Sunday, July 14, 2013

Why it Takes a PhD to Understand the Bible: The Holy Spirit and Interpretation

[8/19/2013: Due to scads of people misunderstanding this post I have made several modifications and added definitions throughout for clarity.]

Does the Holy Spirit give believers an understanding of what a Biblical author is saying or are we at the groveling mercy of elite academicians to understand God’s word? Do I really need access to the original languages, ancient history, textual-criticism and all that other stuff to understand my Bible?

You’d think the answer would be obvious, right?

In the first hermeneutics course I took in seminary, Daniel P. Fuller’s article “The Holy Spirit’s Role in Biblical Interpretation” was required reading.  Fuller, exegeting 1 Corinthians 2:14, demonstrates beyond doubt a Biblical conclusion which offends most of us.  The implication of his article: Unless you are going to interpret the Bible like the church father Origen, rejecting a historical-grammatical hermeneutic and throwing all caution to the wind, it does take a PhD to understand your Bible.  You are at the mercy of academicians.  The Bible does not claim the Spirit aids the interpreter in the meaning (defined as, “that pattern of meaning the author willed to convey by the words [shareable symbols] he used”).[1] Rather it teaches the Holy Spirit aids us in the significance (defined as “how a reader responds to the meaning of a text”) of the text.[2]  That last sentence was a directly taken from my old class notes so I’m not left field on this one.

When I say it takes a PhD to understand the Bible, I’m not implying you yourself must have one.  I don't have one, nor am I a scholar. I am saying that you must at least have access to individuals that do have a PhD and can explain the text to you before you go running around looking for apache helicopters and brachiosauruses in your King James. What this means is that linguists, historians and textual-critics serve critical roles in the body of Christ, and we are hopelessly dependent on their PhDs to understand Scripture. God has chosen to entrust the ground-level understanding and explanatory dissemination of His scripture to a bunch of ivory-tower nerds. (Having an introverted, or introspective personality doesn't automatically disqualify you from serving in the body of Christ! Crazy, right?)

The reality of all this isn't as controversial as you might think, as James McGrath has retorted to Ken Ham (no, that doesn't mean I endorse everything McGrath has ever written), our utter dependence on scholars to understand the Bible is demonstrated anytime we pick up an English translation. If you really believe all you need is the aid of the Holy Spirit to understand your Bible then you better be able to pick up a Koine Greek text and manipulate God's Spirit like a Mormon seer stone without the aid of scholars. In fact, the meaning of many Bible passages cannot be understood (even when translated) without a surprisingly esoteric knowledge of subjects like Ugaritic, Egyptian, the Dead Sea Scrolls or textual-criticism.

For example, in a text like Ezekiel 1 (and especially in apocalyptic material) knowledge of Babylonian iconography and other symbolism is critical to understanding the passage.  Frankly, some texts in the Bible read like a description of an LSD trip at an ancient Babylonian X-files convention. You need more than your personal penchants to anchor you as you exegete texts like Revelation and Ezekiel.

I once attended a church study group in which we all sat around a room and asked each other with open Bibles what we thought Ezekiel 1 meant.  None of us had commentaries or any other resources, just our Bibles and groping, sanctified opinions.  The Bible study leader had rosy intentions, but frankly, no one learned squat about the meaning of the text that night. We were all radically wrong in our proposed understandings of Ezekiel—and we would have never come to a correct understanding of that text if we had sat and pontificated in that room for a hundred years together with the most holy affections.  We never could have imagined on our own that eyes in ancient iconography and other parts of the Hebrew of Ezekiel were used to refer to stars.  We would never had imagined the carnal points of the Babylonian zodiac are synonymous with the four faces of Ezekiel’s’ cherubim or that the throne depictions are common ANE allusions implying a polemic against Israel’s pagan captors.  Without the aid of scholars with PhDs we were unable to access an understanding of the text that would have been evident to any ancient Israelite in Ezekiel’s Babylonian exiled audience. In fact, any Christian without access to that information will not understand the symbols and other elements of the text as Ezekiel’s original audience would have.  That means every Christian in church history before archaeology in the Middle East became a mature discipline has been doomed to a failure to grasp the fullness of that passage's meaning and its symbols in the same sense as Ezekiel’s original audience did.

