snubnosed in alpha

Christian reflections on the way the world is and ways the world might be

Saturday, October 28, 2006

a priesthood of scholars?

Someone intimated tonight at the Westminster Emerging Church conference that the trouble with the Church’s leaning upon academic Bible scholars, learned in the languages, texts, and the historical, literary and cultural contexts of the Scriptures, is that it risks creating (or does create) a priesthood or magisterium of scholars who take the Bible out of the hands of Christians who haven’t such education. I found it fascinating that that would be a concern raised in a conference on the emerging church movement simply because this notion that the Bible must be equally understandable for all Christians seems to be a distinctively American phenomenon. The idea of the “priesthood of all believers” was not, for the Reformers at least, intended as the democratization of Biblical interpretation, the idea that “I can understand my Bible just as well as you can,” but rather as the acknowledgment of the sanctity, dignity and necessity of all professions, whether pastor or plumber, bishop or bricklayer. It was intended to acknowledge the distinct and vital role that each respective occupation plays in the building of the Kingdom. Ironically, some these days often invoke the “priesthood of all believers” so as to do precisely what that doctrine was intended to prevent, stripping a particular profession and area of expertise, namely academic Biblical scholarship, of its distinctive dignity and the necessity of its contribution to the health of the Body of Christ.
The fact is, most folks in the Church in America who are seriously concerned to understand their Bible’s better get study Bibles and popular level commentaries and books to help them do it. People rely on aids in Bible study precisely because they know in their heart of hearts that some folks are better equipped to understand and unpack the Scriptures than they are. I, for one, prefer study aids informed by the labors of academic Bible scholars, people who have devoted their lives to understanding the Scriptures in their historical contexts; study aids that can reliably help me to get a handle on what John or Paul or Micah was trying to communicate to his primary intended audience. I greatly prefer them to Bible studies written by hermeneutically naïve, self-appointed “Bible experts.”
It is sometimes protested that the Church in the 2/3 World and some less fortunate folks in the West haven’t the resources to have access to such material. I would say that the appropriate response to such a lack of resources is not for us to indulge in the fantasy that all are equally well positioned to read their Bibles well, but rather for us to give sacrificially so as to remedy their lack of resources. Perhaps if we used our tithes and offerings less for purchasing flowers for our altars (or scented candles and incense, I guess, for all you emerging types) and gave generously like the Macedonians to close the economic and educational gap between us and them (2 Cor. 8:13-15), our brothers and sisters elsewhere in the world might flourish even more. What’s more, folks from the 2/3 World who have been able to do academic Bible scholarship have added a much needed and welcome voice to the Church’s choir. You would expect that we would allot our resources so as to get more of the same. Anyways, the answer, it seems to me is not to democratize Biblical interpretation. (Besides, not every culture shares our impulse towards democracy and to think they should is an outworking of the Enlightenment, not the Resurrection)
I would suggest that it is our American impulse towards individualism (“just me and my Bible”) and democracy (“anything you can do, I can do”) that makes us so concerned about relying on the aid of solid Bible scholarship for sound understanding of the Scriptures. I would go even further and say that the theological struggle to figure out how to maintain a democratic view of exegesis without rendering academic Scripture study superfluous is ultimately unnecessary. The fact is the Church needs Bible scholars just like the Church needs pastors and carpenters and doctors and real estate agents and banana farmers and accountants. 14 For the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15 If the foot should say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, "Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? 18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19 If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. 21 The eye cannot say to the hand, "I have no need of you," nor again the head to the feet, "I have no need of you."


Blogger Mark Traphagen said...

Your post is a great example of the kind of thinking and reflection we hoped the EC conference would generate among WTS students. The goal was never to make anyone more "for" or "against" emerging church so much as it was to make all of us a little more reflective, not only of our own traditions but also of how others see our tradition.

Anyway, some great food for thought here, David. I'm rethinking some of my critiques of preaching and when I'm ready to post about it, I'll probably link to this post as a reference.

12:11 PM  
Blogger art said...

I am in definite agreement that the idea of the priesthood of all believers should not be equivocated the idea of democratizing all those partaking in the theological enterprise. I did find myself in disagreement with McKnight on this issue. As must as I do agree that Seminaries, as institutions designed to prepare one for ministry, do need to focus more on character development and more 'pastoral' (as distinct from academic) maturity, an outright abandonment of academic exercises (such as exegetical papers, which was brought up in the discourse) will only lead to producing a generation of leaders who are less than prepared to swim in the changing culture's re-appropriation of theology because they themselves will be less than theologically grounded in Scriptures, which can lead to simply recapitulating the heresies or theological debates of the past.

