Tuesday, 20 November 2007

"Do Not Read the Bible Like the Theologians Do"

"Do not read the Bible like the theologians do!"

That statement in the sermon made me sit up. My first reaction was that perhaps I heard the preacher wrongly. But I did not. The person sitting next to me confirmed what was said over the pulpit.

This happened when I was attending a Sunday Service in a fairly large and well-known church in the Klang Valley some months ago. In this particular sermon, one of the pastors of this church was making a point concerning the importance of having a regular personal devotion if one wishes to grow towards maturity as a believer. One could hardly disagree with this. But in the midst of making his point, the pastor remarked, "But remember when you read the Bible in your personal devotion, do not read the Bible like the theologians do."

It is not very often that I reacted rather negatively to a Sunday sermon. Even if I do disagree with the preacher, more often than not, it has to do with issues of interpretation of scripture. After all, many of my own "si fu" (Gregory Beale, Walter Kaiser, William Mounce, Moises Silva, and Bruce Winter, amongst others) have thought me that as a budding NT scholar, I should practise charity when it comes to differing opinions concerning the interpretation of scripture. While we do exercise caution in interpreting the scripture, we must also acknowledge that we do not have all the full knowledge and wisdom to make a dogmatic statement, especially in interpreting the difficult passages in the Bible.

But this time, it was very different. I must confess I was stunned! Perhaps the preacher, who does not have any theological education, was trying to share a joke in the sermon. Perhaps he was trying to caution the congregation that, more often than not, theologians would argue on so many peripheral issues in the text, and yet they can never come to an agreement, and this is an area that should be avoided. Perhaps the preacher was trying to emphasise that one must not merely treat the Bible as a piece of literature subjected to scholarly research and scrutiny under the intellectual microscope. Perhaps he was reacting to the concern that some biblical scholars are investigating the scripture simply for some intellectual stimulation. Perhaps he was exhorting the congregation that we must allow the scripture to speak not only to the head but to the heart as well. Perhaps it was just a slip of tongue.

While I may not know the intention of the preacher for making this statement, I could not help but to wonder why theologians/biblical scholars have often received bad press in many sermons, particularly among the independent charismatic churches? This is not the first time that I hear such remark being made over the pulpit.

I thought that instead of arguing over the issue of whether one should or should not read the bible like the theologians do, perhaps it would be good for me to reflect and ask myself these questions as a budding NT scholar: As a follower of Christ, do I read the Bible differently from the "non-theologians"? In my teaching and preaching, have I failed to instruct the congregation concerning the truth of God? Have I failed to demonstrate that the scripture is relevant for all of us even in our present day? Or have I only caught up in the academic pursuit of biblical studies to the neglect of applying the scripture in my own personal life and professional life as a lecturer in a seminary?

Or, if I am not a theologian/biblical scholar and if I do not reflect or think through issues theologically, what difference would this make in my discipline of reading the scripture? What treasures would I not be able to mine? What theological insights would I not discover? What truths would I not understand? If I do not allow the scriptures to guide and instruct me in my understanding of ethical, moral and contemporary issues, what significant impact would this have in my appropriation of biblical truths in various aspects of my Christian life? What application of biblical truth in my Christian journey would I misappropriate?

I may not have all the answers to the above questions. But this I know. After all, isn't it Karl Barth, when asked about his Christian faith, responded by saying, "Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so"? I think this is a very sober reminder from a great theologian to all of us about how we understand and read the Bible - whether we are theologian or not!


pearlie said...

The question then is, in what way do we read the bible if not as a theologian? A theologian after all is someone who learns about God.

I would jump too.

But what if you are a pastor of the congregation and an invited speaker say such things in the pulpit? What can you do?

Alex Tang said...

hi kar yong.

I always want to have your opinion on devotional reading of the Bible especially on Lectio Divina. I am sure we all have experience of reading the Bible (not deep study but reading) and asking the Holy Spirit to speak to us. Sudden a verse or passage will jump up at us and we get an 'aha' experience accompanied by the peace that God has spoken to us and met our felt needs or given us a solution to our problem.

