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A Bone to Pick with Scholars and Experts

A Bone to Pick with Scholars and Experts

When I first started attending a United Methodist church, and the leadership figured out what my background was, I was soon invited to teach various classes around the church. I was fairly pleased with this, as I love to talkteach, and it gave me plenty of opportunities.

My approach was to search for ever newer things to talk about. I wanted to work from my most recent reading and find something that nobody had ever heard of before. Above all, I didn’t want people to feel bored because I was covering topics that were too simple or basic.

I would note here that due to my detour from the church following graduate school, this was my first extensive experience teaching the folks in the pews, and not dealing with folks in the halls of academia. In academic circles, one often brings up a topic only to be informed that the listener has read an article in some scholarly journal on that topic, or to be asked if one has read something even more recent. That’s all well and good in scholarly circles. It saves time. If you’ve both read the same article you can go on with the discussion on that basis.

A very nice education director called me aside one day and pointed out that I was really missing telling people the things that they needed to know. I thought I was keeping their interest. They were impressed with my intelligence and breadth of knowledge, she told me, but they weren’t really getting what I was trying to teach. Her suggestion was that I keep things basic—from my point of view—and they would be at about the right level from hers, and that of the listeners.

I don’t know that I always follow that advice. I occasionally find myself rambling off into strange territory, and I’ll suddenly ask a class if I’m saying anything of interest. Some honest soul will tell me that I’ve gone off the deep end.

I’ve noticed this with some scholars of my acquaintance. First, there are many more scholars who believe they speak clearly to common people than actually do. By common people here I don’t mean stupid people or ignorant people; I mean people who are not scholars in the area of a particular scholar’s expertise.

Second, there’s the “we’ve already covered this” syndrome. This covers hundreds of topics. I’ve recently heard it with regard to a range of controversies. The method here is to refer one to a prior magazine or journal article, or a book written a few years ago and then shrug and say that nothing more needs to be said on that topic.

It doesn’t look that way where I live. I don’t live in academia. Yes, I have an MA degree, but that was my last academic experience. The rest of my life has been outside of academia. Nonetheless, both through my reading, and now through my publishing, I encounter scholars on a regular basis. I also encounter the comments of intelligent and informed readers who are not scholars. They often tell me that the scholars aren’t being nearly as clear as they think they are.

There are many fields of study where it is appropriate for one to spend a lifetime communicating only with other scholars. One can think of various scientific fields, or even of some of the more technical branches of biblical studies, such as textual criticism. But ultimately when dealing with faith, what doesn’t get out to the broader community is, in my view, largely wasted.

We need more scholars who will spend their time learning to communicate their views to the public. In order to learn to do this, they will need to listen to what people are saying with regard to their writing and speaking. Are people hearing, or are they not.

I’m not going to name names, because I don’t want to single out people of my acquaintance, but I’d like to give an example. One speaker of my acquaintance was invited to speak at a church for the weekend. This was not a church in the same religious tradition as his. At a Friday night meeting he felt he had not communicated. He listened to what people said after the meeting. He talked to me. He talked to the pastor. He spent much of the night in prayer. When he returned to speak Saturday morning, things were completely different. He had listened to the people and to the Holy Spirit. By the time he preached his Sunday morning message there was a bond between him and the congregation.

We need more scholars and experts who can follow that example.


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Out of Context Comfort

Out of Context Comfort

When I was in college studying Biblical Languages, my mother told me of an encounter with a biblical scholar who had corrected her somewhat forcefully on the use of a text. She had claimed Isaiah 49:25, “… I will contend with him that contendeth with thee, and I will save thy children” and done so with reference to her own children.

Now anyone who has studied Isaiah, and especially 2nd Isaiah, will recognize that this text is not addressed to parents whose children leave the church, and is not intended to promise that those children will certainly return and be saved. When my mother presented the issue to me, however, I looked at it a bit differently. In my view, the promises of return from exile are pardigmatic, and proclaim the nature of God as a saving God, one who seeks and saves the lost (Luke 19:10). So while the text doesn’t directly answer the question, it does point to a comforting promise of God’s faithfulness as a seeking God.

That’s a theme carried forward from the Exodus, through the exile, and into the salvation stories of the New Testament that draw heavily on those stories in coming to understand the mission of Jesus as the Christ.

So I felt that not only was it very harsh to correct someone in that particular fashion for the use of a particular verse, in one sense, the verse is quite applicable, even if the application isn’t that direct.

I was reminded of this story when I read the post, You’re Taking That Out of Context! on The Good Book blog. I think the examples and the comments on handling them in that post are excellent. Those of us who get technical in our study of the Bible would do well to be careful with “the weaker brethren,” at least “weak” in our technical view, and avoid doing harm.

I would draw one more lesson from such incidents, however. It is quite easy to be rigorous in our methodology of interpretation, and equally rigorous in critiquing others. It’s quite easy to give people the impression that they are not really capable of studying the Bible for themselves, and that any error they might make is of eternal import. We can make people afraid to look at the scriptures for themselves.

Now there is an opposite error, or perhaps more than one. There are those who believe they have no need for scholars. Such people forget that the very translations they read, not to mention the source texts on which they are based, are produced by scholars who put in much painstaking effort. There are also those who believe it doesn’t really matter whether they are right or wrong, so long as they are expressing their own opinion.