I'm still wondering if there is a way to make that shift in the model of theological education that stresses both the academic necessity of learning languages, systematics, church history, and biblical theology and the character development that is so crucial in becoming a minister of the gospel.

Thanks for your voice in the conversation. It is much needed.

3:28 PM  
Blogger sammyb said...

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3:29 PM  
Blogger sammyb said...

Yeah, but…

What about perspicuity? Methinks the tension isn’t just the fear of an intellectual hierarchy, but also the (putative) inability of the common person to simply read and understand with clarity the essence of Scripture once academic scrutiny of the text has taken place (which perhaps gives rise to the hierarchical fear). Don’t get me wrong- I agree with you on the necessity of academic biblical study (otherwise I would be without a job). However, I would like to hear your thoughts on how biblical academic endeavors impact the clarity of essential doctrines, especially as the laity simply read the text without our hand-holding. I think you are correct that the “priesthood” issue can often be taken out of context, but the perspicuity of Scripture on essentials without need of a governing magisterium was a major concern for the Reformers, and seems also to be an issue for those of the Emerging persuation (albeit in a different context).

To put it another way, are we in danger of an “intellectual” magisterium dictating how people read Scripture? Perhaps it’s on this issue that the Emerging folks helpfully challenge us academics. The over-glorification of academia (from which many people in the church are suffering, in my opinion, due to the evangelical-intellectual-inferiority-complex wrought by modernism) can (at times) demean the ability of the laity to simply understand basic issues. Perhaps it’s this disconnect between scholar and layperson that gives rise to the vitiation of the relationship between theory and praxis which seems to be one of the overriding concerns for the Emerging movement.

Again, I’m not disagreeing with you. However, I think your response has bearing on what, for me at least, is a more basic (and pressing) issue of perspicuity, and I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

By the way, you said “intimate” in your post. However, I said “vitiation,” which is a better word, though I haven’t done gematria to double-check. I’d be willing to recant if the gematria proves me wrong. Even if I’m wrong about “vitiation” as a better word, I’d say that “methinks” is at least more awesome than “intimate” by a factor of 2. So, either way I win and you lose.

Sesquipedalian-ly yours,

Shmuel Boyd

3:35 PM  
Blogger snubnosed in alpha said...

Thanks again for yet another encouraging word, Mark. Although I didn't make it to all of the sessions, the ones I did go to were exceedingly stimulating and very helpful in giving me an idea of what this crazy thing called "emerging" is all about.
Art, I don't have any real answers to the dilemma of the seminary curriculum. Perhaps if there was more of a community at WTS some of these things would come together for us better. My experience with Southeastern Baptist in NC was that there seemed to be more of a ministerial impulse for them because many of the students lived in student housing and were very much involved in helping each other make it out of seminary alive. I dunno.
Shambalaya Boyd, great to hear from you. However I must say that the rather grandiloquent loquaciousness of your post comes off as a tad pretentious.
As for perspicuity, as the confession states it: "All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them." As for how the laity simply read the text without scholarly hand-holding, there seems to me to always be some amount of hand-holding going on so long as the laity is reading translations put together by scholars. I've still got a lot of thinking to do before I come to any clear understanding of how academia effects the clarity of essential doctrines though.

"grandiloquent" & "loquaciousness" puts me up by 4.

5:59 PM  
Blogger sammyb said...


I have had the same section of the confession in mind, and have relied on it as a comfort for a while. However, stating that certain things are clear though others aren't doesn't connect all the dots for me. I'm glad I'm not the only one who doesn't know how it fits, though I do think that it's an incredibly important underlying issue that will need to be dealt with and perhaps is the more basic issue than "priesthood of all believers" in interpreting Scripture, especially in the Emergent era.

I apologize if my word-choice was pretentious. It's partly because I've been thinking about this for a while, and partly because your October 19 post was completely unintelligible to me, and I felt I had to compensate. Please forgive me dear brother! I owe you a beer for such offense.


9:22 PM  
Blogger Joel said...

I wonder what the WCF intends by "due use of ordinary means"? The context here is coming understanding of what is to be known, believed, and observed for salvation.

Elsewhere in the Standards, where we find a connection between salvation and "ordinary means," we find a reference to all the ordinances that God has given the church for the gathering and perfecting of the saints: the word especially in its preaching and teaching, the sacraments, prayer, and the communion of the saints in their gifts and graces.

I'm not sure what all to make of that and how it should color our understanding of the WCF's teaching on "perspicuity," but it would seem to suggest that the Scriptures function as perspicuous with regard to matters pertaining to salvation only within the context of the church visible and patterns of life and spirital formation that are present therein.

10:07 AM  

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