Doing Scholarship for the Regular Guy
Let me start by saying that I am not against scholarship. In fact, I myself am currently engaged in scholarly activity as a Ph.D. student studying Church History. I serve alongside a pastor who will graduate this December with a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies. I read scholarly books and journals. I am a member of a scholarly society (Evangelical Theological Society), and I am in the process of composing a scholarly dissertation. I like libraries and old books to boot. I say all this so that the reader might recognize that what I am saying in this brief post is self-directed. I am not preaching to the choir or the congregation, so to speak, but to myself.
There can be a tendency among scholars to divide their lives between the academic and the ministerial. We can find ourselves doing scholarship almost exclusively for scholars or scholarship sake. We strive to be recognized by the academic world, and therefore we produce scores of articles and books aimed at the scholarly community. While there certainly is a place for this sort of writing, we will have failed as Christian scholars if we neglect the Christian community at large. In other words, if our work does not in some way benefit the regular guy in the church, we have failed in our task.
Rather than belabor the point at length, I want to illustrate it from some of Church History’s great leaders and writers. Below are some quotes from John Calvin (1509-64), John Foxe (1516-87), and William Tyndale (c. 1494-1536). These men represent some of the main disciplines in Christian scholarship–theology, church history, and biblical exposition. They were all certainly engaged in scholarly activity in one way or another. However, they were men who all shared the same scholarly concern, namely, that the people generally would have a better understanding of the Bible, Christian theology, and Christian history. Their stated purposes for writing their books are helpful reminders for Christian scholars everywhere to ensure that they are doing scholarship in such a way that all Christians can benefit.
John Calvin–Institutes of the Christian Religion (example from a Christian Theologian)
“Moreover, it has been my purpose in this labor to prepare and instruct candidates in sacred theology for the reading of the divine Word, in order that they may be able both to have easy access to it and to advance in it without stumbling. For I believe I have so arranged it in such an order, that if anyone rightly grasps it, it will not be difficult for him to determine what he ought especially to seek in Scripture, and to what end he ought to relate its contents.” (Preface to the Reader)
“Although Holy Scripture contains a perfect doctrine, to which one can add nothing, since in it our Lord has meant to display the infinite treasure of his wisdom, yet a person who has not much practice in it has good reason for some guidance and direction, to know what he ought to look for in it, in order not to wander hither and thither, but to hold to a sure path, that he may always be pressing toward the end to which the Holy Spirit calls him. Perhaps the duty of those who have received from God fuller light than others is to help simple folk at this point, and as it were to lend them a hand, in order to guide them and help them to find the sum of what God meant to teach us in his Word [emphasis added].” (Subject Matter of the Present Work, from the French Edition of 1560)
“I dare not render too favorable a testimony concerning [this book], nor yet declare how profitable the reading of it could be, for I would shrink from seeming to appraise my work too highly. Nevertheless, I can at least promise that it can be a key to open a way for all children of God into a good and right understanding of Holy Scripture [emphasis added].” (Subject Matter of the Present Work, from the French Edition of 1560)
John Foxe–Acts and Monuments aka Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (example of a Church Historian)
“As for me and my History, as my will was to profit all and displease none, so if skill in any part wanted to will, yet hath my purpose been simple; and certainly the cause no less urgent also, which moved me to take this enterprise in hand. For first, to see the simple flock of Christ, especially the unlearned sort, so miserably abused, and all for ignorance of history, not knowing the course of times and the true descent of the Church, it pitied me that part of diligence so long to have been unsupplied in this my-country Church of England. Again, considering the multitude of chronicles and story writers, both in England and out of England, of whom the most part have been either monks, or clients to the See of Rome, it grieved me to behold how partially they handled their stories…[and how] all things were drawn to the honour of the Church of Rome, or else to the favour of their own sect of religion. Whereby the vulgar sort, hearing and reading in their writings no other Church mentioned or magnified but only that Church which here flourished in this world of riches and jollity, were drawn also to the same persuasion, to think no other Church to have stood in all the earth but only the Church of Rome.” (Preface: To the True and Faithful Congregation).
Note: His concern was to give a history for “the simple flock of Christ” and this history was directed at the “vulgar sort” (read “common sort”).
William Tyndale–Commentary on 1 John (example of a Bible Translator and Exegete)
Therefore are they faithful servants of Christ, and faithful ministers and dispensers of his doctrine, and true-hearted toward their brethren, which have given themselves in jeopardy of all persecution, their very life despised, and have translated the scripture purely and with good conscience, submitting themselves, and desiring them that can to amend their translation, or to translate it theirselves [sic] after their best manner, yea, and let them sew to their glosses, as many as they think they can cleave thereto, and then put other men’s translation out of the way. Howbeit, though God hath so wrought with them that a great part is translated; yet, as it is not enough that the father and the mother have both begotten the child and brought it into this world, except they care for it and bring it up, till it can help the self; even so it is not enough to have translated, thought it were the whole scripture into the vulgar and common tongue, except we also brought again the light to understand it by, and expel that dark cloud which the hypocrites have spread over the face of the scripture, to blind the right sense and true meaning thereof…. And for the same cause have I taken in hand to interpret this epistle of St. John the evangelist to edify the layman, and to teach him how to read the scripture, and what to seek therein; and that he may have to answer the hypocrites, and to stop their mouths withal [emphasis added]. (Introduction to the Commentary on 1 John).
Note: These quotes have been taken from the following sources:
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2 vols. ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, in Library of Christian Classics (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960).
T. H. L. Parker, ed., English Reformers, in Library of Christian Classics (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1966).