Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Should Bible Courses Be Theological? (continued)

Looking around the blogosphere this morning, it appears stirred up over the question of the place of theology in college courses on the Bible. About a dozen people have voted in my poll thus far (click here to cast your vote).

My own opinion is closest to # 4, as I have suggested on Kevin Wilson's blog. Surprisingly, this position is the one that is doing best in the poll so far (50%)!

The Targuman blog (Chris Brady) posted on this topic yesterday, focusing on an essay by J Z Smith (click here). Smith writes that the moral and religious questions students actually have are rather distinct from those sorts of issues thought interesting to the guild. I think that this is right, and those voting for #2 may be highlighting this (also those voting #4, of course).

I'm not sure that I agree with Chris, however, that some of the most interesting classes on Bible are taught by scholars of literature, film, sociology, and so on. So often, these classes seem to miss the white elephant in the room: Scripture by its nature is all about claims to suprahistorical truth. It begs us to grapple with suprahistorical truth. You can spend whole courses admiring its literary art, the way history has co-opted it, or even the color of its ink and the weight of its pages (sorry, old joke about the Harvard approach). But somehow, such classes just seem to miss the boat to me.

The Awilum blog posted yesterday on "The Historical Critical Method and Biblical Studies" (click here). There is a great quote from Jon Levenson, including the statement: "A historicism afraid to acknowledge normative judgments about suprahistorical truth eventually deteriorates into historical relativism and experiences mounting difficulty articulating the transhistorical value of historical study itself."

This brings me back to Kevin's current post (click here). In your most recent post, Kevin, it sounds like in your course you propose to bracket discussion of whether we should affirm or deny what the Bible is witnessing to about the suprahistorical. It just seems to me that the study of the Bible begs such a discussion, or at least a little of it. Don't you think God is laughing out loud if we insist on bracketing this most interesting and obvious discussion, and narrow our scope to the tilt of the letters, smell of the paper, and type of stylus used in the writing?



Blogger Targuman said...

Thanks for picking this up Stephen! You say that you disagree with me, "So often, these classes seem to miss the white elephant in the room: Scripture by its nature is all about claims to suprahistorical truth." My reason for saying that those classes (taught by non-biblical scholars) is because often in my experience they DO deal with the elephant. My colleagues in English will ask the students what they think of the claims being made in "Scripture" (and if it should be capitalized, etc.).

But I think that many scholars of biblical literature, at least in a secular context (remember, that is the question of my paper) are afraid to ask such questions. We don't want to offend, or put off students. Or worse yet, we do not want students or colleagues to think that we are biased by our own religious convictions. (Forgetting entirely that we also have ideological and pedagogical convictions that will sway and inform our views.) I just don't think professors in other disciplines have quite the same "hang ups."

Wed Nov 01, 09:07:00 AM GMT-5  
Blogger S and C said...

This type of class that you describe does sound interesting! Thanks for the clarification. I'm going to see if I can get to your SBL session. I hope it's not up against my own talk. ---S.

Wed Nov 01, 11:01:00 AM GMT-5  
Blogger Jim said...


I actually voted for option 1. I think Theological education should take place in theological faculties. The University is not the place for it. The methods of historical research are at home there.

Of course, theological faculties should also teach historical critical methodologies. But they alone are competent, in my opinion, to offer theological disciplines.

I note that my view is a minority opinion, however.

Wed Nov 01, 11:10:00 AM GMT-5  
Blogger S and C said...

Hi Jim West! Thanks for the comment (and the vote)! I am thinking that yes, you are surely right that theological education is best done by seminaries (and university divinity schools). Nevertheless, even in the larger university, one should ideally allow the "theological discussions" that Scripture naturally provokes. It seems limiting to impose historicism as the rules of engagement. The very canonical process that gave us the Scripture as it sits before us pushed hard against all historicist forces. Does that make sense?

Wed Nov 01, 01:14:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger Jim said...

Yes, and hi.

My concern though, is that theology is something best done by those who stand inside the hermeneutical circle (to steal Barth's phrase). This may sound horrible, but in my estimation, people who stand outside the circle and attempt theology are circus acrobats without a net. (the net being the community of faith and its ability to accept, correct, and reject what's true or false).

Wed Nov 01, 01:29:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger Targuman said...

I think I agree, by and large, with Jim's concerns and why the theological discussion should be primarily within the context of a community of faith. That being said, I have found it very fruitful to be able to begin the discussion in my "secular" classroom and encourage my students to continue the discussion as they move out and up. Though I take no credit for this, I am pleased to note that in 9 years at Tulane I had 3 students go on to Rabbinical seminary (HUC) and 4 to Christian seminaries. The conversations in class whetted their appetite for more study.

Wed Nov 01, 02:20:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger S and C said...

Many thanks. Putting the above comments of Jim and CB together, I am really helped in my thinking about this. Can I affirm both comments? Jim, I'm very taken with your image of the acrobat without a net. Thanks for adding that to the discussion! Yes, although some theologians like Aulen believed you could do systematic theology in an "objective" mode, I believe it really is best to do theology within the faith circle. You really need to apply the "rule of faith" (Irenaeus) in the Christian theological interpretation of Scripture. But a university or liberal-arts class should be able to hear and discuss what a Scripture is, and how a Scripture functions within a hermeneutic circle. That would not have to be a faith-based discussion. Now, Kevin, thank you. But, I thought you were arguing that there should not be much difference between a Bible intro course at a Christian liberal arts school and a purely secular liberal arts school. I thought you were saying both should be primarily historical-critical. Can you help me out here? ---Steve

Wed Nov 01, 05:30:00 PM GMT-5  

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