Since becoming a Christian I have loved the study of the Bible. I hated it before, but immediately fell in love with it after. This, I suggest, is the work of the Spirit. But I have to admit, several years into studying the Bible and it being the main passion of my life (in order to seek Jesus), I still find it thoroughly challenging.
I could mention that I find it challenging to follow its worldview in some ways, but that’s not where I’m going with these thoughts right now. I find it challenging to discern its meaning.
I’ve grown up holding two fairly conflicting worldviews in tension: that of a sort of ‘positivism’ and that of a sort of ‘postmodern deconstructionism.’ Positivism essentially means that I look at a text (say, the New Testament) and immediately gain a window onto objective reality and events as they really happened. There is the author and his or her intent and the events which he or she narrates and I can know them objectively. Postmodern deconstruction, on the other hand, essentially sees no authorial intent in the text but rather sees the text as a mirror reflecting back upon the reader their own viewpoints. Somehow I’ve subconsciously walked these two lines, contradictory though they are. Having not thought through them prior to becoming a Christian and a philosophy major, I’m sure I just unconsciously applied them at different times as it was convenient to do so.
It seems to me that there are Christians who fall into one of either camp (or both like I somehow did). On the positivist side, Christians sometimes think that the objective meaning of the events and author’s intent are simply there and easy to ascertain. On the postmodern side, Christians sometimes approach the text in terms of ‘what it means to me,’ never asking the historical question. What matters is the reader’s response.
But the reason I find Bible study so challenging is that meaning is not so simple. In fact, I think both sides have aspects of it right but have absolutized their position into falsehood. Indeed, Christians so often rail against postmodernism as an enemy (usually in favour of an equally non-Christian position, that of modernism) failing to recognize that it has developed in response to things that were left unaccounted for in the prior prevailing worldview (modernism). Yes the pendulum has swung too far to the other extreme, but postmodernism has helped us remember that there is in fact a reader in the reading process that must be taken into account. And that reader brings all sorts of presuppositions and viewpoints to the text they read. Postmodernism’s failure, however, is that it has lost any anchor, something a Christian should be very cautious about unless abandoning “God has spoken” is something desirable.
In responding to postmodernism as Christians, I believe we also need to be careful not to swing the pendulum back again and forget the reader in the process. I have seen, at least in popular discussion, this sort of thing happening.
Navigating these waters is not easy. That, or I’m just not that bright (entirely possible!). Or, I am sure someone will say I’m not allowing the Spirit to speak. Well, maybe, but when I look at 4 legitimate Christians and their take on the same text and the differences present, I am persuaded that our mind/thinking plays an important role in the interpretive process. That’s for another post, and there are good books out there that would show it biblically (both John Piper and Mark Noll have recently written books to this effect).
So, should I despair? No, I think there is a ‘middle ground’ or what have you, that doesn’t succumb to either positivism or deconstructionism. It recognizes there is a reader with presuppositions but it also recognizes that the reader can be shaped by the worldview of the text, produced with some intent that can be (to some degree) obtained. This itself is the content of whole books but it feels good to write some of this out, even if in broad-strokes and so preliminarily.
What do you think?
I was encouraged by reading Jim Hamilton’s post on how he prepares to preach through Jeremiah. What helps him most is… get ready for it… God’s word as given in the Hebrew text. It’s a good post and helpful in a day where seminaries seem to be dropping the languages rather than ramping them up.
Also on his site is a post about the proper purpose of seminary that is worth reading. It also focuses on issues related to the languages. I found this quotation especially juicy since I’ve never heard anyone say this so boldly:
Seminary students who want to learn the Bible in the original languages should take the languages early and often. Why let a semester pass in which you’re not in a Greek or Hebrew class? No one expects to be fluent in Spanish after two semesters. We’re unwise to think that after two semesters we’ll “know Greek.” You’re at school to begin to learn Greek and Hebrew so you can spend the rest of your life studying the Bible in the original. Why not give all your electives to Greek and Hebrew exegesis classes? There are lots of conference opportunities where you can learn everything from counseling to preaching to evangelism and missions. There will never be a conference for pastors on Hebrew syntax. There will never be a Greek exegesis of 1 Peter conference where you are taught to diagram the Greek text and trace its argument. Get from the seminary what you can only get from the seminary, what the seminary exists to give you. You can get the rest in a good church, in a pastoral internship, or at a conference.
This afternoon I’m thinking about how I can organize my library and more efficiently keep track of it for access and reference, both my print library and electronic. I was helped by a required course in my program on research methods and I’ve also found this article from Andy Naselli to be of great help.