Unfortunately, the impression we get from the verse may not be the same as when we do an exergesis of the verse. However the impression does not go against the whole counsel of the Bible.

What is your comment on this?

Paul said...

ooohhh... I am waiting for a reply from the budding NT shcolar :-)

BTW, in response to the original post ... a bit off toopic actually .... I wonder if the reason is because many "theologians" (as in the scholarly types or theologically trained people)have not been the best of communicators?

Maybe they have shown strength in their exegesis but poor in their exposition? Gives the average lay person a poor impression - reinforcing the old stereotype of theologians who seem to live in their ivory towers and out of touch with reality and out of step with the Spirit.

I personally think good "theologians" who take time to learn to be creative communicators have taught and deepened my understanding of God the most! ie they have directly impacted my devotional life!

If I were not introduced to the importance and practice of thinking theology (and philsophically too I should add), I think my devotional life would be the pits!

Lee Chee Keat said...

Alex Tang,

My church does hold this kind of teaching devotional style. Many times, I felt it's unhelpful as I learnt many of my members usually derive out of context principles from the bible to apply it to their life. I do it too but I do exegete my own before going into lectio divina format. Imagining I'm the original readers of that biblical text which I felt that should be the way and usually it's very fruitful and rich in understanding about God.

Kar Yong,

I think in the Scripture esp 1 Tim or 2 Tim 2:15, Paul spoke very clear that we need to watch our doctrines and be competent in it. Looks like we need to re educate and challenge our M'sian Christians esp. Pentecostal ones or others to read text contextually and do a bit of work on exegesis. Otherwise, we are no different from cults who do the same thing. Anyway, I believe all of us are theologian and it juz whether we are good or bad theologian (includes those scholar as well) ...that's all.

rccnlj said...

yay!! Finally!!

Kar Yong said...

Hi Pearlie,

If I were the pastor, I would probably make clarifications over the remark in the following week. I would also ask the speaker the reason why he says such things, and express my disagreement with this statement. I think it is perfectly right to mention to the speaker our disagreement. I recall one or two pastors have done so to me, and I respect their courage for telling me where we differ.

Depending on the situation, he might not be invited back :-)

Kar Yong said...

Hi Paul,

Thanks for your comments - agree with you. I think a number of "professional" theologians and biblical scholars turn out to be lousy preachers. I guess it is time the theologians and biblical scholars prove this perception wrong! We need to work hard on our sermons. Admitedly, sometimes in our tight schedule, our sermons are ill-prepared. Many students in STM complain about our sermons too - that they are boring, not relevant and difficult to follow.

Kar Yong said...

Hi Chee Keat,

Agree with you and Pearlie that all of us are theologians! Whether we could challenge others to take up theological education depends largely on how the people on the pew observe our lives - how has theological education changed and transformed us? Are we better teacher and preacher after our theological education? Are we more passionate or less passionate about the scripture? and so on.

So all the best for you, brother as you enter STM in a couple of months' time.

Kar Yong said...

Hi Alex,

Thanks for the question.

There are 2 issues:

1) I think after Gordon Conwell, I would frown upon those who have the "aha" experience. But over the years and especially after my PhD, I do believe that God does sometimes speak to his people in this way. By and large, I don't really have an issue with this at a personal devotional level, as long as it does not go against the whole counsel of the scripture. But that does not mean we remain at that level. Like Chee Keat says, we need to move on to another level of exegeting the text.

2) Even if we are careful with our exegesis, how sure are we that what we have exegeted is really the authorial intent? In other words, can we ever discover the original authorial intent?

So where does that leave us? I think I am pretty much infuenced by Richard Hays and gang that perhaps we need to read the scripture in the community. Each community in each generation needs to hear the scripture afresh. For far too long, our reading of the text has been done as an "individual" - God speaks to ME. But we need to hear the text speaking to US as a body of Christ, as a community.

