Interview: David Alan Black

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.

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