Frustration with Biblical scholars–and theologians


For a fantastic quotation from A. H. N. Green-Armytage about “the world of biblical scholars” in contrast to the rest of the world, I encourage you to  jump over to Eric Ortlund’s blog.

But lest I become a bit too smug or look too far down my nose at the biblical scholars, I admit that there is significant parallel to what could be said about theologians as well. Though I’m not entirely sure how to represent the perspective of “the rest of the world” in contrast to the theologians’ world, I do sometimes feel similar frustrations, as a theologian, with the “theologians’ world” in which I find myself living.  For example:

  • In our theologians’ world, precision over the meaning of a word means life and death, salvation or damnation. In the rest of the world,  everyday synonyms and roughly equivalent ideas work just fine in daily conversation and in living the Christian life.
  • In our theologians’ world, we are apt to evaluate an idea on the basis of its theological provenance, designating an idea flawed (or even heretical) if it even it only remotely smacks of in similarity to our perceived theological enemies. (“It is clear you have been unduly influenced by Origen/Schleiermacher/Hegel/Calvin/Barth/Augustine/Luther/[insert one’s own theological enemy here]”!) In the rest of the world, ideas are rarely accepted or rejected with such a critical eye on their origin.
  • In our theologians’ world, we are ever mindful of being the ones who carefully traverse the blessed middle way (precipice?) between those fundamentalist radicals over there vs. the dangerous liberals over there. (I’m convinced that all of us assume that our theology is a perfect middle way between those on our right and left. For a recent example of this tiresome “via media” approach, see here. )
  • In our theologians’ world, we tend to worry a whole lot more about what 10 or 20 other theologians  might think of what we say or write than making sure that the 3 or 4 people in our family, or the 50, 100 or 200 people in our congregation have a better knowledge of the God whom they serve.

Don’t hear me wrongly: Professional theologians (and biblical scholars) are required, and ought to, worry about theological issues in ways that ‘everyone else’ doesn’t have to. My point isn’t to denigrate the work of theologians (I am one, after all!), but simply to remind us (and my theological students and colleagues) not to be surprised when the average Christian raises a suspicious eyebrow about what it is that we do! (If that is your concern, then I recommend one of John Stackhouse’s recent posts entitled, “What good are theologians?”)


2 thoughts on “Frustration with Biblical scholars–and theologians

  1. Interesting reflections. A few hours ago I finished writing a sermon on the temptation of Jesus. Last week I tackled the baptism of Jesus and the role of the Holy Spirit (David, you may recall my paper on that). This is all part of a series on the Gospel of Mark.

    Both of these topics are theologically deep yet must be preached in a way that is first faithful to the text and second, taught in a way that it can be grasped in a 30 minute sermon. I knew I had somewhat succeeded last week when a woman with downs syndrome came to ask me questions afterward…she had grasped it, at least part of it.

    It would have been impossible for me to tackle such topics in a theologically sound way apart from critical theological investigation of the Trinity and the nature of Christ. These two sermons draw significantly from at least three different seminary courses and are influenced by others, including Greek.

    The point is simply this, critical theological thought is foundational to preaching. The art of preaching is to take the critical theological work and make it understandable by the average person in the congregation. In the process, some of the semantic “precision” maybe lost, literary compromises struck and the sometimes long winded arguments (like Barth) left on the shelf, but these are the foundations of a preachers art.

    In art the rules of composition including mathematical relationships, color theory, and the other foundational knowledge the masters mastered formed the basis of paintings that could be grasped and appreciated by those with no knowledge of the former. So to the theological and biblical studies foundations shape the sermon so that it can be grasped and appreciated by those who have not spent late nights reading the technical works of those who have gone before us.

    So while the theologian’s world may seem a distant relative of the congregations world, with out the first, how do you lead and teach the second with confidence?

  2. David, and Bill,

    Fascinating comments.

    I like David’s confessional reflections. Particularly his reflections regarding the six degrees of separation (to insert a stolen metric) of the limited numbers in the family of choir members of those interested in professional theology. These compliments from me – as one who hit Stackhouse with hard questions about the “usefulness” of theology in the equally limited audience of anyone interested in an intelligent reply to Dawkins, without making circular or arcane theology escape-artist claims for professional theology.

    I see Bill Erlenbach’s valid question (“So while the theologian’s world may seem a distant relative of the congregations world, with out the first, how do you lead and teach the second with confidence?) – as answered in the main by acknowledging that theologies and local churches led by pastors with a theological compass (not just personal charisma), are magnetized attractors of in-house audiences defined primarily by agreement or some resonance of agreement. Naive pastors and theologians take attendance as a validity-confirmation of the theology. Mature pastors worry about this question.

    David – the professionalization of theology as a discrete discipline generates its own endogenous variations along endlessly fractured “denominational” (among many other) axes. When enough variation is produced by professional theologians across intervals of time, then parametric measurements can be taken of this raw professional variation itself to mock up a theory of how “useful” these theologies are. There is no reason why the “usefulness” of theology cannot be measured by the internal criteria of a theology itself. Just like the “usefulness” of a law can be measured by sociology of law to see if a discrete law is effective by its own internal criteria. Say, testing whether 35 mph speed limit signs have any useful effect. Sure, you’re fully entitled to do your own in-house validity checks on your professional theology. By testing your theology against the finely shaven meanings of your authoritative words. Whether the original biblical words. Or your favored creeds for interpreting them. I don’t think that this particular function of professional theology has ever been in doubt. Most non-professional (not-theologians) believers have heard of words like orthodoxy. And heresy. I’d say Christological controversies started between the disciples of Jesus during Jesus’s own lifetime. When the Living Word was among them.

    But the definition of a halt function is the tangle of forever testing whether your last theological set of words was faithful to your iterated criteria for validity. Getting stuck in this halt function is not the definition of “usefulness” that Dawkins – nor the pimps, pushers, users, prostitutes, and burned-out-on-church people who are my clients – and whom I’m trying to reach with the love of God – care about.

    Any useful professional has a symmetric duty. A symmetric duty to translate the infinite halts and other abstractions of hifalutin professional theology into useful praxes. Or to recognize such praxes when they’re done in real life. I remember Grudem’s bantering against his own in-house colleagues in academia. Right across the hall from Grudem. Those “professionals theologians” who formerly criticized the family of Vineyard churches. “Professional theologians” using no more than the perversely anecdotal evidence. “Professional theologians” using a few, cheap, selectively data mined scraps of Vineyard texts mushed in with hearsay evidence – but these ivory tower professional theologians had never even visited a Vineyard. Call this “useful” theology if you want. Or “professional theology.” I call it perverse. So did Grudem. Without some sort of symmetry from hifalutin abstract concepts of professional theology over into concrete praxes, professional theology is just the poetry of Pope. Or the fictional mental-gods of Vajrayana Tantric Buddhism which holds a pantheon of deities – “useful” as mere mental fictional-gods for private self-reflective torque toward personal Buddhist enlightenment. As I posted on Stackhouse’s board.

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