The Scriptural Bible vs. the Academic Bible

The Scriptural Bible vs. the Academic Bible December 14, 2010

What happens when the Bible is studied at a university? The bigger question is this: What happens to the Bible when it is studied at a university? Those are questions behind Michael Legaspi’s excellent study The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies (Oxford Studies in Historical Theology).

This book is chock-full of insights and observations, and is a book that ought to be on the shelf of every college and seminary library, for it examines what happens in the 18th and 19th centuries when Scripture moved from being the Church’s Bible or the Confessional Bible to the “death of [the Bible as] Scripture” as it arose anew as The Academic Bible, or the Bible as it was examined in the university. That period developed a “post confessional” hermeneutic. In effect, they cut the claims the Bible had on the individual when the individual read it.

The academic Bible is the one studied post-confessionally: outside the domains and parameters of the confessions of the Church. The scriptural Bible is the one studied through the lens of the Church, and through the lens of the creeds and confessions.

The academic Bible is studied as an object; the scriptural Bible calls the reader to account. The academic Bible is studied at a distance; the scriptural Bible draws the reader before God. For the academic Bible, the Bible is a text; for the scriptural Bible, the Bible is Scripture. The Bible was co-opted by social virtues that are part of the liberal, progressive and culture of irenic toleration.

Legaspi sees this so well:

The problem is that these rather thin, pale virtues seem only thinner and paler when compared to the classical virtues associated with the scriptural Bible: instead of bland tolerance, love that sacrifices self; instead of an agreeable reasonability, hope that opens the mind to goodness and greatness that it has not yet fully imagined; and instead of critical self-awareness, faith that inspires and animates the human heart. Academic criticism tempers belief, while scriptural reading edifies and directs it.

I’m interested in your thoughts: How do we study the Bible? How is the Bible meant to be studied? What happens when we study the Bible as an object rather than through faith? How is it “destructive to faith” if we study the Bible apart from faith? Do you agree with my observation about “bracketing”?

Here’s what Legaspi does: he examines how the Bible was studied at the University of Göttingen under the powerful presence of J.D. Michaelis (1717-1791). So, yes, this is a book in the field of the history of interpretation. And he has excellent sections on Göttingen, the rise of classical studies, the distinction between the 18th and 19th Centuries (the 18th being more socially concerned while the 19th became much more historical-critical), and the various professors at Göttingen. That university was about Bildung — development of social character and cultural formation. The Bible was part of that Bildung.

Perhaps the most important observation I can make about this book is that Legaspi forces us to see how the academic Bible was really a cultural Bible, for the university used the Bible for the good of society and culture. It was, in effect, colonized by the 18th and 19th Century German social projects and visions and ideals. This rips the Bible of its prophetic power, tames the strengths it has, and creates readers who think they are in control. This is the most danger approach to the Bible I can imagine. I see much the same in some of the more socio-pragmatic approaches to the Bible today.

Back to Legaspi’s theme: for instance, JD Michaelis was obsessed with showing how Moses was much less of an Israelite leader than a force (leader) in the ancient classical Israelite culture. And in this context I’d say Legaspi, while he recognizes the anti-Semitism at work in some of Michaelis’ work, lets him off the hook too easily: Legaspi minimizes Michaelis’ culpability by not recognizing the power and influence — and it was nothing short of monumental — of Michaelis.

Legaspi thinks the Reformation precipitated the academic Bible: it cut the Bible from the Catholic Church, it led to an increasing number of groups who each had a confessional — but different confession — approach to the Bible, and he contends this minimized the authority of the Bible and led to the death of the Bible as Scripture in the European universities. Legaspi finds a better model in Erasmus, but knows the humanists turned the Bible into a text in the context of other texts from the classical world. Legaspi does a great job setting Michaelis in context.

Michaelis’ project was to salvage the Bible but to do so the Bible had to become another academic subject. The Bible became a part of a common cultural legacy. At best, that’s where it is in the modern university.

Let this be said: what approach we use in reading the Bible determines not only what we see in the Bible or get from the Bible but also who we become. In other words, if we bracket faith and bracket theology and bracket orthodoxy, we will eventually learn to read the Bible without faith and theology and orthodoxy, and that leads — often enough — to the lack of faith, the lack of theology, and the lack of theology. What is permitted it is what comes out.

