Religious Studies v Theology

I was involved recently in a discussion about religious education in schools and at one point the subject of the difference between religious study and the study of religion came up.

In BAR magazine (the March/April 2012 issue) Mary Joan Winn Leith in a text with the title The Bible Divide comes to the rescue with some interesting points. See next two fragments from the article

Many people are unaware that Religious Studies and Theology are not synonymous. Generally, the difference can be understood as the difference between the university and the seminary; in other words, a difference of perspective—the view from the outside or from the inside. The study of Religion has historically allied itself with science and reason as an interdisciplinary field using the methodologies of History, Linguistics, Anthropology—including Archaeology—and other university disciplines. One of its basic “rules” is that the scholar investigates religions of the contemporary world or of the past (such as ancient Israel) as a neutral observer and reporter with no religious agenda (even if we know no one can be fully impartial). I tell my students to imagine scholars of Religion as Martians, newly landed on earth with no preconceived notions about religion. Scholars of Religion do not aim to tell people what to believe or how to live.
By contrast, a Theologian studies her own religion as a believer—as a Jew or a Christian, for example—allied with faith and authority. What she discovers about, say, the influence of ancient Mesopotamian law on the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1–17; Deuteronomy 5:6–21), she will seek to reconcile with existing Christian or Jewish belief. What is problematic is that the border between the two disciplines can very easily overlap, especially in the subfield of Religious Studies that is Biblical Studies.”
“Of course, discoveries in Religious Studies, like discoveries in other “scientific” fields, can, and often do, present challenges to Theology. However, this doesn’t mean the two cannot coexist. I find illuminating the comment made by evangelical theologian Daniel B. Wallace, “I hold in limbo my own theological views about the [New Testament] as I work through it; it makes for an interesting time! In one respect I have an existential crisis every time I come to the text, and that’s fine because the core of my theology is not the Bible, it’s Christ.”2
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2 Responses to Religious Studies v Theology

  1. Marius Hada says:

    Religious Studies is an insectarium for Theologies. It has more to do, in my view, with Cultural Studies, History and Anthropology then with Theology. It creates ultimately a false dichotomy between reason and science claimed as it’s own attributes as opposed to intuition and faith “exposed” as anti-intellectual and just a matter of personal choice or even …“taste”. As a warehouse of religious ideas is extremely helpful and necessary, but at personal level, it leaves the individual untransformed as it requires just adherence to same set of rules and methodologies and no conversion to any particular Theology. From this perspective both disciplines look at each other through reversed telescopes. The other part’s cardinal virtues are regarded as most heinous sins.

    I totally agree with Mr. Wallace that at the centre of theology has to be Christ. I wander though, if even for a second anybody can manage to withhold in some kind of theologically aseptic limbo it’s own understandings and have an impassionate examination of it’s personal faith? To believe is by definition to be engaged. This existential crisis is already solved. But is Theology fixed and never changing? I would have to say that Theology is as alive as Christ if is about Him.

    • sam says:

      Thanks for the visit and the comment.

      I would add to it my opinion, or what I understand of Wallace’s statement. I believe that he does not generalize; he speaks about holding HIS own theology in limbo. Also I see this as a method, a way of enhancing the act of reading and interpreting, similar, if I may say, to fasting as a mean to enhance your spiritual self. Holding back your ready-made certainties can allow for the more profound understanding to make its way to your reason. You do not denounce your theology but you give it chance to grow with you.

      Regarding the Religious Studies and Theology: it is not the purpose of Religious Study to transform people but to inform them. In this respect it does not compete with Theology. We can say that, in an ideal world, they can actually complement each other. IMHO 🙂

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