For those of you who have somehow missed the “Does Biblical Studies Matter?” drama between “Bryce Walker” (pseudonym) and Brian LePort, links to the various posts going back and forth can be found here. Others such as Daniel Kirk have also since blogged on the topic.
I don’t have time to respond to the actual content of these posts, but I do have a few brief thoughts of my own on why biblical studies is, in my opinion, extremely valuable.
Why does biblical studies matter, generally? It doesn’t any more than the exploration of any other topic by liberal arts folk, I suppose. It’s knowledge about old stuff for the sake of knowledge about old stuff. But it’s interesting and meaningful to some people.
For those who are Christian why does the field of biblical studies matter? Because quite frankly, we get a lot wrong when we only look at the Bible from our own limited perspective. As biased and insular as the community of biblical scholars may be, there is still enough diversity to call into question various interpretations. While blind spots can never be fully eliminated, biblical studies offers tools and background information to better understand the Bible, as well as other specialists who can continually call out each others’ bullshit. It’s never going to be perfect, but that’s a heck of a lot better than reading the Bible privately and individually (or even within individual churches or denominations or traditions) and from a contemporary Western perspective. And if we better understand what the Bible really is and says, the more we can believe rightly and respond faithfully. This is something all Christians should be happy about!
A lot of evangelical Protestants have this notion that reading the Bible is just you and Jesus and your feelings and that biblical interpretation is a democratic exercise with legitimate views being determined by popular opinion. I think this is plain wrong. Scholars may hold a number of legitimate understandings of certain passages of Scripture, but that doesn’t mean just anyone’s uneducated guess is a worthwhile interpretation.
God gave us a written Word even though this excludes those who are illiterate (the majority of people throughout history) and requires the average person to receive additional education or requires a mediator between the text and laity. Perhaps this makes God elitist, but I don’t hear many people complaining about it. (Instead Christians have responded to it by prioritizing basic education for everyone.) What they do complain about is any implication that we need scholars to tell us how to read the Bible. I hate to break it to you, but we do. And it shouldn’t be any more insulting than the fact that the Bible can only be read by literate people.
As much as we learn bits and pieces of interesting information from biblical scholars we may become better readers of the Bible, but the everyday Christian is unlikely to have the time AND desire AND talent to become a truly proficient reader of the text. And so we need biblical studies. Because having someone to ask the sorts of academic questions normal people in the pews are typically unaware of and unable to answer themselves is the only way we come up with the stuff we need to get a handle on what certain parts of the Bible are actually saying.
If you think it’s elitist, prioritize getting everyone in your church the sort of information covered in OT and NT survey courses. (If first-year college students can handle it without any prereqs, then probably any adult of average intelligence with a high school education could grasp it.) And if you think we don’t need anything besides the Holy Spirit, ask yourself how the craziest Christians you know seem to be doing on “Spirit” alone. We need biblical studies not because it introduces a magical foundation on which we can build a perfect understanding of the Bible but because it at least introduces a space in which various ideas can be intelligently discussed and compete on the basis of sound evidence and logic.