At my own institution, the University of St Andrews, the recently founded Logos Institute for Analytic and Exegetical Theology is trying to foster this sort of collaboration. The institute offers a unique approach to theological study, bringing systematic theology, biblical study, and philosophy into conversation.
The aim is to address the big questions of faith in the wider world. What does the word God mean? Who or what might the word refer to? What does it mean to be human? What can and must we say about Jesus? About creation—about the origin of the world and about the world itself? What do traditional Christian claims about reconciliation actually mean in practice as well as theory? And with all of these: How do we know? Is there a special kind of in-house Christian knowledge, or can anyone join in?
Much recent systematic theology has come at these questions obliquely by studying the great minds of the past. That is vital. We cannot reinvent the wheels bequeathed to us by older writers, even if some of the axles may be damaged and some spokes missing.
Equally, biblical specialists sometimes imply that once we have discovered what Matthew, Hosea, or whoever was really saying, we have done our job. This may still leave the reader wondering what these ancient ideas might mean in today’s very different world.
Of course, those who believe in the authority of Scripture would affirm that the Bible is on a higher plane than subsequent theologians, however venerable. But to work out what that means requires many minds on the job. Fortunately, we are now seeing many leading scholars addressing this challenge. This is a further sign of hope.
For instance, the Logos Institute has been able to involve in its teaching and discussions theologians like Oliver Crisp, Sarah Coakley, Tom McCall, Alan Torrance, and Andrew Torrance; philosophical theologians such as C. Stephen Evans, Eleonore Stump, Peter van Inwagen, Linda Zagzebski, and Mike Rea; and exegetes such as David Moffitt, Amy Peeler, and Richard Bauckham.
The conversation being generated among these scholars is inspiring a new generation of young theologians. Among them is a significant contingent of women—remembering that women, throughout most of church history, have not been encouraged to participate in theological teaching and research. Under the leadership of Christa McKirland, we’ve established Logia, a sister organization within the Logos Institute, encouraging younger female scholars by modeling top-flight theological engagement.
Our task, then, is to understand in the clearest, most rigorous and profound ways we can—from the Bible and within Christian theology—what exactly the Christian faith teaches. For this, we need the best thinking from various disciplines, within a diverse community. The results of such study need to be interpreted in relation to all other aspects of life and disseminated appropriately into our often confusing world, which regularly throws up new questions while also circling back to the old ones.
Christian theologians and philosophers regularly claim that their thinking is grounded in Scripture. But they seldom pay the text the kind of close attention expected in contemporary biblical studies. This may owe something to the less than helpful teaching about the Bible that some have received, but it is still regrettable. Theologians’ engagement with Scripture often lapses into proof-texting, with little regard for the authors’ thought-worlds and original intentions.
This can allow Christian theology and philosophy to escape into mere speculation, grounded on nothing more than the researcher’s intuitions and some parts of post-biblical tradition. The inadequacies of this method are obvious: It is like trying to water a garden having first detached the hosepipe from the main tap. There may be some water left in the hose, but it won’t go far.
Contemporary biblical scholarship has, in fact, produced many exciting new insights that theologians and philosophers could pick up and develop. My own work, especially on Jesus and Paul, focuses on many issues that dovetail directly with larger theological questions. Few theologians will become experts in biblical scholarship, but biblical expertise must take its seat at the theological table. As in ground-breaking scientific research, collaborative teamwork is the name of the game.
The same is true in reverse: Biblical scholars need to engage with theologians. The demands of specialist study make this difficult. Biblical specialists are often nervous about what they see as ahistorical generalizations. But the biblical writers themselves never intended to provide a mere diary of their own musings. They wrote in faith and obedience, to edify and direct God’s people. Good historical scholarship should take full account of this.
History, after all, involves peering into the minds of people who think differently to ourselves, and that effort always involves sympathetic imagination. From this constant spiral of delight and knowledge there regularly arise both the sense of the text as other than ourselves and the sense of the text as nevertheless addressing us and, through us, our world. As with all such mental and spiritual events, this is a rich combination of art and science.
At this point the biblical scholar cannot ignore the fact that the theologians have wrestled with these wider meanings before us, hammering out larger frameworks of ideas and fine-tuning particular points. Theology, itself fed by biblical scholarship, feeds back again into biblical scholarship: raising questions, questioning assumptions, trying to interpret the full implications of original meanings, and seeking to bring all this into dialogue with the major issues of our own day.
Constructive, missional Christian thinking needs to communicate beyond the church, within the wider secular world. Here philosophers—and more broadly cultural critics—can render invaluable service in assessing the critical questions raised by Christian claims. A good example is the way in which Christian philosophers have helped believers to address the objections raised by the “four horsemen” of modern atheism (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris).
There are also the familiar modern challenges: What can we say about other faiths, for example, and how do we address the ongoing problem of evil? Then there are questions of knowledge itself: When someone quotes “I know that my Redeemer liveth,” what sort of knowledge is this, and can it be justified? Christian philosophers have done spectacular work in establishing the unparalleled explanatory power of Christian theism and in opening fresh vistas for theologians to explore.
In short, each of these three disciplines has a vital role to play in the vocation of Christian thought. If we are to engage faithfully and responsibly with the truth claims at the heart of Christian faith, it is crucial that more women and men pursue the interdisciplinary conversation between fields. Sharply focused study remains vital, but contemporary theological discussion is seriously hindered when specialization turns into isolation. For the sake of the church, it is my hope that this can change.