Friday, 19 June 2009

Is the Bible religious or theological?

Douglas Mangum, partly in response to my post Exegesis: Does religion get in the way?, has posted two more quotes arguing for the separation of the faith claims of particular faith communities from the business of objective Biblical research. He sets up the dichotomy in terms of the difference between religious scholarship and theological scholarship, drawing on a quote by Stephen Prothero. Biblical study would belong to the former realm, in this analysis. Here's Prothero's quote:
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 theologiansdo 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)

Epistemological objections aside, my question is whether an approach such as Prothero's can really do justice to the subject matter of the Bible (its Sache, as a whole bunch of German Biblical scholars have put it).

Perhaps I can present the issue 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, sachgemäß).

2) Which side of the religiou/theological dichotomy described above best equips us to read the Bible "on its own terms"?

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

Let's compare Prothero's quote with one by a famous Old Testament scholar: Gerhard von Rad (who operated in the heyday of the academy's confidence about its capacities to be objective).

Prothero saif 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.
In terms of Biblical scholarship, the goal of reading the Bible is to understand how other people ruminated on God.

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, and this witnessing activity is part of its historical intentionality, the reason for its existence in the first place. As far as von Rad was concerned, this view is not a pious move made by theologically minded scholars hoping to retain the Bible's relevance beyond the confines of past history, it is a scientific statement about the actual 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 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? And what should one be in order to understand the Bible?

(A related post is my Why exegesis needs dogmatics).


Douglas Mangum said...

I think Prothero's perspective helps if one is doing comparative religion-teaching Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, etc.

Can we accept all of their claims to be witnessing to ultimate reality? We can't scientifically prove any of them truly do so.

All we can do is observe what people in the real world do and say and believe and how they act in relation to their sacred texts or their religious traditions.

Prothero's not necessarily forcing a dichotomy. After all, he says that religious studies scholars can be religious; it's just not part of their academic work. Do you think it's disingenuous to try to maintain a distinction if one is religious and studying one's own religion?

Phil Sumpter said...

Thanks again for your thoughts. I've developed a certain misgiving over such dialogues over the past year or so, as I find it so hard to keep both sides of the pendulum in view. I'll respond to your comments as "balancedly" as possible.

All of your comments are concerned about possibilities, what one can reasonably expect to achieve in terms of the acquisition of knowledge about the Bible given the constraints inherent in our limited humanity. E.g., no one can objectively prove that the Lord is God, so given this fact, some would say it shouldn't be part of the conversation.

I think this is fair enough, as long as the aforementioned shouldn't be recognised as a pragmatic shouldn't, i.e. we don't really make talk of Jesus in the OT a major topic for OT academic discussion because 1) not every one believes it, 2) no one can "prove" it and so 3) our conversations would just be confusing at best. As such, for pragmatic reasons, issues of faith may be left to the side (as much as possible) and an attempt should be made to discover the lowest common denominator that unites us (the plain sense of the text? Not that that is a simple concept ...).

But shouldn't shouldn't be an "essential" shouldn't, as if talk of faith issues somehow inherently obscures our interpretation. Just because we can't prove something in an academic forum doesn't mean it is not a reality, that it is not, theoretically, relevant. Jesus never tried to prove that the scriptures spoke of him, but he believed that believing whether they did or not guaranteed a good grasp of their message nonetheless.

The only conclusion from this is that an academic forum is not necessarily the best forum for figuring out what the Bible is about. There are other contexts too, such as church or synagogue or just raw, subjectively lived experience. My conclusion is that we need an academic forum to keep us on our toes and to teach us about all kinds of dimensions of the text that are important (the shape of the birthday card, to continue the metaphor; knowing when the party starts, for example, is important for actually getting there on time). But the academic forum also needs other foren (-en or -a?), because the nature of the text is such that it invites us to a dimension of reality that explodes our normal "academic" categories (what did Jesus say about the scribes/scholars?). This reality is experienced by those who stand in continuity with the community witnessed to in the text - Israel. This is what they claim, at least. To continue the metaphor: they know the party boy and can tell you what to bring. The question is, do we ignore them at our peril?

[By the way, to answer your question, I only think the scholar would be disingenuous if he pretended that his religious commitments were irelevant to his thinking and work, i.e. if he posed an a dispassionate, objective, researcher.]

Douglas Mangum said...


I think you're right that we ultimately need both the academic perspective and the philosophical/theological one because they teach us different things. I think part of the problem (and what has created this dichotomy in my mind at least) is how to handle it when scholars blur the line and confuse their theological commitments for an academically sound interpretation. That is, when they don't recognize that a Christological reading (to take one example) is a theological interpretation of the OT, not a meaning inherent in the text from an academic perspective. I probably need to find a way to balance and integrate these approaches more than I do right now. I think I'm still trying to figure out where the line is - and what conclusions are or are not acceptable in certain arenas.

Anonymous said...

I would posit that the various people who wrote the various books of the Bible were in any sense theologians.

Nor is the Bible in any sense a theological text.

Jesus certainly wasnt a theologian.
Nor was Isaiah or any of the great prophets of the Old Testament.

Neither was Buddha or Krishna etc etc

Nor, with rare exception were any of the Illuminated saints that have appeared all over the world.

