Scholars…Who Needs Them?


“Most people are bothered by those passages of Scripture they do not understand, but the passages that bother me are those I do understand.”  --Mark Twain


I’m with Twain. My struggle is to live boldly and honestly in the light of what I understand the Bible plainly instructs me to do. Can there be confusion with “love your neighbor as yourself,”  “do not steal,” “do not sin,” “practice hospitality,” “bear the burdens of the weak,” “let your light shine,” “humble yourself before God,” “draw near to God,” “live holy and godly lives,” etc? The complete list is quite long, easy to understand, but more difficult to actualize.


These are the most important areas of biblical understanding. Call it Christian Living: The practical, rubber-to-the-road living and modeling of pure, Godly religion. For these clear teachings of Scripture we don’t need glib preachers or sharp scholarship to grasp that God is talking to us and that we are accountable to respond. Ignorance can be no excuse in the face of such moral clarity.


But not all the Bible is an outline of moral, righteous or unrighteous conduct complete with God’s crystal clear expectations. Most of the Bible is composed of narrative, story, song, history, poetry, parables, oracles, and visionary apocalyptic literature.  All of it rich in doctrine, a deep mine of spiritual gold and diamonds, and abounding with profound knowledge and intellectual treasures. God has given us a book of such depth and wisdom we shall never exhaust its resource.


Enter the Scholars


A few facts I’m sure you know about the Bible, but are worth repeating. The Bible is a compilation of ancient literature the most recent being about two thousand years old, the oldest perhaps three to four thousand years old and with some source fragments even older. Strictly speaking, the Bible is not the Word of God. It contains God’s quoted words, but also the words of many other God-inspired men and women. It also passes on the words of Satan and a host of evil people.


Many different authors and editors has been guided by God to assemble, fashion, mold, adapt and pass on to us what our spiritual forefathers deemed “canon” Scripture; the specific books that can function as a Rule of Faith for the people of God.  


We also note that these books were written over a period of time covering many distinct cultures, differing empires, strange circumstances of war and captivity, under a variety of historical influences, and in ancient, evolving languages and idioms. All of this “biblical background” information is critically important to understanding what is said and meant in Scripture. It is background about which the average Twenty-first century Christian is clueless. This is not a put down, just a statement of fact. Biblical background information is not hidden from public view, but it is information not normally accessed.


Scholars are the technicians, the experts, the specialists, that can shed light on this ancient book we treasure as the Bible. To be clear: the Bible doesn’t belong to scholars, it belongs to the Church. It is God’s well-preserved gift to humanity that answers the three big questions of life: 1) Who is God?; 2) Who am I?; and upon answering those; 3) How then shall I live? Answers to all three are largely accessible without the direct aid of scholars or clergy.


Yet when we read the Bible to get those answers we must acknowledge that scholars translated these ancient documents into our language so we can read them. To do so they had to devote their lives to understanding the various ancient languages of Scripture, the various genre or types of writing, the idioms, and the cultural background for each book in order to understand what was written. Sometimes we take all that work for granted as if God, from the heavenly book store, dropped down to Nashville his leather-bound King James Version of Holy Bible.


Scholarship is a Science


“They say” the world body of knowledge doubles every eighteen months or two years. While this is probably not the case with biblical studies, the knowledge base is expanding at a tremendous pace. To confirm that fact, all one needs to do is attend the annual meetings of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) which Dixon Cartwright and I did a few weeks ago in Philadelphia.


This was SBL’s 125th anniversary year ( Typically, about seven thousand delegates from around the world gather at these meeting to present papers, share research, debate the various issues of biblical archeology, language, culture, theology, hermeneutics, and modern religious expressions. It is a diverse crowd of religious scholars from all the major universities and seminaries, researchers, writers, book sellers, and students (my category). At any hour during the five days of sessions there can be fifty or more seminars taking place simultaneously. One must do a lot of sifting to pick those of personal interest.


I remember the first SBL/AAR meetings I attended in Washington D.C. back in 1974. At the time I wasn’t a member of SBL and I just stole into the seminars. Shame on me. Every few years since I’ve revisited them just to keep up on the leading edge of biblical studies. Some of my fondest occasions were attending SBL meetings with my comrade Dr. Charles Dorothy in the 1980s and 1990s. I remember one SBL meeting in San Diego where we bumped into Dr. Hermon Hoeh. In Philadelphia Dixon and I bumped into numerous old colleagues who have gone on to distinguished academic careers in biblical studies.


