top of page

Christians Need To Be Academic With Their Bibles

Based on my prior post in regards to Leviticus 18 and homosexuality (where I was introducing key concepts from the ancient Near-East), I think it's evident that I need to mention another problem I am noticing, that could be looming over the church at large: parking your brain at the door, either before church, or bible study.

For those who park their brains at the door, a word of advice whether you like it or not: it takes a lot of mental power to understand the bible.

Folks, I think it's evidently clear that we require our doctors, surgeons, architects, chemists, psychologists, and engineers to have formal training and degrees. You usually wouldn't want to live in a house designed by a high school graduate who flunked college math, receive heart surgery from your plumber, or take medication made by someone untrained. Why? Because we understand all these fields are complex where expertise is a requirement. What does it imply about our view of theology and the bible when that happens to be the only field where formal training is regularly looked upon with askance?

The following is a blog entry from a friend of mine who actually is a prominent seminary student:

Does the Holy Spirit give believers an understanding of what a Biblical author is saying or are we at the groveling mercy of elite academicians to understand God’s word? Do I really need access to the original languages, ancient history, textual-criticism and all that other stuff to understand my Bible? You’d think the answer would be obvious, right?

In the first hermeneutics course I took in seminary, Daniel P. Fuller’s article “The Holy Spirit’s Role in Biblical Interpretation” was required reading. Fuller, exegeting 1 Corinthians 2:14, demonstrates beyond doubt a Biblical conclusion which offends most of us. The implication of his article: Unless you are going to interpret the Bible like the church father Origen, rejecting a historical-grammatical hermeneutic and throwing all caution to the wind, it does take a PhD to understand your Bible. You are at the mercy of academicians. The Bible does not claim the Spirit aids the interpreter in the meaning (defined as, “that pattern of meaning the author willed to convey by the words [shareable symbols] he used”). Rather it teaches the Holy Spirit aids us in the significance (defined as “how a reader responds to the meaning of a text”) of the text. That last sentence was a directly taken from my old class notes so I’m not left field on this one.

When I say it takes a PhD to understand the Bible, I’m not implying you yourself must have one. I don't have one, nor am I a scholar. I am saying that you must at least have access to individuals that do have a PhD and can explain the text to you before you go running around looking for apache helicopters and brachiosauruses in your King James. What this means is that linguists, historians and textual-critics serve critical roles in the body of Christ, and we are hopelessly dependent on their PhDs to understand Scripture. God has chosen to entrust the ground-level understanding and explanatory dissemination of His scripture to a bunch of ivory-tower nerds. (Having an introverted, or introspective personality doesn't automatically disqualify you from serving in the body of Christ! Crazy, right?)

The reality of all this isn't as controversial as you might think, as James McGrath has retorted to Ken Ham (no, that doesn't mean I endorse everything McGrath has ever written), our utter dependence on scholars to understand the Bible is demonstrated anytime we pick up an English translation. If you really believe all you need is the aid of the Holy Spirit to understand your Bible then you better be able to pick up a Koine Greek text and manipulate God's Spirit like a Mormon seer stone without the aid of scholars. In fact, the meaning of many Bible passages cannot be understood (even when translated) without a surprisingly esoteric knowledge of subjects like Ugaritic, Egyptian, the Dead Sea Scrolls or textual-criticism.

For example, in a text like Ezekiel 1 (and especially in apocalyptic material) knowledge of Babylonian iconography and other symbolism is critical to understanding the passage. Frankly, some texts in the Bible read like a description of an LSD trip at an ancient Babylonian X-files convention. You need more than your personal penchants to anchor you as you exegete texts like Revelation and Ezekiel.

I once attended a church study group in which we all sat around a room and asked each other with open Bibles what we thought Ezekiel 1 meant. None of us had commentaries or any other resources, just our Bibles and groping, sanctified opinions. The Bible study leader had rosy intentions, but frankly, no one learned squat about the meaning of the text that night. We were all radically wrong in our proposed understandings of Ezekiel—and we would have never come to a correct understanding of that text if we had sat and pontificated in that room for a hundred years together with the most holy affections. We never could have imagined on our own that eyes in ancient iconography and other parts of the Hebrew of Ezekiel were used to refer to stars. We would never had imagined the carnal points of the Babylonian zodiac are synonymous with the four faces of Ezekiel’s’ cherubim or that the throne depictions are common ANE allusions implying a polemic against Israel’s pagan captors. Without the aid of scholars with PhDs we were unable to access an understanding of the text that would have been evident to any ancient Israelite in Ezekiel’s Babylonian exiled audience. In fact, any Christian without access to that information will not understand the symbols and other elements of the text as Ezekiel’s original audience would have. That means every Christian in church history before archaeology in the Middle East became a mature discipline has been doomed to a failure to grasp the fullness of that passage's meaning and its symbols in the same sense as Ezekiel’s original audience did.

That said, we all got glimpses of the significance of the text that night. We understood the text was at least about God’s glory and kingship, and as Paul expresses in 1 Corinthians 2, it is in that realm that the Holy Spirit does His work and we didn't need degrees to understand. We were able to embrace, love and submit to the significance of the text because we had Him to aid us. In that sense we knew the text in a way an unbelieving Semitic expert never could understand apart from God—even though that unbelieving Semitic expert could have outclassed any of us in understanding and explaining the details of what Ezekiel meant.

Our privileged modern access to sources like the Ugaritic texts and Dead Sea Scrolls ensures us that we will come to deeper and in many cases different understandings of certain passages than the Reformers or most anyone else in church history who didn’t have access to those resources. It’s not John Calvin’s fault or a deficiency of his fidelity to the Holy Spirit that he failed to grasp the meaning of Psalm 74. He had little way of knowing the Psalm is a parallel with the chaoskampf of Israel’s pagan neighbors, that Genesis was written in a context of cosmic mountain theology, or the full theological gravity of Jesus' claim to one day 'come with the clouds.' We are better able to read the text through the eyes of an ancient Israelite than Augustine, Luther, Calvin or the council of Trent.

Our ability to deeper understand the word of God will either offend or delight us. When we let Bible study with academic resources take back seat to hermeneutical mysticism and homiletical Lifeway literature, we are setting ourselves over the text, and not honoring God’s decision to reveal his word to a particular people in a particular culture at a particular point in history. The sad result is that much of the beauty and intensity of scripture is lost due to our historical imperialism and modernistic narcissism. To be sure, homiletics and mysticism are vital, but they are the result of, and not the source, by which we understand the Bible. That task, God has primarily entrusted to a bunch of nerds in the body of Christ with PhDs.

bottom of page