Structuralism And Biblical Studies -- By: Vern Sheridan Poythress

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 21:3 (Sep 1978)
Article: Structuralism And Biblical Studies
Author: Vern Sheridan Poythress

Structuralism And Biblical Studies

Vern Sheridan Poythress*

In the nineteenth century, questions of historical origin formed the primary arena for theological ferment. Orthodox apologetics was largely occupied with defending the occurrence of the supernatural in history. In the area of general science, Darwinian evolution and uniformitarian geology challenged the traditional interpretation of the Biblical account of the origins of the world and of life. In the area of Biblical studies, the historical-critical method challenged the traditional account of the literary origins of the Biblical books.

In the late twentieth century, we may be witnessing a shift in the arena of primary conflict. Increasingly questions, methods and systems from the social sciences are being brought to bear both on aspects of modern life and on Christian theology. Questions are no longer oriented so exclusively to historical origins, but rather toward matters involving the present “structure” of things. People seeking solutions to the difficulties of modern society explore linguistic, social, economic and political structures of the society. Similarly, study of Biblical texts and of theologies derived from the texts is now beginning to be influenced by an influx of perspectives from the social sciences.

The challenge presented by the social sciences is more likely, I believe, to grow to enormous proportions than to go away.1 Structuralism, as a method springing from the social sciences, is one instance of this challenge.2 Hence an assessment of the potential of structuralism for Biblical studies can provide us an opening into the broader questions concerning our theological response to coming cultural developments.

I. What Is Structuralism?

Structuralism is an extraordinarily hard movement to define. In the first place, structuralism is more a diverse collection of methods, paradigms and personal preferences than it is a “system,” a theory or a well-formulated thesis. In the second place, different practitioners of structuralist methods are in conflict with one another, not merely with regard to details but also with regard to the overall framework in which they work. In the third place, “structuralism” can be used as a discipline-crossing label applied to approaches in linguistics, anthropology, psychology, physics and even mathematics. In this case it applies to approaches connected to one another mainly by vague analogies and mutual influences, not to an easily identifiable common procedure or content.

*Vern Poythress is assistant professor of New Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.

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