A pet peeve of mine is the tendency of some historical scholars to act as if, unlike naughty dogmatic theologians, their own confessional commitments aren’t driving any of their exegetical work. Being biblical scholars, their conclusions aren’t beholden to anything but the text, unlike those theologians coming to Scripture as they do, armed to the teeth with distorting theological preconceptions.
Apparently this isn’t a new thing.
In the first volume of his tremendous Reformed Dogmatics, Herman Bavinck comments on the similar myopia of some of the ‘biblical theologians’ of his own day:
However, this school suffers from grave one-sidedness as well. While it thinks that it is completely unbiased in relating to Scripture and that it reproduces its content accurately and objectively, it forgets that every believer and every dogmatician first of all receives his religious convictions form his or her church. Accordingly, theologians never come to Scripture from the outside, without any prior knowledge or preconceived opinion, but bring with them from their background a certain understanding of the content of revelation and so look at Scripture with the aid of the glasses that their church have put on them. All dogmaticians, when they go to work, stand consciously or unconsciously in the tradition of the Christian faith in which they were born and nurtured and come to Scripture as Reformed, or Lutheran, or Roman Catholic Christians. In this respect as well, we cannot simply divest ourselves of our environment; we are always children of our time, the products of our background. The result, therefore, is what one would expect; all the dogmatic handbooks that have been published by members of the school of biblical theology faithfully reflect the personal and ecclesiastical viewpoint of their authors. They cannot, therefore, claim to be more objective than those of explicitly ecclesiastical dogmaticians. The “pure” gospel that Ritschl finds back in Luther and Jesus corresponds perfectly to the conception he himself formed of it. All these so-called biblical schools, accordingly, are continually being judged by history; for a time they serve their purpose and recall a forgotten truth, but they do not change the course of ecclesiastical life and have no durability of their own.
While Bavinck goes on to fill this out a bit, there are a number of comments to be made on this fascinating text. First of all, long before any postmodern theorists came along to tell us so, Bavinck knew about the historical-situatedness of all of our interpretive efforts. I point this out simply to say this isn’t a new thing, and apparently this recognition can apparently fit comfortably within the structure of a classic, Reformed understanding of Scripture, objective revelation, and so forth.
Second, and this is really the point I’m interested in, biblical theologians are just as theologically and socially-invested in seeing the texts go a certain way. This isn’t to say that we can’t have conversations across traditions about the texts, or a denial that we can correct our theological confession in light of the study of Scripture. Some of the most confessionally-conservative theologians I know of still make interpretive moves that are different than their theological forebears in the tradition, even when confessing essentially the same creed. What’s more, people do convert and shift from one confessional tradition to another. I know I have.
Still, whenever I see a biblical scholar chastising the theologians of, oh say, the Reformed tradition, for their reliance on a certain text to establish their doctrines, because an ‘objective’ reading simply doesn’t yield that doctrine, it is probably an instructive exercise to look up his/her own church affiliation.
Soli Deo Gloria