Thursday, July 16, 2009

Buyer Beware...

A discussion has been making the rounds regarding whether or to what degree amateur biblical scholarship is a legitimate enterprise.  You can see the relevant history (and trace the backlinks for the longer backstory) on Matthew's page here, Jim's here, and Doug's here.  Though I find Jim's position (leave the Bible to the experts alone) to be extreme, I certainly sympathize with his point.  There is an awful lot of nonsense out there that pases for "biblical scholarship."  And it's not just silliness like ex-firefighters chasing down the "treasure" of the Copper Scroll.  AKMA pointed to a new Bible software system the other day, and I must say that the list of "biblical scholars" who contribute to the expert videos was very worrying.  I mean, I've got nothing against Max Lucado, but he isn't a Bible expert of any kind.  He's a very good preacher, and I'm sure a good pastor, but his reflections on Scripture in his books tend to be rather shallow to be frank.  But people assume he's an expert because he's written and sold a lot of books.  I'll let Jim and the others fight it out over whether Lucado is a bad guy because he hasn't got a PhD (I tend to think not), because I want to make a slightly different point here.

As much as non-specialists can be dangerous when they spout off, the fact is that they are only dangerous if people listen to them.  The responsibility lies, in the end, with the reader to make good judgments about what is being read.  Credentials don't equal correctness, but credentials do tell you one thing.  They tell you that the person who's work you are reading has done his or her homework (literally).  I don't care what anyone says, a PhD or ThD is not an easy get.  So, dear reader, if you want to know about the Bible and you want to avoid the dangers of being misled by people who may or may not know what they are talking about, let me recommend the following:

  1. Ask why the person you're reading has the authority to say what he/she is saying.  Why are his/her ideas more valuable than your own?  Google the author, know who it is that you're trusting.
  2. Ask where and to what degree the author is educated...and in what field for that matter (a PhD in Chemistry doesn't make you an expert in Biblical Studies).
  3. Remember that the person who wrote the book you're reading probably borrowed some of those ideas from other books.  Find out which ones and maybe read them too.
  4. Get to know an expert personally and ask that person for advice.  Most of the churches I've been a part of over the years have had at least one or two professors of theology or biblical studies hiding somewhere.  If there's nobody in your congregation, then email a prof at your local denominational seminary.  I'm betting you'd get a very cordial reply.
  5. Instead of reading popular Christian literature about Jesus or the Bible, try reading a commentary along with your regular Bible reading.  I'd recommend a very accessible series like NIV Application or Interpretation, or the New International Biblical Commentary.  I talked my wife into doing this once and she said it was one of the richest devotional experiences she's ever had.

The long and the short of it is this: buyer beware.  Getting a book about the Bible published is no harder than getting a self-help book published, and we all know what nonsense those things can be.  If you are a Christian you should take the Bible very seriously indeed, so consider your supplimentary reading carefully as well.  And by the by, all of this goes doubly and triply so for internet sources and blogs (including this one...I don't consider myself an expert on anything yet).

5 comments:

Jinny and Colin said...

Good thoughts. I hope people find them useful.

jon said...

yes. the other thing important about someone's educational credentials is that a degree tells you they've had their thoughts tested and there has been a community there to evaluate and dissect them. that's still no guarantee of credibility but it is something more than the court of popular opinion and book sales.

Colin Toffelmire said...

Yes, being so-called "self-taught" isn't a bad thing, but it's not the same as being tested and challenged in a formal educational setting. That said, there are obviously flaws and problems with formal education as well.

Dustin Resch said...

I don't know about this, Colin. I get the sense from reading your blog post that academic training is what is decisive for the proper use of the Bible in the Christian life. Does this not tend towards the classic Protestant temptation to make Bible scholars the new priesthood? Besides, there are plenty of excellent teachers of the Bible do not have PhDs (Karl Barth, CS Lewis, FF Bruce). At the risk of overstating my point, I've often wondered if academic training in biblical studies actually takes away one's ability to read Scripture in, with, and for the church. Indeed, your first point about checking out a teacher' s authority seems bang-on to me. But where does one get that authority? Is it the university? I tend to think not. If I'm going to be a good Barthian I should say that the only authority to interpret the witness to God's revelation comes from God himself, namely the Spirit of the Word. This, of course, puts us directly involved with the church catholic. Should we not test a reading of Scripture, first, in light of the wider Canon, second, in light of the church's creeds and confessions of faith, and third, in light of the church's tradition of reading Scripture through its history? The final criteria, of course, being God's revelation itself, the Word. This Word seems less interested in academic credentials than in faith and obedience.

Perhaps I'm just cynical...

Colin Toffelmire said...

I would certainly never say that academic training is decisive in good interpretation. There are a lot of trained scholars that I think suck at exegesis. Also I would probably note that I speaking more about questions surrounding the history and text of the Bible, and less about theology here. The two are related but not the same. I don't think I ever say that someone needs s PhD, and Barth, Lewis, and Bruce all fit my criteria tremendously well. They were all careful, thoughtful, and tremendously skilled interpreters and Christians everywhere should read everything those three men wrote.

As for the new priesthood, this is kind of a problem and kind of not. Certainly I believe in the priesthood of all believers, in the sense that there is no special training needed for one to have access to God. But (as Scott Bailey, another blogger has noted) different people in the body of Christ have different gifts. Let's let those with the gifts necessary to understand the history, language, and text of Scripture do their job, and let's listen to them when they do it.