Sunday, September 22, 2013

"The Pedestrian Christian” and the Importance of Scholarship

Recently, in an email discussion, the topic of the importance of scholarship came up with respect to Bible apologetics; this has in view the discovery process, its many unique demands and the formation of theological conclusions as well as the nature of sound theological debate. Part of that discussion entailed the emphasis of not just availing ourselves to the work of our superiors but doing so in an amenable manner, if we are, in any way, claiming to be serious about our own development and the various theological positions and convictions to which we hold and express. This furthered my thinking with regard to this blog and those in its proximity and how I/they/we fit into the big scheme of things. Here is what I mean.  

The Pedestrian Christian blog name was chosen for the most obvious reason, I am not a scholar (I state the obvious in case you are drunk and need to be sobered up). Indeed, the bio states I have formal theological training which includes Greek and Hebrew classes and my formal education has been augmented by years of personal study from many excellent sources. However, I am not a scholar nor do I pretend to be one, though much like an (A) or (AA) baseball player I might hit a note or two now and then like a major leaguer, still I am not a scholar nor are those who are like me. I am one who seeks to teach and communicate Bible doctrine and all it encompasses at the highest level of which I am capable. In my estimation that leaves a great deal to be desired but certainly not putting me on beggars row. 

Which brings me to my essay where I want deal with three kinds or classes among Christians, the Biblical Scholar, the Pedestrian Christian and the Pedestrian Christian Scholar and why all of them are valuable, maybe critical, to the teaching of Scriptures and why they should appreciate each other. 

The Biblical Scholar

Scholarship is a real, legitimate and serious thing and for the Biblical scholar even more so seeing that he will answer to God as one who contributed to the teaching of the Word, in other words eternal ramifications. Now when I say Biblical scholar I generally have in view someone who is a confessing believer and will leave out the possible exceptions since I am speaking to a confessing community.

Those who are termed scholars normally have no less than a graduate degree and often a post-graduate degree from an accredited University or one which is broadly accepted as being on par with accredited Universities and with studies in one or more areas of expertise. The longer one is a scholar the more likely you will find peer reviewed publications or other credible work.

Before moving on let me be clear, to be a scholar one does not have to have these but the road to ratification as a scholar is much longer, and rightly so, seeing that colloquial forms of scholarship bring with them the need for volumes and lengthy validation because one has circumvented, for whatever reason, an already expedient and validated process (i.e. higher education) for attaining scholarly recognition. And again, it does not mean the average, untrained or lesser trained person cannot reach scholarly levels in his or her observations and findings but unusual rises in our normal stream of academic, intellectual and theological pursuits do not qualify anyone on that rare occasion as a scholar, on the whole.

What produces distinction in the scholar from the rest of us are the demands of the education and of course its subsequent products and by-products. A masters and doctoral thesis (dissertation) present great demands, the latter so rigorous many never finish. It is a process which both weeds out the less gifted and less willing and fairly recognizes the able and willing. It speaks, academically in the least, something about the person who achieves this level of education and training.

The research, drafting, defense and final acceptance of their efforts for both degrees reveals that they have ventured into mental, theological and personal demands which others have not. As well, it is in this very intense environment that they have produced a positive product which his or her superiors have vetted. It is an achievement for which one should receive honors, formally and informally.

What this gives us in the Christian community are masters and doctors of critical studies where you and I simply cannot or will not have the time, resources or ability to handle and come out on the other end with profitable things. They, on the other hand, while we attend to our calling attend to theirs and serve us in this manner, giving us critical analysis and study which, by ourselves, few of us could accomplish.

Take the matter of Genesis, it is a supreme example. While the believer cannot doubt the divine origin of humanity and the revealed plan of God beginning with Adam to Christ as our Savior, the fact is the text itself and the nature of its narrative is something that must be understood in context, both Scriptural context and cultural context so we may understand how, what and why it is being transmitted as it was and is. This requires scholarship. 

Just as well, consider the initial portion of the first chapter of John's gospel where the necessity of language scholarship was and is elevated in combating those denying the deity of Christ (this is not to say the defense of Christ's deity cannot be made by way of the theological context alone, I have seen it done quite well). This is not a text for cursory consideration when dealing with grammatical claims, rather it demands strong grammatical arguments which are only sustained by scholarship which ultimately serve to both defend the truth and expose error.

It requires those with advanced studies of language, anthropology and history and so on, contributing their refined research, specialized knowledge and weighty propositions regarding such things for us to fairly treat many Biblical texts. Thus their work, the work of the Biblical scholar, cannot be brushed aside easily but must be approached with respect.

