Biblical Theory and Research Paradigms

by Dr Stephen Fyson
18th January 2021

Have you ever been criticised for offering an opinion based on Biblical understanding? Did you ever have a university or college lecturer who explicitly taught you through their ideological lens, to the point of ridiculing anyone who attempted to ask a question through a different lens? Were your enquiries about deeper meanings and purposes of life ever dismissed?

An example of that last situation was when I was sitting in between my Marxist and Free Market Capitalist colleagues in an Industrial Relations honours tutorial. I asked the question: “What are our assumptions about why these theories work in terms of how we understand what drives people?” It was like a silence bomb exploded in the tutorial. Both groups looked somewhere between quizzical and confused. The tutor eventually responded, “We are not here to ask those questions, Stephen.” That was in 1975.

Is this an old example of my particular situation, or are there dynamics afoot in the Academe whereby enquiry based on overtly Biblical assumptions is not trusted, or at least, not given due credit compared to questions based on other life assumptions? Some scholars who have reflected on this question are introduced below. We hope this helps to stimulate prayerful reflection in our scholarly community.

Biblical Theory

What lens might Christians use to undertake their research if not through one of the common ones of our era – for example, cultural neo-Marxsim, or Feminist Theory, or Intersectionalism? Watkins (2017) suggests that we think about developing “Biblical Theory” as a basis for a more coherent Christian way of exploring the world.

His concerns are not only academic – they are pastoral:

If Christians do not articulate how the Bible explains all other stories in terms of its own story and how it provides a positive vision for society, then other stories will step in to explain the Bible in their own terms and provided that vision in its place. (p.11)

Why does Watkins think that the Bible can provide the role of being the alternative lens through which to understand life and society? He explains it this way:

… the Bible contains not only a set of truths, stories and doctrines, but also what we might call recurring structures, patterns,  or shapes of thought… we read the Bible not only as a set of ideas and stories to think  about, but also as a set to patterns and dispositions through which we can think about everything and through which we live the whole of life…. [Such theories] … are not merely something to think about, but something through which to think about everything. (pp.3,9)

Researching Humans

If we avoid exploring reality through a ‘Biblical theory’, what are some of the risks? The Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith studies this question with relation to understanding personhood. In his exploration of this question, he explains why he is critical of how we usually investigate life and reality in the social sciences. He describes (in great detail) personhood in terms of embodied soulness, and therefore believes that social sciences are at best missing out on important information about life. At worst, Smith posits that much of what is gathered is not helpful for any meaningful understanding of important issues. His starting point is to reaffirm the purpose of social science:

The purpose of science is to understand and explain reality. To do that well requires devising modes of inquiry that are appropriately fitted to the realities under investigation…. Critical realist personalism demands that social science take seriously the reality of the person. (p.234)

As Smith constructs it, if personhood involves spirituality, then materialist only assumptions that drive much current research will be inadequate, to the extent that personhood is extinguished in our research descriptions:

We have seen that positivism, reductionism, constructionism, and radical relationalism not only de-centre but also often extinguish the person. (p. 265)

Does such reductionism have an impact on how we describe the “unseen” aspects of the realities of life? Willard (2009) describes how Christians have moved away from accepting spiritual knowledge as being a valid part of thinking and research. As he explains early on in his book, “the trivialization of faith apart from knowledge has had the disastrous effects of a repositioning of faith in Jesus Christ, and of life as his students, outside the category of knowledge.” (p.1)

Extending Willard’s work, Poplin (2017) notes the importance of attempting description of spiritual events that give recognition of spiritual transactions when it comes to understanding the human experience – in this case, in understanding forgiveness:

In Judeo-Christian knowledge, this is a spiritual transaction, which, when applied, is a highly effectual principle of human life and its possibilities have been experienced, confirmed and documented by millions for over two thousand years. It is not the result of secular “psychology”, “institutional influences”, or “psychological interactions” among other human beings. (in Kanpol and Poplin, 2017, p.19 – emphasis in the original)

A Pastoral Challenge

Watkins (2017) concludes his work with some reflection questions for those wanting to think more carefully through Biblical theory. His questions revolve around the challenge of how well we know the Scriptures, and how well can apply that to our chosen disciplines:

1.       What are the characteristic patterns or moves of the discipline(s) you study?

2.       How do these relate to biblical patterns of life and faith?

3.       Does your knowledge of the Bible keep pace with the growing sophistication of the knowledge required by your studies? If it does not, what new habits can you form to make sure that your knowledge of your subject(s) and your knowledge of the Bible grow together? (p.144)

Will we continue our journey in exploring God’s Word as the basis for faith and life, including our research?


Poplin M (2017) Blinded by Secular Interpretations of Religious Knowledge. In Kanpol B and Poplin M (2017) Christianity and the Secular Border Patrol: The loss of Judeo-Christian Knowledge. New York, NY: Peter Lang

Smith C (2011) What is a Person: Rethinking humanity, social life and the moral good from the person up. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Willard, D (2009) Knowing Christ Today: Why we can trust spiritual knowledge. Harper One

About the author

Dr Stephen Fyson is a Senior Lecturer of Education at Alphacrucis College. He has qualifications in psychology, education and theology, and has been published in books, journals and professional newsletters and has been invited to teach around Australia and overseas.