The study of the Bible is an inherently political action, in more ways than one. There are, of course, the oft noted ways in which this is so, such as the way reading the Bible establishes the relationship between Church and world in public life; but there are more intramural ways in which reading the Bible is a poltically charged endeavor, and I'm not talking about denominationalism. A good deal of commotion is generated in what one could call "departmentalism".
It seems like studying the Bible in an academic setting means being swallowed whole by colonizing sub-disciplines, all of which vie for supremacy among specialists. The net effect of hyper-specialization is that not only is a pastor (such as myself) beset with choices between different translations of Scripture, and choices of interpretations within the text of Scripture, and choices of hermeneutical schemes to interpret Scripture, and choices of theological systems that are faithful to Scripture, but with the choice of which one of these questions is more important than the others! Which questions are most determinative in trying to understand, preach and obey the Bible?
Bart D. Ehrman argues that textual criticism is every bit as ideological as it is textual - how can a person even begin to engage in "biblical theology" if the selection of texts which supposedly constitute an author's (or set of editors') "theology" is arbitrarily selected by contemporary scholarship? The theological nature of variant readings mean that in selecting what is supposedly the "original" text one is ultimately aligning herself with competing theologies. How can Scripture be said to be inspired if we don't even know which words belong to Scripture? How reliable are the manuscripts which make up the Bible? How substantive were the changes and is the original text recoverable? Even if it does make sense to speak of an "autograph", what does the fact of scribal changes say about the cohesiveness of Christianity in its earliest days? Moreover, if one can't establish an authoritative text, what's the point of doing theology or talking about interpretation?
Biblical theology is an enterprise that is notoriously spoken of as "in crisis" even though it continues to pulse with activity. While the Biblical Theology Movement can said to have been leveled by the criticisms of James Barr and company, the academic task of establishing a plausiblly historically situated theology continues. Moreover the basic project of Biblical theology seems an invioble part of Biblical studies as a whole. Baruch Spinoza or J.P. Gabler didn't invent the concern that the Bible should speak for itself, with its own categories and agendas. The idea that the Bible should be understood on its own terms instead of serving as a dogmatic diving board is something close to a universal intuition. It's this inutition that makes the discipline of Biblical theology an invetibly colonizing force on other disciplines, ready to slap the hands of the ambitious systematician, reprove the anachronisitic philosophical categories of the hermeneutically fanciful and carry the banner of Biblical authority for the Church.
On the other hand, without dogmatics it becomes unclear what unites the cacophany of divergent voices of Scripture in all their historical particularity. What does something Isaiah said in his historical context have to do with anything Matthew might say in his? Can one even "preach the Gospel" without engaging in some kind of supra-historical creedal synthesis? For all the lofty ambitions of Biblical theology, its historical interests yield such a strict emphasis on diversity that the Bible collapses into a disjointed product of human imagination instead of the singular voice of God. But more than that, theological preunderstandings and creedal loyalty subtly (and sometimes not-so-subtly) fund both historical criticical and Biblical theological methodology; and that fact places systematics in a position of primary importance.
The new totalizing force in Biblical studies seems to be the issue of how one relates to the postmodern turn, which has brought with it a self-critical emphasis on philosophical starting points. Postmodernism seeks to pull back the curtain from our detached claims to theological knowledge, revealing the wizard of culturally informed theories of truth and justification. Epistemology has become the new prolegomena. One can't engage in any level of the theological task without giving account of the philosophical superstructures within which it takes place. I would have never imagined that being interested in Biblical studies would impel me toward the likes of Wittgenstein, Searle, Heidegger, Tarski or Davidson.
Textual criticism, biblical theology, systematic theology and philosophy are just a few of the sub-disciplines within the guild that seem to draw all others into their orbit, defining the problems and solutions in light of their own gravitational fields.
If you're in ministry, which of these disciplines do you believe is most determinative in trying to faithfully minister the Bible to your people?
If you're in the academy, does this picture misrepresent the current state of affairs?
If you're neither (or both) of the above, do you think that there's one primary "center" for theological studies, and if so what is it?