That said, we all got glimpses of the significance of the text that night.  We understood the text was at least about God’s glory and kingship, and as Paul expresses in 1 Corinthians 2, it is in that realm that the Holy Spirit does His work and we didn't need degrees to understand.  We were able to embrace, love and submit to the significance of the text because we had Him to aid us.  In that sense we knew the text in a way an unbelieving Semitic expert never could understand apart from God—even though that unbelieving Semitic expert could have outclassed any of us in understanding and explaining the details of what Ezekiel meant.

Our privileged modern access to sources like the Ugaritic texts and Dead Sea Scrolls ensures us that we will come to deeper and in many cases different understandings of certain passages than the Reformers or most anyone else in church history who didn’t have access to those resources.  It’s not John Calvin’s fault or a deficiency of his fidelity to the Holy Spirit that he failed to grasp the meaning of Psalm 74.  He had little way of knowing the Psalm is a parallel with the chaoskampf of Israel’s pagan neighbors, that Genesis was written in a context of cosmic mountain theology, or the full theological gravity of Jesus' claim to one day 'come with the clouds.' We are better able to read the text through the eyes of an ancient Israelite than Augustine, Luther, Calvin or the council of Trent.

Our ability to deeper understand the word of God will either offend or delight us.  When we let Bible study with academic resources take back seat to hermeneutical mysticism and homiletical Lifeway literature, we are setting ourselves over the text, and not honoring God’s decision to reveal his word to a particular people in a particular culture at a particular point in history.  The sad result is that much of the beauty and intensity of scripture is lost due to our historical imperialism and modernistic narcissism.  To be sure, homiletics and mysticism are vital, but they are the result of, and not the source, by which we understand the Bible.

That task, God has primarily entrusted to a bunch of nerds in the body of Christ with PhDs.   

[1] Robert H. Stein, A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994], 38.
[2] Ibid., 43.

11 comments:

  1. At the bottom of every schism in church history lies a theologian......many with PHD's. I'm not anti scholarship but elites grinding the flock into submission in the guise of "we got degrees and you don't" ain't working too well....see the PEW studies on church identification......

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    1. I agree grinding people into submission by citing degrees won’t go over well, that’s why academic study is needed. It allows the layman to access the reasons theological opinions are held and not just bow to authority like the more mystical approach usually amounts to.

      We require our doctors, surgeons, architects, chemists, psychologists and engineers to have formal training and degrees. You usually wouldn't want to live in a house designed by a high school graduate who flunked college math, receive a heart surgery from your plumber or take medication made by someone untrained. The reason: we understand all these fields are complex, important and that it is possible to be an expert in them. What does it imply about our view of theology and the Bible when that happens to be the only field where formal training is regularly looked upon with askance?

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  2. That may be true, but, the article is still accurate. There are several theological specialties, research is one of them and no preacher or layman has time to do all the specialties, we have to stand on the shoulders of our brothers&sisters before us.

    Sure, there are bad theologians, it's our duty to make a theological view be proven via scripture. I've been approached with various views and I take the "show me" attitude. Once you do so, I'm in. I will drop an old belief like Grant took Richmond if you can demonstrate it doesn't hold textual water.

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  3. Headless Unicorn GuyJuly 17, 2013 at 9:52 AM

    We were all radically wrong in our proposed understanding of Ezekiel—and we would have never come to a correct understanding of that text if we had sat and pontificated in that room for a hundred years together with the most holy affections.

    Does anyone remember (from the Age of Von Daniken), the "Alien UFO Lander" reconstruction of what Ezekiel REALLY saw?

    We never could have imagined on our own that eyes in ancient Babylonian iconography were used to symbolize stars.

    So those supernatural beings described as "covered with eyes within and without" were actually sprinkled with stars? As if they were made of the night sky?

