Can Good Biblical Scholars also be Theologians?

Can good biblical scholars also be theologians?  Especially in light of the Theological Interpretation of Scripture club (J.B. Green, R. Hays, F.B. Watson, R.W.L. Moberly, B. Gaventa, M.M. Thompson, etc…), many would say “Of course!”  It is interesting, though, that I came across two very different views of this at the same time while reading two separate documents.

Firstly, I am reviewing M. Zetterholm’s Approaches to Paul (Fortress, 2009) for RBL (due in January).  Zetterholm argues, essentially, that it is a mistake to view Paul as an outsider to Judaism.  In his opinion, scholarly readings of Paul’s attitude towards Judaism are distorted by misguided theological presumptions about the ostensible conflict between Christianity and Judaism.  So, Z. appears to take concern that Bultmann and Kaesemann let their theology discolor their reading of the ancient texts regarding both Paul and Judaism.  Though Z. may be right, I take concern with some of his statements that make it seem that theological perspectives and convinctions will always distort good historical reading.  Consider this quote:

When the atrocities of the death camps  [of the Holocaust] became widely known, time was ripe for a serious reassessment of the synthesis between theology and biblical scholarship (p. 95).

Speaking in primarily a negative light, Z. refers to Bultmann, Kaesemann and Bornkamm as those who ‘personified the synthesis between scholar and theologian’ (p. 81).

It would appear that, according to Z., the theologian and the scholar must be split like conjoined twins that will die unless separated.  If one must die so that the other may thrive, do we choose the ‘theologian’?

A very different perspective comes from R.R. Reno.  In a series of articles in First Things, Reno bemoans the fact that, at many so-called elite institutions, the atmosphere is aggressively post-Christian and there are too few people thinking about ‘the living form of faith in our time’.  It is also interesting to note the schools Reno does endorse: alongside Duke and Princeton Seminary, he also gives honorable mention to Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (largely because of Vanhoozer who is now leaving) and Baylor University (and he said this probably before knowing of Bruce Longenecker’s new appointment there!).

It is worth giving an extended quotation from Reno:

The moral character of a program matters a great deal. An uneven academic climate can be overcome by the special chemistry that can develop between an excellent mentor and a few really good professors and fellow graduate students. A culture of selfishness among faculty that leads to the neglect and poor treatment of graduate students—this is fatal.

A good graduate program in theology stands for something; it has a corporate personality. This is more important than most graduate school applicants realize. An intellectual is not someone who knows a lot. The goal is not just to fill your mind. Graduate study should help you develop an overall outlook, a habit of mind, a point of view.

This is why theological labels play an important and legitimate role: Thomist, Rahnerian, Barthian—or Liberal, Neo-orthodox, Liberationist, and so forth. These are not systems narrowly speaking. Instead, the labels signal ongoing projects, efforts to throw a wide array of intellectual judgments into coherent form. A good theology program need not be homogeneous, but it must have enough agreement among the faculty about key questions and issues to create a sense of common conversation.

I fear that students (and faculty) often underestimate the importance of corporate identity. Not long ago, Harvard Divinity School stood for something, as did Claremont and University of Chicago and Yale and Union in New York. They were alive with the urgency of the Liberal Protestant project: to negotiate the relationship between modern sentiments and the traditional demands of faith. Some gave priority to the authority of modernity, others to classical orthodoxy. But everyone understood the parameters of the debate.

The dramatic decline of the once dominant Liberal Protestant Establishment has diminished the programs in theology at all these schools. With no animating purpose, these programs tend to divvy up appointments: some historical specialists, a feminist, a liberationist, somebody doing world religions, perhaps a faculty member with a (very moderate) conservative outlook. (The same tends to happen in Catholic programs controlled by the much less intellectually interesting and socially significant Liberal Catholic academic establishment.) The sum is far less than the total of the parts. A graduate student might find one or two congenial professors, but no larger conversation. These programs have weak theological personalities.

Thus, Reno feels that a program will languish if it does not take at least some interest in ‘theology’ (or that is how I am reading him).  At Durham University, where I studied, theology and history were not enemies (at least not to many of the staff).  The question is: what role does theology play in historically-interested biblical scholarship?  What is missing when it is not there?

For more information about where to find Reno’s material see HERE.

Hottest NT Books at SBL

Though we are, of course, in an economic downturn, I was surprised that the book hall at SBL was teeming with life.  Though many publishers had downsized (in space and number of books), books were being snatched up quickly.  I will report my ‘picks’ from SBL soon, but I thought I might start off by discussing the “hottest” books.  These books, from what I could see, sold well, sold quickly, and sold out.  Now, it may have helped that a couple of these had review sessions at SBL, but I think they would have done well either way.  Also, being a “Paul” guy, primarily, I wasn’t paying close attention to Gospels books, but one makes the list.

After the First Urban Christians (eds. Todd Still, David Horrell, and Bruce Longenecker; Continuum) – a reassessment of Wayne Meeks’ classic, a quarter-century later.  The contributors are largely UK professors and lecturers, but experts nonetheless.  If memory serves me correctly, Meeks does offer a final essay in reflection of his work on this subject.

The Historical Jesus: Five Views (eds. J.K. Beilby and P. Eddy; IVP).  I have mentioned this book before, but it contains the views of Robert Price, John D. Crossan, Luke Timothy Johnson, Darrell Bock, and James Dunn.  Having read a bit about it from the IVP blog, it sounds fascinating.  I noticed the pile of books thinning out over the conference.

If you have been living in a hole in the desert, I will probably need to inform you of Douglas Campbell’s Deliverance of God.  Just google it and you will probably see the kind of discussions and debates it has already raised.  I did see several people at SBL walking around with it, but it should come with wheels and a handle for ease of transport as it is massive.

Finally, while I did not get a sense for how well it sold, there was a lot of buzz about Dunn’s history of early Christianity which, I have no doubt, will become an instant classic.  In many ways, and I have said this before, this is a historical counterpart to his Pauline theology book – but, of course, this Christian origins piece includes much more.  It should have been out at SBL last year, but just missed it by a couple of months.  So, had it been just off the presses this SBL, perhaps Eerdmans would have pushed it up higher on their advertising and promoting list.  Nevertheless, this book sells itself.  It is still in transit to me, as I shipped all my books when we moved back to the US.  When it arrives, I will get back into it.

Now that I think about it – my list has not leaned too far towards Paul books, though the authors of three of these are Pauline experts.  Nevertheless, I am sure I missed a book or two on Gospels, Acts, or the Catholic Epistles and Revelation.  Do others want to report on books that were flying off the shelves?  I don’t want to just buy into fads, but if folks are shelling out the bucks the buy books (and their wives/husbands are giving them permission to buy!), then it might help to know what people are investing in!  Do tell!

[NB: Kevin Hill pointed out that I had originally said “Hottest Books at SBL”, but I meant hottest NT books…  You OT folks can pitch in, though, as I would still like to know!]