Wednesday, April 22, 2009

In Defense of Academics

There is a purpose for academics. To my seminary friends, this may seem like a self-evident statement, but I have encountered many people in my life, from east coast to west coast, who speak with contempt of how academics is so impractical, how theology is just a bunch of big words and useless knowledge, how anyone can read and understand the Bible and doesn’t need an educated elite to interpret it for them. There is a degree of truth to this: the beauty of the gospel is that the essential message is wonderfully accessible. It was not merely a message for an intellectual elite. To think that academics and clergy sit as arbiters over the meaning and application of the Biblical text and define its meaning would send us back to the Dark Ages (and I mean that more literally than you may think). To say that Scripture is entirely inaccessible without going through a certain curriculum to achieve a special status is a huge problem.
At the same time, the revelation was given to us in a process involving historical records, literary creations, and in a language and culture foreign to and distant from ours. And the beautiful thing about Christian scholarship since the days of reformation is that it has been mostly done with the goal of making Scripture more accessible. Those who reject the need for scholars to help them understand their Bible forget that the fact they can hold a Bible in their hands and read it in their own language is the result of the work of, well, scholars - people who were willing to “waste their time” parsing verbs and learning vocabulary and grammar and doing linguistic research. And all we have to show for it is that millions of people around the world can read the words of God’s revelation for themselves. This is no small accomplishment.
Here are a few observations that I think deal with some of the real problems that can come up in Biblical/theological scholarship – problems based on improper use of education, not the education itself:
1. Academics done right does not pursue impractical questions: it makes a very thorough and assiduous effort to more accurately answer practical questions.
2. Big words make the work easier for those who immerse themselves in the conversation, because they allow us to be more efficient in our conversations. They should not be used to express snobbery and make conversations esoteric. They help us process and define issues so we can get to the end product: understandable theology, in audience-appropriate language, that helps us all live better Christian lives.
3. Most Christian scholars really want to help others with their knowledge. If you hate studying, especially studying languages, literature and history, be glad for people who are nerdy enough to like it, and be humble enough to let them help you.
4. God uses work and study as the means to help us know how to love and serve him better. Just as it is foolish to think that since God is the one who provides for our needs, we don’t need to do any useful work, so it is foolish to think that we can know a God who reveals so much about himself through a written document without ever having to put effort into learning.
My apologies to the middle-schoolers I unintentionally confuse with my vocabulary on a weekly basis – I just forget. And my humble repentance for the times I have let my pride rear its ugly head and used knowledge to build my self up instead of building others up. But please, don’t let those mistakes damage learning. Support your local Christian scholars – they’re working make God’s word more accessible, not less.


Sabrina said...

yay! a plug for the nerds. :) and a reminder not to let pride get the best of us.

Bren said...

i had a guy once accuse me of going out of my way to impress people because i was enrolled in a seminary program. how do you respond to that?? with a post like yours. thanks, nate, for another good post.

theone withabeard said...

I think I would tell him that I'm not trying to be ostentatious, and certainly not obstreperous, but rather striving to facilitate lucidity and perspicuity.

Bren said...

ha! if i had half a brain these days i would use a big word to reply to you with. instead i'll just say yeah, that's right.

Dave Browning said...

"The long words are not the hard words, it is the short words that are hard.”
- G.K. Chesterton.