The same applies for the many many people who wrote the Sacred Texts from all of the other traditions. And the texts too.

By the way there have not been any Illuminated saints in the West for hundreds of years now. And the appearance of such is totally impossible within the Protestant tradition!

Plus theology has nothing whatsoever to do with Truth either.

Douglas Mangum said...

Anonymous, I would posit that you are missing a word in your first sentence and that you meant the biblical writers were NOT theologians in any sense. Your comment, either way, doesn't advance the discussion since you sweep away all religious traditions and deny anything the status of "theology." Of course, you never defined what a true theological text might look like. I'm at a loss to determine what purpose your comment actually serves, delivered as it was under the protection of anonymity with a degrading tone toward all religion. Thanks for illustrating why I moderate comments on my own blog and rarely publish anything anonymous.

Phil Sumpter said...

Hi Doug,

thanks for your thoughtful response. I really like this key phrase: " part of the problem ... is how to handle it" (this being the cause of your dichotomy). I think this is the issue for most scholars, including believing ones wanting to do justice to the text. There is a genuine struggle that we all have to go through here. In fact , "struggle" is a key in Childs' later thought (as you know, he's my hero!). His final book is all about this: The Struggle to read Isaiah as Christian Scripture (see also the paradox he speaks of here). My main concern in this series of posts is that there is a struggle, an informed and sensitive one, but a struggle nonetheless. I think that the text demands nothing less.

A last "quibble": I still don't get this new dichotomy: theological meaning/inherent meaning. It's one thing to talk about a depth to meaning to the text and an ultimate referent, it's another to say that this meaning is not "inherent," i.e. imposed from outside and subject to the whim of the interpreter. Having said that, you did qualify this with "from an academic perspective," ... which just goes to show the limits of such a perspective.


I'd appreciate if you could relate your propositions to the argument of my post.

Shawn said...


I hope I'm not coming to this discussion too late. I suppose my comments may be obvious to everyone here, but I find it important to make nonetheless. I see inherent in Prothero's quotation a very modernist/Enlightenment bias toward a perceived objectivity. As one who does not believe in the myth of objectivity, I would much rather that a scholar be forthright about their particular bias. If they are approaching a text, they are doing so from some type of cultural context whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist or humanist/atheist (among many other non-religious cultural contexts as well). I would find that a much richer engagement than pretending that one is approaching the text "objectively".


Douglas Mangum said...

why whenever someone says they're trying to be objective is it immediately pointed out to them that post-modern thinking has revealed this is an impossible thing? I think that's missing the point.

It's not that we can be completely objective. It's that we're trying to be. Trying to be objective means being self-critical about one's own presuppositions and biases, acknowledging their existence and hopefully being aware when they're coloring one's interpretation.

Further, an academic approach to religion starts with the assumption that the object of study is the visible human expression of religion, not the divine ultimate reality claimed to be revealed by religion. I think that explains why theology is doing religion vs. studying religion.

The academic study of religion doesn't privilege the truth claims of any religion. I highly recommend Michael Satlow's explanation of these assumptions. Go here for the link.

Phil Sumpter said...


I think Doug agrees with you. It's just a matter of trying, which I think is fair enough. The whole point of a norm is that it is outside and over against us. People like Barton appeal to Luther to justify this kind of reading. I think it's fair enough, as far as it goes. My issue is simply how one goes about doing this. Objectivity in my book doesn't mean being shorn of dogma, or even trying to be shorn of it. It's a matter of trying to maintain a humble dialectic between the broader theological reality and its particular witnesses.


I reiterated my thoughts to Shawn above. I agree with you that the main issue is not objectivity/subjectivity but a non-faith vs a faithful stance vis-à-vis the Bible. My main point is that a non-faith stance cannot do justice to the Bible's subject matter, as that subject matter is a living God who explodes all our categories and turns us into the objects of inquiry, a God who does through the medium of authoritative tradition, a tradition which has latterly turned into Scripture. He has always been present and working and he still is. It's not just objective facts or foreign concepts that stand over against us and which demand a non-biased interpretation, it is God himself who stands over against us and demands that we step into the circle of faith, seeing the world through his eyes. This inevitably means seeing the world through the eyes of the community that he has redeemed, and with those eyes reading the text for its true theological message. Within this circle there is also a necessary process of self-critique in light of authoritative tradition (=Scripture), but it is within the tradition, and not an attempt to step outside it.

I have to admit, I'm finding it hard to express my understanding here! The fact that I'm writing under time-stress doesn't help either! Anyway, thanks for engaging me on this issue! I certainly think that the kind of academic interpretation you are trying to do is valuable and indeed vital for the Church.

Douglas Mangum said...

Phil, the importance of what you're saying has recently been impressed upon me, and I'm starting to see the inherent danger to faith that the dichotomy accepted by academic religious studies creates. You stop privileging claims related to faith and theology and eventually lose sight of the ultimate truth behind the text. Thanks for your thoughts that have been a good part of the struggle that I'm working through to relate to the way I've been reading the Bible.

Phil Sumpter said...

Well, I've really appreciated your thoughtful comments. I hope there will be more dialogues in the future!