Thursday, June 18, 2009

Religion and Biblical Exegesis

The quote I posted from Ziony Zevit last week has sparked a bit of discussion again on the issue of how belief (religious or otherwise) can color how we interpret the Bible. While the influence of our own presuppositions likely hinders us from being truly objective, we can come close by keeping an open mind about all of the interpretive options. I thought Ken Brown expressed it well today when he said:
For this reason it remains vital for all interpreters to foster a critical approach both to scripture and their own traditions, seeking (though perhaps never finding) the objectivity to honestly assess the interpretive options. Not only believers (of various stripes) but unbelievers as well must be careful to guard against letting their own presuppitions silence the text. On this score, the believer is aided by a natural tendency to read the Bible charitably, while the non-believer is aided by a natural tendency to recognize the fundamental otherness of the text. Much of the vitality of biblical studies comes from the dialogue–sometimes friendly, sometimes less so!–between these two approaches.
The debate also reminded me of a good quote from Stephen Prothero on the difference between studying religion and doing theology.
I am by training a professor of religious studies. That means, among other things, that just about every time I step onto a plane or attend a party I have to explain to someone that, no, I am not a minister, no, I do not teach theology, and, no, I do not work in a divinity school. Theology and religious studies, I often say, are two very different things--as different as art and art history. While theologians do religion, religious studies scholars study religion. Rather than ruminating on God, practitioners of religious studies explore how other human beings (theologians included) ruminate on sacred things. Scholars of religion can be religious, of course, but being religious is not our job. Our job is to try to understand what religious people say, believe, know, feel, and experience. And we try to do this work as fairly and objectively as possible.
(Prothero 2007, 10; emphasis original)
The theologian is doing religion. The religious studies scholar is studying religion. That distinction has impacted my thinking quite a bit because I view biblical studies (in its SBL secular academic sense) as a branch of religious studies (as we were challenged to do by JZ Smith at the presidential address in Boston).

The issue is similar to the distinction between apologetics and critical Bible scholarship that I wrote about in April.

Reference: Prothero, Stephen. 2007. Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know-and Doesn't. HarperCollins.

HT: Phil Sumpter and Ken Brown for their thoughtful responses.


  1. The comparison with art and art history is fantastic. I'll have to remember that!

  2. Perhaps the issue I'm trying to bring up can be put like this:

    1) What is the goal of a scientific approach to the Bible?

    Answer: to understand it according to what it is (i.e. to read it on its own terms).

    2) What is the best approach to the Bible: "religious" or "theological" (to use your terms from the post).

    Answer: it depends on the nature of the text, is the Bible itself religious or theological?

    Lets compare two quotes, one from your post and another by von Rad.

    Prothero says the following: religious studies scholars study religion. Rather than ruminating on God, practitioners of religious studies explore how other human beings (theologians included) ruminate on sacred things.

    Von Rad's analysis of the Bible is very different. He says the following: Because Israel, in its historical witnesses, did not refer to its own faith but rather to Jahwe himself, in other words, because faith was not the "object," rather the "bearer, mouth" of its witness, the revelation of Jahwe in history in words and deeds becomes the object of a theology of the Old Testament.

    In other words, the Bible is a kerygmatic text, it witnesses to a reality outside of itself, that is its intention and the reason for its being. This is not religious eisegesis, it is a scientific statement about the nature of the text. The fact that a living God is part of the equation doesn't make it less scientific.

    Thus, on von Rad's analysis, Prothero's basic approach is fundamentally flawed because it doesn't do justice to the nature of the text itself.

    Is von Rad a theologian or a religious studies scholar?

  3. I remember that post, Phil. We actually went back and forth on much the same issue then in a series of posts. (See my archive from Oct 08 for posts on Christological interpretation.) My initial post in that exchange is here. You've raised some good points here and at your post. I'll respond after I've had some time to process.

  4. I hope you guys realize that Chris Heard has picked up on this as well.

    A great conversation.

    What I've noticed at SBL is that it is impossible, really, for art historians to be neutral about the art they study. Either they believe it is beautiful and important, just the opposite (Hector Avalos), or some shade of grey in between.

    And, protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, it's no less obvious that the differences in evaluation depend to a large degree on different responses to the Sache of the text which von Rad, it goes without saying, identified correctly.

  5. John, I just love the way you use the word Sache. That's what it's all you about! Your comment on Biblicalia (Childs+Sache) made my day.

  6. I meant: that's what it's all about.