Thursday, October 16, 2008

Christological Interpretation and Teaching in a University Classroom

At present I am teaching a class entitled "The Bible in the Middle Ages" at UW-Madison, and the experience is providing me with a lot to consider. It's a secular environment (as opposed to confessional), and I offer a few thoughts on that.

A central feature of historical-critical scholarship is its refusal to integrate (or re-integrate?) the disparate features and perspectives of the biblical text. At its worst, the whole endeavor can degenerate into a flurry of sources and voices that leaves students baffled and confused. Few people, however, talk about what historical-critical scholarship does well, which is provide a common ground for everyone to come and discuss the text, regardless of prior commitments to it.

As I dip into the posts, comments and links here on a Canonical approach to the Bible, I am impressed with their articulate formulation of the comments as well as the subtlety of the arguments. Many bright, capable people are arguing for the unity of the Bible as well as the idea that all of the Bible really does talk about Jesus. Ultimately, I have serious problems with the project.

At the risk of making inflammatory comments, I'll try and state my ideas without too much equivocation. I dislike the Canonical approach because ...

(1) As a classroom teacher, it places me in the position of having to classify development and innovation in Christianity as inherent across the entirety of the text (i.e. the Protestant Christian canon; there are others). I am then unable to analyze a particular text unless I drive home the correct "moral of the story" within the class full of students, most of whom have no commitments to the Bible or the God of the Bible. However, I am ethically bound to include all the people who come into the classroom, regardless of their prior commitments (note that I didn't say "legally" bound--it's deeper than that).

(2) As an educator in a more general sense, a commitment to Canonical approach to the Bible is deeply suspect because it undermines the act of reading. The requirement that the student must have the right conclusions and commitments in place before beginning tells students that reading doesn't work and that the Bible doesn't stand up to analysis.

(3) As a scholar, I am forced commit myself to the idea that the Hebrew text really doesn't mean what it seems to mean. It's not really talking about Ancient Israel and all the rest of it. No, the text is really talking about Jesus and the Church, and all of that work done in order to handle the text responsibly as the product of a particular time and place is pointless; unless we suddenly want to talk about the historical realia of the text in order to defend the idea that the events of the text really did happen.

(4) As a competitor in the Confessional Marketplace, I am placed in the position of having Theologians and New Testament scholars determine the orthodoxy (or not) of my perspectives about the Hebrew Bible rather than the content of my analysis of the Hebrew Bible. I don't see a lot of gatekeepers doing much with the Hebrew Bible, and it's a lot easier to think about issues of orthodoxy from 10,000 feet.

-Tod Twist


  1. I can see what you are saying. I can't imagine it is easy to do what you are doing.

  2. Tod, I was wondering whether you were going to weigh in on the discussion of theological exegesis, so I was very glad to see your post. (Though I was a little confused at first, getting Brian's comment for approval...I didn't write that post??? Tod contributed!!) Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I agree that a theological approach isn't helpful in a secular classroom.