Thursday, 1 January 2015

Biblical Studies as Theology

The ultimate impetus for this reflection on "biblical studies as theology" is a growing conviction on my part that one of the single greatest problems afflicting biblical scholarship today is the mutual recriminations between what we might call theologically-interested and theologically-disinterested parties. The proximate impetus for this reflection is that I am currently reading the first volume of Bernard Lonergan's The Triune God, first published in Latin in 1964 but now available (since 2009) in an attractive bilingual edition (think Loeb, but Lonergan). In this book he makes a distinction between positive and dogmatic theology. This distinction is a foretaste of the more elaborate schema of functional specializations that will emerge in Method in Theology seven years later, with positive theology now defined as the first phase of the theological enterprise and consisting of research, interpretation, history, and dialectic; and dogmatic theology as the second phase and consisting of foundations, doctrines, systematics, and communications. I "jump ahead" to Method in order to articulate the central thesis of this post, namely that the work of biblical scholarship proper falls within the realm of positive theology. This does not mean that biblical scholarship is by definition positive theology but rather that those who want to think about their biblical scholarship as a sort of theology should place it under the rubric of positive rather than dogmatic theology.

This is crucial, for the distinction between positive and dogmatic theology is the distinction, in Lonergan's words, between the singular and the catholic. The positive theologian wants to know how and why particular persons thought and acted at particular times and places. The most appropriate procedures of contemporary biblical studies as a sort of twentieth-first century positive theology are thus the whole panoply of historical-critical procedures developed in the last two centuries: anything that helps us understand how and why particular persons thought and acted at particular times. Thus can feminist, Marxist, queer, critical race, etc., theories greatly enrich the work of positive theology, and indeed any biblical studies that would attempt to put these genies back in their respective bottles would result in a vitiated and sub-par positive theology.

By contrast the dogmatic theologian wants to know how all these particular persons studied by the biblical scholar interacted with the same God, and through knowing this the character of that God. This will necessitate procedures quite distinct from those of the positive theologian. The dogmatic theologian is thus quite right not to engage in "higher criticism," for that is the work of the positive theologian. The dogmatic theologian is quite wrong however to think that she or he can do without the discoveries of the positive theologian, and conversely the positive theologian is quite wrong to think that the work of theology is finished when she or he understands this or that text a-right. Each represents an indispensable moment in the broader work of theology.

And thus I would suggest can we begin to carve out room for both the theologically-interested and the theologically-disinterested biblical scholar: the former can define her or his self as a positive theologian, the latter as something other than that. Each however would continue to use exactly the same procedures. Each is freed from excessive concern with the work of dogmatic theologian: the theologically-interested biblical scholar is freed because she or he need not feel any obligation to reduce her or his scholarship to lowly status as handmaiden to dogma (the urgent need for inerrancy disappears almost immediately, once the distinction between positive and dogmatic theology is recognized and respected); the theologically-disinterested biblical scholar is freed because she or he need not feel any obligation to raise her or his scholarship to the exalted status of dogma-slayer (one could now, for instance, say "Yeah, I think that the early Christians had a very high early Christianity" with one breath whilst saying "And I think that metaphysically-speaking they were wrong on this matter" with the next). They can each and all just get on with the work of biblical scholarship. And each does this without sacrificing her or his theological interest or disinterest.

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