On Being Biblical

I’ve noticed, since I began studying theology, that there are two vastly different ways one can use the term biblical. Most evangelical Christians tend to use it in the sense of a person’s arguments or ideas (1) drawing directly from verses or passages of the Bible and (2) conforming to evangelical interpretations of Scripture. In short, biblical almost becomes a synonym for orthodox. So in response to the question of whether a certain church is good, an evangelical might say, “yeah, they’re biblical,” which means that the pastor uses the Bible in his sermons and stays close to typical evangelical ideas. Therefore, in most non-academic evangelical circles, studying “theology” is tantamount to studying the Bible.

Now, transport to the modern academy. The department of biblical studies may not even be in the same building as the department of theology. The term biblical in biblical studies has taken on a much more pragmatic meaning. It simply implies broadly that one is studying the Bible (albeit through the conventions and norms that have grown up within the academy).

So when one hears the term biblical theology thrown around in an academic setting, it means something vastly different from how Joe Evangelical might use it at his home group Bible study on Tuesday night, where he uses it to mean orthodox evangelical theology, theology that adheres to (1) and (2) in the first paragraph. Biblical scholars, on the other hand, use the term biblical theology, first of all, to differentiate it from systematic theology but, more importantly, to indicate that their ideas will take their cues from the thought patterns and narratives of Scripture, vetted of course by biblical scholars, and not from foreign philosophical systems (most notably, Platonism).

(I realize I’m painting in ridiculously large strokes here. Have mercy in the comment box.)

These two meanings create some odd dynamics in academic evangelical circles. For instance, when they start studying “theology,” evangelicals are immediately drawn, naturally enough, to biblical studies, thinking this is what it means to study theology and that to be “biblical” in the evangelical sense of the word is to enter the realm of biblical studies. How could studying theology ever be better than getting right down to the Bible!? But whereas evangelicals want to pursue “biblical studies” because of their confessional commitment to the validity and inspiration of Scripture, the discipline of biblical studies arose precisely as a liberation from just such theological commitments. One of the main things to get used to in studying theology in an academic setting is that the discipline of “theology” and the discipline of “biblical studies” are two almost completely different things. The evangelical retort will be, of course, that good theology must be biblical. It must draw directly from Scripture and in so doing tether itself to the truth. Of course, of course. I sincerely couldn’t agree more, but this retort is exactly what creates the little irony I’m exploring here. Reuniting the two is not as simple as John Stott and J.I. Packer—as much as I respect them both—would have us believe, and evangelicals usually operate under the notion that one equals the other. The two simply have vastly different assumptions about what it means to read the Bible. Of course, there are scholars on both ends of the spectrum who unite Scripture and theology, with varying results. Wayne Grudem is an evangelical systematic theologian who essentially compiles all the relevant portions of Scripture and applies them to the various Christian doctrines and then presents the synthesis as an unbreakable marble edifice of truth. His would be the prime example of the first type of “biblical” theology (i.e., biblical as Scriptural and thus orthodox). On the other side, two German systematic theologians, Hans Kung and Wolfhart Pannenberg, work very hard to incorporate the findings of biblical scholars into their work. Kung’s and Pannenberg’s attempts at “biblical” theology look much more like the second definition—biblical as an adherence to the findings of New and Old Testament scholars, regardless of their confessional stances. Despite these attempts, I haven’t found a satisfying answer to the rift between confessional, evangelical, orthodox readings of Scripture on one hand and the hard evidence of biblical criticism on the other. It is simply a problem to be worked on, and the solution will not be quick or simple.

What this all comes down to, I think, is that both evangelicals and biblical scholars have trouble admitting to their assumptions. Evangelicals can naively assume that to read Scripture is to have the truth. Biblical scholars can hubristically argue that they have the immutable facts of history at their fingertips. Part of this problem lies in an ironic twist of history. Evangelicals and biblical scholars are, in their own unique ways, stepchildren of the Enlightenment—a movement that claimed access to that marble edifice of truth swept free of the old traditions and superstitions of the past. In the process, it may be worth asking whether evangelicals and biblical scholars both may have swept their feet out from under them.


5 comments so far

  1. Dad on

    What would you say “the hard evidence of biblical criticism” is, especially as it seems, as I understand your view, to be incompatible with “confessional, evangelical, orthodox readings of Scripture?”

