The reason why I think the herds of classic historical-critical biblical scholars will increasingly wane is because all the feeders for the traditional guild are either redirecting or waning.
1. The Ascendancy of Theology
Probably the greatest feeder of traditional biblical studies over the last half of the twentieth century was evangelicalism. You could count on a steady stream of evangelicals whose love and focus on Scripture led them to pursue the original, historic meaning of Scripture with a vengeance. Of course many of these individuals stopped being evangelicals along the way. At mainline seminaries of the seventies and eighties you might find any number of ex-fundamentalists teaching Bible, whose main goal seems to have been to knock any residual fundamentalism out of their students by confronting them with various conundrums from the biblical texts.
Now, evangelical scholars are increasingly embracing the theological nature of their biblical enterprise. The classic canons of inductive Bible study increasingly yield to theological interpretation. While the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) has its rising share of these sorts of sections, it may be that parallel groups like the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) or the Institute for Biblical Research (IBR) will better satisfy the old thirst. In either case, I predict the number of SBL groups following a more historical-critical approach will increasingly decline.
2. The Force of Populism
The rise of the teaching church, the mega-church that has the resources to create its own educational wings, will increasingly allow grass roots Christendom to avoid those elements of biblical studies it finds inconvenient. Local churches can now self-perpetuate their own particular mirror readings of the Bible, finding in Scripture whatever it is they want to find.
So if it is a Calvinist teaching church, you get a Calvinist interpretation/approach to the Bible. If it is a Baptist church, you get a Baptist approach. If it is charismatic, you get charismatic. If it is non-denominational, you get the Baptist approach. :-) This democratization of the Bible's meaning completely by-passes the classic historical-critical hegemony and allows each interpreter to do what is right in their own eyes.
3. The Rise of the Non-Religious
I think classical biblical scholars forget that it is people with faith who have fed the interest in the Bible. Why were there so many droves of aspiring Bible scholars at SBL in the late twentieth century? It was the growing opportunity for students with faith to study at the table. I was there among them, excited to be at my first SBL, to give my first paper.
For a very long time, classical biblical studies “bit the hand that feeds it.” It was a bait and switch. "You love the Bible, come study with us (... so we can teach you not to love the Bible)."
But education is a business, and you can’t give consumers a product they don’t want for too long before they find another company.
With the rise of non-faith, the fastest growing segment of the faith population, there will be less and less interest in biblical studies, period. This inevitably means that “Bible outlets” that don’t deal in the kinds of product the two groups above give will be reduced to antiquarianism.
So universities often have a small classics department… and with the rise of the non-religious, classic biblical studies will also become a very small element in an also smallish religious studies department.
All these factors work together to suggest that classic biblical studies, which was such a large phenomenon at one time, will increasingly wane, much to the frustration (and puzzlement) of classical biblical scholars.
Do you agree or disagree, and why?
P.S. This also means fewer jobs for PhDs in biblical studies. And when there is demand, it will more be for theological interpreters.