Five Things Theologians Wish Biblical Scholars Knew – Hans Boersma

Five Things Theologians Wish Biblical Scholars Knew Hans Boersma
Five Things Theologians Wish Biblical Scholars Knew by Hans Boersma
Published by IVP Academic on September 7, 2021
Genres: Academic, Non-Fiction, Theology
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The disciplines of theology and biblical studies should serve each other, and they should serve both the church and the academy together. But the relationship between them is often marked by misunderstandings, methodological differences, and cross-discipline tension. Theologian Hans Boersma here highlights five things he wishes biblical scholars knew about theology. In a companion volume, biblical scholar Scot McKnight reflects on five things he wishes theologians knew about biblical studies. With an irenic spirit as well as honesty about differences that remain, Boersma and McKnight seek to foster understanding between their disciplines through these books so they might once again collaborate with one another.

Have you ever listened in on a conversation with two people who were definitely smarter than you? Like, you were smart enough to follow the conversation and understand most of what was being said, but in no way were you prepared to interject yourself into the conversation at all? That’s how I felt through most of the Five Things duology by Scot McKnight and Hans Boersma. The series is written from one profession to the other, with the goal of the two interconnected but often disparate fields finding common ground and learning from the other.

McKnight pens Five Things Biblical Scholars Wish Theologians Knew while Boersma pens the opposite Five Things Theologians Wish Biblical Scholars Knew. This a bold project because it’s very much within a niche. One side is obviously writing to biblical scholars. The other side is obviously writing to theologians. And if you’re outside those camps, you’re really just a third-party looking in. But as an interested third-party, let me say that I came away from these books with a greater understanding of each profession, how they differ, and how they can supplement and support the other.

First off, I should probably define the difference between the biblical scholar and the theologian. Frankly, if you don’t already know the difference, this may not be the volume for you, but if you’ve stumbled across this review for some reason and don’t know the difference, I’ll break it down for you. A theologian is one who studies God. A biblical scholar is one who studies the Bible, or rather, a portion of it. As such, biblical scholarship is much narrower than theology and also not limited to theology. Conversely, theology is not limited to the revelation of God in the Bible and it is much more expansive than biblical scholarship.

The five things that Boersma wants his biblical scholar friends to know are:

  1. No Christ, no Scripture. While McKnight started his points with the need to ground theology in Scripture, Boersma layers it one deeper with the reminder that Scripture must be grounded in Christ. That is, Christ’s presence in Scripture is essential to Scripture’s authority. Biblical scholars can have the tendency to read and interpret their work like any other ancient literature, but Scripture is much more than that—it is the revelation of God.
  2. No Plato, no Scripture. Here’s where Boersma loses me a bit. Not because he’s wrong, necessarily, that Christian Platonism is useful as an interpretive lens but it’s his insistence that it is needed. This is an especially sketchy argument given that so much of Scripture predates Plato and Hellenistic influence. It would make more sense to say that the New Testament or the church fathers cannot be divorced from a Platonian metaphysic—something Boersma capably defends—but to insist the Scripture needs a secular philosopher as an interpretive lens is a step too far. Perhaps a more general point that biblical scholars cannot divorce themselves from engaging in metaphysics when doing exegesis would have been a stronger argument.
  3. No Providence, no Scripture. Somewhat related to his first point, Boersma states here that biblical scholars must understand God’s handiwork within Scripture. That is, Scripture and its narrative is not natural, but supernatural. This is an interesting point because, I think, theologians could use the same reminder from the other side, as they may tend to elevate the work of church fathers, councils, and theologians.
  4. No Church, no Scripture. In what may be Boersma’s strongest point, he reminds biblical scholars that Scripture is given to an interpretive community—not academia, but the church. We should not be individualist or elitist in our exegesis, but understand that faith was meant for the common person and will have value for their lives. Tradition—liturgy and creeds—form a part of history of the interpretive community and are worth study.
  5. No Heaven, no Scripture. Boersma’s final point is eschatological. He asks biblical scholars to remember that Scripture cannot be read apart from its spiritual end—the renewal of all things. While the point itself bears contemplation, Boersma uses it to take shots as liberation theology, social justice movements, and other interpretive lenses that focus on sanctification rather than glorification. Focusing on the present, Boersma fears, transforms the supernatural message of “all things new” and turns it into a secular message of liberation as interpreters lose their sense of “otherworldliness.” Ultimately, I’m not convinced that we cannot both have our cake and eat it too. Boersma seems to ignore the inbreaking of the Kingdom that happened in the Incarnation and the indwelling of the Spirit that leads us to live as ambassadors of Christ in this world now. While the point about having a focus on the eschaton is valid, there’s no need to wipe away the focus of liberation now.

If weighing the arguments between the two as a debate, McKnight would come away the winner. The focus on Platonian metaphysics and the dismissal of liberation as a theological theme in Five Things Theologians Wish Biblical Scholars Knew end up as the weak points in the book, while the other three argument end up amounting to a remembrance to read the Bible contextually as both sacred and within a faith community. If Boersma was speaking solely to secular biblical scholars (such as Bart Ehrman, Gerd Ludemann, or Francesca Stavrakopoulou), these arguments might be stronger, but most biblical scholars—as part of a faith tradition—will take these points into consideration already. While I can appreciate Boersma’s arguments here, I think there were much more accessible and common flaws in biblical studies that would have made for stronger points in this book.