Can an academic approach to the Bible help nurture faith?

Tim Bulkeley writing in December’s Bible and Interpretation seeks to explain what he sees as a widening disconnect between those who understand the Bible in light of academic research and most other lay Christians who live faith-led lives, e.g. the televangelist and young earth creationist crowds carefully quarantined from intellectual scrutiny.

Bulkeley believes that this divide has been exacerbated by the insularity of the academic approach to biblical studies. Even seminaries, he writes, “have increasingly bought into [the] modern and post-modern styles of Bible reading,” many of which, despite being “exciting, challenging, and intellectually satisfying,” he deems too beholden to “materialistic practical atheism.” So even many Christians initially interested in deepening their academic understanding of the faith by going to seminary find themselves more attracted to less intellectual and indeed anti-intellectual forms of Christianity. His solution is

…not to offer more, and more entertainingly presented, instruction in neuro-reflexological readings of biblical texts. Nor is it a good dose of minimalist historiography. The effective response is simpler than that, and more radical. Offer religious readings of the sacred texts to religious students. Recognize and celebrate their (our?) faith, and explore the texts within that framework, with spiritual goals in view. Such a study would not focus almost exclusively on the last century or two of scholarship. Rather it would give students a sense of how our spiritual ancestors wrestled with the texts. Thus revealing that our predecessors read the Bible using a range of non-literal hermeneutics, and how they read parts in the light of the whole. Particularly it would show that Christian readers in the past understood everything in Scripture in the light of the story of Jesus. After such a course of study our seminary students will be able to withstand the wiles of the Fundamentalists, whether of the atheist or the creation scientist varieties. 

Bulkeley doesn’t much address the other, perhaps more likely reaction to solely critical approaches to the Bible, namely faith abandonment, focusing more on the essential escapism that motivates and perpetuates Christian faith skeptical of mainstream academic analysis of the Bible, but he does state that the medicine he prescribes will prevent both brands of “fundamentalism”.

I am uncomfortable with some of his characterizations of the contributions of non-confessional, “secular” tools of biblical and historical research, but I do agree that teaching Christians what to think about their faith should be something other than merely deconstructive. It is no crime against the scholarly understanding of Scripture to present it without undermining faith in the Christian God, either through the wrecking ball of critical scholarship or starvation brought on by concentrating on everything but personal faith. Recognizing that you can’t get a daily devotional out of each and every passage doesn’t preclude an abiding awareness of the meaning of God we have inherited from the community of faith we are heirs to.

On this blog, I have sought on multiple occasions to examine the reasons why critical studies have in my life been the reflex of a healthy personal faith and not been considered an attack upon it. When reading Bulkeley’s post I was reminded how differently my own introduction to critical scholarship was, and I’d like to take this opportunity to offer an example of a satisfying presentation of Scripture as analyzed by critical scholarship that is pervaded throughout by a deep reverence for God and for the men whose testimonies of their evolving understanding of God are chronicled in the Bible.

When I was in undergrad and starting to wrestle with the nature of the Bible, I happened upon the recently late Catholic scholar Lawrence Boadt’s Reading the Old Testament among the books my dad had accumulated for some theology courses he took when I was a youngster. Although in some need of a revision incorporating more recent critical scholarship, I still think this book holds up fairly well, not only as an introduction to the study of the Old Testament, but especially as a template for what an approach to the Bible looks like that takes its mind from honest biblical scholarship and its heart from within the “faith of our fathers, living still.”

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  • Do you think it has been easier for you to retain faith being at a seminary…i.e. perhaps you have a community of like people struggling with similar issues? I have felt very alone in my venture…both in grad school in the sciences, and now in my personal research on theology. Being a stay at home mom and now a homeschooler has further alienated me! I live near duke divinity school, so you would think i cant possibly the only one?

    • Actually, I felt I was only one of two or three folks at my Christian college seriously struggling with faith issues. Moreover, most of my real struggles came after I left college. I know virtually no one apart from my online interactions who I would consider a partner in my journey. This has been sufficient for me, but then again, I sought and embraced these discoveries rather than feeling like they seeped in around me unawares to drown me out!

  • John

    Hi, I am from Australia.

    What then do you make of this radical Spiritually Informed critique of the fabricated origins and political purposes of the Bible – purposes which were to consolidate the worldly power of the church “fathers” who put the “official” Bible together.

    Plus an interesting essay on the nature of the archaic mind that informed old-time religiosity.

    Plus religion and the Parental Deity (the mommy-daddy “creator” God)

    • Hi John,

      There’s no doubt that power grabs have come into play in every stage in the production/canonization of the Bible. There is precious little evidence that the books omitted from the canon were omitted under such scandalous motives. Unlike most of those that were omitted, the books within the canon hold together rather well. Canonization was not a centralized process undertaken by a cabal, but a curative process taking place over hundreds of years. What got left out got left out for good reasons, reasons they were transparent about. It actually helps our confidence in the project to know how we got it. This isn’t to say that it’s absolutely perfect, but I affirm that we what we have is what God ultimately intended for us to have. It is a fallacy of the first order to discount anything based solely on the dubious motives of the person or people presenting it (the genetic fallacy).

      The merits of the Bible and the Parental Deity model, the “archaic mind that informed old-time religiosity” notwithstanding, have all been sufficiently demonstrated for me such that merely hearing their origin described or being told that they’re not uniquely Christian don’t really affect my acceptance of them as adequate to help steer my faith.

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