Preaching and Critical Scholarship

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.


9 responses to “Preaching and Critical Scholarship

  1. I had an Abilene professor of Church History urge me to apply to Harvard Divinity. He told some friends that I had written the best essay on the Augustine and Pelagius controversy that he had ever received on an exam. By the time I was ready to act on that suggestion, I had had a deep conversion to Christ inwardly, a powerful baptism in the Spirit, and was launched deeply in to prayers.
    When I applied, the Holy Spirit pointedly impressed me that such a step would be like a ‘dog returning to his vomit.’
    I have had too many friends that went off to Harvard Divinity to lose their faith in that hot-bed of critical ‘scholarship’. There is danger there. And yes there is danger in the popular theologies floating about as well.
    But when I discovered within the Orthodox Tradition, that ‘he who prays is the theologian’, and that theology is the explication of a man’s inner experience of God that is beyond concepts, and that it takes men; deeply imbued with the presence of God, and not simply thoughts about Him, to be a potent evangelist or pastor, then I found a home for myself. I am not opposed to reading books, or blogs, and proper thought shapes our minds for the experience of God, but scholarship must take a second place to ‘knowing Him and the power of His resurrection,and the fellowship of His sufferings’ – all of which involve an inner stance of seeking prayer.

    • Ben,

      You are so right. Since this post was about the place of scholarship in preaching/teaching, I emphasized that. But by no means do I intend to convey that scholarship is the most important value for preaching. I believe character formation is probably the most essential. That is, good sermons come from those we know are continually being formed and molded in the likeness of Christ. I think that is what you are getting at too.

      Grace and Peace,


  2. More thoughts, Rex. When we look at the history of Western Christianity since the time of the Reformation, we see a ever-recurring theme- men who seek to treat the Bible in a scholarly way, yet do not see that the Bible is a Book of the Church, and hence has had a Tradition of Interpretation for 2000 years, often find themselves thinking they have done better than any of those before them, and so, purport to deliver us the Scripture in its pure and unvarnished meaning, for the first time.
    When Orthodox Bishops are ordained they are commissioned to pass on the faith without addition and without subtraction. It is this sense of a 2 millennium Tradition that many feel is needed as a context for any scholarly and critical studies of Scripture. There is a problem when we ever attempt to re-invent the wheel of the Church, and that is, we spend all our time there, instead in the serious business of saving our souls.
    For an example, in Orthodoxy we have a 2 millennium Tradition of a capella music, and there is simply no debate as to the Tradition we keep. When the Tradition is only one and a half centuries, then it becomes a matter of debate. And when it comes to the Church in the West, that incorporated the organ into its worship some times ago, when such groups seek to re-enter Orthodoxy, they keep their Western Tradition, as Western Rite Orthodox. We are spared the debate and endless rancor over such things.
    There is also a useful distinction made- between the Teaching of the Church, and personal and private pious opinion- one can hold the latter without being considered a heretic (if the private opinion, of course, is not heretical), but in Church as Church, the teaching of the Church is that which is presented. When there is really no authoritative Tradition, then men are cast only on their private opinions and the fights begin.

  3. This elaboration comes for St. Theophan the Recluse.

    The drive in academia is for the attainment of something new, an intellectual novelty. It is what drives the impulse towards the PhD. The impulse of the Faith, is deliver that which was once delivered, complete and unsullied.
    Each generation needs to hear it in the midst of their own unique environment of lostness.
    But the impulse of academic scholarship is in many ways opposed to that which animates the preaching of the Gospel.

    Nuff said. Nothing I have said comes near catholicity and certainly merits caveats, and qualifications, and points nuanced.

    • Ben,

      I certainly see your point about tradition and not reinventing the wheel with theology. But are we talking about tradition when it comes to Christian doctrine or tradition when it comes to church practice? While the two cannot be completely separated, it is clear in scripture that the church practice for Jewish Christians changed when it came to Gentile Christian communities (in fact, that issue is the source of much conflict in the New Testament). The practice changed for missional purposes. I don’t mean to sound critical, but from my limited understanding of the Eastern Orthodox Church, there seems to be no consideration for establishing the gospel in an incarnational and indigenous manner. Of course, with our 200 year history, only in recent history has there been any consideration to such “planting” of the gospel among Churches of Christ.

      Grace and peace,


      • One more comment…I don’t mean to be critical with this but if respecting tradition is of so much importance in Eastern Christianity…Eastern Christianity in its present form certainly has practices that did not begin in the apostolic period of Christianity (i.e., church buildings) which means that those practices had a beginning that broke with the past tradition. Where was the authority to break with the then tradition and accept a new tradition?

        Again, I am not trying to be condescending or critical. It just seems like a fair question to ask if maintaining tradition in church practice is that important.