This year Dixon and I attended a terrific seminar featuring N. T. Wright, the world’s foremost New Testament scholar. His recent three-book series on “Christian Origins and the Question of God” is a masterpiece of biblical understanding (The New Testament and the People of God; Jesus and the Victory of God; and The Resurrection of the Son of God). I’ve read all 2093 pages and can recommend them to anybody that wants to get an in-depth grasp of New Testament doctrine.


These meetings give one an opportunity to listen to and meet the top biblical scholars in the world. Of course, not all scholars are believers, though most are. N. T. Wright certainly is. But believers or not, these men and women spend their lives specializing in discovering all there is to know about the Bible and its context. Some scholars are superb, some good, some mediocre, some poor—just like in any other profession.


If it were not for scholars, would we have Bible dictionaries (I would be lost without my 5-volume Anchor Bible Dictionary!), Bible commentaries, Bible translations, Bible concordances and the many, many works on interpretation, application, inspiration and background that enrich our understanding and Christian walk?


Most scholars specialize in specific areas of biblical studies and each year generate thousands of papers and books on their findings. There is no end of books. At our SBL meetings the bottom floor of the Philadelphia Convention Center was devoted to book and software stalls representing all the major university and academic publishing houses. It took up several acres of floor space! I restrained myself, or should I say my credit card limits restrained me, and walked away with about a dozen books. What fun.


The various disciplines of biblical studies have come a long way since the early church fathers and the Protestant Reformation. Those worthies lacked the tools of modern systematic scholarship. They did not have access to or knowledge of the wealth of sources available today; historical sources that shed light on the cultural milieu of biblical times, language sources for more precise translations, or the perspective of two thousand years of learning. They did marvelous work with the tools they had, but since their days libraries of thousands of contemporaneous documents from biblical times have been discovered. Archeologists have unearthed tens of thousands of artifacts which illuminate the cultural world in which the Bible was written, and recent discoveries of documents like the Dead Sea Scrolls give us a picture into the times of Christ.


There is no end of learning and one cannot read everything. But it helps to be aware that there is so much to learn. Such a perspective might caution us against narrow minded and dogmatic pronouncements like “this is what the Scripture means” when we haven’t put the effort into discovering if that is really what the Scripture means.  A Strong’s Concordance and a patchwork string of cherry-picked Bible verses do not necessarily a doctrine make.


The Text Must Rule


The standard drill in “doing theology,” to use the crude but common phrase in the profession, is to ask of the text several key questions: 1) What does it say? (language, translation, idioms, genre of literature all play a part here); 2) What did the writer/speaker mean? (cultural, political, religious and situational background and understanding are all vitally important here); 3) What did the writing/letter/speech mean to the original audience? (the exact context of the people, problems, situation are critical here in truly understanding what was said and why it was said);  and finally, 4) What does it mean for us? (here we make the big leap toward interpreting the text to see if it does or doesn’t apply to us—and if it does, how might it apply to our 21st century world).


These are all steps in exegesis employing the methodologies of textual criticism, literary criticism, historical criticism, form criticism, tradition criticism, redaction criticism, hermeneutical criticism, structural criticism, and canonical criticism, et al. I’m sure I’ve left out some “criticisms.” You know of course, “criticism” doesn’t mean to find fault or put down, but is the term used for study and analysis.


Exegesis means to explain, to get out of the text its true meaning through critical analysis and interpretation (Gk “ex” = out). Unfortunately, a lot of CoG expositors and others have found it easier to practice eisegesis, which is the practice of reading one’s ideas and doctrine into the text (Gk “eis” = into).


We should eagerly consult biblical scholarship to discover facts that will enable us to better understand the sacred Word of God. There is nothing to fear and much to gain from a logical analysis of the research available. Which of us knows it all? We are all students—including the scholars.  


I believe we must carefully and respectfully approach this ancient and venerable literature that God has preserved for us. In it we have the very Words of Life. We should not be too proud to submit our preconceived notions and beliefs about what this verse or that verse teaches to the test of evidence. Either it is true or it is not true. Just saying so doesn’t make it true any more than pounding harder on the lectern makes the preacher’s statement more weighty that the piece of air it really is.