  2. jeffreimer on

    I should have said “so-called hard evidence,” since most biblical scholars come up with different “hard evidence.”

    That said, instead of taking the words of Scripture at face value (as evangelicals tend to do), some more liberal biblical scholars take their historical historical reconstruction of, say, the life of Jesus as hard evidence. Often in these reconstructions, the Gospels are taken as highly unreliable sources due to the writers’ agendas.

    So what I think is incompatible between the two is that most evangelicals hold to a strict doctrine of inerrancy, whereas most biblical scholars’ doctrines of inerrancy and even inspiration is extremely augmented from the evangelical view. Most evangelicals take this for granted when they start reading biblical criticism.

    Put shortly:

    Hard evidence for biblical scholars = historical reconstruction of the world behind the text

    Hard evidence for evangelicals = inspiration of scripture (and inerrancy)

  3. Matt Smith on

    Your careful clarification of this issue is very helpful. I especially appreciate your introduction of what seems to be the key variable: the Enlightenment. “Evangelicals and biblical scholars are, in their own unique ways, stepchildren of the Enlightenment.” Indeed.

    I’m genuinely curious, though: is there a third stepchild? Do you detect a similar difference between the way the generally educated public and those of you formally trained in theology use the word “theology”?

    I’m thinking specifically of the way Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Jonathan Miller or even Norman Mailer speak of personal “theologies,” or refer to “religion, theology and theodicy” as general categories. I assume they aren’t referring to systematic theology, per se.

    Do you find instances like these to be a little less problematic? Do you experience a similar dissonance? Or maybe it’s problematic in a completely different way?

  4. nonnusjon on

    Hopefully this will not go too far afield from your initial question, Jeff. But here’s an interesting note regarding the role of the Enlightenment in all things “biblical.”

    Soren Kierkegaard has been quoted to have said,
    “Christian scholarship is the Church’s invention to defend itself against the Bible.”

    His perspective is (I gather) that the Bible is such an aggressive, self-governing entity that a word like “biblical” cannot mean anything like orthodoxy (“a person’s arguments or ideas… conforming to evangelical interpretations of Scripture”) or have anything to do with scholarly (mortal) reconstructions of marble-hard truth.

    In other words, Kierkegaard makes a fine point: Tossing around the word “biblical” is intrinsically problematic because of the nature of the Bible–and it just might be a strictly rationalistic way of speaking.

  5. jeffreimer on


    I’m not familiar with Norman Mailer or Jonathan Miller on religion and theology, but Dawkins and Hitchens use the term religion as more of a straw man to be blown to smitherines than in any kind of technical or nuanced sense. They’ve both, in fact, been roundly criticized for failing to actually engage with any theologians themselves.

    But religion in the intellectual secular world, I would think, is generally used more in a post-Jamesian way to describe the sociological and psychological categories of religious experience. This is interesting apropos my blog entry, because biblical scholars carry on in something closer to this tradition. In fact, i was recently talking to a friend of mine who is now working on his Ph.D. in New Testament studies (who I thought my post would have riled up enough to show up in the comment box already), and he mentioned that certain scholars get criticized for being too theological, the assumption being that they have transgressed the modes and methods of sociology and history.

    Another way of looking at the categories of “theology, theodicy and religion” in intellectual discouse would be to borrow a conceptual tool from the Neo-Calvinists. They speak of two forms of theology, theology1 and theology2 (imagine superscripts). In public discourse, we probably refer more to theology2, that is, a more general set of working precritical assumptions that we hold about God as groups and subgroups in society. Theology1, on the other hand, refers to the actual, conscious (dare I say systematic or academic?) ways of doing theology that explicitly develop doctrines and dogma. The two, of course, are not in any way discreet from each other, and the two draw on and influence each other, consciously and unconsciously.

    In the end, we are all stepchildren of the Enlightenment.


    A couple things. First, your interpretation of Kierkegaard is perfectly Barthian! The word of God–and hence any notion of being “biblical”–comes to us so radically from the outside that it can never be domesticated by any culture, method or interpretation.

    Second, statements like this from Kierkegaard become more illuminating when taken in their historical context. his attack on Christendom was an attack on the Danish Lutheran church, which had achieved unquestioned hegemony. How does our culture, our church, deserve the kind of scathing critique Kierkegaard was just starting to deliver in his day? In what ways does it not? In other words, in what ways has the church already been cast aside and in what ways does it exert both positive and pernicious influences?

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