Thursday, October 10, 2013

"Where is the scholar of this generation..."

A coworker of mine apparently made a casual comment that "the field of theology is in disarray." I'm not 100% sure what was meant, but let me co-opt the comment.  Study of the Bible in the United States is in disarray. I'm going to blame two things: 1) no clear sense of who you would be talking about with the phrase, "scholars say," and 2) the empowerment of the mob as authorities on the Bible.

1. No clear referent to the word "scholars"
I suppose the word "scholars" has always been a little ambiguous.  There were mainstream scholars, the "liberals."  These were the ones we used to throw rocks at from a distance. They were in their mainline world and didn't pay us much attention. We burned them in effigy but never actually engaged them. Their watchword and song was the historical-critical method, but they didn't make room for miracles or literal resurrections.

Then in the 50s there emerged the guild of evangelical scholarship. They followed a modified version of the historical-critical method, one that allowed for miracles and the supernatural in the historical equation. They also had certain boundaries, electric fences, if you would. You practiced normal historical inquiry until you came near one of these fences and then you shifted into eisegesis.

But little groups like my church at that time, the Pilgrim Holiness Church, didn't have many scholars of the previous two kinds. We had "holiness scholars." These were scholars who knew the biblical text like there was no tomorrow but knew precious little of the historical-cultural world that gave those texts their original meaning. Instead, we unreflectively filled the meanings of those words up with meanings from our revivalist tradition, hopefully with a bit of the Holy Spirit guiding.

These groups were more or less socially isolated. Sects like mine were able to perpetuate ways of thinking about the text without engaging broader scholarship. Some went to seminary (e.g., Asbury) and learned about evangelical scholarship. The Wesleyan Methodists added inerrancy to their Discipline at the behest of an evangelical scholar in their midst (Stephen Paine of Houghton).

But today, the lines are all blurred.  Post-modernism has dethroned historical-critical scholarship in the first group (the "liberals"), and a kind of mob scholarship (a form of the third group) is even taking over the second (the card carrying "evangelicals"). Where is the scholar of this generation? Just as the anti-government mob wants to take over the government, the anti-scholarship mob would storm the Bastille of biblical scholarship.

2. The empowerment of the mob
From Aristotle to de Tocqueville (who gives a rip about them... we're storming the Bastille) it was well foreseen that the danger of a democracy was mob rule, and IMO, we're not far from that in America right now. Everyone thinks that their opinion on anything is as worthwhile as people who have put in 1000s of hours of study. (I read in a book by IWUs new president, David Wright, that it takes 10,000 hours or about 10 years truly to become an expert at something).

Don't know Greek and Hebrew?  No problem. Your opinion of what the Bible means is as good as anyone else's because we live in a democracy.  Sorry Charlie.  You can know Greek and Hebrew and not truly be an expert on the Bible, but you're not even close if you don't know them.

I sense that even the "establishment" of evangelical Biblical scholarship is in danger. It's ironic that Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, who invented the guillotine, eventually lost his life to it in the French Revolution. So the scholars behind the NIV2011, stalwarts like Doug Moo of Wheaton, have now somehow become liberal?  A new book, Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism, is sure to be thought liberal, even though endorsed by scholars at places like Wheaton.

So Wheaton and Asbury become liberal?  Professors at Trinity and Gordon-Conwell liberal?  Senator Dick Lugar is dethroned by the Tea Party for being liberal.  The Bastille is stormed and the mob sharpens their guillotines. "Everyone interpreted what was right in their own eyes."

Make no mistake.  There is such a thing as historical method. You gather evidence.  You construct hypotheses.  You test the hypotheses against the evidence.  The most likely theory is the one that accounts for the most data in a way that is the simplest without being too simple.

Is there certainty? No.  Do we always have enough evidence? No. But this is the method that we use in everyday life to our greatest advantage and this is the method that gives us cell phones and iPads. Anything else is a land of magical thinking.

Also make no mistake. There is a theology that developed in the early centuries of Christianity and that is more or less shared by all the main branches of Christendom. Is it revisable?  I'm a Protestant so I'm going to say yes.  But I'm a Wesleyan so I'm going to say not much.

These are the twin fixed points.  Contextual method of interpretation and theological orthodoxy.  Let the Bible say what it says and process it with orthodox theology. By these two fixed points, we can have an informed faith that can stand the winds of American fickleness and anti-intellectualism.

Once the mob is done burning chairs and breaking windows, I'd be delighted to teach Bible again... the real Bible.


Donald Smith said...

Ah, Ken,
you should try being United Methodist. Talk about no rules of engagement. Really appreciated the post, especially the last paragraph.

Susan Moore said...

