of the study of theology. This does not mean that they don’t look into the Bible, but that they view it in a different way than the Bible scholar. Training for pastors seems to weight theology over study of the Bible.

People tend towards doing what they are trained for, so if a pastor is trained more in theology than in scholarship of the Bible then it makes sense that they would teach more from the perspective of theology. The downside to this is that much of the scholarship written about the Bible does not make it to people in churches. This poses great issues when students go from high school to college and take an Introduction to the Bible course that will most likely present a critical approach to reading the Bible. Part of the reason this can be dangerous is that students have not been given the tools to calibrate what they are hearing.

I think that it is time for churches to evaluate what is being taught and what is being ignored. It is my understanding that this has not happened for three reasons: changing how we read the Bible may necessitate changes in our theology, the idea that the average person will not be able to understand the scholarship, and that they may begin to doubt their faith and the Bible.

The first reason is not very complicated. I’ll take an example from Enns’ book (xv). The theological topic is, “What does mean to be made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26)?” There are numerous ideas of what it means to be made in the image of God, such as being endowed with reason, aspects of God or a number of other ideas. Enns states that rulers of the era would erect statues in their image to serve as a reminder that the ruler was always watching. He suggests, “In Genesis that means that humans represent God in the world, nothing less but certainly nothing more. This is not to dismiss the question of what makes us human and how humanity uniquely reflects God, especially given the challenge of evolution; but ‘image of God’ is not the biblical way of addressing those ideas.” Reading the text differently has led to a different theology. Obviously, this is something that would be difficult to do in church and may disrupt equilibrium.

The second and third ideas go together in that it involves shielding laity from what can “harm” them. These are inadequate reasons for not teaching what people are learning about the Bible. Those educated in matters of the study of the Bible should take the time to help people understand what the scholarship means.

On the third point, if someone’s faith appears to be weakened by the scholarship, then their faith may not have been as strong as it appeared. It is also quite possible that this will lead to an opportunity of growth. The idea that avoiding certain topics will bring strength is an illusion and only serves to harm people. As I stated before, the process of bringing in new ideas should be done carefully and in ways that the congregation can understand.

In the end, I think that the body of scholarship about the Bible will serve to strengthen churches and give Christians the tools to better understand the ideas they will most likely encounter in school, talking with others, reading, or on the internet. These tools are not to be used to fight against other views, but to gain a better understanding of the Bible and the scholarship surrounding the Bible. Perhaps this will even lead toward theologians and scholars of the Bible coming closer together.

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Note from the Editor: Today’s post spun out of a Facebook conversation I had with Daniel and another Emerging Scholar regarding FactChecker: Does College Cause Young Adults to Lose Their Faith? (Glenn T. Stanton. The Gospel Coalition. 6/18/2013), Becoming a Thoughtful Christian in the Secular Academy (John Hundley. ESN Blog. 6/20/2013) and the ESN Blog series on the campus mission which interacted with Vinoth Ramachandra’s 2012 Henry Martyn Lectures. It’s so great to have Daniel join the growing team of contributors! If desire to join the team, please click here to learn more about writing and email me an inquiry here. ~ Thomas B. Grosh IV, Associate Director of the Emerging Scholars Network (ESN).

dsmccurdy@gmail.com'

Daniel McCurdy

Daniel McCurdy is a stay at home dad and budding counselor. He has a B.S. in Biology from Messiah college and is pursing an M.A. in Counseling from Biblical Theological Seminary. He is married and has 2 daughters. Academic interests include studying scholarship of the Bible, developing a meta-theory for counseling, and studying the psychology of Christianity. Other hobbies include cooking, beer making, gardening and opening his apartment to anyone who is interested in coming over.

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4 Comments

  • drandrewwalsh@gmail.com'
    Andy Walsh commented on July 11, 2013 Reply

    On your third point:

    There are two ways to protect someone from infectious diseases. One is to keep their environment as sterile as possible. The obvious challenge is that it requires constant diligence. If there is a failure, the resulting disease is likely to be more severe, because the person’s immune system is inexperienced. And even if one is successful, there is some evidence that indicates the person will be more likely to develop allergies or autoimmune disease – essentially, their immune system is going to find *something* to do to fulfill its purpose.

