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Editorial: Scholars of Scripture: Who needs them? - Part 1 of 2
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Scholars of Scripture: Who needs them?
By Kenneth Westby
The writer is founder and operator of the Association for Christian Development ( and the Virtual Church (11 a.m. Pacific time each Sabbath at [918] 222-7158).

AUBURN, Wash.--"Most people are bothered by those passages of Scripture they do not understand, but the passages that bother me are those I do understand." So wrote Mark Twain.

I'm with Twain. My struggle is to live boldly and honestly in the light of what I understand the Bible plainly instructs me to do.

Can there be confusion with "Love your neighbor as yourself," "Do not steal," "Practice hospitality," "Bear the burdens of the weak," "Let your light shine," "Humble yourself before God," "Draw near to God," "Live holy and godly lives," etc.?

The complete list is long and easy to understand but difficult to actualize.

This is the most important area of biblical understanding. Call it Christian living: The practical, rubber-to-the-road living and modeling of pure, godly religion.

For these clear teachings of Scripture we don't need glib preachers or sharp scholarship to grasp that God is talking to us and that we are accountable to respond. Ignorance can be no excuse in the face of such moral clarity.

But not all the Bible is an outline of moral, righteous or unrighteous conduct complete with God's crystal-clear expectations. Most of the Bible is composed of narrative, story, song, history, poetry, parables, oracles and visionary apocalyptic literature--all of it rich in doctrine, a deep mine of spiritual gold and diamonds and abounding with profound knowledge and intellectual treasures.

God has given us a book of such depth and wisdom we shall never exhaust its resource.

Enter the scholars

A few facts I'm sure you know about the Bible are worth repeating here. For example, the Bible is a compilation of ancient literature, the most recent being about 2,000 years old, the oldest perhaps 3,000 to 4,000 years old, and with some source fragments even older.

Strictly speaking, the Bible is not the Word of God. It contains God's quoted words, but also the words of many other God-inspired men and women. It also passes on the words of Satan and a host of evil people.

Many authors and editors have been guided by God to assemble, mold, adapt and pass on to us what our spiritual forefathers deemed "canon" Scripture: the specific books that can function as a rule of faith for the people of God.

We also note that these books were written over a long period covering many cultures, empires, strange circumstances of war and captivity, under a variety of historical influences and in ancient, evolving languages and idioms.

All of this "biblical background" information is critically important to understanding what is said and meant in Scripture. It is background about which the average 21st-century Christian is clueless.

Scholars are the technicians, the experts, the specialists, who can shed light on the ancient book we treasure as the Bible.

Who owns the Bible?

To be clear: The Bible doesn't belong to scholars; it belongs to the church. It is God's well-preserved gift to humanity that answers the three big questions of life:

  • Who is God?

  • Who am I?

Upon answering the first two, here's the third:

  • How then shall I live?

When we read the Bible to get those answers, we must acknowledge that scholars translated these ancient documents into our language so we can read them. To do so, they had to devote their lives to understanding the ancient languages of Scripture, the genres or types of writing, the idioms, the cultural background for each book so we can understand what was written.

Sometimes we take all that work for granted as if God, from the heavenly bookstore, dropped down to Nashville His leather-bound King James Version of the Holy Bible.

Scholarship is a science

"They say" the world body of knowledge doubles every 18 months to two years. Although this is probably not the case with biblical studies, the knowledge base is expanding at a tremendous pace. To confirm that fact, all one needs to do is attend the annual meetings of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), which Dixon Cartwright and I did in November in Philadelphia.

This was the SBLs 125th anniversary year (see Typically, about 7,000 delegates from around the world gather at these meeting to present papers, share research and debate the issues of biblical archeology, language, culture, theology, hermeneutics and modern religious expressions.

It is a diverse crowd of religious scholars from all the major universities and seminaries, researchers, writers, booksellers and students (my category).

At any hour during the five days of sessions, there can be 50 or more seminars taking place simultaneously. One must do a lot of sifting to pick those of personal interest.

I remember the first SBL-AAR meetings I attended, in Washington, D.C., back in 1974. At the time I wasn't a member of the SBL and I just stole into the seminars. Shame on me.

Every few years since, I've revisited them just to keep up on the leading edge of biblical studies.

In Philadelphia, Dixon and I bumped into numerous old colleagues who have gone on to distinguished academic careers in biblical studies (see some pictures Dixon took on this page).

This year Dixon and I attended a terrific seminar featuring N.T. Wright, the world's foremost New Testament scholar. His recent three-book series titled "Christian Origins and the Question of God" is a masterpiece of biblical understanding.

I've read all 2,093 pages and recommend them to anybody who wants an in-depth grasp of New Testament doctrine.

Of course, not all scholars are believers, though most are. N.T. Wright certainly is.

But, believers or not, these men and women spend their lives specializing in discovering all there is to know about the Bible and its context. Some scholars are superb, some good, some mediocre, some poor--just like in any other profession.

If it were not for scholars, would we have Bible dictionaries, Bible commentaries, Bible translations, Bible concordances and the many, many works on interpretation, application, inspiration and background that enrich our understanding and Christian walk?

There is no end of books. At the SBL meetings, the bottom floor of the Philadelphia Convention Center was devoted to book and software stalls representing all the major university and academic publishing houses. That book fair took up several acres of floor space!

I restrained myself, or should I say my credit-card limits restrained me, and walked away with about a dozen books. What fun.

The various disciplines of biblical studies have come a long way since the early-church fathers and the Protestant Reformation. Those worthies lacked the tools of modern systematic scholarship. They did not have access to or knowledge of the wealth of sources available today: historical sources that shed light on the cultural milieu of biblical times, language sources for more-precise translations or the perspective of 2,000 years of learning. Learning never ends, and one cannot read everything. But it helps to be aware that there is so much to learn.

Such a perspective might caution us against narrow-minded and dogmatic pronouncements like "This is what the Scripture means" when we haven't put the effort into discovering if that is really what the Scripture means. A Strong's Concordance and a patchwork string of cherry-picked Bible verses do not necessarily a doctrine make.

The text must rule

The standard drill in "doing theology," to use the crude but common phrase in the profession, is to ask of the text several key questions:

  • What does it say? (Language, translation, idioms, genre of literature: All play a part here.)

  • What did the writer or speaker mean? (Cultural, political, religious and situational background and understanding are all vitally important here.)

  • What did the essay or letter or speech mean to the original audience? (The exact context of the people, problems, situation is critical here in truly understanding what was said and why it was said.) And finally:

  • What does it mean for us? (Here we make the big leap toward interpreting the text to see if it does or doesn't apply to us, and, if it does, how might it apply to our 21st-century world.)

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