What this does not mean…

However, with all that said you must understand what this does not mean. It does not mean being a Biblical scholar makes one correct by default. As well, it does not mean we are incapable of understanding them or forming an opinion about their work and undoubtedly it does not mean they have all the answers. They want their work appreciated but not worshiped (well, at least most I am sure).

It simply is a level of work produced in a context or from a person trained to work in the context of the rigorous vetting of their various theses. In other words, like a new medicine, their work commonly has gone through trials, over and over before being released. This is unlike many publications in general which only require proof-reading for grammatical problems because the publisher is in the business of selling books not scholarly review. And of course there is blogging…the least of the reviewed media and that, normally, by way of commenters. So you may, now, appreciate a little more the work of the Biblical scholar.

The Pedestrian Christian

This blog is titled as The Pedestrian Christian and with good sense. I believe it represents what most of us are, namely someone who is either unable or not compelled to invest their life in vocational Biblical scholarship. We may be those serving voluntarily in the church as instrument players, childcare workers or other service related ministries all the way to Bible teachers or as those who’s calling as Christians take them mainly outside the church to the world in other capacities. Our vocation is not as a Biblical scholar nor as an ordained Minister.

You and I only have so much time for gaining expertise and usually it is with regard to our vocation and with great hope, our domestic offices (i.e. as a husband, wife, father, mother, uncle, aunt, brother, sister, son daughter and so on). However, as Christians while we are not Biblical scholars we are called to “let this mind be in you that was also in Christ Jesus” and to be “transformed by the renewing of our mind”. Paul refers to this as “spiritual wisdom and understanding” in his prayer for the Colossians which he desired them to know the will of God and gain an understanding which is not based on scholarly illumination but spiritual illumination, i.e. the practical application of simple to complex Biblical truths (though in the teaching process it may involve the contribution of a scholar with regard to a right interpretation of a text)

This is for all believers, the Biblical scholar, the pedestrian Christian and the pedestrian Christian scholar. The point here is not to confuse spiritual wisdom/understanding and scholarship. They are not synonymous though they have an essential relationship.

Thus, while we are not Biblical scholars we can and should become thoroughly indoctrinated into orthodox Christian teachings which, in effect, is a mature knowledge and handling of the Word of God or as Paul describes it in Ephesians chapter 3, possessing the "fullness of God". One might even use the expression, spiritual scholars.

Therefore, the term pedestrian Christian is one that, while evoking commonness also involves exceptionalism because we are not only pedestrians but Christians. We are called not only into this world by birth but into the Kingdom of God by our faith in Christ through which we are called to walk in the knowledge of God through the power of his Spirit. 

All of this is realized by a life of preoccupation with Christ which is prescribed and typified as the life of being a disciple of the Word.  It is characterized by maturing from handling lesser to greater doctrines and with more thorough application as we grow. Along with this is a life of prayer which is intended to be strategic in our advent and all of this while yielding to the Holy Spirit whose ministry is to fill and empower us for the execution of the Christian way of life.

So while being a pedestrian Christian on the outset might appear casual, it is anything but that. It is merely a synonym for the Christian life, the walk of faith which is one that is constantly being renewed in knowledge. While it is not that of a Biblical scholar, it is ultimately greater if we fulfill it as it should be seeing that Paul taught us that we may surpass knowledge in our understanding of the greatness, fullness and riches of Christ’s love (Ephesians 3:19).

The Pedestrian Christian Scholar

The pedestrian Christian scholar is aptly termed as such because, as noted earlier, while scholars generally have formal credentials and vetting, there are those who, while without the formalities, often reach and sustain their work at a scholarly level or at least beyond pedestrian forms and manifest themselves as one who endeavors to both utilize the scholarship of others as well as formulating their own theses and argues as such. They are a hybrid, if you will, between the Biblical scholar and the pedestrian Christian.

Often you will find Pastors and Bible teachers falling into this category. They appreciate the superiority of the Biblical scholar and recognize that they have not attained this status but still, their gifts and work demonstrate that they are beyond the pedestrian Christian, scholastically, thus somewhere in between. They do more than touch on scholarship but they do not pass the threshold into fully recognized scholars.

Such teachers are a gift because they are able to bridge the gap between the Biblical scholar and the pedestrian Christian. This is not to say Biblical scholars should be viewed as incapable of communicating their scholarly findings on a layman’s level, plenty can and do but often they do not have the time for the additional translating from technical and scholarly work to that which would be more broadly understood.

