Should Christians Read or Reject Biblical Scholarship?

Updated: Apr 29


All types of learning can be called scholarship in a generic way, but scholarship can also refer to a more formally trained pursuit of research, and the distance between them can vary greatly.


This is the scholarship that is in mind here.


This scholarship is traditionally distrusted by too many church-goers and Christian leaders today, even Biblical scholarship.

Oh yes, plenty of people read theology books or outdated commentaries, but that’s not the same. That’s not what is meant by “Biblical scholarship”.


Not even close.


And no: watching YouTube videos and reading Wikipedia are not examples of doing scholarly research.


We need intelligent and capable experts who:

  • Are gifted and called by God

  • Have devoted their entire lives to research

  • Have been trained to investigate these matters

Not just someone who spent an evening surfing the internet.


And we have such scholars! That's the craziness of this situation: too many churchgoers seem to prefer sources with no credentials instead.


Would you rather get medical advice from a fifteen year old with a Youtube channel or a trained medical doctor?


Hopefully you'd choose the doctor, so why is it different for the field of Biblical scholarship?


Where did this distrust come from?


There are historical reasons this dichotomy between research and Christianity came about, but it seems scholarship and science are too easily clumped together with:

  • Anti-Biblical atheism

  • Anti-truth secularism

  • Anti-Jesus humanism

Which are different forms of what some call “liberalism”.


Is this right? Should scholarship automatically be distrusted?


Or is this overly simplistic? Is there more to it then this? Should we weigh each claim on its own terms?


Consider this advice from Proverbs:

  • If one gives an answer before he hears, it is folly and shame (18:13)

  • The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him (18:17)

  • An intelligent heart acquires knowledge, and the ear of the wise seeks knowledge (18:15)

In other words:

  • We shouldn’t avoid investigating other perspectives

  • Nor should we dismiss an argument before understanding it

  • Nor should we discredit a view because of its source (the Ad hominem fallacy).

Let’s hear the other side out, including the myriads of scholars invested in countless nuances of research that go into Biblical studies.


Or we’re at risk of being like fools dancing blindfolded on the edge of the cliffs of insanity, oblivious to the dangers before us—too arrogant to listen to the warnings being shouted to us.


Scholarship matters.


The Lord of the Rings


To guide our answer in this line of inquiry, let’s take an imaginary journey into the future 1900 years.


Through nuclear world wars, technology is destroyed, and civilization has to start over. No more buildings, cars, computers, iPods, printers, phones, internet, or Facebook.


Even libraries and books are destroyed.


All literature disappears—including our current understanding of what literature is and what genres are.

The culture itself is so different it's unrecognizable. Not only is literature not thought of the same, but the whole idea of fiction is unknown.


People in this alien future only write to report news and facts, so they don’t know about fantasy, adventure novels, Hobbits, or fairies. They can’t imagine writing fake stories for entertainment.


It doesn’t exist anymore and it doesn’t make sense anymore.


Like the culture, English has morphed into an entirely different language—some hybrid of a few other languages, which is the only language to survive.


Then one day archeologists find a surviving copy of The Lord of the Rings.


It’s in English, so they put together a translation team that eventually cracks the language barrier, with only minor errors, to produce a readable copy of Tolkien’s work in their futuristic language.


Quickly, it becomes ragingly popular.


Not just because it’s a good novel, but because the people think Frodo was a real person, that dwarves, elves, and wizards existed at one point, and that there really was a catastrophic war against a giant eye in Middle Earth over a ring.


The story becomes heralded as an epic historical triumph of pre-blast times.


It’s obvious why they misunderstood so much.


They were too far removed from the original historical and cultural context, so they couldn’t help but assume their own understanding into the book. They couldn’t help but misunderstand the whole point.


They didn’t even know they were doing it.


This is eerily similar to us reading the Bible today. Sure, the Bible isn't fiction, but this is how far off we are from the Biblical culture.


It’s like a 21st-century, Western-minded, American-cultured, English-speaking person reading the ancient books of the Bible that were penned more than 1900 years ago.


This is the situation. When we read the Bible, we’re reading:

  • An anthology that was written in a lost age

  • Writings made in a very different culture

  • Ancient letters penned in other perspectives of literature and genre

  • A translation made from dead languages

  • A translation based on a long string of hand-made copies with many variants

We need scholarship.


Just like in the analogy, we can’t help but impose our own culture and times and ways of reading into the Bible.


We don’t even know we’re doing it! You do this, and so do I.


How often? Only God knows for sure. But this means we’re missing (only God knows how) much of the message.


And as long as we remain in ignorance, this gaping chasm will only yawn wider.


We Need a Time Machine


Now imagine the above civilization invented a time machine. They go back to the 20th century and learn English, become acquainted with the history, times, cultures, and perspectives of Tolkien’s day.


They discover what fiction, fantasy, elves, and Hobbits are.


Suddenly, things start to make more sense as they update their lens with the past.


Then.


They get a fresh copy of The Lord of the Rings in the original language, without any variants or mistranslations, and they read it with the ancient historical, cultural, and literary context in mind.


How drastically different will their understanding be! This is the goal of scholarship.


Their experience of the story will be much more like that of Tolkien’s first readers; much more like what he intended.


You see where I’m going.

The Bible was written to an ancient and foreign audience. This is how, when, and where God chose to reveal his message to humanity, so we need to understand the understanding of the people who wrote and received the original books of the Bible.


This isn’t optional.


Though it’s intended for us, the Bible’s not written directly to us, as Biblical scholar, John Walton, correctly asserts: “The Bible was written for us, but it was not written to us.”


It’s almost embarrassing that we still need to be told this, but we do.


There is a definite meaning in the Bible—no good Evangelical will deny this overplayed truth. But this truth can only be attained by understanding the language it was written in (duh!).


