Maybe you’ve wondered this too: how does my faith relate to my scholarship? It might be easy to affirm with the Apostle Paul that “in him [Christ] all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17, NIV). But too often, the assumptions in Western twenty-first century culture about what counts as a fact (public) and what counts as a value (private) create a dualistic worldview.
In the conclusion to last month’s post, I raised the question of how Scripture might function as an authority in the life of a Christian scholar. How to be “biblical” in one’s scholarship is one of the most complex questions about how the various parts of one’s identity and life find their unity, integrity, and coherence. Every nuance to this debate can’t be addressed here but a few thoughts might spark our further reflections.
The desire to be biblical often arises from sincere faith and devotion. Thus, the Christian scholar seeks to be biblical in their work. This is an attempt to live faithfully in the whole of one’s life. But the question of how to connect or integrate faith and scholarship reveals the assumption lurking in the background that they’re not connected and must somehow be integrated together.
There are many ways this challenge can get superficially sorted early in either one’s faith or scholarly journey: praying for or evangelizing one’s peers, choosing research topics which provide an opportunity to speak about matters of faith, steering research and writing to support faith claims, maintaining personal integrity and being a positive influence with others, etc. It often takes time for the deeper and more substantive issues to emerge, where faith and scholarship inhabit a unified space in one’s life.
What many students or early-career Christian scholars often struggle with is discerning the inherent meaning and purpose in scholarship generally or their field specifically, rather than feeling that these are separate worlds that are in tension with each other. To put this more theologically: Christians engaged in academic work need a far more robust theology of God’s Creation and the sub-discipline of human cultural activity to embrace human life in this scholarly part of the world.
This returns us to the assumptions of our culture: in this case, the assumption that what is most practical is most meaningful. Plumbers, bakers, and nurses – so this way of thinking goes – have a clear role in the world; but what does it mean to be an expert on 3rd century BCE Egyptian cultic poetry?
I’m going to share three theses that I’ve found most helpful for framing in my own life how Scripture relates to the Christian scholar. These ideas build upon and seek to clarify ecumenical Christian confessions about God’s written revelation in Scriputre. I recognize that each is counter-cultural, to one degree or another, in different communities – which is part of the reason why I keep coming back to them time and again: they continue to challenge me to further reflection on faith and scholarship.
1. I need the Bible; but I also need more than the Bible. Within some evangelical Christian communities today, there is a growing drift toward biblicism, the notion that all the knowledge we need is contained in the Bible. Biblical scholar Michael Bird has written a nice short post about this unhelpful idea. To avoid the error of biblicism, one must put alongside the Bible all the other sources of knowledge available to us. In fact, this is one major critique of Christopher Watkin’s book, Biblical Critical Theory: that instead of being biblical it “is an exercise in biblicist Reformed apologetics.” The Bible was never intended to be the single exhaustive storehouse of all knowledge for all time about all things. Even to understand the Bible, we must bring other forms of knowledge to it, like language, symbolic meaning, history, culture, etc. This should excite the Christian scholar who is called to pursue knowledge in all its possible forms.
2. Ideas are important; but ideas must become actions and a way of life. It is so easy as an academic to live in the realm of ideas. Ideas can be beautiful and exhilarating! They’re so pure and can demand so little from us once conceived and expressed. But consistently throughout Scripture we find encouragements and examples of how ideas must become embodied in a way of life. God did this by becoming human in Jesus. And Jesus exhorted us to a very tangible form of love – not only for God but also for neighbour and even enemy. This means that being biblical entails our ideas; but being biblical must also include everything else that makes up being human. Christian scholars should be known as those who bring their entire selves to this academic calling.
3. Your life has a human structure; the Bible gives it a direction. Building on the two points above, this one may be the most provoking one over my decades of academic work. Biblical worldview scholar Albert Woltershas very compellingly captured a deep insight: Creation has a structure and Scripture intends to guide the direction we give to that structure in life. Being biblical means that I so inhabit the drama narrated in Scripturethat the whole of my life becomes oriented around God and God’s intentions for the flourishing of Creation, not just the accumulation of factoids catalogued in our brains. For the Christian scholar, this can touch on the most esoteric aspects of our research to the most tangible ways in which we treat other people and the civic institutions we inhabit. The direction that our lives are moving in (again, not at the level of ideas but the everyday level of being human in God’s world) lays a daunting challenge and a liberating joy before each and every one of us!
These three theses, returned to again and again, have drawn me back to and deeper into Scripture over many years. They have also saved me from jeopardizing scholarship with flimsy apologetic simplicities. While they do have an initial simplicity to them, they also have required my long-term attention and practice so that I am drawn deeper into the life-giving mystery of God-with-us and outward to the whole broken-but-beautiful world all around that Jesus calls me to love and serve. I hope they can become both a blessing and a invitation to you in your own academic work done coram Deo.