Wednesday, May 23, 2012

On Atomizing and Creating Biblical Models

In his blog post today, Michael Bird brought back to my attention a nearly 50-year old statement I read years ago from the pen of one of the 20th century's great New Testament scholars, Oscar Cullmann:
[T]he fountainhead of all false biblical interpretation and of all heresy is invariably the isolation and the absolutising of one single passage. (The State in the New Testament, 47).
This is undoubtedly true, and it coalesces with some concerns I have had lately about the state of Christianity in America as well as a post yesterday by Pete Enns entitled "What Biblical Scholars Do (since you were likely losing sleep about it)."  Enns has in his sights the "average Christian reader" from the "evangelical" tradition who believes in Scripture's "inerrancy" and "perspicuity" — a fancy theological term that means "clarity" — and presumes that all one needs to do to understand it is to read it "straight" according to its "plain meaning."  On the contrary, Enns points out:
Biblical scholars build models.

A model is a way of accounting for as much of the available data as possible in as coherent and persuasive manner as possible, producing along the way as little cognitive dissonance as possible.

A model is a hypothesis of what the “big picture” looks like. Models do not focus on biblical issues in isolation, but are after the big picture. All biblical scholars–fundamentalist to liberal and everything in between–have models that form the intellectual parameters within which they handle the particulars of biblical interpretation.

Ideally, biblical scholars understand that the model and the data (the forest and the trees) are in dialogue. They are self-consciously aware of the paradox that models can both guide and distort biblical interpretation. A good biblical scholar will embrace that tension, which means being on the lookout for when the model moves from help to hindrance.
Most Christians are aware of the various theological models scholars have devised to "make sense" of Scripture, whether such opposing systems as Calvinism and Arminianism or Covenant Theology and Dispensationalism — which have greater or lesser authority depending on ecclesial or academic context —  or such dogmas as Trinitarianism, which have gained universal credence among all orthodox branches of the church.  Biblical scholars, on the other hand, as Enns points out, are singularly unimpressed by claims of authority located in theological tradition, no matter how venerable.  If a model is proposed that explains the particulars of the text more fully and more elegantly, they are wont to adopt the new paradigm, as always, provisionally.  It is this fact that explains the major paradigm shifts (to use the terminology of Thomas Kuhn) that occur from time to time in Old and New Testament studies, as well as the determined opposition to such shifts from traditionalists whose careers and livelihood often depend on maintaining the status quo.  In my experience, this has played out with regard to the so-called "New Perspective on Paul," which, despite the illumination it provides, inter alia, to the historical-critical contours of the Epistle to the Galatians, has been resisted with deadly force by those whose theological paradigms are thereby called into question.

The average Christian, including a large number of those studying for Christian service, remain blissfully ignorant of what biblical scholars do and why they do it.  A former student once told me she wished she could go back to the "simple" way she used to read and follow the Bible, before Bible College interrupted her previous bliss.  Well, I told her, it simply can't be done — at least if one wants to be a responsible Christian.

Indeed, it is easier to shut one's eyes and hold tightly to what Scot McKnight has recently called a "magical Bible," which is assumed to be about "me and my relationship with God" (understood individualistically and pietistically), and to which is ascribed an unreflective, unnuanced "inerrancy" and, even worse, a "perspicuity" understood as "what appears clear to me."  (BTW, I am not denying either inerrancy or perspicuity; both need to be defined and circumscribed carefully, however).  Sadly, most are even unaware that all Christians understand the Bible on the basis of an assumed theological model, whether that is the one consciously taught at their church or one infused by the assumptions of the larger culture in which they live.  Such an environment breeds heresy, especially where the stubborn democratic assumptions of American culture reign unopposed. 

As a practical matter, all of us interpret the Bible as it appears normal to us in our various historical and cultural situatedness, and all of us  are thereby guilty of shoving the stubborn bits that don't easily fit our paradigms under the rug, where we fervently hope that others won't notice.  Hence the importance of holding all our views lightly and provisionally, and of constantly working to refine our understandings.

