February 7, 2008
Crossing the Disciplinary Divide
Following up my last blog on “A Nose for Theological Interpretation,” I have some more thoughts on the problem of “all Kittel and no Barth” or vice versa. As one forced to be a theological generalist (even though my training is in New Testament), it's my observation that there is an incredible amount of detailed work going on in the various theological fields. No surprise there, huh? It is beyond keeping up with. Many theologians these days are probably happy just to maintain a serviceable knowledge of Greek and Hebrew, let alone grasp the current trends and developments in OT or NT studies. Likewise, how many in biblical studies have a good grasp of current thinking and developments in systematic theology? Do they read much in systematics? Not in my experience (though I’d happily be shown otherwise).
So even the model of the biblical scholars taking their work and laying it on the thresholds of the theologians’ offices—as faulty as that model might be—doesn’t seem to be operative. I don’t think the two sides are spending much energy listening to each other. For instance, just from a biblical studies perspective: I think that if certain evangelical theologians who make confident pronouncements about the doctrine of Scripture knew what their OT colleagues were dealing with just, say, in terms of OT textual types, they would be more temperate in their claims. But that’s for another time.
What is really on my mind is an apologia for reference books. And I will appeal to a great reference book about reference books, William M. Johnston’s Recent Reference Books in Religion. Well, perhaps not so “Recent”—nearly twelve years have passed since IVP published the first edition in 1996! (It was picked up by another publisher for a second edition and a handsome “library” price tag.) Johnston offers an excellent introduction to the value of reference books for interdisciplinary studies—and viewed close up, “theological studies” is an interdisciplinary enterprise.
A premise of Johnstone’s book is that there has been a revolution in reference books, but one that has largely gone unnoticed by scholars in religious studies. Johnston’s aim is to raise the prestige of reference books in religious studies, and he speaks of past-oriented, or recapitulatory reference works, and future-oriented, or revisionist reference works. For the former he finds at least four functions:
1. Supplying information or data (names, dates, definitions, chronology, bibliography). This is a basic, time-tested use. Practical but not very exciting. This is the stereotype of reference books.
2. Expounding “methods, research problems and obstacles inhabiting a field.” Now we’re warming up.
3. Expounding a field “for nonspecialists, particularly for experts in other domains who venture into an area unfamiliar to them. Reference books introduce practitioners of one field to data and research issues of another.” Here’s the cross-disciplinary theme coming through.
4. Finally, “if used imaginatively, a conspectus of a field can yield a synoptic or even ‘panoptic’ view of it. . . . Such sweeps of the horizon proceed most readily through well-chosen reference books. . . . Once an individual has absorbed rudiments of a field, no other practice illuminates the thickets so clearly as well-planned reading of reference books.” And this is where Johnston wants to help!
I recommend Johnston’s book. It should be sitting on the reference shelf in your academic library. It’s a gem of a book, though it’s value was apparently only appreciated by librarians. Even if it’s now out of date, it will still help you get the most out of reference books as you step out of your defined area of expertise. And it’s not dull reading. Johnston has a passion and a thesis that he pursues energetically. Read his introductions (there are two) and his Glossary (for his categories of reference books), and then probe around as your interests lead. Even an hour with this book will be rewarding.
I’ve sometimes toyed with the idea of a short series of books—somewhat invidious in nature—that would go like this: What Theologians Wish Biblical Scholars Knew. What Biblical Scholars Wish Theologians Knew. What Philosophers Wish Biblical Scholars and Theologians Knew. And then of course, we could turn it about and put the theologians and biblical scholars on the philosophers. (I think some bloggers ought to take up this game.) But really, if you go to a recent academic reference book in a field—something that’s above the “general” level—you are probably going to find what its specialists want you to know. Certainly that’s the case with IVP Academic’s “Black Dictionaries” in biblical studies. And I’ll talk about the forthcoming Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry & Writings in my next blog.