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Praising God through Academic Biblical Studies: Less Hypermodernist Objectivism, More Affect!

October 11, 2012

Why such an emphasis on wanting to get as close to the “original text” of the Bible as possible? Or, as some scholars call it, the “earliest attainable text”?

Earlier this week I wrote a bit about scholarly editions of the Jewish Scriptures, both the Greek and the Hebrew.

But I began asking myself today, why am I so interested in a rigorous scholarly pursuit of the text of the Bible in Hebrew and Greek?

One reason is that I love to learn. On the Strengthsfinder assessment I came out with “Learner” as my top strength both times I took the test. “Achiever” was not far behind. (See here for the descriptions of the 34 strengths themes in that assessment.) Here’s an excerpt from the description of the “Learner” strength that applies to me:

You love to learn. The subject matter that interests you most will be determined by your other themes and experiences, but whatever the subject, you will always be drawn to the process of learning. The process, more than the content or the result, is especially exciting for you. You are energized by the steady and deliberate journey from ignorance to competence.

All true, except that when it comes especially to my pursuit of biblical studies, the process, the content, and the result are “especially exciting” for me.

Why?

The late Arthur Holmes articulates beautifully:

Christ the Truth becomes the dominant motivation in intellectual inquiry. No dichotomy of sacred and secular tasks can be allowed, and no subject is exempt.

The student will therefore welcome truth and submit to it wherever it is found, out of obedience to Christ. Academic work becomes an opportunity to extend the Lordship of Christ over the mind; thought merges into worship.

“Thought merges into worship.” I love this. And I think this is why–more than just being a “Learner”–I so love to delve into the depths of Scripture, in the most “original” form that I possibly can.

I’m not overly fastidious about Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic–as if God really spoke through those languages and then anything else is just mediated and somehow a dilution of God’s actual words. (Isn’t all language already mediation anyway?) If the word of God is “living and active,” it can be living and active in its faithful translations into other languages.

But one reason I geek out so much about the Septuagint and the Hebrew Bible is that in my study I feel myself getting closer to that amazing time when God gave his word to humanity to be transmitted to future generations: first orally, then in written form. And I love seeing how the translators of the Hebrew Bible wrestled with putting the Hebrew into Greek. I love seeing how the New Testament writers grappled with, contextualized, and recontextualized the Old Testament.

I don’t even mind that at the moment I’m a bit perplexed by how Paul could both praise the law as being from God yet also refer to it as a “the ministry that brought death.”

Why?

Because for me, as of late, my thoughts and my studies of Scripture–even at a scholarly level–have begun to “[merge] into worship.” How can I not praise the God behind these amazing words? Though we may never know what the autograph of any part of Scripture actually said, I believe we can get close.

And somehow the closer I get to the text of the Bible–in a scholarly setting–the closer I feel to God.

Not always, of course–sometimes I’m just confused. (Dash the heads of infants against rocks? And we pray these Psalms in liturgical settings???) But there’s been a real richness for me lately in delving into the Bible in its original languages, comparing variant readings across manuscripts and versions, trying to figure out why one Synoptic Gospel said it this way, why this one said it another way…. Even in seeking to answer those questions, I know that I am seeking more of God and God’s revelation.

This is not a taken-for-granted view of things in the field of biblical studies. Take this, for instance, from Michael V. Fox:

In my view, faith-based study has no place in academic scholarship, whether the object of study is the Bible, the Book of Mormon, or Homer. Faith-based study is a different realm of intellectual activity that can dip into Bible scholarship for its own purposes, but cannot contribute to it.

I haven’t contacted Michael V. Fox to confirm this, but I’d wager that what I’m describing above constitutes some sort of “faith-based study,” or at least, study that is informed by and that enriches faith.

But a bit more context from Fox:

The claim of faith-based Bible study to a place at the academic table takes a toll on the entire field of Bible scholarship. The reader or student of Bible scholarship is likely to suspect (or hope) that the author or teacher is moving toward a predetermined conclusion. Those who choose a faith-based approach should realize that they cannot expect the attention of those who don’t share their postulates. The reverse is not true. Scholars who are personally religious constantly draw on work by scholars who do not share their postulates. One of the great achievements of modern Bible scholarship is that it communicates across religious borders so easily that we usually do not know the beliefs of its practitioners.

I’m okay with trying to set aside a “predetermined conclusion,” though skeptical of that possibility. (Does Fox believe in the modernist project?)

Fox goes on, “The best thing for Bible appreciation is secular, academic, religiously-neutral hermeneutic.”

Sigh.

Taking the Psalms as an example, one cannot appreciate the Psalms who does not pray the Psalms. And wouldn’t good scholarship (religiously motivated or not) call for us to engage the text on the author’s terms? How can one do good scholarship on David, for example, if one is not willing to engage the text in the way that David intended for it to be engaged? If he wrote a Psalm for corporate singing or reciting, is the individual in her or his library carrel who seeks to bracket out faith commitments going to get anywhere near to uncovering the meaning and import of that Psalm until she or he sings it with others?

Fox’s whole article is here.

Parker Palmer has a good rejoinder:

Objectivism—which is a complete myth with respect to how real people have ever known anything real—has great political persuasiveness because it gives us the illusion that we are in charge.

But gospel truth, transformational truth, says that we are not masters but are subject to powers larger than ourselves—and that we are blessed with the chance to be co-creators of something good if we are willing to work in harmony with those larger powers.