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  • Luke

    Interesting post, Scot. I particularly liked the final paragraph, though I don’t know if that was you or Legaspi speaking (or both). I think this is a good correction to the “reading the Bible without presuppositions” mentality (as if that were even possible). I personally see many young people (20 somethings) coming to this realization. I think as more and more keep seeing this, the more people will flock to the “historic” churches (Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox), or at least more high liturgical churches. I see people flocking to these institutions in droves and eating up every morsel. Evangelicals need a more robust ecclesiology that embraces faith, theological interpretation, and historic orthodoxy. Out with the private Bible reading and academic textbook, and in with the ecclesiological reading embracing historic orthodoxy as expressed in some of the creeds (which creeds we use is of course a debate we need to have, and something I would like to see you address in the future).

  • I agree with you Scot that studying the Bible apart from faith ultimately tends to be destructive. It cuts theology off from discipleship and worship. Authentic theology is for ‘doxology and devotion’ – too much academic theology has little to do with either.

    I work & teach in a small Christian theological college which offers university validated degrees. I’m encouraged that there increasingly is creative thinking going on within wider theological education about how to combat the long established old Enlightenment assumptions Legaspi describes – how to combine academic rigour with deepened faith, critical self-reflection, and practical service within a believing community setting. We work hard, for example at embedding what we call ‘Head, Heart and Hands’ within all our programmes. Sure it’s not perfect but it is conciously approaching study of the Bible from a faith perspective and that shapes all that follows.

  • smcknight

    Luke, that was my voice.

    Patrick, and I know you folks are doing this well …

  • Rick

    J.B. Lightfoot stands out to me as one of the best (during this period) to avoid the brackets and have a high academic standard.

  • James

    I’m not sure if you intend this, but your language seems to preclude the possibility of the Bible functioning in both ways at the same time.

    If we remove our critical (i.e. “academic”) lens, how can we deal with the misogyny, the God-ordained genocide, and (just as you critique Legaspi for not pointing this out of his subject), the anti-Semitism found in “Scripture.” Reading these texts as “Scripture” has produced not just bad theology, but real and palpable evil in the world.

    Please don’t misunderstand my tone. I’m a young scholar who wants to remain rooted in my faith tradition. I just don’t see how it is helpful to paint “academic” readings of the Bible in a bad light when, in my opinion, they help us read the Bible better.

  • smcknight

    James, thanks for that. I’m using the terms as Legaspi uses them — so I tried to define the approach in the 3d and 4th paragraphs, then the 5th in Legaspi’s own words. The scriptural Bible could include intense intellectual work, but he’s using “academic” for the Enlightenment’s distancing of the Bible from the Church, for the postconfessional approach, and for the “cultural” Bible.

  • James

    Thanks for the clarification. I certainly did not want to imply that you don’t take academic reading seriously, because clearly you do. I just wanted to throw that out there to help think about how an academic approach can be both helpful and damaging to faith, depending on how it is used.

  • Building on James comment, I think we need to be careful, as with many things dealing with Christian faith, of building a dualistic view of things. An “either/or” mentality of academic versus Scriptural I think is not good, as James pointed out, as pertains to making sure that Scripture is not taken out of the cultural context of when it was written. The book of Revelation, as was pointed out in another Jesus Creed post, was written in a certain time to a certain people for a certain purpose. To read it otherwise is to read it unfaithfully to the intent of John. However, the purely academic reading removes the convictions that come from an eschatology of a church that fulfills what God’s Kingdom is supposed to look like. There needs to be some sort of balance, I believe. The church before the Reformation didn’t take enough of an academic view but the Protestant churches after the Reformation didn’t take enough of a Scriptural view. The two together, I think, is necessary for a faithful reading of Scripture. It seems like a paradox but I’ve found that a lot of the Christian faith feels like a paradox from a purely rational view but is, in truth, amazingly robust when it comes from a Christ-centered view.

  • Tim

    To take the issue of avoiding stripping the Bible as a prophetic work, what would a proper approach look like?

