Bridging a False Divide

By Barron, Robert | First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, April 2014 | Go to article overview

Bridging a False Divide


Barron, Robert, First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life


Two years ago, a colleague of mine, a specialist in the Old Testament, sidled over to me at a faculty party and asked, "What are you working on?" I replied eagerly, "Actually, something right up your alley. I'm writing a commentary on Second Samuel." His face darkened and, leaning in close to me, he whispered, "You have no business writing a commentary on Second Samuel."

We laughed together, but his comment reflects an attitude fairly common among biblical scholars, namely, that there yawns a great gulf between serious analysis of Scripture and my field of systematic theology. How could someone not well-versed in Hebrew and other ancient Semitic languages and not thoroughly trained in the science of the historical-critical method possibly compose a worthwhile commentary on a major Old Testament text?

My own formation had actually predisposed me to accept the legitimacy of this separation between theology and the Bible. My route of access to things religious was philosophy. When I was a teenager, Thomas Aquinas's arguments for the existence of God and his rational approach to God had a massive impact on me. During my university and seminary years, I concentrated on philosophy and philosophical theology, and my interest in the Bible remained comparatively minimal. Moreover, the manner in which the Bible was presented to me during the years of my intellectual formation did little to pique my curiosity about the scriptural world.

The 1970s and 1980s represented the high-water mark of historical criticism in the Catholic Church. A major preoccupation of my biblical instructors was to show the inadequacy of a literalistic reading of the sacred texts. However valuable this insight was, the result of the approach was largely negative: "These things didn't really happen."

They also placed great stress on discerning the intentionality of the human authors and the specificities of their historical settings, which resulted in a loss of the sense of the integrity of the Bible as a whole. That the Scriptures represented, in some way, the intention of a transcendent author who used both words and events to convey a coherent message was never a serious option. Finally, most of the Bible scholars I read during those years tended to see systematic theology as something of a distorting overlay that had to be stripped away in order to get at what the Scriptures really mean.

What made things worse was that the principal theological authors I read when I was coming of ageTillich, Rahner, Schleiermacher, Tracy, and their peers-were remarkably unbiblical. One can plow through thousands of pages of much of the systematic theology of the last two centuries and find precious little of the Scriptures.

Thoroughly understandable is N. T. Wright's dry remark that most of the Christology of the last two hundred years, both Protestant and Catholic, has been Marcionite in form, that is, developed in almost complete abstraction from the Old Testament. Thus it appeared to me that there was indeed a gulf between the Bible and theology, and that I had placed myself squarely on one side of it.

A turning point was a course I taught for the first time in the late nineties, which I called "The Christology of the Poets and Preachers." In preparation for this class, I read the sermons of many of the greatest dogmaticians whose theological work I knew well: Origen, Augustine, Bernard, Anselm, Aquinas, Newman, and others. What struck me was how profoundly biblical they were.

Whereas my generation had been taught to preach in a very "experiential" way, taking a prompt from the biblical readings but then moving quickly to stories from our own experience, the most significant preachers of the great tradition, I learned, showed extraordinary patience with the complexity of the biblical world. In the manner of Karl Barth, they drew their readers and listeners through the thicket of the Scriptures.

This immersion in the preaching of the great systematicians convinced me that the historical-critical animus against theology was misguided. …

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