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.