    The famous prophetic passages of the Book of Daniel are widely believed to be authored ex eventu in the 2nd century, with at least that portion of the Book of Daniel representing a literary genre known to exist in antiquity that some choose to label “quasi prophesy.” Revelation is seen by many as a form of resistance literature, not belonging to the genre of true prophesy. The prophesy in Isaiah concerning the young woman conceiving with child and being called Immanuel is believed by many not to actually refer prophetically to Jesus but rather another individual. Some people go with a “double fulfillment” approach to Isaiah on this but that seems to be a forced interpretation to me. The prophecy espoused by Jesus concerning the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven seem to express an idea of it coming within one human generation, but at best that only “partially” happened with full fulfillment at some point in the future. And there is a lot of debate as to what that fulfillment will actually look like. Apparently there is “precedent” for this type of prophetic optimism in terms of time-line in full vs. partial fulfillment, but it certainly does complicate how you use the Biblical text to understand prophesy.

    So, how does one read the Bible both academically and with respect and authority with regards to prophetically? What would that look like?

  • smcknight

    Let me make something clear:

    Please don’t confuse “intelligent” or “informed” or “historically sensitive” or “contextually aware” with “academic.” Legaspi is defining academic as an approach to the Bible where the Bible was co-opted by a social and cultural paradigm because it was swallowed up by a university’s central concerns into which the Bible had to fit.

  • Nitika

    So… talking about a “post-confessional” reading presupposes a Christian cultural background. We can’t forget that categorizing the Bible as a “scripture only” document has significant implications for the pre-confessional world. Do we need a faith community before a translation is appropriate? Many evangelicals have sadly answered that question with a loud YES, and the preachers go out but the gospel stays home.

  • Craig

    I’m in the midst of a 119 day journey through Ps. 119 and have noticed that the passion the psalmist shares for God’s word seems to be tied to 1) the way he THINKS about scripture (counselor, light, etc.), and 2) the practices he PERFORMS in relation to scripture (meditation, daily office, speaking God’s word himself, etc.). I’m eager to begin thinking like he does and practicing the disciplines he models.

  • I found Dale Martin’s discussion of these issues compelling in his “Pedagogy of the Bible: An Analysis and Proposal.”

  • Scott S.

    I could be barking up the wrong tree, but I’ve recently thought that much of our modern fundamentalism (which I grew up within) is a distorted outgrowth of this “academic” reading of the Bible, a reading which values dissection and obsessive cross-referencing (proof-texting).

    Ironically, many fundamentalists are also quite anti-academic, even anti-intellectual. Hence, when confronted with the possibility that the modern fundamentalist reading of scripture might be influenced by an enlightenment scientism approach more than by a submission to the transformative nature of God’s Word, the reaction is, “Who, ME? I don’t even READ those smarty-pants theological books! I just read the B-I-B-L-E… yes, that’s the Book for me!”

  • On a cursory reading of this post and it’s subsequent comments, this idea came to mind; that ‘the Bible is simple enough for a child to read and understand it’s central message, yet deep enough to challenge the greatest minds for the duration of their lifetimes.’

    Is it possible, that this ‘dual’ approach to reading and understanding Scripture was the Holy Spirit’s intent all along? That He knew, thousands of years later, that we would advance intellectually to a place where the Word would have to withstand the cumulative effects of millenia of philosophical thought, textual criticism and the like, while all the time remaining simple enough for a barely literate peasant-or high school dropout-to read and be transformed by?

    Perhaps this is why we have Jesus both confounding the Pharisees in one moment, then in the next, explaining to blue-collar workers that the Kingdom is ‘like a treasure hidden in a field…’ In both instances, some heard, while some fell away.

    For some reason, we love juxtaposing ideas such as ‘Scriptural’ vs. ‘Academic’, when more often than not, I believe, it’s both/and.

  • Jeremy

    My dad used to present a similar problem for pastors. The tendency to confuse sermon preparation with personal devotion is apparently really hard to resist. You can do both, maybe at the same time, but personal and academic readings don’t seem to work well simultaneously. Maybe it’s a personal “posture towards God” thing, I don’t know.

  • Scot – just picked up One.Life (kindle) but haven’t opened it up yet. Do you have a section on lectio divina? Between your text and Vanhoozer’s Is There a Meaning in This Text? It seems the question is what do you want from all of this – to become more Christlike or to be more informed.

