The Problems with Academic Theology image

The Problems with Academic Theology

I love academic theology. I read it on an almost daily basis, I write about it, I encourage other leaders to engage in it, and I am currently studying for my third degree in it. So if you're looking for someone to debunk the entire enterprise, because we should just be following the Spirit, and the apostles were all fishermen anyway, weren't they, then I'm not that guy. Partly because the Spirit chose to speak through a book which we can only understand because of the efforts of scholars, and partly because only four of them were actually fishermen.

But there are some substantial problems with academic theology as it is currently practised. Often, it does not elucidate and expound the gospel. Often, even when undertaken by those with a high view of Scripture, it can sound apologetic for making statements that accept biblical authority. It regularly operates on materialist presuppositions, even though none of the biblical writers were materialists. It is frequently obscurantist, frequently disconnected from local church life, frequently conducted by people who do not seem that animated by preaching the gospel to all nations, and frequently conducted in a supercilious tone which makes it difficult to square with “speaking the truth in love” (and I include in this description some things that I’ve written, too). It is highly suspicious of the possibility of predictive prophecy, and nowhere near suspicious enough of the possibility of accurately chopping up manuscripts into various sections and assigning them to different authors for whom we have no evidence at all. There are, happily, a large number of scholars to whom none of the above apply, and all of them are to be thanked for their hard (and, in the current evangelical climate, often thankless) work on our behalf. But for the moderately interested pastor or student, these common problems can make the whole field somewhat exasperating.
So there is a problem with academic theology as it is often practised. And it’s only recently that the great R R Reno has helped me see what it is. Writing in First Things recently, he commented, “The greatest danger you will face in the academic life is not moral relativism or political correctness, but careerism.” And after a bit of reflection, I realised he was right.
Here’s how it goes. Academics are employed by university departments, and university departments require funding to continue employing them. The funding available depends on the number and level of the publications produced by the department, and is subject to continual review, so “publish or perish” is not so much an in-house exaggeration as a reality. There’s nothing particularly wrong with that; bakeries make bread, factories make widgets, and universities make research papers. Then again, if a factory makes more widgets than the market needs, we can simply choose not to buy them. But if universities produce an unnecessary amount of research papers, we quickly find ourselves drowning in footnotes telling us that, if we really want to understand Paul or Isaiah or John, we desperately need to read Von Hottentot, Der Glaube und der Heilsgeschichtewissenschaftlehrezeitgeist (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2010), which probably retails at over £100. Books and articles can be produced because that’s what secures funding and career progression, and not necessarily because something needs saying. And when you have limited time and a limited budget, that can get a bit annoying. Not for nothing did the philosopher say that of the making of many books there is no end (Ecc 12:12).
A corollary of this is the pursuit of novelty, and originality, as ends in themselves. I happen to think that requiring originality of researchers is a very good idea, which prevents the academic literature from becoming even more voluminous; but if the primary objective of a journal article, or of a doctoral thesis, is originality rather than faithfulness, then it’s easy to see how biblical scholarship could become driven by what is new, creative and fresh, rather than by what is accurate, faithful, and God-glorifying. (Spend a session or two listening to some of the papers at a Biblical Studies conference, and you’ll soon see what I mean; I heard one last year on how Paul’s famous “I put childish ways behind me” was part of a “developmentalist discourse”, and meant that he didn’t know God as intimately as he used to. They’re not all like that, by any means, but enough of them are to make you want to take a long walk off a short peer review.) Career advancement requires originality, even if the text you’re studying was interpreted correctly in the fourth century, or during the Reformation (which, let’s face it, a lot of them pretty much were). At times, that makes for some rather implausible proposals being put forward at great length by people who may well know, deep down, that their new idea is probably wrong.
The pursuit of novelty, where it appears, can then generate a third problem, which is the criterion of fashionability. If our careers mean that we need to keep publishing original stuff, and if in some cases the truth of a matter has been fairly well established by centuries of careful research, then our best option may be to follow and develop new scholarly trends, which enable us to reread ancient texts in yet another way. In my area of study, 1 Corinthians, fashions have changed repeatedly over the last two hundred years: the Tübingen school, the history of religions school, the search for the various factions at Corinth, social-historical readings, feminist readings, anthropological studies verging on the social-scientific, and political readings, to name the most obvious ones. Sometimes, of course, these fashions produce useful results (several of which are informing my research, and one of which I posted on recently). The chances are, though, that they will each dominate scholarly attention for a season even if they don’t produce useful results, although that’s typically something you can only see with hindsight (Formsgeschichte, anyone?) Fashions are curiously self-perpetuating - “you can’t possibly say that until you’ve engaged carefully with Von Hottentot’s important work” - and you can only move past them by establishing that the Emperor has no clothes on. But doing this requires a great deal of confidence, and runs a substantial risk of ridicule or marginalisation; unlike experimental science, there is no clear method for establishing whether a hypothesis is workable other than the scholarly consensus, which makes it very difficult to validate a hypothesis such as “the scholarly consensus is wrong”. Other, of course, than being vindicated by time.
So I think R R Reno is right. Moral relativism, political correctness, and a whole bunch of other dangers will face anyone who studies academic theology (as, of course, they will face anyone who studies academic anything). But for those who are studying because they love Jesus and want to glorify God, careerism will probably be a bigger threat than either of them. It need not engulf us, and we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, past and present, who can show us how to pursue academic excellence without falling into any of these traps. But there will probably be times when we have to make tough choices. And when they come, it’s good to remember the words of one man who combined intellectual rigour with missionary zeal: “For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ” (2 Cor 2:17). Not a bad goal for an academic, that.

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