The freedom and responsibility of Biblical Studies


Recently, I summarized a theme in the Old Testament and was told that I could not express it in that way, because it is not how contemporary theologians would address it. I replied that I was not primarily stating a current theological position, but rather describing the a viewpoint from Ancient Israel as expressed in the Old Testament. As such, my treatment was considered permissible. That gives us, as Biblical scholars, immense freedom. For we don’t have to necessarily present the results of our study in the language and concepts of contemporary theology, which is very reliant on current worldviews. Rather, we have the ability to show the stark contrast between the worldview of the Bible and current worldviews.

The Bible as a canonical book is contested, because our interpretation of it affects directly how we think and live, what we hold most dear. But if we take a step back and rather describe what it meant for the people at the time, this is often less contested, because it is not absolute, not the full meaning of the text. It also allows us to interpret the Bible without necessarily attacking or supporting prevalent ideologies today. That is the freedom of Biblical Studies.

But alongside, there also comes responsibility. For Biblical Studies does affect our view of the current world. First of all, it affects our view of the past and our history always informs the present. And then, the Bible remains a canonical book, even if it is interpreted as literature or in its historical context. Therefore, those involved in Biblical Studies have to work hard to be truthful, to be as careful as they possibly can in their research. They have the responsibility not to sensationalize through controversial headlines. In particular, Biblical scholars should be careful not to take one part of the Bible and absolutize it as the Biblical view. Any overall claims need to be seen in light of the whole canon. For example, the Bible cannot be described as an essentially violent book with reference to a few passages, or as a book promoting the emancipation of women with reference to a few other passages. Different parts of the Bible and their message can and should be highlighted, but they must be seen in the light of the Bible as a whole.
While Biblical scholars should bring out the meaning of texts in their original context, this has to be read by theologians within a tradition of interpretation. Biblical studies can challenge common assumptions, but theology cannot stop at repeating a particular viewpoint from 3,000 or 2,000 years ago. It has to be seen in today’s context, not by letting today’s context override the witness of the past, but by intelligently engaging with it. For the church that always also means seeing texts from the centre of its being, from Jesus, and the centre of its confession, that is the death and resurrection of Jesus and the salvation humans achieved through that. That may be more difficult for some themes or passages than for others.
Maybe, if we pursue Biblical Studies and its interaction with theology in such a frame, it can be less confrontational.

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