Renewing Our Minds: Scripture, Scholarship, and the Church

I’ve been reading through N.T. Wright’s book Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today. Not surprisingly, I recommend it as an accessible and thoughtful read on the nature of scripture and hermeneutics. The book provides a good discussion on what scripture is, the role it should have in the church, and how the church ought to read scripture. As I have said before, how we read scripture is just as important as to whether or not we read scripture and the matter of how (hermeneutics) is an issue that matters more than some realize.

Although it’s not the point of the book, biblical and theological scholarship play an important role in how the church reads scripture. That is, whether we accept or reject academic scholarship, our response is reflected in our reading of scripture. Some Christians, of course, protest the work of such scholarship, pretending as though such conversation partners are unnecessary. Consequently, Wright says:

Without scholars to provide Greek lexicons and translations based on them, few today could read the New Testament. Without scholarship to explain the world of the first century, few today could be to understand it (as often becomes painfully evident when people without such explanations try to read [scripture] aloud, let alone expound it). Scholarship of some sort is always assumed; what the protest often means, unfortunately, is that the speakers prefer the scholarship implicit in their early training, which is now simply taken for granted as common knowledge, to the bother of having to wake up mentally and think fresh thoughts (p. 91-92).

So to begin with, anyone who reads from a Bible translation – whether it’s the old King James Version (1611), a newer translation such as the New International Version (2011) or any of the other contemporary versions such as the English Standard Version, New English Translation, New Revised Standard Version, and so on – already rely on the work of scholarship.

However, Wright also hits on the aversion to scholarship even more, as he mentions how some Christians just don’t want intellectual challenge of thinking more deeply about scripture which may include new ways of thinking. In my experience this aversion to scholarship comes either from 1) a fear of finding out that what we believed to be correct on any given passage or issue is not entirely right, 2) an intellectual laziness that doesn’t care to mature in our understanding any more (which is spiritual apathy), or 3) a sense of pride that says we don’t we can learn everything we need to know on our own without the help biblical and theological scholarship. I’m not sure what’s worse but all three reasons are wrong postures for Christians regarding scholarship. What biblical and theological scholarship does is offer us a conversation partner, providing us a bridge to a wealth of information and insights that we otherwise would likely never have access to.

A Deeper Faith

Now, let’s be clear. The goal of reading scripture is not just so we may obtain  more information, better insights into a certain doctrine and better knowledge about some particular passage of scripture or word in scripture. Our redemptive goal is that we will be transformed into the image of Christ to the glorious and eternal praise of God and this is the work of the Holy Spirit in us. Having said that, we are participants in this work and that involves the intellectual shaping of our thinking.

In fact, scripture itself reminds us of both the place our minds have in the practice of our faith (cf. Rom 12:2; 1 Cor 1:10; 14:14-15, 19; Eph 4:23) as well as how ungodly ways stem from the thinking of the mind (cf. Rom 1:28; Eph 4:17; Col 2:18; 1 Tim 6:5; 2 Tim 3:8; Tit 1:15). Therefore the renewal of our minds involves reading scripture but it also involves a willingness to learn from others who can teach us about the scriptures and what they say regarding the life of faith we are living in Christ. This certainly involves pastors and ministers as well as other teachers who faithfully serve in our churches but the “others” also include the scholars and their biblical and theological scholarship.

What this means is that we should always remain students of scripture, learners of our Christian faith who welcome the insights of others, including the biblical and theological scholars. Please don’t misunderstand me though. I am not suggesting that every Christian must read academic scholars (e.g., N.T. Wright) but as a church, we should encourage those who do so to bring their learning to the church Bible class and so forth we have as a church. Further more, I am not suggesting that our openness to biblical and theological scholarship means that we must automatically agree with everything said among scholarship. That would be foolish! Instead, we ought to remain open-minded enough to discern wisely as a church community so that we may develop a deeper faith, one that is as intellectually rigorous as it needs to be but more importantly, one that is formed in the wisdom of God becoming like the mind of Christ (cf. 1 Cor 2:11ff).

This is especially important for ministers who preach and teach the word of God to others. I say that knowing it’s a no-brainer for most of the ministers I know but occasionally I do meet the minister who has stopped reading (and thus stopped learning) and is content with what he or she learned in college. All teachers are students first and for those of us who have had the privilege of obtaining a seminary education, we owe it to the churches we serve our eagerness to learn that we may share what we are learning with our churches.

16 responses to “Renewing Our Minds: Scripture, Scholarship, and the Church

  1. Intellectually, I get the point you’re making. But I’m also troubled by it. Because, in effect, it’s like saying, Stupid people can’t understand the gospel. It reinforces the notion that we can’t understand our salvation without the Text. And I disagree with that.

    The Text, when properly exposed may expand out understanding, but it is not essential to salvation. If it was, then the early Christians could not have been saved, since they did not have the Text.

    The Text gives us a common point of reference. It should lead us to the revelation from God. But it’s possible to be saved without ever reading the Text.