  • Deets

    What happens when the Bible is studied academically? Calvinism, neo-Calvinism, dispensationalism, liberalism, and a whole bunch of other -isms that leave mystery aside and think it is possible for us to nail down every thought in the Bible.

  • Randy Gabrielse

    I have encountered this in its American context. I wrote a dissertation on early nineteenth-century colleges in the midwest. As most histories of these colleges would show, they held chapel services, were generally led by seminary-educated professors; some even studied the classics, and the colleges were funded by denominations and churches. They had all the trappings of “Christian colleges.”

    What they did not do, as part of the collegiate curriculum, was study, or even read the Bible. Oberlin College, led by Charles Finney, was an acception. They were denied student funds by the New England agency that provided student assistance and de facto “accreditation/ approval” because they included a Bible class and a Hebrew class in their curriculum.

    The colleges seem to have taken what academic study of the Bible gave them and then blended that with 19th century moral philosophy to provide an education in being an American man. Thus the title of my dissertation: Making Colleges and Men…”

    Of course this entire superstructure of curriculum and pedagogy came under fierce attack after Darwin’ published his work, which undercut the concordance of science and religion, German models of education became popular, and practical research became important following the Civil War. But as George Marsden has pointed out, the “Christianness” of the earlier colleges was always an uncertain thing, often present in good preaching and even revival meetings, but seldom present in the curriculum.

    Randy Gabrielse

  • Rick

    Justin Taylor happened to put up this quote from John Frame regarding a problem with theological training:

    “To qualify for college or seminary positions, a theologian must earn a PhD, ideally from a prestigious liberal university. But at such schools, there is no training in the kind of systematic theology I describe here. Liberal university theologians do not view Scripture as God’s Word, and so they cannot encourage theology as I have defined it, as the application of God’s infallible word. Students are welcome to study historical and contemporary theology, and to relate these to auxiliary disciplines such as philosophy and literary criticism. But they are not taught to seek ways of applying Scripture for the edification of God’s people….So when the theologian finishes his graduate work and moves to a teaching position, even if he is personally evangelical in his convictions, he often writes and teaches as he was encouraged to do in graduate school: academic comparisons and contrasts, minimal interaction with Scripture.”

  • dopderbeck

    Scot – yeah, but …..

    Rick’s (#20) quote I think unintentionally demonstrates the problem for those of us who are struggling with a post-fundamentalist Christian faith. The typical Christian response — which is exactly Prof. Frame’s response — is simply to assert a fundamentalist doctrine of scripture, wash away all the problems critical scholarship uncovers, label everyone else as “Liberal,” and read the texts as a repository of systematic dogmatic assertions. (Before anyone goes bonkers on me, I’m not calling Frame a name — I think he’d agree that he sides with the Fundamentalists as against the Modernists in the Fundamentalist-Modernist debate over scripture).

    I know this isn’t your approach, Scot, nor is it the approach of most who want to read scripture with a “theological hermeneutic”. But as I understand the best application of theological interpretation, it is seeking to be “post”-critical not in the sense of repudiating the “academic” or “modernist” effort to understand scripture as human texts, but to re-connect those efforts with the interpretation and use of scripture-as-scripture. That is, theological interpretation accepts critical conclusions about text-as-human but insists that the text is more-than-human when properly understood in confessional context. And this will, often, lead to very different conclusions about the permissible meaning of the text — in particular when the text is asserting that God acted or that a miracle occurred, something “modernist” interpretation rules out a priori.

    So I agree with you Scot, but I think you need to be much, much more subtle in how you frame things in order to avoid the ugly specter of Fundamentalism.

  • dopderbeck

    I agree with the author, BTW, that this question is far more acute for Protestants than for Catholic or Orthodox believers. Without a stable interpretive authority, it is very hard to explain how the Bible in its humanness functions uniquely as the Church’s book.

  • smcknight

    dopderbeck, once again, I plead my early paragraphs: “academic” is not the opposite of being unintelligent or uncritical but of a culture-shaped socio-pragmatics that colonizes the Bible.

    I get where you are coming from; I get the problem in our context, but Legaspi’s arguing another front. I’m opposed to the distancing affects of reading Scripture as an object instead of a God’s Word.

