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