        Grace and Peace,


  4. Rex,
    Love it! you are so very kind in your questioning. Quite a blessing.

    First, I came back here because of another thought but I’ll pass on this one.
    Orthopraxy- indigenous- Orthodoxy managed to move from Greek to Roman and into Slavic cultures, and did so indigenously- Cyril and Methodius translated liturgical texts into Slavic languages, in contrast to the Romans who were Latinizers, and who mercilessly persecuted the orthodox in Moravia. Then Orthodoxy crossed eleven time zones and presented the Gospel in numerous other cultures, coming three centuries ago to Alaska and the Inuits and the Aleuts and, St.s herman and Innocent, managed to build numerous Churches and translated the Literature of the Faith into their languages which they also made literate, Wycliffe Style, If I remember correctly.
    But since the depredations of Islam, most of Orthodoxy was in a state of continual martyrdom.
    I would suggest that the unceasing prayers of Orthodoxy was the animating force behind the relentless Westerward expansion of Christendom. Finally, the Orthodox Church included the Western until the 11th Century. Celtic Christianity was distinctly Orthodox and St. Patrick was quite Orthodox, and Irish Christianity was quite Orthodox. I have an Orthodox priest friend in Ireland, and they have at their web sites, numerous fascinating pictures from early Orthodox Ireland- I feel right at home there. The Irish monks, in turn evangelized the northern reaches of the British Isles, then spilled over into northern Europe and evangelized there.
    Since the Great Schism, there has not been much activity, as Orthodoxy has been in an Islamic Holocaust, and then in the 20th Century the holocaust of 45 millions in Russia- the believers bearing witness in unparalleled fashion to the Faith Once delivered, a martyrdom matched by no one in all of history. Blood being shed is quite ‘indigenous’. In Africa for about 50 years, in Kenya, Uganda, and Zanzibar, I think it is and just about all over, including Cameroon , where I hope to go, there is a quite flourishing Orthodox indigenous movement, with hundreds of thousands of believers, in their own languages and importing some cultural expressions into the timeless prayers. There is also a growth of Orthodoxy throughout Europe,
    and the indigenization of Orthodoxy in the United States and Canada. I expect our choir director will be among those that form the unique American expression of the One Worship; he is amazing.
    I’ll end this one here and address some other questions in another spot.

  5. I would suggest that if the theology we are plied in our seminaries is academic rather than prayer, we are being skewed in the wrong direction as far as comprehending the true advance of the Faith.
    The Tradition of Buildings for meeting is as Old as the Old Testament, for in there the Lord directed the formation of the Tabernacle and the Temple, and prescribed those structures for the Old Testament ‘church’. When we come to the new, we do not fall into a Marcionite heresy and suggest a radical discontinuity between the Old and the New, but there is a continuation in some respect of the Old in the New. Buildings for services had precedent in the Old Testament and so it was no big deal for the Bishops to understand that in the new pastoral environment of a tolerant Empire that buildings would be of pastoral help. the Bishops have the power to bind and loose- to express the faith in new pastoral circumstances not precisely described in Scripture- in fact, the Church and not Scripture, according to Scripture is the pillar and ground of the Truth, in part because of the authority passed on from the Apostles, to their successors the Bishops, not to add to or subtract from the faith, which was once and for all delivered, but to be the pastors in Christ, and to shape the ministry- indigenously, as it were. So the Basilica was taken as a suitable indigenous form and used to serve as the model for the Church, it being reconfigured with iconography to be an icon of what the Church is about in its worship- the gathering in Heaven according to Hebrews 12.

  6. As far as ‘formation of character’ goes in the formation of good preaching, one would certainly say that formation of character is an aspect of Theosis, but Theosis is so much more as it is a participation in the Divine Nature, and the Divine Nature is so much ‘bigger’ than character formation though certainly not less than it.

    but should we not press it further and examine a question that is begged with the pursuit of good preaching? To what ‘end’ is good preaching? Is it to the end that we be ‘missional’ or is there some other ‘end’? I would suggest that the ‘end’ to which good preaching aspires, is itself, the Theosis, of the Church, and insomuch as a pastor cannot possibly impart that which he has not Himself received, that Theosis is at the heart of any desire to be an effective preacher. I would suggest further, that if we are involved in attempting to re-invent the wheel, either according to doctrine or practice, then we have not yet really found the Instrument of Theosis in the earth, that is to say the Body of Christ, who is the only Holy One, the Only One that has Theosis, and whose Theosis we participate, by grace.

    I do not wish to offend nor to discount the very evident strivings of the Spirit in your life and those who read your posts, but just as the claims that Jesus is Lord has an exclusivity, so also the claims to be His Body. Folks may be offended by both, though their possible offense, does not comport to the the truth or falsity thereof.

    Please pray for me and for us in our Church as we struggle to be faithful and fervent and missional !

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s