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A Personal and Social Transformation through Scripture

    It had become clear to me in the parish that most biblical scholarship was irrelevant to the lived concerns of everyday people.

By Walter Wink
Auburn Theological Seminary
February 2004

    The otherwise even flow of my life as a scholar-for-the-church has so far hit two snags. Both have irreversibly changed my course.

    I was hooked by the first snag in 1962. Having completed work on my Ph.D. except for the dissertation, I was at last established as pastor of a church in southeast Texas, trying to write my thesis with one hand and taking care of pastoral duties with the other. The church was generous in allowing me time to study--and I needed that time for my psychic health because I had walked into a congregation in shambles. It was no little relief to be able to retreat into the first century and thus escape the conflict and pain of the parish. The worse the storm outside, the more I fled to my study inside. Within nine months, I had the writing finished.

    Five years passed. I was preaching two different sermons every Sunday at first, then, mercifully, only one. Over those five years, I must have preached upwards of 350 sermons. I was appalled at how little help I was getting from my bulging library, scholarly journals, and commentaries. The scholars who were writing ostensibly for us clergy were making little or no connection to our sermonic needs. They seemed rather to be answering questions raised by other scholars, almost all of them of a historical character. At first, I blamed myself. Now it is characteristic of most of us that when we uncover such anomalies as these, we dismiss them as aberrations of our own personal experience. That was where I was inclined to leave it. After all, I could scarcely blame my teachers for the problem. They were all deeply committed to the truth claims of the Scriptures. So I dismissed my snag as the peculiar problem of an escapist parson.

    Then, in 1967, Union Theological Seminary invited me back to teach New Testament. In this more exposed setting, dealing with students embroiled in war resistance, black economic development, curriculum reform, and the "Columbia Bust" of 1968, the question of the Bible's relevance for modern life was stridently and insistently posed. At the same time, I was meeting more and more pastors to whom I would put the question, at first very tentatively, almost as if to make conversation: What role does historical criticism really play in your preaching, your personal Bible study, your leadership in congregational study? The answers varied widely but enough were sufficiently disturbing that my sense of the anomaly grew. I was not off the snag. I was impaled on it, and so were they. I would never be rid of it till I plunged into the water and dug out its roots.

    The fruit of that effort was published in 1973 under the title The Bible in Human Transformation: Toward a New Paradigm for Biblical Study (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1973). I had at last located what was for me at the base of the anomaly, thanks to the help of others who had pointed the way. Simply but quite precisely put, the historical-critical approach to biblical study had become bankrupt, not dead. The critical tools had a potential usefulness if they could only be brought under new management. But on the whole, the American scholarly scene was one of frenetic decadence with the publication of vast numbers of articles and books that fewer and fewer people read. Most scholars no longer addressed the lived experience of actual people in the churches or society. Instead, they addressed the current questions of their peers in the professional scholarly guild.

    The net result was a gathering malaise, a crisis of morale, and a dawning recognition that what was once a vital contribution to the emancipation of people from the constrictions of dogmatism had become a new constriction in its own right. My once private snag had now gathered quite a company. Hooked were hundreds of scholars, whose original intention in entering biblical studies has long since been compromised, squeezed out or suppressed. Most of us had originally found ourselves drawn to the Bible. It chose us, as it were, or something in it chose us: something speaks in it. We were attracted to it--not out of curiosity or mere historical interest, but because we believed it could evoke human transformation. Biblical scholarship would be our ministry, our self-offering to the Kingdom of God.

    Then, ineluctably we found ourselves jettisoning the very questions and interests that led us to begin. We were caught in the web of intellectual objectivism with its pretense to detachment, disembodied observation, and uninvolvement as the ideal stance of the researcher. Bultmann had already exposed the false consciousness of objectivism, yet it continued to flourish in biblical circles. I can only guess that a key reason is the history of denominational pluralism in America and the understandable reluctance of universities and colleges to permit the teaching of religion in a way that smacked of sectarianism. Hence, objectivism with a vengeance: the more religion could be taught as an exact science, the less offense it would cause. Moreover, this occurred at a time when the physical sciences were beginning to repudiate objectivism!

    It had become clear to me in the parish that most biblical scholarship was irrelevant to the lived concerns of everyday people. The vast majority of scholars seemed to be interested only in answering questions other scholars were asking. The community of accountability among biblical scholars had ceased to be the church and had become the academic guild of professional scholars. Now, back in an academia under siege, I sensed all the more powerfully the impotence of the detached, objective approach to Scripture for dealing with the real issues of life.

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