Next week I’ll do another post relating to baptism. For now, I want to say a word about the place of scholarship in preaching. Yesterday a well known Pastor tweeted the following comment, “Waste no money on “critical”commentaries for scholars.They strain at gnats &swallow camels,missing the POWER of the Text!” [sic].
Let me emphatically say that I disagree strongly with this notion. I understand that there are some scholars/theologians whose work does more to hinder the church’s faith and understanding of the scriptures than it does to enable our understanding in a way that builds faith. But this is not a problem limited to critical scholarship. One can find books and authors on the very popular level which seem to have the same problem too, just coming at it from a different angle. This does not mean we should avoid books and authors, scholarly or not, whom we disagree with (iron sharpens iron) but that we should be discerning in our reading.
But why should preaching seek the counsel of critical commentaries written by scholars? The answer to this question is tied to the nature of scripture. Scripture, Old and New Testament, was not written in a cultural vacuum. Though I firmly believe that God was providentially at work bringing scripture into being (thus we can confess that all scripture is inspired of God…2 Timothy 3.16), scripture was also written by various people within their own languages nearly 2,000 plus years ago. Thus with a few exceptions of Aramaic, the Old Testament was written in Hebrew and the New Testament was written in Greek. Further more, scripture was written in the cultural idioms of its time. By way of example, when Isaiah speak of a belt of righteousness and sash of faithfulness (Isa 11.5), he has in mind the wardrobe of the ancient wrestlers of his day because that is a cultural expression that makes sense to the original readers.
As a result, understanding scripture requires in part as much possible understanding of scripture in its original language and cultural setting and that requires to some degree the work of critical scholarship by those gifted as scholars and theologians. By this, I don’t mean that exegesis is the only requirement for faithful understanding. The Holy Spirit, Christian community, character formation of the preacher, to name a few off the top of my head, all play a role in faithful understanding of scripture. But these (or anything else) does not exclude the consultation of scholarship. Why?
One of the things I learned in my seminary education is how much I don’t know. Besides the need for studies in theology, church history, ethics, etc… to understand how scripture has translated into faithful understanding and living throughout the ages, it takes a lot of work to learn original languages; how, for example, a term like “righteousness” is used in the Old Testament vs. the New Testament or in the Gospel of Matthew vs. the book of Romans; and the cultural background that provides the context for understanding. I have 23 hours of undergraduate and graduate Greek and though I can read the Greek New Testament, I am still far from proficient in it. I have far less time spent studying Hebrew and though I can work with Hebrew language tools, I really cannot translate Hebrew yet.
Some preachers have a greater proficiency in the Biblical languages than I do, so do not (and that should not keep them from preaching). We all still could learn more. Wherever we find ourselves, we are blessed to have the work of those who have been blessed to learn more. What do we have to lose by listening to their counsel? What do we have to lose by picking up a critical commentary or theologically oriented book? I realize that preaching is not just a transmission of academic research but I fail to see what harm can be done by conversing with those who have taken the time to study in further depth and write down their findings in a book or article. That does not mean we must agree with everything written just because it comes from a scholar or theologian.
From where I stand, the best preaching I have heard has always resulted in part from consultation with good scholarship and theology.