Biblical scholars are like ants, carefully storing up tiny morsels for winter. Theologians are like spiders, weaving grand webs out of nothing but the stuff of their own being.” So the seminary dean remarked as I neared MDiv graduation. Little did I know that, soon enough, with advanced degrees in both New Testament and theology, my professional calling would focus on helping ants and spiders collaborate.
“Biblically rooted, theologically formed” is the motto for the School of Biblical and Theological Studies at Wheaton College, where I have taught for 20 years. Our aspiration is to cultivate students who serve Christ’s church with an integrated understanding of the Bible and theology. Whatever form the particular phrasing takes, this aspiration is widespread among evangelical colleges and seminaries.
From the outside, it might seem like Bible scholars and theologians aren’t so different. Aren’t Bible scholars “doing theology” in some sense? And aren’t theologians engaged in studying and interpreting the Bible? Why classify one group as ants and the other as spiders?
There’s certainly a degree of overlap between their labors. But in general, the Bible scholar ants tend to focus on gathering up specific insights into the background and meaning of Scripture. They read the Bible’s original Hebrew and Greek manuscripts, study its ancient-Near-Eastern and Greco-Roman contexts, analyze its diverse literary forms, and identify its key themes and concepts. Stacking up bits of knowledge, they develop hills and colonies that gesture toward settled structures of theology, even if their work doesn’t yield fully “theological” statements.
Whereas the ants build from the bottom up, the theologian spiders weave elaborate webs that aspire to make use of all the materials at hand—very much including the Bible. Theologians engage Scripture closely because they want their theological webs to be all-encompassing. Their overall tendency, however, is to take up existing concepts from doctrinal traditions or contemporary thinkers and then to explore how they fit together, or what further pathways they might suggest.
For a fresh window into the prevailing relationship between Bible scholars and theologians, we can turn to a pair of new books, best read as a kind of friendly but pointed dialogue: Scot McKnight’s Five Things Biblical Scholars Wish Theologians Knew and Hans Boersma’s Five Things Theologians Wish Biblical Scholars Knew. Taken together, these books offer an opportunity to appreciate the distinct contributions of God’s ants and spiders—and the distinct challenges they face.
Before engaging McKnight’s and Boersma’s respective wish lists, though, we need a brief history lesson. For the cultivation of evangelical biblical scholars and theologians is a recent project, just two generations old.
Surveying the landscape
The church has always had learned leaders, but the current landscape of biblical and theological studies is a modern invention. These disciplines did not emerge as distinct fields until the 19th-century rise of the research university. “Biblical scholar” as a professional identity came into being only after the creation of organizations like the Society of Biblical Literature early in the 20th century. American evangelicals were not early adopters; as Mark Noll noted in his landmark study Between Faith and Criticism (1986), few gained university PhDs until the 1960s.
So the 1950s and ’60s were a time of pioneering, with plenty of hardship. American evangelicals seeking a PhD in Old or New Testament studies either relied on particular British mentors or risked the complications of gaining historical credentials in hostile academic settings.
Pioneers like these prepared the way for a time of planting in the 1970s and ’80s. During this period, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and other evangelical institutions sought to match the academic caliber of Fuller Theological Seminary, along with other Protestant standard-bearers like Westminster Theological Seminary (for Reformed, “covenant” theology) and Dallas Theological Seminary (for dispensationalism). Still, however, few evangelical theologians were earning PhDs. Evangelical theology had some educated popular leaders, but it had yet to make significant inroads at the university level.
If in biblical terms a generation lasts 40 years, then the first generation of evangelical biblical scholarship began harvesting its mature fruit in the 1990s. For instance, Daniel Block’s two-volume commentary on Ezekiel—the first evangelical work of such scholarly caliber on that book—appeared in the latter part of that decade. At this point, evangelicals had established themselves in the historical and literary study of “biblical theology,” a field ranging from close readings of individual words and passages to broader interpretations of the Bible as a whole.
By the turn of the century, a generation of growth in biblical scholarship had opened up a host of new avenues for theological reflection, and increasing numbers of university-trained theologians were coming forward to answer the call. But while the resulting scholarly harvest remained plentiful, a time for pruning was clearly at hand. As biblical scholars and theologians weighed their respective methods of tending their own fields, tensions emerged.
Theologians worried that biblical scholars’ historical expertise focused on reconstructing details in a way that fractured the unity of Scripture and weakened the harmony between the Bible and church doctrine. Biblical scholars felt that they were only helping the church to hear the authentic voices of Scripture. Theologians worried about biblical scholarship interacting with historical reconstructions to the detriment of traditional doctrine. Biblical scholars worried about academic theologians interacting with liberal and Catholic thought to the detriment of Scripture itself.
