The Humpty Dumpty of a-theistic bibilcal scholarship

If you haven’t seen this yet, Jim West posted an article at The Bible and Interpretation arguing that a-theistic biblical studies are at an end (HT Jim West). Studying the Bible apart from an active faith commitment, which he argues is the dominant approach to biblical studies, leads nowhere. Indeed, with typical West-ian pointedness, he summarizes where this approach has taken us.

So where has this approach gotten us? It has gotten us a population utterly ignorant of the contents and meaning of the Bible. It has gotten us a generation of young people who can’t tell the difference between an Epistle and an Apostle. And it has gotten us learned societies which produce journals which propagate and promulgate a-theism to the exclusion of theism.

And, he contends that there are two very good reasons that Scripture cannot be studied a-theistically. First, the Bible is the church’s book. It was written by the church and for the church. Non-christians can observe the text, but they will never participate in it like believers do. Indeed, “Atheists are to biblical studies what television commentators are to a sporting event.” And correspondingly, Scripture itself claims to be “insider literature” – i.e. literature for the people of the Spirit (1 Cor 2).

So, wrapping it all up, West contends:

Authentic biblical studies will more and more be found among the people of faith who value the bible and who understand it because they are endowed by the Spirit with the gift of understanding. Farewell, a-theism. You were amusing, for a while, but now you’re time is over and your discipline so completely fragmented that, like Humpty Dumpty, you can never be put back together again.

This doesn’t mean that West rejects any role for non-Christian scholarship on the Bible. But it is a necessary limited and superficial role because they will always be “outsiders” with respect to the text – outside the community and outside the Spirit.

What do you think? I’m sure this is an issue that you’ve worked through in your own understanding of how hermeneutics works. Is there a difference between a really well-done commentary produced by a non-believer and one produced by a believer? If so, what exactly is the difference?

So where has this approach gotten us? It has gotten us a population utterly ignorant of the contents and meaning of the Bible. It has gotten us a generation of young people who can’t tell the difference between an Epistle and an Apostle. And it has gotten us learned societies which produce journals which propagate and promulgate a-theism to the exclusion of theism.

About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on June 9, 2010, in Hermeneutics and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. I don’t really agree with him. I’d like to see proof by way of examples and comparison rather than just asserting that it is the way he says. If all he’s saying is that a-theists can’t understand the significance of what the Bible says (what it “means”) because they don’t share the presupposition that God exists, that he’s personal, and that he’s chosen to speak to us through the Bible then that’s a different argument and I don’t think a-theists would disagree with that. I get the feeling that if pressed on the details of what he said then we’d find that he’s arguing for something different than what he initially seems to be arguing for.

    • I think West is definitely pressing for more than just agreement that non-believers can understand the “significance” of the text, if by that you mean something like “existentially appropriate the text as true.” That would actually be rather tautological since that’s pretty much what it means to be a non-believer. I think West is arguing more for the idea that only a believer can really do exegesis. An atheist can analyze sentence structures and word meanings, but only someone empowered by the Spirit and working in the context of the Christian community can really exegete the text. And, that’s precisely where I’d like a bit more clarity. What exactly doesa believer get out of this that a non-believer can’t?

  2. That’s what I mean by saying I think he might be arguing for something different than what he seems. By that I don’t mean we are misreading him but that if we kept following where he’s going there’s gonna end up being a point where he makes a key turn or leap and we’ll see it’s not quite what we initially thought. I just don’t see how what he’s saying is defensible without some sort of slight of hand.

    • Either that or he needs to offer some explanation of what exactly he thinks community and Spirit offer to exegesis. I hear people claim fairly often that exegesis is only properly done through community and Spirit, and it’s a claim that I actually resonate with quite a bit. But, I’m concerned about how often such claims are made without any real content. Is this merely rhetoric, or do people actually have specific proposals for how community and Spirit make us better exegetes?

  3. The community and Spirit aspect is the creedal/confessional aspect of exegesis, isn’t it? (I’m on a roll!) The academy can have a tendency (though not always) to be dismissive of what the church has confessed and practiced when it comes to a passage of Scripture. The Christian scholar has liberty, but not absolute liberty, when interpreting Scripture. If there is a passage or collection of passages that would lead the scholar to a conclusion of Arianism, for example, the historic confession of the Church would weigh on the Christian to re-evaluate her exegesis. Why? Because the community has seen it differently (almost universally) for ages. And we believe that this is how the Spirit has lead the community to believe.

    I will say, though, that I have benefited from the use of Jewish commentaries on the Torah (JPS in particular). Now they fall short (obviously) of landing the meaning/application of the text in Christ. But they often pick up on rich inter-textual stuff that I wouldn’t get otherwise. I wouldn’t want to put them in the same category as atheists/secularists when it comes to Scripture interpretation.

    • This wouldn’t mean, though, that non-Christian scholars can’t do good exegesis. It just provides a particular standard by which and context within which believers evaluate the results of their exegesis. Is that what we’re trying to say with our emphasis on community and Spirit? Exegesis is an essentially a-theological enterprise, but how we evaluate/use that exegesis is not?

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