About a week ago I was speaking to a friend, and he asked if I was studying “theology.”  I laughed, knowing how difficult that question is to answer, and said “Sort of, but no.  I’m doing biblical studies.”  He said that he assumed they were the same thing, and as briefly as I could, I tried to explain that, contrary to popular belief, they are not the same.  And then, last night, speaking to another friend, he asked about my studies, and we ended up having the exact same conversation regarding the distinction between “theology” and “biblical studies.”  The line may seem like a fine one, and in some ways my own hope is that the two disciplines would play together more often.  On a personal level, as a man of faith, I am deeply committed to both.  But in a technical sense, they are not the same, and in many universities they are actually kept completely separate from one another, so I thought I’d write a quick post to explain the difference as best as I can.

I remember the first time I was made aware of the distinction.  I was doing my undergrad, and one of my favorite professors made the remark “I am not a biblical scholar, I am a theologian.”  I chewed on this, and asked him later what he meant, and he explained what I hope to explain here.  In the earliest stages of study, they are not altogether separate.  For instance, my undergraduate degree is a B.A. in “biblical studies and theology.”  The degree is in both, so I studied them side by side, but the very fact that both terms are included in the degree title shows that they are not the same.  By the time I did my masters work, at least in my university and many academic universities, we were forced to choose between them.  I chose biblical studies (not an easy decision for me), because of the nature of the things I’d be able to explore.  In many ways, I went with what I thought my weakness was.  This held true, because I was already well versed in theology, but my first semester of masters work in biblical studies produced some very mixed results, and initially I feared I’d made the wrong decision (things have thankfully improved since then!).

“Biblical studies” is primarily concerned with the foundational, base-level “meaning” of passages or sections of the biblical texts (known as “exegesis”), as well as the developments and circumstances regarding Judaism and early Christianity.  Biblical studies is the track for those who wish to be “scholars” of the Bible, which requires that the researcher become conversant with (and to some degree an expert in) quite a large range of important and relevant areas.  The scholar is mainly concerned with history, literature, linguistics, textual analysis, and sociology.  In many ways, scholars are the religious scientists and literary experts.  Biblical scholars engage with the biblical texts themselves, through textual criticism, analyzing the forms, sources, redactions, and literary techniques of the writers.  They must also engage with a host of other important texts such as the Septuagint, the Masoretic Text, the Mishna, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Samaritan Pentateuch, the Talmud, the Apocrypha, the Pseudepigrapha, the Targums, and a host of other relevant texts.  Many readers of the Bible are unclear as to why these texts are relevant, but this is one of the many reasons that scholars are important to the study of “meaning” – a considerable amount of what we know to be true of the meaning of biblical texts has come from an analysis of these various textual traditions.  Many of them have had a direct impact on the biblical writers, and others come from traditions which were largely influential at the time that various biblical texts were written.  Scholars must also know the biblical languages, and have an understanding of the cultures and people groups involved in the relevant periods of history (Jewish, Christian, pagan, Roman, Greek, and many more).  The work of a scholar is to look at individual passages, or books, or authors, and ask questions such as:

  • What did this writer mean at the time he wrote this passage?
  • How would the audience have received this text?
  • How has this text been interpreted over the course of time by various groups?
  • What does this text tell us about early Christianity?
  • What forms or expressions did Judaism take over various stages of its history?
  • What influence, if any, did Hellenism have on the writing of Christian texts or the development of the Christian religion?
  • And many, many more.

 

“Theology” is primarily concerned with taking meaning, and the work of scholars, and putting it into theoretical frameworks.  Theologians, in many ways, are religious philosophers, taking meaning and looking beyond what is initially demonstrated through historical and textual analysis and arguing for fuller levels of meaning beyond them.  Whereas scholars are looking at individual authors or texts, theologians will often look for the interplay between the various texts to understand how the whole of a religion may view themes and ideas or develop beliefs.  Theologians are looking into “whole-Bible” ideas, whether “systematized” (e.g. Christology, ecclesiology {study of the church}, Pneumatology {study of the Spirit}, etc.), or thematic (Incarnation, sacrifice, Sabbath, suffering, joy, etc.), or they look to understand the overarching structures by which the Bible can be seen to stand together (covenants, dispensations, promises, salvation history, God’s kingship, etc.).  Theologians are also interested in the way that these various ideas are understood throughout history by various groups and in various places.  Theologians ask questions such as:

  • What do various texts and authors contribute to our understanding of salvation?
  • What is the nature of “work” in the Bible, and how does it affect the way we see our work today?
  • In what way does sin affect the human condition?
  • What is heaven and what will life look like for those who are there?
  • What does it mean to worship God?
  • What is the result of taking communion or being baptized?
  • Do dinosaurs have sex in the afterlife? (this is an important one)
  • And many, many more.

 

Now, there is some overlap, of course.  First, theologians do not need to learn the biblical languages, but many do.  Also, theologians are usually concerned with the whole of Scripture, but there are many who specialize in one section of Scripture or they are committed to the theology of a given author.  In turn, scholars do not always concern themselves with the way that various texts link together (unless they’re all by the same writer), but there are exceptions, as in the case of Paul and the Gospels, because the traditions from which they draw shed considerable light on the relationship between them (I once had a professor of the Gospels who admitted to me that she tried to avoid reading Paul whenever possible!).  But these distinctions are still very present in many educational environments, so, for those interested, my hope was simply to explain the differences.

In many places this is changing.  There are scholars at places such as Durham, St. Andrews, Aberdeen, Wheaton, and others that are more deeply engaging the interplay between biblical studies and theology, and I find this to be a welcome shift.  Although the two disciplines have been pulled apart by academic convenience, it is my view that neither can be fruitful without the other.

theology

 

 

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