  • dopderbeck

    Scot, I think an excellent illustration of the problem Legaspi is dealing with is the recent dust-up in SBL over Hendel’s “Faith and Reason in Biblical Studies.” The useful thing Legaspi seems to be doing is showing that supposedly “neutral” inquiry into the Biblical text is never really neutral. To this extent I agree with someone like Frame’s presuppositionalism: human beings never occupy neutral ground; the Enlightenment myth of objectivity is indeed a myth. It’s the age-old problem of the relation between faith and reason, which always seems to push us towards one pole or the other.

  • smcknight

    Yes, Hendel’s piece was a post-theological and post-confessional, but historical-critical (vs. cultural) reading of the Bible. Legaspi’s into the theme of the cultural Bible, and I see that — paradoxically — in both sides of the political spectrum today where the Bible is being co-opted and colonized for political/culture war ends.

  • dopderbeck

    When I mention being more subtle, I might humbly suggest not using the word “academic,” which when used pejoratively in our context certainly evokes a long legacy of anti-intellectualism.

    I agree with you ultimately about what you call “distancing effects,” but OTOH you’ve noted yourself that deep and honest study of the phenomena of scripture leads to a crossing of the “fiery divide” from which there is no honest return. Distantiation is a necessary part of the rigorous study of scripture, no? The problem isn’t distantiation itself, it’s the failure to re-connect with that “second naivetee,” which allows the human phenomena of the text to be appreciated and enjoyed even as the text speaks authoritatively as scripture. And this is where a communal interpretive and worship tradition is essential.

  • smcknight

    Nice point about Ricoeur’s second naivete… I agree.

    “Academic” Bible is Legaspi’s term and he defines it differently than a Historical (critical) Bible. So, I’m being a faithful tradent on that one..

    But I agree: and the comments often visibly demonstrate the obfuscation that arises in calling something the academic Bible.

  • Alan K


    I’m curious if in the book he discusses Kant and/or von Humboldt regarding the organization of universities in Prussia. From what I understand, they were responsible for the separation of Biblical Studies from Theology, the former being understood as a “science” and the latter as “metaphysic”. Personally, I believe we will have problems understand what sort of book the Bible is until there is a reunification of sorts for those disciplines.

  • smcknight

    Alan K, not much of Kant, but some stuff about von Humboldt.

  • Seminary Graduate

    Thank you, Scot, for the post.

    As someone who rigorously studied the Bible “academically” in a well known conservative, evangelical seminary, I learned to bracket faith, theology, and orthodoxy, in the quest to “be right,” as you write in One.Life. A few years later, I’ve become one who now “read[s] the Bible without faith and theology and orthodoxy,” which has ended in a “lack of faith.”

    I often wonder if I’m alone, or have others, also, landed in the ugly ditch and reduced our faith to the “right” confession, with little regard for full-orbed message of Jesus.

    God have mercy.

  • smcknight

    Seminary Graduate,

    Your story saddens me and probably many readers here. I’d like more details, but I sense your story and would like to say that many of us have ended in the ditch — distancing ourselves in a supposed objectivity from the Person behind the Bible can lead to utter distance. We get out of the Bible what we put into it.

    But I want you to know these thoughts:

    1. You will never be the same again. I often say you have been wounded and you will – like Jacob – walk with a limp.
    2. Spend more time over the Bible by listening to it and hearing it instead of analyzing it. There can be a slight and subtle difference.
    3. Be receptive and wait upon the Lord.
    4. Many of us find a second naivete in all this. I know I did — I tell a bit of this in my Blue Parakeet book.

  • Interesting helpful post and comments. Yes, scripture like Jesus is human and divine. Is that balance consciously held to in our academic and church circles. But with the essence of it being the word of God, even as Jesus the God-Human is the Word of God? Somehow this should be held together, never compartmentalized. While we see the human elements in it, we must never lose sight of the point made within that. The way God has chosen to communicate his word. In fact all part of his word.

  • Deets

    smcknight said, “2. Spend more time over the Bible by listening to it and hearing it instead of analyzing it. There can be a slight and subtle difference.”

    Amen to that! I have found the Bible to take on new life as I have began to listen to it. It’s on my iPod so I literally listen to it. Figuratively, I began to read it with a listening ear instead of a mind to sort out what is right, like a college student reading it with a highlighter in hand.

    I believe that the Bible was written to be heard more than read.