I believe every Bible teacher but more so, those who have the calling into vocational ministry, ought to seek to learn and teach at this level. The Bible teacher must demonstrate to those he teaches that the Word of God, while containing many simple truths and concepts also contains texts which, while they may be understood and applied by all when taught, require for their proper interpretation prolonged studies which may involve contexts of history, language and culture and so on which are guided by Biblical scholars in critical places.

The Danger of the Pedestrian Christian Scholar

There is an inherent danger in the pedestrian Christian scholar. At times they can erroneously believe that the deeper waters they sometimes navigate are waters they have mastered. What results is a contempt for their lessers and a foolish willingness to easily dismiss their superiors. 

I had a friend in college who went to a school so small that he did not have a college geometry or calculus class and instead he had to take the class through individual study without instruction other than a half hour each week of testing and time for questions at the professor's office. My friend not only aced the class but loved the material.

Now suppose he, being gifted to be mostly self-taught what math scholars presented in the textbooks then decided, “Hey, I am on par with math scholars”. But being the person of humility my friend was, that conclusion was not formed. However, had he not been so humble and reasonable he might have gone off attempting to handle material that he was not qualified to handle and discredit himself along with being unable to recognize correction to his errant propositions.

Handling scholarly material or even demonstrating scholarly habits does not make one a scholar. But it does manifest something beyond the norm and its appreciation and recognition warranted. 

Nevertheless, if you find yourself rising to this realm, don’t be fooled. You still are not a scholar nor does it license you to carelessly handle true Biblical scholarship (and all of this is true outside of theology). In fact, it would do you a bit of good if your pants get too big for you that you encounter a real Biblical scholar while your fantastic world of imagined class leads you about whereby you find yourself in a debate with the real thing, the true scholar. You will either eat a rather large piece of humble or you will find yourself hurling insults seeing that insults are all you have left in your defeat and humiliation.

But that inherent danger aside, pedestrian Christian scholars are a good and necessary thing. They are a bridge which enables more building in the body of Christ.

Final Thoughts

In our walk as Christians we will encounter all three kinds or classes of believer categorized above (again it is not a taxonomy I wish to somehow make popular because it is not intended nor do I find such labeling other than for limited discussion beneficial because it can and does, at times, diminish properties of people and things). And we need to appreciate each one for their type of contribution, not pretending one is less or more than they are but when they do fall or rise, noting such occasions as well.

Additionally, there is the matter of the spiritual gift of teaching which I did not include in all of this. When a person is given that gift, it is a spiritual phenomenon. It is not a replacement for academic duties in studying. Rather, the spiritual gift of teaching is simply the gifting given by God the Holy Spirit to certain individuals so that when they teach the Word of God a phenomenal illumination and understanding occurs in those being taught (commonly referred to as being edified or built up which Paul refers to in Ephesians) which is categorically different than the natural illumination which occurs during the purely academic transmission of information.

Those with the spiritual gift of teaching may or may not be Biblical scholars. And those who are Biblical scholars may or may not have the spiritual gift of teaching. They are not to be assumed properties of each other (though often they are present in both)

Further, many teachers exist in the world who have natural teaching gifts and provide academic illumination to their students, sometimes fantastically so. However, the spiritual gift of teaching is not the same thing, it pertains to the communication of Bible doctrine and is not a natural ability but a supernatural/spiritual gift given to certain believers for the communication of Bible doctrine.

Thus, when someone has the spiritual gift of teaching they soon discover many people are edified when they teach the Scriptures. This is, again, a spiritual gift and specifically for the teaching of the Word of God.

If you find yourself as one with the spiritual gift of teaching, it is incumbent that you understand the above lest you become misled that your gifting is sufficient in and of itself without devotion to study and mastery of the Scriptures which will require serious effort on your part. This includes, in the least, appreciation and respect for the work of those superior to you. It does not mean you may not or will not disagree and it does not mean you may not or will not, as a teacher, come to conclude that a scholastic superior is often in error which enables you to classify them as an errant or false teacher. But even that must come from treating their work, particularly if they are a noted Biblical scholar, not simply dismissing it.

Communication of the truth is a serious matter and though I am stating the obvious here, it is never a tiresome thing for it to be repeated. Often teachers at various levels, whether discipling a friend or engaging in some major scholarship or somewhere in between, can become very myopic and self-absorbed. Their world can morph into a very limited one and one which is insulated from the contributions of others. Thus, the positive effect is not felt.

