As I prepare to enter my second year of seminary, I’ve been reflecting a bit on the first year. William J. Abraham’s interesting little book The Bible: Beyond the Impasse touches on something that a year of Old Testament classes has impressed upon me. In the opening chapter, he writes about the creation of the discipline of biblical studies and its subsequent growth.
The outcome is now clear: biblical studies no longer acts as a feeder discipline for theology. It has become a region of expertise on its own that is carefully guarded by the scholarly guilds. … More importantly, there are simply no secure results that the theologian can now rely on in the foundations of his or her work. We simply have a Babel of voices in the guild; and theologians are in no position to adjudicate the alternatives.
In my first year of Old Testament classes, what struck me the most while writing exegesis papers was the Babel of which Abraham writes. Reading scholarly commentaries and articles on a particular book or section of a text is to be drawn quickly into a cacophony of conflicting voices and interpretations. If you read more than the most recent scholarship and delve back through the decades, you also discover that yesterday’s dead certainty passes quickly into obscurity today.
An encounter with biblical studies is quite often the cause of the well-traveled stories about seminary students having a crisis of faith when they go to seminary. They discover that what they thought was solid has melted into the air. I did not have that experience in my Old Testament classes, but I did struggle to find pastorally useful insights in my exegesis homework.
Abraham does not seek to recreate biblical studies, but rather to get us in the church — if not the seminary — to stop betting the theological farm on the notion that we can find in scripture a foundation for all our truth claims. He argues that evangelicals in particular have tried to put too much weight on a doctrine of scripture that cannot support the load.
Evangelicals have constantly lost their own precious children because they overcommitted themselves in their doctrine of scripture. They then paved the way for conversions to Roman Catholicism, for shifts into various Liberal or Radical forms of Protestantism, or for the outright embrace of agnosticism or atheism. They did so in the nineteenth century; and they are doing so today. It would be interesting to develop a list of scholars or church leaders who began as evangelicals or “fundamentalists” and abandoned it because of problems with the doctrine of scripture.
To meet this challenge, Abraham argues for a shift in our vision of scripture. He calls this a shift from an epistemological view of scripture to a soteriological one. He argues for treating the Bible as a resource given to us by the Holy Spirit as means of grace that helps lead us to salvation. He writes that we should understand scripture as wisdom. The Bible, he writes, was written and passed down to us to repair the effects of sin and rebellion in our hearts and lives and equip us for service in the kingdom. This is its primary purpose and meaning in the church. It is only derivatively a source of truth to resolve theological arguments and apologetic needs.
It is a sure sign that I do not fully understand Abraham’s argument that I cannot easily explain it to you. You’ll have to read the book to decide for yourself if it is helpful.
Here, though, is a quote that I liked and will continue to wrestle with in my pastoral work — even if the exegesis papers call for something else:
Whatever we do, the most important thing is to immerse ourselves in scripture in any and every way possible. It is scripture itself not theories about scripture that really make a difference in our lives and the life of the church.