Did you know that Newton’s second law of thermodynamics states that “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction”? I did. Did you know that it is absolutely impossible for water when heated to surpass 100 degrees Celsius? I did. Did you know that the Pope has the words Vicarius Filii Dei inscribed on one of his miters? I did. I knew all these facts until I shared them in the company of experts.
After preaching a fact-filled sermon one day, I was confronted by one of my college science professors who happened to be in the congregation. “By the way, son,” he said in his fatherly tone, “the principle you mentioned is not a law of thermodynamics, it is Newton’s third law of motion, otherwise known as ‘the law of reciprocal actions.’” And then, for the next fifteen minutes I was given a brief lecture on the laws of thermodynamics.
On another occasion, following an illustration in which I insisted on the absolute boiling point of water, an adult learner in a Contemporary Theology classwho happened to be an engineer with NASAcalmly explained to me that under certain circumstances water will surpass its normal boiling temperature. Then there was the time when in the company of church historians, my apocalyptic world was shaken when informed that although the title Vicarius Filii Dei appears in some papal literature, the story about the phrase being inscribed on the miter is actually an Adventist urban legend.
Although I consider myself to be pretty knowledgeable in some areas outside of my academic training, my run-ins with real experts have forced me to tread cautiously when discussing certain subjects in public. After having my ignorance exposed on more than one occasion, I’ve learned to respect those who have devoted their lives to the pursuit of knowledge in a certain discipline. After all, they have spent years in academic training as they pursued their bachelors, masters, and doctoral degrees, and specialized certifications. While I am aware that even experts have not exhausted every nook and cranny in their areas, I have sense enough to know that they know a whole lot more than I do. As much as I like to read books on alternative medicine, when my doctor prescribes a remedy for a discomfiting ailment, I am in no position to play “physician heal myself.”
When I think about the respect that is automatically garnered by professionals who have gained the acclamation of their peers, I must admitI get a little envious. You see, I am what some call a “theologian.” There was a time in history when theologians were believed to be the sole possessors of the spiritual keys needed to interpret Scripture. People thought these robed sages had direct access to God. Whatever they said was etched in doctrinal stone, and dare anyone question. In order to protect their positions, theologians maintained the mystique behind the Bible by ensuring that it was guarded from public access.
Not only were copies of Scriptures carefully monitored, but in Europe the Bible was preserved in Latina dead language known only to clergy and academics. Then came the Protestant Reformation, when the Bible was released from clerical prison and set loose among the multitude through mass production and indigenous translations. Now, it was possible for people who did not have knowledge of the original languages or historical milieu of the biblical world to throw their hat into the interpretive arena.
Since the liberation of the Bible from the controlling clergy, Christian denominations have multiplied by the thousands, and interpretations within denominations have surpassed tens of thousands. Sit in any Bible study or Sabbath/Sunday school class, and immediately a simple text with a seemingly straightforward meaning is transformed into a kaleidoscopic smorgasbord with unlimited possibilities. This multiplicity of interpretations is often evoked by the simple question, “What does this text mean to you?” This question assumes that every person in the class is equipped to provide an authoritative response. It further places the facilitator in a difficult position, since a rejection of the interpretation may be equated with the devaluing of the person who honestly shared what the text meant to him/her.
When compared with the strictures of medieval Christianity in which the people did not even know what the Bible said, the openness in discussing and applying Scripture may at first seem liberating. However, the unfortunate and unpredicted result of the Bible’s release has been interpretive anarchy as seemingly “each person does what is right in his own eyes.” In his words to Timothy, Paul warns, “Some people have...turned to meaningless talk, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make assertions” (1 Tim. 1:67 NRSV).
The dangerous myth that the Bible can be fully understood by any earnest seeker has led to the devaluing of those who have devoted their lives to the study of the Word. Recently, during discussion at a well-attended Sabbath lunch, I was confronted with the thesis that every member of the Church has the same ability to fully comprehend the Word of God. The prevalent opinion was that if spiritual truths are spiritually discerned (1 Cor. 2:14), then all one needs is the Spirit of God in order to interpret Scripture.
Although agreeing with the basic premise that spiritual things are spiritually discerned, I had to challenge the conclusion. If possession of the Spirit is the only criterion for understanding Scripture, then the Church is wasting its resources in supporting ministerial and theological education. If every honest reader of Scripture is equally equipped to fully comprehend its contents, then there is no need for anyone to invest time and energy in the study of Hebrew, Greek, archaeology, or cultural history. If the ability to competently exegete a text is the natural consequence of church membership, then there is no need for commentaries or Bible handbooks.
Unfortunately, the notion that novices are on par with the academically trained in the interpretation of Scripture is also actively propagated by church leadership. Many of the biblical teaching and learning resources are produced by individuals with little training or experience in biblical studies. And in many of the K-12 academic institutions, Bible is taught by those who may be competent in physical education or civics, but have no idea how to differentiate between an iota subscript and a waw consecutive. Additionally, there is a tendency to assume that those who may have studied theology on the undergraduate or seminary level are as capable as the individual who spent three to ten years of full-time study beyond the master’s degree to acquire doctoral proficiency in a specific area.
The trivial neglect of the fact that the Church is blessed with men and women who have been gifted with the ability to competently divide the “word of truth” has resulted in the minimizing of the study of the Word. Sadly, this is evidenced by the displeasure of college students and their parents, who are shocked by the “unreasonable” demands of the religion professors, after having become accustomed to uncritical catechisms and rote memorization in the local church and K-12 academy.
Conclusion: Are All Teachers?
In this postmodern age that sponsors boundless creativity and challenges claims that certain people may have authoritative expertise in specific disciplines, the Church is in need of spirit-filled men and women who have been specifically gifted with the skill of biblical interpretation and application. I am not suggesting a return to the era when an informed and manipulative clergy control the thinking of an ignorant laity. Neither am I intimating that the Bible is incomprehensible to those who have not had the opportunity to obtain a terminal degree in a theological discipline. And I am certainly not naive to the diverse spectrum of thought among theologians that is at the root of much of the suspicion by the laity. However, I am proposing that it is time for all of the Churchlaity and leadership aliketo recognize the gifts of the theological “experts” with whom God has blessed the Church.
Mastering the contents of Scripture and disseminating its doctrines in comprehendible terms is the task of those who possess the spiritual gift of teaching. It’s about time that the entire Church answered Paul’s rhetorical question, “Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers?” (1 Cor. 12:29). If God through his Holy Spirit discriminates in the distribution of gifts (Rom. 12:67; 1 Cor. 12:28), and if the Church has provided resources and institutions for the development of specific gifts, why shouldn’t the expertise of our theologians be respected and recognized?
Keith Augustus Burton is president of Life Heritage, Incorporated, and an adjunct professor of religion at the Florida Hospital College of Health Sciences, Orlando, Florida.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/1677