Digging deep and shaping growth
Worries like these form the backdrop for the dialogue taken up by McKnight and Boersma. In Five Things Biblical Scholars Wish Theologians Knew, Northern Seminary professor and CT blogger McKnight emphasizes the need for theologians to dig deep while maintaining scriptural roots.
His first claim is that theology needs a constant return to Scripture—not a biblicist “proof-texting” that yanks verses out of context to prove already-held beliefs, but an “integrative” approach in which the Bible is both authoritative and truly formative. Second, McKnight generously acknowledges that theology needs to know its impact on biblical studies. He illustrates this plea for integration by profiling how biblical scholars engage theology in recent writings on the person and work of Christ. Third, in return, theology needs historically shaped biblical studies. It would be impossible for theologians to keep pace with the latest biblical scholarship, which overwhelms even specialists. Yet theologians at least should engage with paradigm-shifting scholarship (like John Barclay’s work on grace in Paul’s theology).
Fourth, McKnight claims that theology needs more narrative, in contrast with its usual method of presentation, which revolves around specific doctrinal topics or major sections of the church’s historic creeds. And fifth, he states that theology needs to be lived theology. McKnight illustrates this claim by reading Romans “backwards,” treating the embodied love encouraged in Romans 12:1–2 as the letter’s starting point.
In all his claims, McKnight displays a biblical scholar’s characteristic passion to ensure that theology flowers from its fundamental roots in Scripture. A wide array of biblical scholars would embrace some version of these five claims (except perhaps the second). When he admits that “the most unnerving element of systematic theology for me is the rigid commitment to older exegetical conclusions,” many would say a hearty amen.
Turning to Boersma’s companion volume, Five Things Theologians Wish Biblical Scholars Knew, we see an emphasis on shaping Christian growth with a unified approach to Scripture’s teaching. Boersma, a theologian at Nashotah House in Wisconsin, gives each of the book’s pithy chapters a title in the form of a conditional statement: Without this, we can’t have that.
Boersma’s first reminder for biblical scholars is no Christ, no Scripture. His point is that the authority of Scripture is anchored in the preeminence of Christ, which means that biblical interpretation, at root, is a spiritual discipline for encountering the risen Lord.
Second comes a more controversial assertion: no Plato, no Scripture. The claim, more nuanced than it might sound, is that the church’s “Great Tradition”—its bedrock beliefs—necessarily appropriated certain aspects of ancient philosophy for Christian use. Without understanding this philosophical foundation, we will struggle to articulate and uphold orthodox Trinitarian theology and participation in Christ.
Third is the claim no providence, no Scripture. According to the early theologian Origen, Scripture is a “providential sacrament” that divinely sustains our journey to God. Boersma urges searching for Christ in all of Scripture, even using allegorical interpretation as the early church did. Lectio divina, or spiritual reading, is not an “eccentric specialty,” he writes. Ultimately, it shows “what Scripture is for and what we should do with it.”
This leads naturally to his fourth statement: no church, no Scripture. Scripture, in other words, is a preeminent aspect of the Great Tradition—including liturgy and creeds—that guides our ascent to Christ. Boersma’s final chapter, no heaven, no Scripture, orients this entire journey toward its ultimate destination.
Boersma writes with a theologian’s characteristic passion for shaping Christian growth with a coherent understanding of how Scripture relates to the ministry of Christ. We might think of theology as a trellis for biblical faith to climb. Whereas McKnight’s argument proceeds through numerous examples, Boersma’s contains an elegant structure. He does not reject the historical tools in which biblical scholars specialize, but he does treat those tools—and even biblical texts themselves—as penultimate rather than ultimate. In his view, modern methods of scholarship have made it all too easy, while affirming Scripture’s ultimate authority, to read and interpret the Bible just like any other complicated book.
Replanting sola Scriptura
McKnight and Boersma convey important perspectives on their two disciplines, but they cover only parts of the landscape. Both authors are white males similar in age who have become Anglicans. Like other Western scholars (including me), they enjoy social privilege (like European sabbaticals).
To their credit, they acknowledge other perspectives, especially those carrying less weight than their own. Their generous introductions for each other’s books are exemplary. If they often defend the distinctives of their disciplines forthrightly, they also exemplify the godly engagement to which more evangelical scholars should aspire. Despite these virtues, both books fail to represent a classic Protestant commitment still shared by numerous evangelical theologians and biblical scholars: sola Scriptura. This departure from the Reformation cry—“Scripture alone!”—limits the reach of their insights.