Is there a category for 'scholar wannabe?' :-)
This is the conflict as I see it, in the world according to Susan:
Having 10,000 hrs of study on contextual method of interpretation or theological orthodoxy is not a guarantee to bring a person 10,000 hrs closer in relationship to God.
God calls us to know Him by being in relationship with His Son, correct? And this relational knowing, then, produces greater fruit of the Spirit as evidenced by greater love of God and mankind, correct? But knowing about the Word is not the same thing as knowing the Word.
A conflict occurs when the people who have studied the Bible 10,000 hrs, and yet have remained an immature Christian, graduate from Seminary and become the religious leaders of our churches.
Anyone who knows the voice of the Good Shepherd, can tell when this happens. Congregants may, for examples, use this person to manipulate him for their own political or personal reasons, or they may church hop, or they may withdrawl from church relationships, or they may leave the 501-c-3s completely.
More than the field of theology being in disarray, the Church is in disarray.
If the Church would put the Spirit first, order would follow.
What is the goal when one goes to Seminary; to learn more about the Bible, or to become relationally closer to Christ?
My thoughts to Bible teachers would be in times of conflict, without teaching against one's conscience, the teacher's best approach may be to stop, and address the student's heart needs thereby serving the student as Jesus serves the teacher. In that way, it seems, everyone will grow to become more like Christ.

Rick said...

This is as much an issue of trust as it is about democracy. Americans have a natural distrust of institutions, and anything that smells of "elite".

Unfortunately, most institutions have, at some time, given them reason for such distrust.

Somewhat related issue in pastoral studies is going on, as mentioned at Out of Ur. The reason there appears to be financial limitations. People cannot afford the extra $ for extra classes, especially if they are not going to be useful and cost-effective in the end.

John Mark said...

What are the implications for the average layman or the preacher with a scant education? You have used the phrase 'interpretive dung' when referring to some of the resources pastors use regularly. In my case, being basically an adult education product (albeit one with a bachelors degree) I rely on 1) the best commentaries I can avail myself of and 2) people like you, or Dennis Kinlaw (have a bunch of his stuff on cd) or (thanks to you) sources such as seven minute seminary and so on.
Is there any hope we will ever return to a non-revolutionary state; to play off your language? Many of my people listen to everyone from Joyce Meyers to Mark Driscoll (or more likely, Joel Osteen) and pretty much believe them all. So, where is the scholar, indeed? How can we even interest our people in orthodoxy? I did a Sunday night series on the Apostles Creed, using Drury's book, a DVD with NTWright, Mulholland, and some others, even brought in an Antiochan Orthodox friend to speak of the communion of the saints. My crowd can run as high as 140 on a Sunday night; we were lucky to hit 50 during this series.
And where is the role of the Holy Spirit in all this? Is it anti-intellectual to depend on the Spirit for illumination? The Spirit will not reveal cultural context, but being who the Spirit is, should help the preacher who depends on such help.
Then too, with all the helps mentioned available today one should be as a pastor be able to at least muddle along without teaching heresy in the pulpit.
I know there is a difference between kairos and chronos, between eros and agape, but most of the newer commentaries will get you past this kind of thing, and if you are willing to invest the time, help with the background.
Maybe I am overthinking your post, but I wonder what advice, if any, you would have for those who don't know the original languages (and how many pastors know Hebrew, or are really fluent at Greek--maybe more in mainline denominations, but not many in my circles) and have to operate without the advantages of an advanced education?

Ken Schenck said...

JM, Susan, you help me bring out another important aspect to this equation. I have also repeatedly affirmed that the Spirit speaks through Scripture without us knowing what it originally meant. I heard a devotional this morning that was incredibly uplifting. It urged us all to faith, hope, and love. It urged us to virtue and to spiritual disciplines. It went way beyond anything the biblical text in question ever meant but it was wonderful.

God can change us through Scripture and meet us wherever we are. The problem is when people start confusing good hard scholarship with these spiritual moments or, my big beef, when fundamentalists shut down both solid interpretation and spiritual interpretation. This is the flavor of the mob I reference in this post.

These are my opinions and I am glad for anyone to picture someone other than me when I use the word "scholar."

Susan Moore said...

Yea, Amen to that (to the fundamentalist shutting down both solid and spiritual interpretations)!
I feel your pain.

Susan Moore said...

I'm wondering if contextual method of interpretation occurs when people take cross-sections of the Bible and study them or compare cross-sections to other sections, and the theological orthodoxy is derived at more by the longitudinal study of the Bible (what I refer to as the Common Language of God).
Think of a sunbeam blasting through a hole in the ceiling of a shed. The ray of light shows millions of dust specs. If we look at the ray of light from the side we can 'study' the dust specs in any particular section of the light, and compare one section of light to another (cross-section method). Or we can get down on the floor and look upward through the hole and see the Sun (longitudinal method). Thematic theologians, for one, weigh heavy on the longitudinal method without being aware of it, it seems.
Yea, that's it.
Both are needed. When those two fixed points of study meet, a cross is formed.
P.S. As perhaps is obvious, I am not fluent in all the vocabulary yet, but I do see something that is 'real' and I am trying to describe it to you. I feel like I'm playing charades with you!