“The Bible and Outside Scholarship”

Categories: M. W. Bassford, Meditations

If there is anything that stands at the heart of our faith, it is the idea that ordinary Christians can read and understand the Bible for themselves.  Unless we are competent to do so, every other conclusion that we reach—about God, about Jesus, about salvation—is suspect.  Until we find an expert to interpret the Bible for us, we are in serious trouble!

This is a powerful idea with many implications.  One of them is that we must be wary of any interpretation of Scripture that relies on evidence outside the Bible.  For instance, Craig Keener’s argument that women should be allowed to lead in public worship depends on scholarly conclusions about the lack of education of women in the first-century Roman Empire.  Reasoning from those conclusions, he dismisses 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:12 as culture-specific and no longer relevant.

The problem is that if scholarly opinion is not only helpful but necessary to an argument, the argument will fail without backing from scholars.  Thus, anyone who reads the Bible on their own, without assistance from outside sources, cannot reach the correct conclusion.  They are not competent to understand the Bible for themselves, and the Bible itself is not a sufficient guide to faith and practice.

For instance, let’s assume that Keener is right.  The scholars have it pegged, and 1 Timothy 2:12 is a culturally specific instruction that does not apply to women today.  Well and good, but what about our brethren in the 19th century who studied and applied 1 Timothy 2:12 before all these scholars did their research? 

If Keener is right, they must have been wrong.  They required something of their sisters in Christ that God did not require.  Indeed, rather than being useful, the Scriptures were deceptive.  The plain reading of 1 Timothy 2:12, even understood in the context of the entire Bible, led them into error. 

Such an outcome would be fatal to our belief that we ought to try to understand the Bible for ourselves.  If we can do everything right in our Bible study but still get it wrong (because we didn’t consult the right expert), it is better for us to leave study to those who are wiser and more scholarly than we are.  Rather than relying on our own judgment, we should rely on someone who has the training and the time to sift through the dueling academics and figure out which ones are worth listening to. 

Ultimately, though, if this is the world in which we live, we shouldn’t listen even to the experts.  The composition of the Bible was finished 2000 years ago, but the accumulation of articles and books about the Bible continues to this day.  What if some professor five years from now, or ten years from now, makes a discovery that transforms our understanding of, say, the importance of baptism?  If so, even the most expert of experts can’t help us be right today, and we can have no confidence in any attempt to discern truth in the word of God. 

Of course, none of this is to say that academic and scholarly writing is useless in understanding the Scriptures.  At its best, it adds nuance and depth to our comprehension of divine truth.  The experts have their place.

However, we must make sure that we keep them in their place.  A mountain of scholarly articles is not enough to overturn the testimony of the Scriptures.  Scholars are people too, and human fallibility is precisely the reason why we need an infallible written guide.  Let God be found true, though every man be a liar!  We cannot place our trust in even the wisest of human beings.  It must be in Him.