McKnight champions what he calls prima Scriptura: “All theologizing must begin with Scripture.” Then he criticizes “biblicism,” which he associates with sola Scriptura. Of course, the popular biblicism that treats Scripture like a doctrinal code or a how-to manual is riddled with problems. But popular biblicism is a far cry from the classic Protestant doctrine. Sola Scriptura does not teach that the Bible directly furnishes every theological concept or answers every practical question. But it does mean that Scripture is theology’s final court of appeal and serves as its own interpreter. With the Holy Spirit’s help, we can examine its difficulties in the light of its central message and its clearer passages.
Yet Boersma does not champion sola Scriptura either. As he understands it, sola Scriptura has misled evangelical scholarship into pursuing the meaning of an isolated text historically, purely by reference to the biblical author’s original intention—without any reference to the church’s creeds. He agrees that we should avoid subjective interpretations of the Bible, but he worries that the historical approach simply replaces the idiosyncratic readings of laypeople with the varying interpretations of Bible scholars. Scripture must be interpreted in accord with the church’s Great Tradition, Boersma argues, even if we shouldn’t attempt to define that tradition “magisterially” the way the Catholic Church does.
Of course, the Protestant legacy calls for “always reforming” the church according to God’s Word, and these critiques of sola Scriptura confront genuine problems. Reform surely requires digging deep with available biblical scholarship, and McKnight’s narrative tools may help to renew lived theology. Reform surely requires shaping Christian growth with insightful church tradition, and Boersma’s Christian Platonism may help to reconnect biblical interpretation with participation in Christ. If sola Scriptura has often degenerated into popular biblicism, then it needs replanting, with as many weeds uprooted as possible.
In principle, though, lots of evangelical biblical scholars and theologians remain committed to sola Scriptura, including international leaders whose faith has been cultivated outside the scholarly context of Europe and the US. Pointing out this wider landscape is important not to squelch the contributions of McKnight and Boersma but to situate them—and to suggest the possibility of transplanting their insights into more classically Protestant soil.
The university is both a mission field and a garden, with plenty of weeds. Whatever Christians’ future there, we always need deep and wide learning. Our faith is intellectually rooted in Scripture, not biblical studies—a subtle but crucial distinction. So while biblical scholars are not Protestant popes, historical perspective highlights the value of their expertise. Their pioneering work has generated treasures and tensions, and having theologians follow their path of academic engagement can nourish how biblical faith is “formed.” The current landscape needs both ants and spiders.
Which raises a question: Is it possible, and even necessary for the church’s growth, to stop putting them in separate plots? Given modern academic specialization, a full reunion may prove practically impossible. Yet it’s still worth attempting to break down barriers between Bible scholars and theologians. Better interaction could help them cultivate their specialties in ways that would bear healthier fruit for the church.
Theologians should always be biblically rooted. With improved awareness of biblical scholarship, they could better tackle age-old questions like the nature of salvation and contemporary ones like technological ethics.
Biblical scholars, for their part, are always theologically formed, whether well or poorly. So better theological formation would deepen the nuances of their translations, Bible studies, and popular books. This, in turn, would help pastors who rely on their commentaries. Not only would they enjoy richer understandings of the original contexts of the passages on which they preach, but they would gain added insights into how those passages were understood historically, as well as possible theological implications and pastoral applications for today.
In the long run, it pays to remember that ideas taking shape in the Christian university tend to trickle down into the churchly soil. We can trace the influence of leading ideas in the 1960s and ’70s—about everything from church growth to the kingdom of God—upon the megachurches of the next 40 years. What recent ideas—and blind spots—will shape the lives of ordinary Christians and the practices of congregations for the next 40 years? When we cultivate biblically rooted, theologically formed scholars—who engage disciplines across the entire university—we’re preparing them to exercise a wholesome influence on the church.
Given the relative newness of evangelical biblical and theological scholarship, the presence of difficult questions and differing perspectives is no surprise. It calls for patience rather than panic—perhaps for letting a thousand flowers bloom. The God-given skills and tendencies of ants and spiders even suggest that some differences will be perennial.
As for the larger moral of this two-generation story: Thanks be to God! Surveying the landscape of biblical and theological scholarship shows how much evangelical understanding has grown within two generations. For Christians who want to dig deep into Scripture and grow into Christlikeness shaped by the church’s heritage, there is an unprecedented abundance of helpful resources. Let us gratefully honor the pioneering generations and be good stewards of their bountiful legacy.
Daniel Treier is the Gunther H. Knoedler Professor of Theology at Wheaton College. He is the author of Introducing Evangelical Theology.
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