Years ago I was a research assistant for Dr. Scott Jones at SMU. He was serving in the evangelism chair at Perkins, and he kept me plenty busy tracking down references and scouring books on the Wesleys. Our work together gave us some time to chat and get acquainted. One of the things the future United Methodist bishop would impress upon me as an aspiring scholar was the importance of scholarship in service to the Church. Yes, there are plenty of people who study Christian theology, history, Bible, ethics, and other such fields, but not all of them actually see their work as a service they may offer the Church. Whenever I have the opportunity to counsel young scholars these days, I encourage them to see their work in this light.
An excellent contribution of scholarship in service to the Church comes from Christopher Bryan, C. K. Benedict Professor of New Testament, emeritus, at Sewanee. In Listening to the Bible: The Art of Faithful Biblical Interpretation, Bryan takes on the divide between the academic field of Biblical Studies and the uses of the Bible within the life of the church. He spends considerable time discussing the historical-critical project, beginning with Schleiermacher in the early 1800’s and moving into the present day. While he is critical of this project because of its overstatement of the autonomy of the biblical scholar and the false notion of objectivity it presupposes, he does recognize considerable value in the historical-critical method. He points out that a liability of the historical-critical method is that it at times involves an inflated hermeneutic of suspicion. We think we can reconstruct what was actually happening behind a text better than the first Israelite or Christian people who gave us the text to begin with (think Jesus Seminar). “We shall find nothing of value in any text, including Holy Scripture, unless we try to listen to it on its own terms; and this, to be fair to Schleiermacher, was what he asked for” (32). Historical-critical study, at its best, helps us to do this.
Moving from critique to constructive proposals, Brian argues,
[T]here emerge three tasks for the interpreter of Scripture:
to listen so far as possible to the individual voices of Scripture and try to understand them;
to consider the individual voices in relation to the whole of Scripture, asking how far an overall witness, a consensus, arises from Scripture, and if so what it is;
and finally to ask how all that relates to the continuing life and witness of the Church up to and including our own day (45).