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Kurt Noll’s op-ed in The Chronicle Review, ‘The Ethics of Being a Theologian’ (27 July 2009) has generated a fair bit of discussion. As always, he’s controversial and stimulating. At best he makes succinct points that cut through the BS which is the unfortunate yet not always inappropriate acronym of Biblical Studies. At worst, his near positivism could do with some nuancing.

Noll makes great statements like this, which might resonate with many people involved in religious or biblical studies:

“Most people do not understand what religious study really is. Professors of religion are often confused with, or assumed to be allies of, professors of theology. The reason for the confusion is no secret. All too often, even at public universities, the religion department is peopled by theologians…”

And then there is Noll’s contrast between religious/biblical studies and theology:

“Religious study attempts to advance knowledge by advancing our understanding about why and how humans are religious, what religion actually does, and how religion has evolved historically… Theology also views itself as an academic discipline, but it does not attempt to advance knowledge. Rather, theologians practice and defend religion.”

There is something quite true in this contrast, in that some methodologies are inherently better than others at finding new aspects of what is true and real. Astronomy wins hands down over Astrology, for example. But when Noll talks about non-theological methodologies which are “unencumbered by overtly ideological agendas”, everything turns on Noll’s use of the word “overtly”. Theology is overtly a means to use data to defend existing presuppositions. By contrast, in biblical and religious studies, at best, our ideologies are less overt. They’re still there, of course, as “the trendy postmodern” thinkers highlighted. Yet a fundamental difference exists in that so many more of the presuppositions of religious and biblical studies are themselves open to challenge and reformulation. It’s not enough to just point the finger and say, “You’ve got presuppositions too!” Well, d’uh. Of course we do. Instead, the salient question is this: “What kind and how many presuppositions aren’t you willing to challenge?” Sure, in practice, our willingness to change our presuppositions and paradigms might be slow. But only in theology are too many such changes prevented on a priori grounds, and only in theology is this defence of so much of what is already believed held up as a virtue.

The difference between serving your ideology and being open to data is always one of degree. But it is this very relative difference which makes the distinction between theology and academic studies so fundamental.

Knox Church and The Bog Pub, Dunedin