This is not to say we have to be accommodating to everyone enlisting in, “the truth telling squad” and give everyone an equal hearing. Some, when their initial streams of thought are shared reveal their naivety, immaturity or contempt for orthodoxy therefore we treat it for what it is. However, it does mean that those who have credibility, particularly as we go up the ladder, deserve a greater hearing, even if in the end we disagree we must do so for the best reasons.

As Bible teachers, from the scholastic kind to the pedestrian kind, we need to make sure we are not defending ourselves -our egos- which may be individualistically based or via some school of theology, movement or association. That is a very real thing for Christians of every kind and happens far too often. Now, more dogma please! 

Friday, September 13, 2013

Two Questions a Bible Teacher Should Never Ask His Students

The concept of authority and its properties is neglected both in its definition and practice today (and in the past in various ways and places). And one of those contexts of authority is in leadership, more specifically in the position of Bible Teacher or any capacity as discipleship leader. And in this context there is a form of abuse, yes abuse, though not malignant still abuse, toward those under the authority or direction of a Bible Teacher in which the class or congregation members suffer alike, all over the world. Pray tell, what abuse?

The mistreatment of disciples by a Bible Teacher to which I refer is the employment of two questions by the Bible Teacher, Pastor or Facilitator (or whatever term you wish to use, ultimately the person in authority), toward his students. And these are the two questions:

Would anyone like to open/close us in prayer?

Would someone read John 3:15/any other text?

Just about now I imagine a few of you are scratching your heads but that is precisely why I said what I said, above, about authority and its misunderstanding. And some of you, happily, effortlessly grasped the point having observed the matter for yourself and concluding similarly.  

No Doubt it is Sincere in Motivation but Confusing in its Leadership/Direction

A Bible Teacher of a group, no matter the size, is the authority of the class. That person determines the properties of the class. Strangely, most Bible Teachers understand this with regard to when to begin and end the class or when they wish to have discussion and when not, and direct the class as such. However, when it comes to praying and reading suddenly good sense escapes them and though sincere in their wish to seem spiritually benevolent and not appearing to prefer one person over another, they introduce confusion by failing to either directly ask someone to read or pray or do so themselves, consequently losing control of the class.

It is awkward and uncomfortable to the group and frankly, rude. You have now forced them to figure out that which is your task as the authority of the class. Instead, it seems such moments are reserved for mild chaos with people running over each other or silently staring/daring one another to ante up and be brave. Or you have someone being talked over and then embarrassed into quietness so the other may speak, thus saving the class from dueling voices. 

But consider something else, when you ask whether or not someone wishes to read or pray you are asking them to insert themselves. Such a thing implies a certain egotism which is personally unflattering. Remember the adage, let the office find the man and not the man the office? Well, Bible Teacher, you are the finder, don’t make the student be such. You bestow that honor, thus keeping it honorable.

Conduct your class with courteousness and thoughtfulness toward your students and not force them into awkward and uncomfortable situations as a group which need not be all because you of your misguided attempt at altruism.

People Depend on Authority for Direction, Even in Small Matters that are the Property of the Authority

This is the nature of authority and when a Bible Teacher leads a group, whether or not they wish this to be part of the property of their office at that moment, it is. Quit avoid such a responsibility, if you are. And yes, I am lecturing a bit but only because such a simple thing is wholly mishandled and truly should not be by thoughtful people. This engenders trust, confidence and relaxation with your students.

When people are thrust into contexts which they did not choose or expect but are not necessary, no matter how small, they hold its author responsible for allowing the unsettling environment. That is you, Bible Teacher. Don’t be responsible for failing to lead in such a small matter. It really does have an impact. 

Just as You Chose what would be taught for Your Class because you are Its Authority, You Determine Who Will Pray or Read 

You chose the curriculum as the Teacher, did you not? And if not, then someone in authority above you did which is still my point. You do not show up to class and ask the class to figure out what to teach do you? Then don’t show up asking them to figure out other details of your class which are your responsibility. 

If you doubt what I say, take some time to survey the matter. You will find a premium reaction of comfort and confidence in one where either the Bible Teacher prays or designates someone with a request over the confusing and constrained task of a group having to instantly and collectively figure out who is going to read or pray. It is simply good manners, if anything.

P.S. A a final note. I suggest that you, as a Teacher, unless you have a confident relationship with someone or that person is an Elder, before you ask them to read or pray publicly, you speak to them before the meeting and gain assurance of their interest and willingness to read or pray publicly.