    Why does that remind me of a throwaway item in "My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic", specifically Princess Luna's mane sparkling with stars?

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  4. Meh. People with specialized knowledge are certainly helpful, but you don't have to agree with them about their conclusions. They can tell you what the connotations of a Greek word might have been, but the full meaning of the text is not something you need a PhD to understand.

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  5. You said, " The Bible does not claim the Spirit aids the interpreter in understanding a Biblical text, but only in the significance of the text."

    It would seem that "significance" of the Bible should be enough. The rest is just unessential extras. If a believer understands the "significance" of the Bible, they should know enough to follow Jesus perfectly and please God. Why need more? Ph.D.'s disagree with each other, so no need to read them when the Holy Spirit gives real believers all that really matters.

    Or am I missing something?

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    1. The significance follows from and is therefore determined by the meaning.

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  6. Why it Dont Takes a PhD to Understand the Bible
    1 Cor 2:10-16

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  7. Ben, aren't you being a little unfair? When the reformers talked about the clarity of Scripture, they always said that they didn't mean that every passage of Scripture was crystal clear to anyone picking up a Bible, they meant that with appropriate study, Scripture's central message of salvation by faith is sufficiently understandable.

    As for the interpretation of Ezekiel you offered: who holds to this interpretation? I have never heard it before, but I would bet that not even all historical-critical scholars would agree that, for example, the eyes here are meant to represent stars. After all, though there may be similarities across cultures, why should a symbolic meaning in Babylonian literature necessarily carry the same meaning in Israelite literature? Perhaps some of this meaning is present and maybe there is even some polemic going on here. But isn't the central message of Ezekiel's vision that God's presence is with his people in Babylon, that he isn't confined to the Temple in Jerusalem, and that he sovereignty watches over and rules over all places (as symbolized by the many eyes and the mobile chariot)? Does one really need a PhD to come to this conclusion?

    Full disclosure: I'm in the MA Old Testament program at TEDS, where historical backgrounds are pushed heavily by my professors who work in the fields of ANE history and archaeology. I hope to do a PhD in OT when I'm done at TEDS. I appreciate that historical backgrounds and text criticism have helped us understand some things better, but honestly I haven't found as much exegetical payout in reading, for example, Phoenician inscriptions as I have in reading Augustine, Aquinas, or Luther.

    It seems that unfortunately many Bible students get really excited about backgrounds as if it provided a "secret knowledge" unavailable to the average layperson. When I look at how Jesus, Paul, and Peter interpret the OT, I just don't see an emphasis on trying to interpret the text in light of its original, historical background. Here's a real shocker too: they're often quoting from the imperfect LXX translation! While we should make due use of archaeology, the DSS, and Babylonian literature, we should also make sure we're interpreting the OT in light of Christ as the NT authors did. Jesus and Paul certainly weren't tied to a strictly grammatical historical hermeneutic!

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  8. "As for the interpretation of Ezekiel you offered: who holds to this interpretation?"
    --See Michael Heiser's discussion: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sflMu19t3QE

    "After all, though there may be similarities across cultures, why should a symbolic meaning in Babylonian literature necessarily carry the same meaning in Israelite literature?"
    --Because the Jews are in Babylon during this period.

    "But isn't the central message of Ezekiel's vision that God's presence is with his people in Babylon, that he isn't confined to the Temple in Jerusalem, and that he sovereignty watches over and rules over all places (as symbolized by the many eyes and the mobile chariot)? Does one really need a PhD to come to this conclusion?"
    --You will recall I outright stated in my post that these elements are obvious to anyone with an English translation. The key phrase is "English translation." You are still dependent on scholars to understand the text at all.

    "honestly I haven't found as much exegetical payout in reading, for example, Phoenician inscriptions as I have in reading Augustine, Aquinas, or Luther."
    --That is probably true. My point is Augustine, Aquinas and Luther are derivative and not the source of Biblical understanding.

    I agree with everything in the last paragraph.

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