But just as important is understanding the history, culture, and perspectives of the day—not to mention, how they read their own literature (these are just as important).


This isn't optional.


Otherwise, we have no idea how much our own understanding is warping our interpretation of the Bible.


We have no clue what we don’t know.


How could we?


We need scholarship.

This means someone must:

  • Do the historical research

  • Do ancient cultural anthropology

  • Dive into ancient linguistics and textual criticism

  • Do archaeology, philology, and over a dozen other scholarly avenues.

This is the field of Biblical scholarship, and we need it.


It’s our only time machine in the past.


Ask yourself this: What would the Bible be without scholarship? Would you even have a Bible?


Think about it, especially if you’re skeptical about Biblical scholarship.


If no one did the archeology, translation work, manuscript comparisons, or investigations into ancient Mesopotamian, Greek, and Roman cultures—all of which are non-Biblical studies, what would you have?


Nothing.


You wouldn’t have a Bible.


Period.


All you’d have are several thousand ancient manuscripts in dead languages, scattered throughout the Middle East. Even if you could read them, you’d be lost without their original context: like thinking-elves-existed kind of lost.


We'd have no Bible and no clue.


We need scholarship.


Too often I hear someone assert, "I only need the Holy Spirit to read my Bible."


For some reason, this idea has really captured the minds of millions, trapping their understanding like a small animal in a cage, starving of the truth.


One time a Biblical scholar, D.A. Carson, was giving a lecture on Biblical research, and a woman murmured from the crowd: "We only need the Spirit to interpret the Bible."

He walked up to her, pulled out a copy of his Greek New Testament, then said, "What does this say then?"


Embarrassed, she said, "I don't know." The point was undeniable.


He continued his lecture uninterrupted.


The Cultural Context of the Bible


Now take a journey with me through church history.


The New Testament books were written in the first century among various strands of Hellenized Judaism, under Roman rule.


Like all cultures, this thread had its own:

  • Ideas

  • Symbols

  • Expressions

  • Rituals

  • Practices

See N.T. Wright’s usage of a worldview matrix in Paul and the Faithfulness of God, pg. 29.


As time progressed, this culture and its traits evolved, as all cultures do.


As time flowed on, more chunks of this unique way of life were replaced, transformed, or forgotten. Eventually, this culture was a distant history and largely lost, eroded over time.


This includes the original backdrop of the Bible.


The Bible itself survived in various forms and translations through the centuries, so many important things could be learned. People could follow Jesus.


But a lot of the context vanished over the years, and it affected how people followed Jesus—not to mention the stains this sprinkled throughout church history.

Think about the mightily influential Augustine.


By the time he reads his Bible, it’s nearly four centuries after it was penned, which is as far removed as we are from the American settlers! That's a long time.


He himself was an astute philosopher who read the (subpar) Latin translation of his day with a philosopher’s eyes.


Though a Christian, he came to a philosopher’s conclusions.


In this process, he placed the ideas he discovered in the Bible into his thought categories, which are far different from the categories of the New Testament authors.


It’s not his fault though, because we can’t help but see the world through the unique lens of our eyes, just like we can’t help but interpret the Bible through our unique minds and thought categories.


This is so important to realize, and it's the first step toward seeing.


Augustine's Platonic philosophical interpretations became mainstream. As the centuries rolled by, churchgoers read the Bible through an Augustinian lens (and still do), but worse: they also read the Bible through their cultural lens (and still do).


And they came up with weirder and more destructive views (and still are).


As their views advanced farther from the Biblical context, how they lived out Christianity grew more and more deformed also.


What about the original, ancient setting—the one necessary to understand the Bible’s meaning?


It was somewhat forgotten.


What about living out the gospel the way Jesus intended? It was muddied (see the next article for examples).


People could still know and follow Jesus, but the ancient perspective of Christianity was otherwise obscured, which changed how they thought about God and how they represented Jesus to the world.


Scholarship matters.


Thankfully, there have been radical advancements in the field of Biblical studies over the past five centuries that have reopened the world of the Bible like never before.

The next article will explain some of these examples and how:

  • Repentence was wrongfully understood as "Penance"

  • Luther discovered what "the righteousness of God" really means

  • Mark's gospel developed the wrong ending

  • Non-Biblical literature influenced the New Testament

Until then.


It Matters


This is so much more than believing the wrong things.


As church history sadly shows us, when our starting points in the Bible are off, the results are literally brutal.


Misunderstanding the Bible has led self-proclaimed Christians to:

  • Mass murder Muslims and Jews in the crusades

  • Mass murder Spaniards during The Inquisition

  • Murder and banish Native Americans from their land

  • Participate in near-genocide during WWII

  • Traffic and enslave people from Africa

Each of these have been justified using the Bible, convincing people to do horrible things in the name of Jesus.


Convincing the world that this is what Christianity looks like.


What are we still missing today?


A lot, as the next article will touch on.


How we see the Bible spills directly over into how we live out the Gospel, and how we see the Bible is greatly determined by the sources we choose to educate ourselves with.


We need to hear out Biblical scholarship.


Scholarship has been like a genuine time machine, giving us greater insight into the world of the Bible and how to better understand the original message God gave to us so we can better live it out.


Therefore, let us put to death willful ignorance.


Let us be willing to cross-examine our traditions. Let us be willing to execute our traditions whenever they contradict the facts.


Let us see that much scholarship is good—even necessary, for a realistic understanding of the Bible for a more real way of living out the Gospel.


Let us weigh each scholarly claim, one by one, with minds willing to learn and lives willing to follow.


Because it matters.


Let us use the intelligence God gave us, and the intelligent women and men who were designed to do the scholarly research.


Read here for how scholarship has improved Christianity.