Two Future Trends in Biblical Scholarship

Torah scroll

Torah scroll, 16th century, detail.

An important part of the controversy fifty years ago in The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod concerned methods of biblical interpretation, specifically “Source, Form, and Redaction Criticism” methods that fall under the overall label of “historical-criticism.” Those methods were supposedly going to establish the “assured results” of biblical scholarship that would have a unifying effect. Every scholarly student of the Scriptures would arrive at the same or at least a similar interpretation. And in all fairness, fifty years ago “historical criticism” looked promising to many people, as a more objective way to move beyond Christendom’s doctrinal divisions and controversies. It was part of the modernist paradigm with its promise of “neutral objectivity.”

Well, how did things turn out? What is the picture of academic biblical studies now fifty years later? I recently attended the meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in San Antonio. At this annual meeting biblical scholars gather to “confer, converse, and otherwise hob-knob” with fellow biblical scholars to hear papers read in hundreds of sectionals. It is always a very stimulating meeting, and it reveals the latest trends in biblical scholarship.

Granted, my observations are subjective but judging from the program and the titles of the papers and the papers I heard, two trends arise. The next generation of biblical scholars is not doing “source-form-redaction criticism.” Those methods are considered outdated and passé, strictly yesterday. A lot of younger scholars are following what is called a “synchronic” approach, taking the biblical texts as they stand in a more of a holistic way. And there is some very good work being done when scholars read biblical texts in a more holistic way.

But I also saw a not-so-promising trend, to put it mildly. I’m reminded of Jesus’s saying about a house being swept clean from one demon only to see seven demons rush in which are worse. The trends in biblical scholarship in the United States reveal the collapse of objective modernism with its historical-criticism and the emerging dominance of radical postmodern fragmentation on steroids, where every group and sub-group and sub-sub-group offers its own distinctive interpretation of the Bible from its own distinctive perspective and based on its own distinctive experiences. Within this paradigm of umpteen reading communities each with a distinctive perspective, no two reading communities will interpret the Bible the same way. Get ready, folks, for dozens of different interpretations of every biblical text.

How should we respond to such trends? Here are two initial thoughts. We are baptized Christians who want to grow in our understanding and love for the written Word of God, all of which leads to and finds it center in the precious gospel of Jesus the Anointed One of Israel, God’s Son in human flesh. To be such a Christian student of the Scriptures does not mean having all the biblical and theological answers ahead of the time. Instead, it means to be like the Bereans of Acts 17, having the desire to search the Scriptures. It means welcoming and learning from others who are doing helpful research in biblical studies and actively participating and contributing to the wider scholarly discussions.

It also means in a situation of different interpretations of the Scriptures that everyone has to become savvy about hermeneutics and proper approaches to the written Scriptures. Hermeneutics used to be considered “prolegomena,” but now in our context of radical pluralism over the Bible it has to become a more central concern. In this regard, note the new volume on hermeneutics by Jim Voelz, Principles of Biblical Interpretation for Everyone, from Concordia Seminary Press.

In future biblical scholarship you can expect on the positive side more holistic approaches to the biblical text but on the negative side ever increasing fragmentation and diversity in biblical interpretation. Now is not the time to hunker down and circle the wagons. Now is the time to enter the wider discussions and debates with good, solid biblical scholarship. And now is the time for boldly teaching and confessing the truth of God’s Word in the midst of ever-changing interpretive winds and hurricanes.

Dr. Paul Raabe
Professor Emeritus of Exegetical Theology

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3 Comments

  1. Robert K. December 7, 2023
    Reply

    This is an interesting version called the Recovery Version: bibleread.online/bible/

    Not so much the commentary but the translation of the Greek.

    For instance:
    Luke 18:13 “But the tax collector, standing at a distance, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, God, be propitiated to me, the sinner!”

    John 1:14 “And the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us (and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only Begotten from the Father), full of grace and reality.”

    John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that every one who believes into Him would not perish, but would have eternal life.”

  2. Dr. Mark J Schreiber December 8, 2023
    Reply

    Incisive and revealing comments from Dr. Raabe, as expected. My question for consideration is this: What best method would you recommend in battling for the true intended sense of any given text or theological subject? When Paul asserts that every thought should be brought captive to Christ (2 Cor. 10:4, 5) he also states that the weapons of our warfare from God are able to tear down, overpower and destroy strongholds against the knowledge of Christ Jesus. Do we see this happening anywhere in Christendom? If future Biblical scholarship will be filled with multiple radical pluralistic interpretations of the same text, then how will our pew-sitters have any confidence in what the preacher says or teaches? With the death of all the apostles the church no longer has any first-tier voice of authority to say this is what the text means and only what the text means. So, what are the weapons of our warfare today? Is it just reasoned cogent arguments that leave the opponent without a comeback? Will that persuade the unbeliever and the mis-interpreter of God’s Word? I remember years ago battling with JW’s on the meaning of the Logos in John chapter one. The leaders of their group were unable to refute my arguments from the Greek NT (though they said they knew Greek) but in the end, nobody was persuaded, no opinions changed and the JW’s just continued on in their darkness. Today Wokeism is everywhere in our American culture and in our universities, including our Christian universities and gaining ground. What is God’s method for crushing this stronghold? Our church body is always long on analysis and short on solutions as our LCMS membership numbers dwindle away to half of what they were when I was ordained, 1977. It’s obvious that over the years with the steady decrease in LCMS membership that our methods of taking down strongholds against the true faith have not persuaded many people to join this denomination. My criticisms are not given in the spirit of anger but in anguish. If we do not wake up now and lead the charge innovatively in getting the Gospel out in education and evangelism, the relevance of the LCMS to American culture will mirror the Amish community that surrounds the countryside of CTSFW, irrelevant and indifferent to the world that surrounds them.

  3. Rev. Dr. Stephen Knapp 23 days ago
    Reply

    Thanks to Dr. Raabe for his comments on what he has been seeing at SBL gatherings and beyond. There is much to be said for his observations on the radical movement from modern to post-modern mentality and approach. I am looking forward to reading what Dr. Voeltz has to say about Bible reading for and by our laity. (But these guys are in my generation, so no surprises there)

    In response to the “best method” question from Dr. Schreiber, particularly insofar as “how will our pew-sitters have any confidence in what the preacher says or teaches?” let me offer the following suggestion: teach our people how to read the Bible according to a texts immediate context. The “proof texting” pattern of catechetical training, puts our digest of doctrine ahead of the text. The tendency is to read a few verses and then correlate that with something from another writing elsewhere in the Biblical corpus. That approach assures that a text will always read as you want it too, but robs it of its own distinctive voice. Here let us recall that the Pharisees disliked Jesus because he promoted a reading of Scripture that often was not congruent with their particular assured result. The distinctive voice of Scripture is the voice of the Holy Spirit. While Baptism brings us that Spirit, it does not bring us an assured understanding of that voice. That understanding develops as a reader observes the dynamic by which a text fits its context and then how the larger unit interacts with utterances in other parts of the Biblical corpus. So, for example, to understand what Jesus meant by quoting Amos, it is necessary to have a textually derived understanding of what, how, and why Amos said what he said, and what, how and why Jesus calls attention to it. Our people must be taught how to read that way, which I have observed in my visits to Bible classes in many congregations they are not able to do. Lay interpreters in the old generation and in the new generation have problems with this.

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