Stanley Porter shares his veteran thoughts here on commentary writing on Romans in the modern period.
In other news, I just finished another round of chemotherapy, which took a lot out of me, and I hope to get back into the John series on the blog tomorrow.
In line with my posts two days ago on Christian scholarship, Owen Strachan shares his thoughts on whether academic papers matter or whether they are pointless.
In thinking about scholarship in service of the church, I thought it would be great to get a scholar’s opinion who I know thinks in terms of the benefit of the church (as do my previous two interviewees).
David Alan Black is Professor of New Testament and Greek at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in North Carolina. He blogs avidly at www.daveblackonline.com/blog. His love for missions and his walk with his wife’s cancer have been an inspiration to me. He has shared his academic pilgrimage here. It’s a pleasure to interview him on the topic of scholarship.
AR: How would you define scholarship?
DB: Great question! Well, we live in a day of anti-intellectualism, do we not? Many of our ills stem from false philosophies and just plain biblical ignorance. History is divorced from theology. When I was a doctoral student at the University of Switzerland I was told many times that you could not be a Christian and a university student at the same time. Christianity was only for children and the elderly – i.e., people who don’t know any better. At the same time, I recall listening to Francis Schaeffer tell his audience in Basel that the contradiction between faith and reason was a false one. “When you become a Christian you don’t have to put your mind in park or neutral.” And he was right. Mark Noll once put it this way (my paraphrase): “The question today is not between faith and reason. It is between a faithless reason and a reasonable faith.” The great and good Charles Malik echoed these remarks in an address at Wheaton College, noting that he craved to see “an institution that will produce as many Nobel Prize winners as saints.” For a follower of Jesus, then, scholarship is nothing but acknowledging the two-way causal connection between thinking and doing. I, for one, am very thankful for evangelical scholars who have modeled for me responsible intellectual existence. Oh goodness, how we need scholarship in the evangelical church today. Ideas have consequences, and the truly integrated life will always eschew intellectual apathy.
AR: Is scholarship a benefit to the church and how should it serve the church?
DB: “Is” or “should be”? Frankly, Andrew, I think we so-called scholars can do a much better job of placing our knowledge in the service of the Body of Christ. I tell my students that the key to being an effective preacher/teacher is being simple without being simplistic. Someone has said, “Great preachers are like an iceberg: you only see 10 percent, but underneath you sense the other 90 percent.” I personally use the KISS technique when preaching: Keep It Simple Stupid. People aren’t even faintly interested in “the aorist passive imperative means ….” They want to know two things: This is what the text means, and this is what it is telling us we must do.” Of course, I have been the chief of sinners in this regards. When I was in grad school I had a great deal of difficulty navigating the treacherous intellectual waters there. Passages such as Ephesians 2:10 (“For we are His masterpiece, created in Christ Jesus for good works”) are all too often forgotten in a discussion of the synoptic problem or verbal aspect. Did I mention verbal aspect? Grateful I am for my friends who are on the front lines in this battle to understand verbal aspect in Koine Greek. Have the fruits been noticeable? Not in my opinion. I urge myself and every other student in the academy to ask ourselves with all honesty whether we are only playing intellectual games with the scholarly guild or whether we are committed to placing our knowledge at the feet of King Jesus. An Old Scottish proverb says, “Hebrew, Greek, and Latin all have their proper place, but it is not at the head of the cross, where Pilate put them, but at the foot of the cross, in humble service to Christ.” Incidentally, it is for this reason that my books are becoming shorter and shorter. I am also writing less for the scholarly guild and more for my students. To be fully integrated biblical scholars, we must integrate (or at least try to integrate) what we do in the study with what we do in the church and on the mission field.
AR: Is scholarship something that is misunderstood by many in the church? If so, does it matter?
DB: Yes, indeed – and both by pastors and laypeople. Pastors, for their part, often abuse scholarship. It’s like when I heard a famous radio preacher wax elephant against the ordination of women to ministry because the Greek of 1 Tim. 3:1 disallowed it. “The word for ‘any man’ here is tis, which is a masculine pronoun,” he said. “Therefore the Bible excludes women from holding the highest authoritative teaching office in the church!” The pronoun tis, of course, can be either masculine or feminine (or gender neutral – the context telling us which one is in view), but this pastor felt led to use Greek to support his own a priori conclusion as to what the text meant. This is what I call “evangelical Greek.” And it is anathema. Pastors should know better these days. After all, Don Carson has published his Exegetical Fallacies, and I discuss, in detail, lexical and syntactical fallacies in the fifth chapter of my Linguistics for Students of New Testament Greek. As for laypeople, I believe there is a tendency toward cultism as more and more people follow their favorite Bible teacher almost blindly. After all, the man has a doctorate and knows Greek! How can he ever go awry? This is why I enjoy teaching Greek to lay people so much. Greek does two things simultaneously: it equips and empowers you to do your own study of the New Testament, and it begins to wean you from your slavish overdependence on your favorite teacher or study Bible. This includes the ESV Study Bible, to which I contributed an essay but which some students almost think was handed down on Mount Sinai.
