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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