Many years ago I remarked to a group of grad school friends, “One of the goals I have for my seminary education is to get myself to the place where I could write a good commentary.” One girl in the group wrinkled up her nose and said, “I can’t think of anything more boring!” She was a very smart girl, but she had grown up being told that scholarship deadens Bible study. She would never have thought that scholarship deadened her own academic field, in which she was very proficient. In that field, the harder you worked and the more you studied the more likely you were to know what you were talking about. But somehow biblical studies was, for her, quite different.
Of course, her perspective was probably based in some undeniable experience. Maybe she’d encountered some pretty dry theological eggheads. Head and heart ideally ought to work in concert for God’s glory in every academic discipline, but it may be especially apparent when those two “parts” of us part during the study of theology. The migratory habits of swallows may be studied somewhat dispassionately, I suppose, and we can still get the facts we need. But it doesn’t work that way with the things of God. Jonathan Edwards said that the emotional energy we bring to our sermons—whether of sadness, joy, anger, or what have you—is part of the message. You don’t speak the truth truly if your sermon on “You are of more value than many sparrows” doesn’t echo with joy and gratitude.
Commentaries do often have the reputation of being dry recitations of obscure facts. They (so their reputation goes) don’t usually sing with the joy or sorrow of the text; they dissect it. It’s no wonder my friend had such a negative opinion of them.
I was eating dinner at a very fancy restaurant with two friends (who were paying!) from Furman University, both of them evangelical Christians. We were talking about preaching in churches, and I made the off-hand comment that, of course, so-and-so is such a good preacher in part because he has graduate degrees in biblical studies.
The one Furman friend wrinkled up her nose and said, “You think that just because someone has a degree he understands the Bible better than the rest of us?” I back-pedaled; I didn’t mean to offend. It didn’t even occur to me that my comment would offend. It seemed so obviously true.
She was a very bright girl who was studying at a prestigious and expensive private university, but apparently she had grown up being told that anybody can understand the Bible as well as anybody else.
There’s truth here, too. Diplomas on the wall and spiritual wisdom can sometimes work in inverse proportion to one another. And it is the privilege of every believer to know God personally and to study God’s word on his or her own.
But I have undeniable experience, too. Internal and external.
Internally: I just know that being forced to study by a teacher and a looming test and a GPA and an eventual dissertation, and living that way for years, increased my own understanding of and appreciation for the Bible. I understand what I read now better than I did when I started; and that was my whole goal in embarking on my course of study.
Externally: the preachers I hear who have theological education are almost invariably more responsible with the text of Scripture, more searching in their applications, wiser in their theological positions than those who have less theological education. The two exceptions I know personally (one living and one dead) are of that species of exception which proves the rule. Each of them was made by God to be extra brilliant. Each of them has worked hard through the means available to them to study, and study hard. (I’m certain there are many, many more exceptions, but I don’t know them personally.)
I shudder to think what I would be saying in my sermons if I hadn’t taken Old Testament Theology in 2004 or New Testament Word Study in 2006. And I don’t have to imagine it, because I can read sermons I wrote before that time.
It does not have to be prideful, but can in fact be humble, to say that more education means better Bible knowledge. It’s humble because it makes a key admission: without the divine gift of teachers (Eph. 4:11–12), I would be missing a lot while reading Scripture. I can’t rely on my own wits, and God doesn’t mean for me to. My study has not made me less holy, but, I sincerely hope, more.
And with the amazing wealth of Bible study materials now available for free (or very low cost compared to past ages), every Christian can study hard.
B.B. Warfield is so right:
Sometimes we hear it said that ten minutes on your knees will give you a truer, deeper, more operative knowledge of God than ten hours over your books. “What!” is the appropriate response, “than ten hours over your books, on your knees?” Why should you turn from God when you turn to your books, or feel that you must turn from your books in order to turn to God?