The Sufficiency of Scripture and Biblical Scholarship: Reading is a Big Deal
Jesus thinks reading is a big deal. After all, he wrote a book. And Jesus thinks reading his book is a big deal, because, well, he is. For a blog post on the sufficiency of Scripture and biblical scholarship this may seem overly simplistic. Aren’t scholars supposed to talk about really complicated things that impress others with their erudition and expansive vocabulary? While it is possible for most scholars to do such things, it is also true that erudition and expansive vocabularies ought to result in scholars helping people see the simplicity in matters marked by complexity. Believe it or not, it is likely safe to say that many scholarly debates turn on someone’s misreading of a particular text or a particular author. Given the cultural factors that hold in America today, as well as the sinful corruption of every human soul, there is a powerfully toxic blend of factors that undermine faithfully accurate reading in general, and of Scripture particularly, even by people who memorize the latter, write a lot about it, and have declared intentions in helping others understand it.
Reading has always been at the core of human scholarly pursuits. Indeed, the ancient and long-standing view of a scholar has been one who has the ability to read (not necessarily speak) in multiple languages and synthesize this reading accurately. On more than one occasion Jesus criticized the official and unofficial leaders of God’s people for being poor readers (Mt. 12:3, 5; 19:4; 21:16, 42; 22:31). Jesus was confronting them with their sin. The texts to which Jesus referred were certainly ones with which the leaders were very familiar. In one sense they had read them, but in another sense they had not. As it turns out, moral deficiencies corrupt intellectual analyses and conclusions that have practical results in every aspect of life. According to Jesus, their failure to rightly interpret the text meant they really had not read it.
When Jesus confronted the leaders of God’s covenant people with their sin by questioning their reading, he accused them of not paying attention to what was in fact right in front of their eyes, and what they had heard. Their intellectual activity was corrupted by their moral disposition, by their refusal to receive the truth and repent of their failures to obey it (cf. Rom. 1:18-25). It is the truth that sets us free from sin (John 8:32), or sanctifies us, and it is God’s word that is truth (John 17:17). Physical sight and hearing are regularly used in Scripture for the ability to know, to have some measure of purity from sin, while physical blindness and deafness are sometimes used symbolically for the inability to know, or for ignorance of truth, or sin (cf. Deut. 28:28-29; Isa. 29:9-19; 35:5; 42:6; Lam. 4:14; Matt. 5:8; 23:16-26; John 9:40-41; Rev. 3:17).
Just as blindness and deafness inhibit in various ways one’s ability to interpret the data of sense experience, so too sin skews our abilities to draw proper conclusions from the data of sense experience. This sense experience was created and is providentially governed by God and relates to every human intellectual pursuit. Creation reveals God. All human knowledge relates to God and is revealed by God. We, the knower, have our being in and through God. Both the objective and subjective aspects to all knowledge originate in and glorify God. But Western culture’s rejection of these beliefs—a rejection that can be traced back hundreds of years—has resulted in a pattern of thought and an entire way of life that reinforces a disconnect between human learning and our moral condition before God. This rejection perhaps found its crowning work in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and the theology of Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), while perhaps its most “honest” and perceptive proponent was Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). It can be summarized as the belief that humans must do what God has already done, is doing and will do.
Thus, people controlled by this way of thinking and living believe they must determine truth, not discern it. They must determine the goals to pursue, the means to reaching them and the results; they must make something happen. Life from this perspective is primarily subjectively oriented, because the individual person within their subjective experience and choices reigns supreme and attempts to bend objective realities to their subjective preferences. But when one actually reads Scripture one is confronted with how the human subject is in a dependent position of receiving from God, the Creator. God is and God determines what is. Life from this perspective is primarily objectively oriented because the individual person (and all created realities) is objectively determined and governed by God. The choice in life and for knowing is never whether we will be objective or subjective, but between how we view and live in their inseparable relationship.
Since God’s Word and Spirit determine and define reality, humans must depend on God’s Word and Spirit for knowing in every sphere of human knowledge. God’s Word and Spirit do not merely inform us through the written text of Scripture, but rather transform us spiritually through a life-long process, freeing us from sin, so that we are able to see and hear or know truth, so that we are able to grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ. While it has been increasingly popular even in “conservative” Reformed and Presbyterian circles for Christian scholars to minimize or deny the “privileged position” of Christian scholars to know truth, this belief denies what God tells us he accomplishes for, and applies to, the one who trusts in Jesus for salvation. Some of us need to read the Scriptures, perhaps even for the first time. Therein are the norms for Christian scholarship and the means to meeting them through God’s Spirit.
David P. Smith (Ph.D.) is the author of B. B. Warfield's Scientifically Constructive Theological Scholarship (Wipf & Stock) and co author with Ronald Hoch of Old School, New Clothes: The Cultural Blindness of Christian Education Wipf & Stock). David is Pastor of Covenant Fellowship A.R.P. Church in Greensboro, North Carolina.