Biblical Scholarship: What's It Good For?

The story circulates around seminaries and religion departments. I hope I'm telling it correctly. In Yale's regular seminar for religion faculty and grad students, a highly accomplished biblical scholar set forth his proposal for identifying Paul's opponents in 2 Corinthians. The presentation involved multiple levels of detail and argument. Like most scholarly proposals, its conclusions were far from obvious. During the time for questions, a theologian spoke up: "My mother reads 2 Corinthians as if Paul were writing to her. What's wrong with that?"

It's a perfect question. Ordinary Christians have been doing without biblical scholarship, or with very little exposure to it, for centuries. In most of the church's settings, few people have even been able to read the Bible for themselves. Moreover, many countless millions have lived exemplary lives of charity and piety. It's plain to see that Christian biblical scholars are no more saintly than anyone else. If so many people do just fine without biblical scholarship, why should professional interpreters tell them how they ought to read the Bible?

Before we engage that question directly, we might consider the role many churches have assigned to biblical scholarship. We have devoted critical attention to how we interpret texts since the church's inception. When Jesus argues with his various opponents in the Gospels, he's often employing the standards of biblical scholarship that applied in his day. No less so is that the case with Paul and other early Christian writers. Great theologians such as Origen and Augustine set forth guidelines for responsible interpretation. One might say that Protestant Christianity married itself to biblical scholarship from the beginning. Reformers like Luther and Calvin knew and used the biblical languages, along with early forms of modern biblical scholarship. Most Christian churches require their pastoral leaders to learn and practice biblical scholarship. Biblical scholarship is by no means alien to the church.

So about that theologian's mother, who reads the Bible as if it were written directly to her? One readily perceives the advantages of her approach. She holds herself accountable to the text and open to the possibility that it might inspire her, encourage her, instruct her or correct her. She reads the Bible responsibly. As the theologian asked, "What's wrong with that?"

Well, nothing's wrong with that, exactly. On the other hand, what if a person grew up in Alabama in the 1950s, instructed that the Bible forbids interracial marriage and supports segregation? No doubt, the period included many segregationist biblical scholars, but biblical scholarship would have provided the setting where people could debate those assumptions. Did ancient people think about race in the way Americans have come to think of race? Does the Bible speak with only one voice concerning whom the Israelites may marry, or do we find diversity in the biblical witness? To be sure, biblical scholarship did not solve the question of segregation. But it played an important role in helping Christians sort their way through the debates.

Or what about a person who assumes Jesus wants widows to impoverish themselves by giving to the church (Mark 12:41-44)? Preachers have invoked this example for centuries. Biblical scholarship raises the possibility that Jesus did not encourage widows to empty their bank accounts but instead condemned religious authorities for devouring widows' houses (Mark 12:40).

And what about a person who understands Genesis 2-3 to exclude same-sex marriage? We see how biblical scholarship contributes to the decades of progress concerning sexuality among mainline churches -- and, thank God, more recently among evangelicals. Biblical scholars don't solve the question for the churches, but they do ask questions that further the conversation. We know a great deal today about sex and gender in the ancient world, though not as much as we wish, enough to help us grasp the enormous cultural divide between the biblical worlds and our own. Many believers find those considerations essential for forming their own views.

When I was in high school, I thought I might become a lawyer. My grandmother loved her Bible, and she did not want to see that happen. So she quoted Scripture: "Woe to the lawyers!" (Luke 11:52).

Now, some things unite lawyers across the ages and render the practice of law dangerous for the soul. Lawyers specialize in nit-picking. They argue to win. Their focus easily grows narrow enough that winning and persuading crowd the imagination, driving larger questions of justice out the door. When we add up all the legal cases in the world, perhaps more than half the lawyers stand on the wrong side. After all, aren't the powerful more likely to lawyer up than those they oppress?

But, the biblical scholar notes, Jesus wasn't talking about lawyers as we know lawyers. He was talking about specialists in biblical law. Those people run far closer to my current profession than to modern legal professionals: they interpreted sacred texts and applied them to the lives of ordinary people. Neither lawyers nor exactly biblical scholars in the modern sense, Jesus' lawyers risked their souls by quibbling over details. My grandmother tried to warn me.

Yet I remain committed to my vocation as a biblical scholar. My profession does not make me a more faithful interpreter of Scripture than anyone else, much less a better disciple of Jesus. But I can say this: I wouldn't give it up, either. The ongoing practice of turning to the texts, studying them from multiple perspectives, learning how other people have understood them and seeking reasonable interpretation forms my spirit.

Moreover, I am blessed to witness case after case in which the questions of biblical scholarship contribute as people find freedom and churches explore unfamiliar territory. In the Reformation, biblical scholarship called the church's attention to God-given faith. After the Holocaust, biblical scholarship has helped to correct anti-Jewish assumptions that Jesus and Paul somehow rejected Judaism. Biblical interpretation sets forth one essential context in which the church works out its faith in fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12-13).