    The other option is to make sure they have a well developed immune system. This requires both regular nutrition, and regular exposure to challenges. Those can be natural challenges, or more controlled challenges like a vaccination. There is still a risk of disease, but the immune system tends to be better able to cope with them.

    If we allow these to serve as metaphors for how the church handles challenging ideas, based on my own experience I would agree with your assessment that we tend to try the sterile approach – to avoid any exposure to, or possibly even mention of, ideas that might challenge faith. And I agree that we should consider how to implement the alternative. In particular, I wonder how we can create an equivalent of the vaccine schedule – a curriculum for introducing new Christians (either children or adults) to various challenging ideas in a controlled, sequential fashion that will help to strengthen their faith as it develops and matures. This seems preferable to hoping they never encounter those ideas, and dealing with them in an ad hoc way if they do come up.

    • dsmccurdy@gmail.com'
      Daniel McCurdy commented on July 12, 2013 Reply

      Andy,

      Thank you for your response. I think that this point is a point I may write further posts on because I think you are right in saying that difficult questions or ideas are treated like pathogens within the church. This is unfortunate because leaders end up leaving out ideas that aren’t threatening, but look similar to the “pathological” ideas.

      I am a little hesitant to think of it as a vaccine schedule though, because that would imply that the new ideas a pathogens that we would have to handle carefully, or immunize against their affects. I would liken it more to an autoimmune response to something like poison ivy. The oils in poison ivy aren’t actually something that will harm you, but they look like something that could harm you so your body creates a reaction. My goal here would be to stop that reaction so that the new ideas can come into the church in a helpful way instead of being presented by those antagonistic to the Bible or Christianity.

  • vancleave@mac.com'
    Matthew Van Cleave commented on July 13, 2013 Reply

    The “image of God” case from Gen 1:26 is fairly innocuous. There’s nothing in the historical-critical reading of text (or at least of Enns’ historical-critical reading) that implies anything very disruptive for most theological views. It’s basically just a case where we say: Yeah, the Biblical author doesn’t really have that issue on his radar screen. The more interesting cases, I would think, would be those were the Psalmist has revenge fantasies about bashing the heads of his captors against rocks or where he implicitly assumes that the earth is stationary. Suppose (as I think would be the case) that historical-critical scholarship revealed that these two ideas were indeed ones that would have been common in the Ancient Near East society from which they came. After all, xenophobia and violent revenge were both common in such societies.

    Also, it is not as if historical-critical scholarship is all of a piece. Both Tom Wright and John Crossan do historical-critical scholarship. But they certainly do not agree on everything. There are more “liberal” approaches within historical-critical scholarship and there are more “conservative” ones. So which scholarship a church will seriously consider will probably be the scholarship that already conforms more to their theology. It that it true then I think it vitiates, to some extent, your claims. In particular, you seem to think that historical-critical scholarship has the potential to make one’s faith stronger by making it less insular. But if historical-biblical criticism has its theological factions and if a church sides with the faction that more suits its own theology then, far from making churches less insular, this would only reinforce their insularity.

    • dsmccurdy@gmail.com'
      Daniel McCurdy commented on July 15, 2013 Reply

      Matthew,

      Thank you for your comment, I really appreciate it and have been thinking it over for the past day or two. I have particularly been thinking about your second point. It was not my intention to treat historical-critical scholarship as one piece, but I certainly see how I could come across that way. Part of the reason I come across that way is that I think Christians should be engaging the whole spectrum of ideas, regardless of where they theologically come from. This should be done in a spirit of learning what there is to learn, not to be against something. I think that conservative scholars can certainly learn from liberal scholars and liberal scholars can learn from conservative scholars. Of course, there will be areas where people disagree, but I do not think that Christians should be combative at this point. You may reject something a scholar says, but that does not mean that they have to become your enemy.

      I do realize that this is a lot to ask of churches, but I think that it could really benefit the church on the whole to be less combative and more filled with love. You are right that this could result in churches becoming more insular, but in my opinion this would not be embracing the scholarship. In the end it would be accepting that which supports what you already believe. A series of blogs that have been talking about some of the same topics I wrote about here can be found at: http://www.respectfulconversation.net/ae-conversation/category/evangelicalism-and-the-modern-study-of-s

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