Biblical studies and radical theology

Over the last couple years, I’ve worked through about half the New Testament in Greek, and in the last week or so, I’ve been working on an article I agreed to do on the resurrection accounts in the NT. In addition, I will be teaching Robert Alter’s translation of Genesis this year, a translation that made Genesis completely new to me.

After all this work with the Bible, it strikes that it’s a real shame that theologians are so hesitant to work with biblical texts. In part, that may be the fault of the biblical studies guild itself, which often acts as a perpetual “wet blanket” when anyone tries to make constructive claims building from the biblical text or even make overly strong claims about the meaning of a given text. Yet I detect in much recent biblical studies work a certain chafing against the disciplinary paradigm: they always get right up to the point where they obviously want to make an interesting theological claim, but they can’t quite let themselves…

On the other side, it seems to me that many orthodox theologians are much more comfortable with the stability of the tradition than with the radical heterogeneity of the Bible that two centuries of critical biblical scholarship have made almost impossible to ignore. It feels safer to just “skip ahead” to the generation of the Apostolic Fathers, where the hierarchy and the sacraments are already reassuringly in place.

This may be changing to some extent, given the recent series of “theological commentaries” on books of the Bible by figures like Jenson and Hauerwas — but I think the real opportunity here is for radical theologians, because they have the freedom necessary to genuinely respond to the critical work of modern biblical studies. They are unconstrained by the need to make sure that the Bible winds up saying basically what we always thought it did (even though it is now clear that that wasn’t the only thing the Bible could have said nor even the most obvious thing it could be construed as saying).

2 thoughts on “Biblical studies and radical theology

  1. Nicely put. I think that, for these reasons, you might be interested in the work of someone like Dale Martin, especially his two most recent books, “Sex and the Single Savior” and “Pedagogy of the Bible.” In each case, Dale — who is not only trained in the now standard historical-critical method (and who still teaches that method) but also well-respected practitioner of that and the social-scientific approach of his mentor Wayne Meeks — has now become comfortable in making theological claims about biblical texts, and in a way that is both radical and fully cognizant of cutting-edge biblical scholarship. To enable such theological steps Dale explicitly critiques the “hegemony” of the historical-critical method and the myth of “textual agency.” Just thought I’d pass this along, since Dale’s work as a theologically minded biblical studies guy might give further warrant to folks wishing make more theologically substantive use of the bible.

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