AR: Should every Christian be a scholar?
DB: Yes. Or better, a disciple. As I mentioned above, I have taught a Greek class in my local church. Of course, the Bible draws no distinction between clergy and laity, even if our churches do. Every Christian is called to serve, and every Christian needs training to serve effectively. Certainly Greek is not a requirement for everyone. But for those who desire to tap into this wonderful resource I am always eager to make myself available to help. Actually, I am quite diffident about the location. The training may occur in a college setting or a local church setting or a home setting. Let training be available to all — without fees for students and pay for teachers! Of course, Greek is no Open Sesame to biblical interpretation. Yet I cherish the hope that a reading knowledge of the language might drive us back towards New Testament principles.
So what’s the point of training? It is to help us become more like our Master. And it is to equip us to serve Him skillfully. God warns us not to waste our talents. In the Gospels we find that Jesus was indeed a master teacher. He trained His disciples by pouring out His life into theirs and then asking them to pour out their lives into others. In so doing He made one thing abundantly clear: the kingdom of God is not comprised of kings and warriors but of servants and children.
I know that Greek can be tough. If anyone ever experienced a sinking feeling while studying this language, it was me. I dropped out of my beginning Greek class at Biola after only three weeks! Thankfully I went on to take Moody Bible Institute’s correspondence course and, by God’s grace, aced it. Remember what Peter’s problem was when he was walking on the water? He took his eyes off the Lord.
And that just about says it all.
Several times lately I have found myself and my scholarship misunderstood by others in the church. The last thing I think I should do is publicly gripe about it but I think offering some clarification regarding my interests and passions, resulting in a defense of the Christian engaging in those things, would be of help rather than hurt. I’ll focus in this post on the issue of misunderstanding and in subsequent blog posts (at leisure) defend those interests for the sake of the church.
What sparked these moments of seeing myself misunderstood were two instances listening to sermons in church and a third being a conversation had with a friend after church.
In one sermon the preacher was talking about one of Paul’s letters and he spent a little bit of time on the opening greeting, you know the ones that include, “grace and peace to you….” The preacher was great in what he said but he also joked that probably only Bible geeks care in these details. He’s sort of right but it shouldn’t be the case, I don’t think, that only Bible geeks care about Paul’s greetings (so called “details”) in the letters. They are a part of Scripture and informative to us as Christians. Three guys down the row from me all started joking and pointing me out, in good fun. I don’t mind being the/(a) Bible geek but I think it misunderstands my engaging in scholarship as though it is the unimportant details that I’m interested in rather than getting at the meaning of the biblical text.
The second instance happened when another preacher, rightly in my opinion, railed against those who care too much about speculation on things that miss the point of the Scripture text. So, Jesus heals a man born blind by making mud and placing it on his eyes. Lots of ink has been spilled on why Jesus used that method and misses the point of the text. While I don’t think we should never say anything on the issue, I agree with the preacher. And I believe my scholarship is interested in the same thing. But of course someone gives the ol’ “haha, that’s you” elbow and face. But why is that me? Well, others have been interested in things away from the text and I suppose they think that we scholars are all the same.
The third instance was less humorous. A friend basically challenged my engaging in linguistics, failing to see the use. Upon further reflection he had decided that translation was an important use, but that was about it. I think this one is a misunderstanding too because the friend doesn’t seem to have understood what it is I study and therefore can’t see how it is helpful to the church. The things I’m extremely passionate about aren’t everyone’s passions and I get that, but how come my passions are less helpful to the church than others?
Now, I have a sense of humour about my scholarship and interests, but these occurrences all made me see how my interests are misunderstood by many.
Does it matter that I’m misunderstood? Well, I have to admit that I’m like most people and I don’t like to be misunderstood. I see value in the scholarship I’m engaged in for the church and would like others to recognize that as well. And because I see value in what I’m doing for the church I see a place for defending that. But, I have to also recognize that I am always going to be misunderstood and it’s not my responsibility to change everyone’s mind about me. So long as I am convinced in my own mind, and listen thoughtfully to my brothers and sisters’ criticism, I think I should continue doing what I believe it is God is having me do to bless the church as one member of the body among others.