I have been thinking through his issue at some length for some time now - with the hope of writing an article on later. Comemnts welcome!

Kar Yong said...


You got it now - so don't bug me about it anymore.... :-)

Alex Tang said...

hi kar yong,

Thank you for your response.

First, I am happy to note that you have began to make allowance for the 'aha' experience. Personally I feel the the devotional level is important and is not spiritual 'milk' as your comment implied. I believe there is a role for both. Personal devotion using lectio divina and pulpit preaching using textual criticism. The reason is that devotional is by the Holy Spirit for us alone while pulpit preaching is for the whole church. The problem is when some preachers cannot differentiate between the two.

BTW for those who are not too sure what lectio divina is and is guessing at the meaning, read here.

It is interesting to note that Old Testament verses are somtimes quoted out of context in the New Testment, so how? BTW I am eagerly waiting for G.K. Belae and D.A. Carson (eds) Commneteray on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Baker Academic).

Second, I agree with you on whether we are exergesing the Bible correctly. Hence there is some room for humity in what we say.

Third, I like your comment on reading the Bible in community. It is true that each generation interpretes the Bible afresh. This is the area of Practical Theology. Therefore I was aghast at the way some Systematic, OT and NT theologians treat practical theologinas, like some idiots or heretics.

Finally, I share your concern that many theologians are incomprehensible to the ordinary people in the pews. This needs to be addressed. Otherwise theology is like some games played at the higher level while the rest of us get on with the act of living.

Perng Shyang said...

Hi Kar Yong,

I personally like this post and the discussions. I hope that you will not mind to allow me to put a link to this reflection on my blog.


Kar Yong said...

Hi Perng Shyang,

Thanks for dropping by. Yes, feel free to link it to your blog.

How's your year end practical?

Perng Shyang said...

Not bad, some new experiences in Melaka. I update quite frequently on my blog, feel free to visit too, but the only concern is... I'm writing in Chinese.

Ron Choong said...

Dear Kar Yong and Alex Tang,

I wish to echo my own endorsement of the 'aha' moments when the Spirit speaks to our soul. As a theologian trained at the very evangelical Westminster, the moderate Princeton and the neo-liberal Yale, I share KY's wincing moments when pastors 'tut-tut' any hard work of exegesis and hermeneutics. I often succeed in not responding negatively, but only because I am aware that I was once just like that. I think we best entrench our own prejudices when confronted by threats to our own egos. If we remind ourselves that we belong to one church and that we are it, perhaps charity and discourse will prevail to transform knowledge into wisdom.
I had a long conversation with faculty from Trinity in Singapore when I visited in Sep and they also sighed the same sighs. At AAR in San Diego last week, the private conversations among fellow theologians concerned the same thing - the distance between church and academy. But if you have ever heard the wonderful NT scholar Richard Bauckham lecture (let alone preach), you can see why we scholars need to bone up on our communication skills - as a labor of love.
Greetings from freezing New York.


blogpastor said...

I'm late, but thanks for the interesting and helpful discussions. As a pastor I feel both the exegetical and devotional or 'aha' readings of Scripture are important both for private and public use, though I use the latter sparingly in preaching.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi KY,

I experienced such anti-theological (intellectual) sermons before too. It could be the preacher's fear that he/she might lose manipulative controlling power over his/her congregation if they are learned. Thus, such anti-theological attitude are prevalent among independent charismatic churches. Usually these charismatic leaders manipulate his/her congregation for their services and financial contribution.

Concerning devotional reading, I failed to understand what 'devotional' means...It means anything to anyone. To some, the red letters of Jesus are their daily devotion material; to some are st paul's letters; to some are the OT promises and assurances. Few weeks ago, i was reading Thiselton's Interpreting God and Postmodern Self. I deem that no less, if not more, devotional than those red letters.

So i gave up understanding or using the word 'devotional' to describe an edifying experience of the self through God's 2 revelations.

Kar Yong said...

Hi Perng Shyang,

Thanks for the link up. Been to your blog a few times - but I really have to take some effort and time to read your post though...no thanks to my terrible knowledge of Chinese!

