IVP - Addenda & Errata - The Vast Domain of Theological Studies

February 28, 2008

The Vast Domain of Theological Studies

Have you ever considered the staggering range of knowledge—and bibliography—we allude to with the words “theological studies”? For one thing, with the pervasive character of religion and theology in history, societies and cultures, it is difficult to know where to draw the line and say “this is no longer theological studies.” And actually, once one has drawn that line, the broader historical, social and cultural context is still relevant.

What then does theological studies encompass. We have biblical studies, systematic theology, historical theology, church history, ethics, spirituality, liturgics, ecumenics, missiology and “practical theology” (which is more than homiletics). That’s a rough list, and let’s just say that it’s close enough.

Now start to break down biblical studies. Well, that’s fairly clear, right? There’s Old Testament and New Testament. Okay. But this obviously includes the fields of Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek language studies, any of which can occupy a career of scholarship and a university chair. But if it’s Old Testament you’re after, you’d do well to know Akkadian and Ugaritic, and then take your pick from Egyptian, Hittite, Persian, Old Elamite and Sumerian, depending on what piece of OT you are going to plant your flag. And then there is the vast field we broad-brush as ancient Near Eastern background, where you can apply those languages but which runs us into the specialized field of archaeology, which itself breaks down into further specialties. Are we still in theological studies? Good question. But if it’s just the text you’re interested in, where would you like to begin? In the complexities of the Pentateuch or the prophets, or the equally specialized fields of Psalms or wisdom or the historical books and its related field of the history of Israel? Or will it be a canonical approach? Then too there is Old Testament theology.

Okay, too many languages and complicated ANE stuff in Old Testament studies. Let’s go after the New Testament. But here you’d best know a good deal about Second Temple Judaism—getting a library of ancient texts, including your Josephus and Philo firmly in hand—and then rabbinics too, with Mishnah and Talmud just as a starter. And did we mention, of course, Roman and Hellenistic background? There are vast libraries of texts original and secondary to explore, and the Dictionary of New Testament Background will give you a fair survey of what’s what. But additionally it would be good to know something about the postapostolic church, at least up to about midsecond century. And, you’ve guessed it, each of these areas has its specialized subsets of scholarly endeavor, which include their numerous questions and controversies and journals and standard works and specialized monographs, not to speak of a proliferation of social-scientific and literary and rhetoric approaches and what have you. And then, well, there's the text itself (imagine that!), with its subdomains of Synoptic, Johannine, Pauline studies as a start. Or one can delve into hermeneutics, and get lost in a thicket of philosophical considerations, or New Testament theology, though that presumes foundational knowledge of the above.

Just take the Dead Sea Scrolls, for example, and the mass of studies and critical texts that its scholarly industry has layered in deposits within research libraries over the past fifty-plus years. It is an entire field of specialization, jealousy guarding its territory against novice interlopers (like generalist New Testament scholars). And, incidentally, it is a field that bleeds into OT textual criticism in no small way. A few minutes or hours with the two-volume Encyclopedia of the Dead Sea Scrolls will give you a sense of what’s cooking under the Qumran canopy.

Well, would you care to enter the scriptorium of textual criticism? You will quickly have to decide whether to take the Old Testament or New Testament turn, and either way you will discover a warren of specialized studies, some of which are the exclusive domain of three or four pale, sun-starved and bespectacled scholars, collating their manuscripts and mumbling about their uncials and minuscules. And they might equally be occupied with the Septuagint or the Samaritan Pentateuch, if not the Old Latin and Syriac and Coptic versions and lectionaries and who knows what else. All this, by the way, intersects with early Christian history and patristics.

Okay, that’s not for you. Out into the sunshine! Or maybe the catacombs. Enough of the strangling details and “modernist” assumptions of critical scholarship. You’re going to pursue the history of interpretation, hang out with the dead divines and learn from the history of exegesis what you can’t learn from exegesis alone. Be warm and well fed! You’ve now got the entire corpus of Christian thought to wade through. And how’s your Latin and Greek and French and German? “Don’t be ridiculous,” you say, “I’m not going to tackle the whole thing. Just the Reformation period.” So do you think that’s just Calvin and Luther and a couple others? What about Alexander Alesius, Robert Barnes, Theodore Beza, John Bradford, Martin Bucer, Johannes Brenz, Johannes Bugenhagen, Heinrich Bullinger, Wolfgang Capito, Miles Coverdale, Thomas Cranmer, Desiderius Erasmus, Matthias Flacius Illyricus, John Frith, Anthony Gilby, Christopher Goodman, Andreas Hyperius, John Knox, Hugh Latimer, Jacques Lefevre d’Etaples, Georg Maior, Pilgram Marpeck, Philipp Melanchthon, Sebastian M√ľnster, Wolfgang Musculus, Johann Oecolampadius, Andreas Osiander, Conrad Pellican, William Perkins, Nicholas Ridley, John Rogers, Erasmus Sarcerius, William Tyndale, Zacharias Ursinus, Juan de Valdes, Peter Martyr Vermigli, William Whittingham, Jerome Zanchi and Ulrich Zwingli? And again, how’s your Latin? (Thank God that IVP is making the best of these accessible in the Reformation Commentary Series now under development! And thanks also to my colleague Joel Scandrett for this formidable list, which is by no means exhaustive!)

And so on and on it goes, rocking on through the depths of patristics (have you ever looked at the Migne collection?), the vast corpus of Augustine and Aquinas and medieval theology, the Puritans, Reformed scholastics, nineteenth-century theology and, to be selective, we'll limit ourselves to the theological solar systems of Calvin or Edwards or Barth studies. And we’ll not even speak of the cathedrals and halls and courtyards of Roman Catholic theology with its canon law and liturgics and moral theology. Nor shall we broach the venerable and incensed regions of Eastern Orthodoxy. And we have not even mentioned the varieties of ethnic, regional and localized theological thought that can be collected under the name of global theology and are the subject of our forthcoming Global Dictionary of Theology.

My point is that the term “theological studies” (never mind “religious and theological studies”) alludes to an impressive domain of human knowledge with staggering layers of historical depth, teeming neighborhoods and suburbs of intellectual endeavor as well as cultural and cross-disciplinary interchanges that are too complex for any one soul to grasp in one lifetime.

What then does it mean to say, "I have a degree in theology" or “I teach theology” or “I teach biblical studies” or “We publish theology”? Sometimes I think we are all no more than spermologoi, “seed pickers,” birds pecking (Acts 17:18) in the temple courts.

Posted by Dan Reid at February 28, 2008 2:11 PM Bookmark and Share


Thanks for your comment, which I unfortunately deleted in a war against junk comments!

Comment by: Dan Reid at March 3, 2008 1:02 PM

This post may well deter potential grad students from doctoral study! Crazy how much there is to know out there. Which reminds me once again why books are so valuable. We can't possibly know it all, but we can find our way to books that cover it for us.

Comment by: Al Hsu at March 5, 2008 8:04 AM

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