    • David,

      I think you’re misunderstanding me. I’m not saying that we need the text to be saved or that we can’t understand the gospel or salvation enough to be saved without the help of scholarship. What I am saying is that if we are going to mature as Christians who think with the mind of Christ then we must develop a good understanding of scripture and to this endeavor, biblical and theological scholarship is a necessary asset that should be welcomed by the church as a conversation partner.

      I hope that clarifies what I’m saying a little more. Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Grace and Peace,

      Rex

      • Rex, I don’t think you were saying that we need the Text to be saved. But if we say people cannot truly understand the Text without scholarship, then we’re walking a delicate line regarding the role the Text plays in our faith.

        Notice your quote from Wright … “without scholars … few could read the New Testament.”

        Perhaps without scholars, we’d remain focused on the truly important and obvious things, like “love one another the way I have loved you.”

        I think that has more value than all the scholars put together!

      • Wright is simply saying that without the scholars, there likely wouldn’t be a New Testament translated into whatever contemporary language we speak. Thus without the help of scholars, all that we would be reading is “ἵνα α͗γαπᾶτε α͗λλήλους καθὼς ἠγάπησα ὑμᾶς…” and while the command “that you love one another as I have loved you…” is extremely important, it’s certainly not the only important aspect of the life we are called to follow Jesus in living.

        I’m simply suggesting that the church ought to welcome the work of scholars more, viewing their scholarship as an aid. And to be fair, there are some scholars who need to remember that their talent is not an end itself but should serve as an asset that helps the church live as better participants in the mission of God. That is to say, the work of scholars should not be done just to impress other scholars but instead should be done so that the church may benefit from their efforts.

        Grace and Peace,

        Rex

      • And by the way, I think the Capital Forum on Spiritual Formation and Discipleship put on by the Fairfax CofC is one example (and a good one too) of how the work of scholarship can serve the church.

  2. Excellent! There is no reason to be wary of scholarship unless you are resistant to change. Knowledge and wisdom are available to those who continue seeking God’s ways.

  3. I once had a hard-liner tell me that change/rethinking was not permissible because if a person were converted based on one idea and that idea had a new interpretation one day, then the convert might walk away because he would wonder what else was incorrect that he was taught.

    The basic tenets of the faith have not changed in 2000 years.

    • Correct! Nothing about the faith itself has ever changed. But sometimes our present contexts obscures how the faith was always meant to be understood or perhaps because we don’t understand the gospel as it developed within it’s own historical context, we misconstrue something and then there’s always the question of how the gospel is to be made incarnate within our own ever-changing cultures. These are all issues where biblical and theological scholarship can serve as an asset to the church.

      Any ways, thanks for reading and commenting!

      Grace and Peace,

      Rex

      • I would predict the culture of today is probably not that much different than that found in ancient Colossae, Ephesus, or any other city, I agree that scholarship is needed to look back into the history books to see what was occurring in those cities which warranted one or more Letters form Paul.

        Naomi Walters has a sermon on her blog which goes into the history of Colossae and provides background material for the letter to the Colossians and her sermon,

  4. We may be on slightly different strains of thought, Rex. My concern is we become so pre-occupied with scholarship, we fail to concentrate on the basic s.

    You quote Wright, “Without scholars to provide Greek lexicons and translations based on them, few today could read the New Testament.” That’s not really correct. Maybe we would not appreciate all the nuances the Text provides, but there is much to be learned without the benefit of scholars.

    The most important thing is “love one another the way I have loved you”, and it doesn’t take a scholar to get that point.

    Because of scholars, we often end up in pointless theological debates that contribute little, if anything, the struggle of living the way Jesus calls us to live. And for most of my life, I’ve probably contributed to those debates. I try not to do that … as least not as much.

    Jesus did not call us to be scholars. He called us to be servants.

  5. Pingback: Renewing Our Minds: Suggestions for Learning | Kingdom Seeking

  6. Johnny Melton

    David Himes, I grew up hearing sermons on the church that suggested that there was no proper name for the church given in the NT, but that there were a number of descriptive terms. For example, the church of the firstborn was the equivalent of the church of Christ because Jesus was the “firstborn from the dead.” My dad preached that sermon. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the Greek phrase is actually plural and does not refer to Jesus at all–but describes those who make up the church triumphant–the first born ones, whose names are written in heaven. Scholarship saved me from the naive conclusions that simply relying on the King James translation might lead one to draw. I think Jesus did call us to be scholars–not in the elitist, Ivory-towered intellectual kind of way–but to be true scholars: students, or pupils (a disciple is a student, after all).

    • Where is the “like” button? Oh, wrong website. 😉 GREAT comment, Johnny, about the value of scholarship.

    • Johnny, I’m glad it provided valuable insights to you. But your comment is not directly responsive to my point. If you have to be a scholar to “read the New Testament”, as Wright is quoted by Rex, then what value is the Text to those of us who are not scholars?

      And does that mean I should stop reading the Text because I cannot understand it?

      Scholarship has a place … but it is not in the first position.

      • Just to be clear, Wright didn’t actually say that you have to be a scholar to read the New Testament; he’s saying that few could read scripture without the help of scholarship and that is a point made on the fact that all translations of the Bible have been produced by the work of scholars.

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