Kar Yong said...

Hi Alex,

Sorry for the late response - been wanting to say something but got sidetracked - then I was away for a few days.

I agree with you that there is a need to address the issue that "many theologians are incomprehensible to the ordinary people in the pews."

I am trying very hard to challenge the students in seminary to think likewise as well and how to make the connection between biblical texts and contemporary settings i their preaching and teaching. Many are good in exegesis but fail to make the connection to the people in the pew - but I am not too sure how successful this has been....This is also a big struggle for me too in my teaching and preching.

Kar Yong said...

Hi Ron,

Thanks for dropping by. Agreed with you as I commented in my response to Alex.

Trust all is progressing well for your final leg of your PhD.

Kar Yong said...

Hi Blogpastor,

Yes, I also do the same thing - use the "aha" type of reading in my preaching very sparingly

Kar Yong said...

Hi Sze Seng,

I guess this kind of thing happens not only in independent charismatic churches - but also in "non" independent churches as well. This type of sermon has been preached in churches that have several theologians in the pew too!

pearlie said...

I am late in getting into this very interesting conversation.

Paul, If I were not introduced to the importance and practice of thinking theology (and philsophically too I should add), I think my devotional life would be the pits!
I echo your thoughts (maybe not so much the philosphical part though!)

Kar Yong, Whether we could challenge others to take up theological education depends largely on how the people on the pew observe our lives
So far, my experience with bro & sis in church is that they shy away from a more serious study of the bible, which is sad. The most recent comment I heard was a sister refusing to come for bible study because she fears there will be homework. So regardless of how the more initiated live their lives, whether we are better theologians or preacher, there still seem to be a dichotomy - you the bible expert and I the normal church member - and I'd prefer that I remain one, you carry on.

For far too long, our reading of the text has been done as an "individual" - God speaks to ME. But we need to hear the text speaking to US as a body of Christ, as a community.
Yes, I totally agree. I still remember once listening to DA Carson's preaching from Ezekiel, he read the entire chapter(s) during the service. I was so impressed, it stayed with me. Since then, I take the opportunity to read as much Scripture in church when I get the chance - mainly responsive reading during worship.

Alex,many theologians are incomprehensible to the ordinary people in the pews. This needs to be addressed. Otherwise theology is like some games played at the higher level while the rest of us get on with the act of living.
I have listened to two excellent theologians, IH Marshall and DA Carson. Granted that the setting was different but it was exactly what you meant - I was quite lost in the first but moved in the heart with the second. Kar Yong, do STM or other seminaries teach presentation of sermon - that should be covered in homiletics I believe?

Sze Zeng, I totally agree with you on your incredulity over devotional reading. Just when do devotional reading start and theological reading ends?

Kar Yong said...

Hi Pearlie,

Thanks for your input.

You are right to point out concerning the dichotomy - and I suspect that apart from the typical Malaysian attitude of you-just-tell-me-and-I'll-buy-from-you, this group of people have never been really challenged to be excited with studying the scriptures. D A Carson did that to you, and his exposition of scripture remains with you. I think that is the experience needed for many.

Yes, STM does offer homiletis, and I believe that currently for our BDiv/MDiv students, they are required to take 2 courses on preaching. We are trying to introduce a course on homiletics for TEE, hopefully in 2009.

Timothy P said...

Every human, be it non-Christian, Christian, pastor, theologian, has their own theology (in a loose sense of the word). Our values, beliefs, convictions are shaped by theology, culture and personal experiences. It is impossible this side of eternity for anyone to have a perfect biblical, theocentric, selfless theology based solely on the Bible.

Having said that, we are in the process of sanctification and regeneration daily as Christians. I believe that diligent study of God's word, theology, coupled with prayer and humility, allowing God to transform and renew our minds, and grow us in Christlikeness, will bring us closer and closer to a biblical theology, and not our own.

I enjoyed Josh McDowell's Beyond Beliefs to Conviction on this.