Whether or not a particular scholar or specialist shares your doctrinal position matters little. The question is, does he know his material? When I went for my open heart surgery a few years ago, I didn’t ask the heart surgeon, Dr. Houng, if he believed in evolution, or if he understood the doctrines of baptism, resurrection and judgment. I wanted to know if he knew his trade. Was he a good man with the knife? My cardiologist and all his fellows highly recommended the guy and after interviewing him I discovered that he had done over a thousand procedures like the one I was facing. He knew the heart muscle and how to fix it. I relied on his expertise. He did a good job.


I didn’t go to a backyard Saturday night, self-taught, part-time health mechanic to get my surgery done. Yet I know a lot of fine folks who regard biblical studies like reading the comics—something anybody is able to do. No sweat, just pick up these 66 books that make up the Bible and teach away—it’s a piece of cake. Understanding a 2-3000-year-old compilation of documents shouldn’t be any more of a challenge that watching Oprah. I don’t think Jesus approached Scripture that cavalier way, nor does any Rabbi worth his yarmulke, nor does any serious student of Scripture worth listening to.


Scholars are servants to the people of God who want to know all they can about the most important book in history. When I saw these thousands assembling in Philadelphia (every year in a different city—next November SBL will again visit Washington D.C.), I had to ask what the fascination was. Why this compelling interest in the Bible?


Clearly, there is something special about the Bible; it contains the best information mankind has about God and his purposes. For instance, there have been more books written about just one book in the Bible, the Book of Romans, than books about any other piece of literature in history—including the works of William Shakespeare and Homer. The same claim could be made for the Gospel of John and most of the other biblical books. The volumes written about the various books of the Bible fill vast libraries and each year thousands more are added. Truly, the Bible is the book that towers above all other literate efforts in human history. We are privileged to have such an array of tools and helps to understand the depth of its content.


The vast majority of new books displayed at SBL are not your garden variety found in the local Christian bookstore. The pop religious market that caters to easy readers was not featured. There is good spiritual and inspirational stuff for sure in some of them, but the Jerry Jenkins/Tim LaHaye genre of “Left Behind” fantasies, and the Max Lucado, Joyce Meyer, Bruce Wilkinson, Frank Peretti, and Rick Warren type of religious books were not on the tables at SBL.


True, the publishing money is in writing pop novels in spiritual drag, but they are “biblical lite” and most lack real spiritual substance and nourishment. I read them and some are helpful, but in my opinion most don’t illuminate the Text which is where the core of God’s truth is found.


My brother-in-law, the late Dr. Charles Dorothy wrote a commentary on Esther, The Books of Esther (the Septuagint version is about 30% longer than the Hebrew Esther), which was chosen by the Sheffield Academic Press in the U.K. to become part of their Old Testament series of scholarly commentaries. He didn’t receive a penny for his work. He was supported in his research by ACD and his wife. Such has been the experience of most scholars not fortunate enough to have the backing of a university or wealthy patron. It is sad commentary that the money follows the popular and entertaining presentations.  I believe it is the responsibility of church to support biblical research and hold in high esteem those who dedicate themselves to it.


Do we need scholars? You bet. Respect for the Word of God demands we treat it with care, honesty, and a desire to understand its truth. Ideally, the role of scholars is to educate the ministry of the Christian church. This means ministers must do the hard work and heavy lifting to actually study in depth the book they preach from. The job of the minister is to digest scholarship and present it to his congregation as practically and effectively as he can. The pastor’s duty is to teach, expound, inspire, and model the truth of Scripture.


The preacher needs to be cautious to not overdrive his headlights, to not dogmatize what God has not dogmatized, and to not “enforce” doctrine upon God’s heritage. It is the responsibility of the people of God to sift, accept, and internalize what they find to be sound. The more tools the preacher provides the congregation, the more able the sons and daughters of God are equipped to embrace the Words of Life. 


The Bible is an amazing book and can be read at several levels. It is profitable for doctrine, rebuke, instruction in righteousness—and inspiration. It is also a spectacular adventure in learning about God and how he has lovingly and patiently nurtured his sons and daughters through the ages. It holds and reveals the secrets of Torah and Christ and how we can become part of the Kingdom of God. We should never tire of “eating” its pages.


--Ken Westby