If we embrace a gospel way of knowing, we can create a different kind of education and perhaps a different world: a world where all of us are called to embody whatever truth we know; where we gather together with others to check, correct, confirm, and deepen whatever insights we may have; where we understand that, even as we seek truth, truth is seeking us; and where there can be those vital transformations, personal and social, that might take us a step closer to the beloved community.

So when it comes to biblical studies, I say: less hypermodernist objectivism, more affect! Let’s allow our thoughts–as Dr. Holmes suggested–to merge into worship; our studies into praise; our reading into praying.

My quest for the earliest attainable text of the Bible, I am realizing, is driven by scholarly interest and a general drive to learn, yes. But more than that, I want to know God more fully through this academic pursuit. My insatiable desire to master Greek noun declensions, Hebrew verb parsings, and intertextual allusions is in the end a desire to be mastered by the God who stands behind the words of Scripture.

But that kind of a posture doesn’t compromise scholarship, in my view. It makes it richer, deeper, and directed toward its most proper end.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. David Bradley permalink
    October 11, 2012 8:26 am

    One of your best posts ever. Im so proud of you, roommate!

  2. Kielsmeier Deborah permalink
    October 11, 2012 11:13 am

    I love this. Your calling really shines through Abram.

  3. October 11, 2012 3:40 pm

    Nice post, Abe. On the head-dashing psalm: a pastor friend tells of a time a lay reader of average or worse biblical literacy got stuck with that one in a worship service. (I know, I know–they should have been SINGING it.) When the reader got to the notorious line, he stopped reading, turned to the pastor seated nearby and just said, “Really?”

    • abramkj permalink
      October 11, 2012 3:50 pm

      LOL. That’s awesome. I would have loved to be there for that.

  4. October 12, 2012 8:00 am

    Cool thoughts Abram. Let me disagree.
    I really like the Fox approach: “The best thing for Bible appreciation is secular, academic, religiously-neutral hermeneutic.” I do not think, as you seem to, that objectivity undercuts a worshipfulness of one’s scholarly projects. I think objectivity informs it. I agree with Dallas Willard, who often remarks (personal communication) that worship is best exhibited in excellence. This is why the plumber can worship through his work.
    All forms of scholarship are made more excellent by a scientific form of study, where hypotheses are considered objectively, including Biblical scholarship. For instance, the Oxford Annotated Bible is an excellent work in part due to its editors’ disbelief in inerrancy and inspiration. This frees up the mind to engage in an honest appraisal of available data (including ‘earliest available text’).
    I’m not suggesting that biblical scholarship can only be conducted by secular scholars, but rather I think it is best engaged in a virtual workspace of “methodological naturalism,” where the text is considered as something separate from one’s personal predilections of inspiration, etc. After all, if it is actually inspired (as I think it is) then this feature will simply benefit the meaning of the interpretation arrived at by this naturalist viewpoint. (This ‘added value’ is one motivating force behind accomodationist views of scripture.)
    Let me add an extra kick to this claim: no real scholarly journal of Biblical scholarship would publish an article that explicitly presumed evangelical biases. This is not because of secular bias on the part of top-tier journals, but rather because of a general recognition of the academy that real scholarship must be as objective as possible.

    • October 12, 2012 9:52 am

      Thanks for your comments, Brian. I’m glad to get to interact with you more on these things.

      Good point about “objectivity” not necessarily undercutting “a worshipfulness of one’s scholarly projects.” I didn’t mean to make that equation. (Though I think there is at least a possibility that could happen.) And you and I are in total agreement about worship being exhibited through excellence.

      Where I think we disagree is in what constitutes excellence in interpreting Scripture.

      I’m not sure I agree that “all forms of scholarship are made more excellent by a scientific form of study, where hypotheses are considered objectively, including Biblical scholarship.” Setting aside for the moment the difficulty (impossibility?) of the project of scientific objectivity, I think it can actually function anachronistically in some contexts. In other words, we impose a standard on a text, it fails that standard, then we reject what that text was saying in some measure–but it misses the point of what the author was trying to do, then. If there are two creation accounts that we have trouble reconciling, for example, that might fail some standard of scientific objectivity, isn’t that perhaps a moot point to the literary intent (loaded word, I know) of the author?

      I’m assuming there’s debate in the world of philosophy right now about what methodologies are best in scholarship? If you know of any writing on this, I’d be curious to read more, or even just hear more from you on why you find that particular hermeneutic to be the best/most useful.

      I share your appreciation of the Oxford Annotated Bible (a copy sits on our shelves at home). A question, though: why privilege “methodological naturalism” in the context of a text that seems to be making at least occasional supernaturalistic claims? Should we not at least begin with an effort to interpret a text on its own terms? Especially if we have reasons to believe in the “authority” of the God who stands behind that text?

      The other challenge for me is, how does methodological naturalism explain miracles or supernatural events? If it discounts them or says, “Such and such couldn’t possibly have happened,” isn’t that just as presuppositionalist as any other starting point? I know *you’re* not saying that, but I ask about the application of that method to its encounters with supernaturalistic claims in the text.

      My study of philosophy and the dabbling I did in postmodernism had let me to believe that at least in some fields, the academy had given up on the ideal of being as “objective as possible.” I’ve been surprised to see I may have misunderstood the lay of the land!

  5. October 13, 2012 4:21 pm

    Thoughts turn into worship! That’s just how I’m thinking on the sermon I’m preparing🙂 God Bless, you..

    • abramkj permalink
      October 13, 2012 7:58 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Peter! Glad to hear others are thinking the same way.

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