Tuesday, June 13, 2006

A Wandering Aramean

My own wandering started toward the end of seminary. Oh, there had been other minor ventures before that. I always liked to be different. I was about the only outspoken Evangelical in my high school, and I liked debating ethics and science with my classmates and teachers. Even in church, most people believed in eternal security of salvation, so I didn’t. That changed in college, but after one of the professors was fired for holding a somewhat extreme view on a picky theological issue, I ended up adopting the same view. I specifically chose a seminary with a very conservative doctrinal position, but then I went and got caught in the middle of a theological controversy. Through all of this, though, I never seriously questioned anything central to Evangelical Christianity. It was only once I got into the role of an adjunct professor that the serious questions began.

Throughout high school and college, I accepted the standard Evangelical view that right study of the Bible and right theology always go hand-in-hand. That was the point of going to Bible college—so I could learn the Bible better, which would lead to better understanding of theology, which would produce better ministry. At least, that was the logical way it ought to have worked. In practice, it never did. We started learning systematic theology and studying the Bible in English at the same time. What biblical material we started with was less theologically significant narrative—less significant in Evangelicalism, that is—so by the time we got to Paul’s letters, where the real meat of doctrine was found, we already had a solid foundation of theological training. The last step in the process was that which should have been first—the study of biblical languages. I thought at the time that it was unfortunate but practically necessary. Looking back on it now, it seems more revealing of a fatal flaw. Our theology was shaping our understanding of the Bible, because it had to. I don’t know how many of our teachers knew that, but it is obvious to me now.

Perhaps the single most important lesson I learned in seminary was that the process could be reversed. It was possible to study the Bible intensively (now on a foundation of Biblical Greek and eventually Hebrew) and to draw conclusions that didn’t necessarily fit with any particular theological system. My job was simply to understand the Bible for what it said and shape my beliefs and conduct accordingly. The lesson was idealistic, though, as I began to see when theological controversy erupted and I found myself on the wrong side. Yes, there was freedom to follow my own reading of the Bible, but only within certain rigid boundaries. These boundaries bothered me, and I began to look outside at what lay beyond. I had decided to pursue a career in academics, so I was looking for Ph.D. programs. I determined that I would not attend another seminary but would get my degree from a university. I needed some fresh perspective. I also began to read outside my tradition. I had dabbled throughout seminary—enough to take pot-shots in assigned position papers. But now I was starting to realize that there was genuine value to be found in the work of other scholars. As I prepared to teach classes, I read a wider range of viewpoints than ever before, and I found in it much that made sense.

There were a couple of particular issues in biblical scholarship that got my attention. One was the set of literary approaches referred to somewhat erroneously as rhetorical criticism. (It includes genuine rhetorical criticism, but it includes several other areas as well. The problem is in the history of the discipline, since “literary criticism” was already in use for the parsing of texts into historical sources.) The other was the so-called “minimalist” historical controversy. What I think drew me to these two viewpoints in particular was that they both ran somewhat counter to the historical-critical arguments I had been taught to despise. The literary approaches were unified by their treatment of the biblical text in its final form—as a cohesive literary whole, without immediate concern for its historical development. Granted, it was generally assumed that the text was based on earlier sources, and if anything, its date of final composition was even later and its contents even less connected to the past events than in the theories I disliked so much. But I still felt like I had found an ally, in that we could put aside our disagreements, sit down, and talk about the biblical text as it is. The historical minimalist camp might seem like a less likely association for an Evangelical, but their arguments generally required them to repudiate the standard model of the historical development of Biblical Hebrew. Granted, they concluded that the material was generally late, rather than early, but the shared opposition to finding direct evidence of a long textual history in the language seemed to me like a good thing.

As I read more and more about these two approaches, particularly on the literary side (although this is a somewhat artificial distinction, since the minimalist position also stresses the literary quality of the texts), I was introduced to, and found much to like about, postmodern literary criticism. I didn’t get much chance to deal with such things in my university classes, but in my spare time I was getting acquainted with literary analysis both inside and outside of biblical scholarship. My conviction that meaning comes mostly from the reader was steadily growing, and the implications were beginning to weigh on my mind. Initially, I thought that perhaps such a view could be reconciled with biblical inspiration by simply allowing that God gave us the Bible to use, even if that sometimes means we learn from critiquing the Bible rather than accepting what it says. But I saw that this notion could only lead to relativism, since one’s critique would come from various personal factors that may or may not be from God. I realized that the reading community had to play a significant role somehow in the process. I could see that this happened whether by intention or otherwise, as for instance it happened that most Evangelicals accepted the views taught by their church leadership, even if the Bible was supposed to be the source of authority. The sharp disagreements between different Evangelical communities were not normally a problem, because they never bothered to look far enough outside to notice them.

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