Two Future Trends in Biblical Scholarship
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 Those methods are considered outdated and passé, strictly yesterday.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.