Published: April 21, 2016
Two theology professors went head-to-head in biblical interpretation at the “Battle of the Biblical Scholars” in the theology department lounge Monday evening.
The event brought together professors Michael Azar, Ph.D., and Mahri Leonard-Fleckman, Ph.D., to debate the relationships between the Old and New Testaments and different strategies of looking at the Bible.
The debaters began the event by providing some insight into how their love of the Bible and relationship with scripture blossomed. Leonard-Fleckman, who studied English literature as an undergraduate, said she “fell in love with Christianity” while she was in the Peace Corps. There, she defended her Christianity and realized she loved it.
She returned to school at New York University to pursue theology at a graduate level. Her focus on the Old Testament helps her balance her Catholic identity with her Jewish heritage.
Azar had a different, yet equally complex journey to Christianity. His story begins in Egypt.
Originally, he pursued a career in flight engineering. However, he switched his major to biblical studies. His first exposure to Christianity came from his education at an evangelical college.
From there, he attended an Orthodox seminary in Manhattan and became engaged in biblical interpretation. He has a special interest in the New Testament and its multifarious interpretations. His particular focus is on the Gospel of John and its relationship with the early Christians.
The speakers presented three methods of biblical interpretation: focusing on the world behind the text, like a historical scholar; focusing on the literary significance of the text; or the post-modern method, which is most relative.
The post-modern method of interpretation does not maintain only one meaning to the text and asserts that no interpretation is incorrect.
The professors seemed to deviate not in any theological interpretation itself, but rather in what method or combination of methods are most fruitful when analyzing the relationship between the Old and New Testaments.
Leonard-Fleckman proposed a multi-dimensional interpretation that weaves together the literal interpretation with its historical elements, as well as a modern perspective on the message it contains.
She argued that the complexity of the Bible calls for a complex approach.
Azar addressed the first dimension first. He argued that the reader must understand the literal level and actual story before he or she can approach any deeper spiritual interpretation.
Then, on a metaphorical level, the reader can find Christ in the text.
One additional division between the two involves the extent to which the New Testament can be used to understand the Old Testament.
This disagreement reflected each professor’s area of study, while Azar was willing to accept this ability of the New Testament, Leonard-Fleckman, an Old Testament scholar, was not.
Students who attended the showdown reported that, in fact, the professors seemed to agree far more than they disagreed.
Following the formal debate, the audience was invited to ask questions.
Sophomore theology, English literature and philosophy major Dan O’Reilly found the discussion surrounding the questions most exciting.
“My favorite part was when the floor was opened up to questions the students had,” O’Reilly said. “We had a great discussion about the use of gender when referring to God and how and why God is called ‘father’ and ‘mother’ at different points in the Bible.”
Ultimately, the discussion highlighted the diversity within Catholicism while reaffirming its unity.
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