But this means one more thing as well: the importance of rigorous academic training for those charged with the preaching and teaching ministries of the church.  I know this isn't popular in some circles.  Some, such as a certain breed of anti-intellectual fundamentalists, can safely be ignored.  Worrying about a slippery-slope to "liberalism" isn't justifiable warrant for perpetuating ignorance, and is in reality the antithesis to the faithfulness we should seek to embody.  Such folks won't have much influence anyway.  I have in mind rather the more culturally-aware brand of "Evangelicals" whose numbers are burgeoning in America today, whose influence can be seen in the redesigning of seminary curricula away from the biblical languages, exegesis, and historical theology toward more "practical" concerns based on the social sciences and, even worse, business models of success.

I am aware, painfully aware, of the financial cost of theological education and the rather bleak compensation most graduates of such schools will receive even if they land a job in Christian ministry.  I am also aware, as one who spent 16 years in graduate school, of the cost in time and personal relationships such education exacts.  I am aware that "success" in "ministry" is often inversely proportionate to the academic excellence one attains in graduate school.  I am aware that some desire to "train" Christian leaders and pastors in the two-thirds world without having them attend qualified, rigorous academic institutions (because of the desire not to "westernize" them — I ask, is it better to leave them reading the text without conscious awareness of their own cultural assumptions?).  But what is the option?  "Pastors" and "teachers" who cannot perform exegesis because of inability to read and study the text as it was written?  "Leaders" who approach the text with hermeneutical naivete, with a contemporary cultural awareness wedded to an ignorance of the biblical world?

It has often been said that one can prove anything one wants from the Bible.  Though slightly overstated — barely! — this is largely true.  What matters is the model one uses or the grid one applies to understand the particulars of the text.  I can think of no better or more important way to spend one's time than to work tirelessly to provide such a model or models for the people of God. 


  1. Dr. M, I agree that theological education is of paramount importance, especially for those who are leading God's flock. I don't think the cost of such education is ever justified, however. With higher education there simply must be a market value return on investment. Sure, you can't put a price on the spiritual enrichment and benefit of theological education, however for all these students going into debt with no counseling by their parents or especially the financial aid departments at these schools, it's just insane. I am one who attended a college of higher learning in biblical studies and am now stuck with paying the bill for that education. It is a burden that has forced me to obtain education in a completely unrelated field just so I can ever hope to begin to pay down the debt. I don't think I will ever go into full time ministry as I intended. Bitterness has been a struggle, but I'm still working through that. I was an ignorant kid who thought I was doing a good thing by both attending college and seeking to go into ministry. There needs to be an overhaul in how churches seek to educate those within their congregations in rigorous theological studies, and I think sponsorship needs to be a part of that. $25,000 a year on a bible degree is unacceptable. It is financial suicide and no one without substantial wealth or sponsorship could ever afford it. What good are Christians in the U.S. who are saddled with debt to the point where they have no resources to give to the poor let alone the church. This is not only a growing concern for the secular world, but it is a ticking time bomb as it relates to the church.

  2. I understand. I am still living with the financial consquences of a graduate education I started 33 years ago--and it isn't pretty. The solution has to reside at the local church level (I would say denominations, but independents nd Baptists view everything at the local level). The problem is that most Xians don't really understand what is involved in serious Biblical study because everything is presented in a basic, black and white way in their sermons and sunday schools. Indeed, we are taught to leave our learning back in our studies--which is good in the sense that pomposity has no place in the pulpit or classroom, but not when we fail to educate or inform the flock of the ambiguities and difficulties of the text. There is no easy solution, but forgoing graduate theological education can't be the answer (especially for churches in the highly- educated city centers and affluent suburbs here in North America). Another problem is the rising cost of education. The extra money certainly isn't going to the salaries of the professors, most of whom are criminally underpaid. Technology and campus amenities are the main sinkholes--the former a perceived necessity, the latter so as to woo prospective students with visions of an exciting college life. Unfortunately, the problem of the cost of education isn't limited to biblical studies. It is a fact of life that wages have stagnated or gone down while the cost of living has increased substantially. There are no easy solutions, at least at the level of the free market.

  3. Hi, your blog really touches me, have been reading it for a while... Just wanted you to know about a website i started It's a place for Bible study guides.. I also put a forum in that can be viewed from a mobile device.. I couldn't find where to contact you privately so I'm commenting, hope that is okay. :) God Bless!

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