Somewhere between those views there is a good place, a place where one realizes the importance of pursuing accuracy, and yet is not afraid of the process of learning, in which one will certainly make errors. In this wonderful place, one would pursue accuracy and truth without living in fear of making a mistake.

It is my hope that scholars can aim to make such a place of learning for those in the church who have not been privileged to spend as much time studying as they have.


Every Christian a Theologian – an Equivocation

Every Christian a Theologian – an Equivocation

I am not a theologian. On the occasions when I say this I have an important reason for saying so. Not infrequently, I thus make myself the target of a quote from Karl Barth:

Therefore, every Christian as such is also called to be a theologian.

It is interesting that nobody has ever quoted the next few lines, which it seems to me they would:

How much more so those who are specially commissioned in the community, whose service is preeminently concerned with speech in the narrower sense of the term (extracted unceremoniously from Karl Barth, “Evangelical Theology: An Introduction,” 40-1)!

(In searching for the source of this quote, which I’d forgotten, I found this post, which makes some excellent points based on the Barth quote. I have extracted the two snippets above from that site.)

Now I don’t disagree with Karl Barth’s comments on this issue, but I do disagree with the way in which the quote is often used.

Let me give an example from my own field–languages, specifically biblical languages. There are people who have an interest in languages. There are those who have an interest in linguistics, and who actually discuss the forms of their language or dig into details of semantics. Then there are those who make a professional study of such things.

I could make an excellent case, I think, for the claim that everybody is a linguist. We all have to communicate. We all have to deal with meaning. Thus, we all deal with semantics, whether we use that label or not. But quite frequently I will hear someone say, “That’s just semantics!” Well, if we’re dealing with an utterance intended to convey meaning, any discussion of what was meant is a discussion of semantics.

So I think it’s silly to say that a particular issue of meaning is “just semantics.” Similarly, you will, as Barth notes, hear Christians, including preachers, putting down the idea of theology, as though one can be a follower of Christ without thinking about God, or as though in thinking about God one can afford to be careless.

Yet just because someone does a bit of thinking about semantics, or grammatical forms, or phonology, doesn’t mean I’ll call that person a linguist. I studied biblical languages both for my undergraduate degree and then for my MA. I took either a year, or at least a concentrated quarter that was advertised as equivalent to a year, in 11 languages. In several languages I took much more than that. But I don’t call myself a linguist except in a very narrow sense.

Why? Because there is a difference in learning a number of languages, and in learning and thinking about the nature and structure of language. I’ve taken a number of graduate courses in linguistics, and I can tell you that while the two types of study interrelate, they are not the same thing.

Similarly, my own training is in biblical languages, not theology. I do not mean that I have never encountered theology, or that I don’t think about theology. Nor do I mean that there is no theology involved when I teach. In fact, I am generally very concerned to check my theological statements more carefully, for the very good reason that I am not a theologian.

I took an undergraduate minor in religion, but almost all of my courses there were in biblical studies. In graduate school, while my concentration for the MA in Religion was Biblical and Cognate Languages, I was required to take a certain number of hours in departments other than those in my concentration. So I took church history, in the form of a class in patristic Latin. Not to mention the exegesis course in Galatians in which I used the Greek text while everyone else used English. I’ve probably read more theology each year since I left graduate school than I did in my entire course of study.

I think that we can easily be very guilty of an equivocation in this case. What I mean by saying I’m not a theologian is that theology was not and is not my area of professional study. There is a difference between biblical languages, biblical studies, and theology, not to mention differences between different branches of theology. I consider this an important distinction to make, especially when I’m asked to comment on a matter of theology, and the questioner believes my opinion should have special weight because I know Greek and Hebrew. In theology I speak as a layman. It is, of course, worthwhile to note that I have studied more theology than the average person in a church pew, but the distinction still remains valid.

Every Christian is a theologian, I believe, in the same sense as every human being must be a linguist. It is somewhat silly to use language to disparage the meaning of language, and it is somewhat silly as well to claim that theology is unimportant as we follow Christ.

But theologian != theologian, necessarily!


Bill Arnold on the Composition of Genesis

Bill Arnold on the Composition of Genesis

I have written quite a bit about this topic on this blog, and am also doing a series related to it on my Threads blog, so I was glad to see another summary article (HT:  Dr. Platypus).  Most lay people are not well acquainted with critical theories about the Pentateuch, as they get the briefest of descriptions followed by either a dismissal from one side or an assertion of scholarly consensus on the other.

Bill Arnold’s article is very useful for several reasons.  He outlines the overall theory very well along with traditional dating of the various sources.  He discusses some of the possibilities for the history of those sources, and alternative dating.  He does take up some non-traditional views, but in several cases (looking at the dating of P, and some of what he says on H), I happen to agree.  It’s always nice for the non-specialist to find some fine scholar agreeing with his much less sophisticated opinions!  I was convinced by the linguistic arguments from Dr. Jacob Milgrom in his Leviticus commentary from the Anchor Bible series, whose praises I sing from time to time.

Having said all that, I commend the article to those who would like to know more about this topic.