Wednesday, 17 June 2015

We Don't Need No Education? Oh yes we do.

Young Earth creationism, while a major problem in our community, is ultimately a symptom of a far bigger problem, namely fundamentalism and an overweening anti-intellectualism which regards mainstream scholarship with contempt, and maintains the delusion that a layperson armed with nothing more than Strong's lexical definitions and the Authorised Version does not need to consult mainstream scholarship. 

An excellent essay highlighting both this endemic anti-intellectualism, and how it represents a marked deviation from an original Christadelphian position that respected scholarship and would regard the anti-intellectualism that infests our community today with dismay and contempt, found at the Facebook page Science and Scripture follows.

‘John Wesley once received a note which said, “The Lord has told me to tell you that He doesn’t need your book-learning, your Greek, and your Hebrew.”

Wesley answered “Thank you, sir. Your letter was superfluous, however, as I already knew the Lord has no need for my ‘book-learning,’ as you put it. However—although the Lord has not directed me to say so—on my own responsibility I would like to say to you that the Lord does not need your ignorance, either.”[1]

Why did the earliest Christadelphian commentators rely so heavily on scholarly literature and read so widely from academic commentary, when studying the Bible? Why didn't they just read the plain English of the KJV, and simply accept whatever it said? Why weren't they content with an infantile understanding of Scripture? Put simply, it is because they loved the Bible and were eager to use every tool available to understand it more deeply. They believed we should use the best of all available relevant scholarship in science, history, archaeology, textual criticism, lexicography, and Bible study, in our own study of the Scriptures.

For at least eighty years our community used The Christadelphian magazine to discuss modern scholarship relevant to the Bible. Articles written during those years are filled with references to academic commentary and topics; the Tubingen School, Higher Criticism, the Q source, Enuma Elish, Form Criticism, and the Synoptic Problem. Such terms are now practically unknown to most Christadelphians, and even to cite them draws claims of "elitism", "snobbery", and "pandering to worldly wisdom" from many people.

In the pages of The Christadelphian magazine, there was a casual familiarity with the names of scholars such as Wellhausen, Alford, von Ewald, Tischendorf, Lachman, Griesbach, and Strauss, an accurate understanding of the contributions of Westcott and Hort to recovering the New Testament text, and the value of Codex Vaticanus and Sinaiticus (of which early Christadelphians approved enthusiastically). Today many Christadelphians have no knoweldge of these scholars or their work, and are often taught the complete opposite of the truth with regard to early New Testament manuscripts such as Codex Vaticanus and Sinaiticus.

Early Christadelphians were also interested in the literatuer of the Ancient Near East (ANE), and understood its importance to Bible study. When fragments of the Gilgamesh Epic were found late in the nineteenth century, they immediately received a mention and brief discussion of their relevance to Scripture, in The Christadelphian magazine. Today many Christadelphians would have no idea of what the Gilgamesh Epic is, or why it is of value to our study of the Bible. Some would even claim we should not be paying any attention to such archaeological finds.

Early Christadelphians appealed directly to scholarship in order to substantiate their understanding of Scripture, and to defend the gospel. In 1888 brother Roberts appealed directly to scholarship to refute the claim that the Bible is riddled with contradictions.

“THE SO-CALLED DISCREPANCIES.—The Christian Age of March 21st, 1888, says:—“It is very easy for men with no claim to scholarship to say that contradictions are quite a common thing in the Bible. The late Dr. Hodge, both a scholar and a profound thinker, says on this subject, in his volume of Popular Lectures: ‘As to the discrepancies alleged to exist in certain passages between the Scriptures themselves, it is evident that the question is one of fact, which can be settled only by a thorough, learned, intelligent, and impartial investigation. Very few men are qualified to give an opinion. There is no possibility of commencing even an investigation in a popular lecture. It is sufficient for me that men like my learned colleagues in the Princeton Seminary, who spend their lives in the special study of the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures, assure me that one single (real) instance of such discrepancy has never been proved.’”[2]

Likewise, he appealed to "the scholarship of the age" to defend the Christadelphian claim that apostolic baptism was by immersion.

“BAPTISM.—That the baptism commanded by Christ, and practiced by His Apostles was the immersion of the whole body in water, is conceded by the scholarship of the age. The testimony of all of the lexicographers, and of the leading Church-historians, commentators, theologians, preachers, and writers of all the Christian centuries might be adduced in support of this position if we had space.”[3]

When discussing the issue of Bible translations, Brother Walker made the point that agreement between the AV and RV is generally a good sign that the translation is accurate, since it rests on "the considered judgment of hundreds of years of devout scholarship of different theological schools".

“In general it may be said that when the A.V. and R.V. translations agree you may pretty well rest assured that you have got the true representation of the original. You have at any rate got the considered judgment of hundreds of years of devout scholarship of different theological schools, which last condition is in itself a great safeguard.”[4]

In correspondence with a brother who questioned brother Wilfred Lambert's interpretation of a Hebrew passage, brother Sargent expressed his apprehension at the idea of an unqualified amateur challenging a professional linguist.

“Where Hebrew is concerned, bro. Lambert has qualifications which few of us possess, and it is with some trepidation that one admits a criticism of his scholarship.”[5]

Today the desire to use scholarship in our understanding of Scripture is looked on by suspicion by many Christadelphians. The idea that sources outside the Bible can help us understand what is in the Bible, is far less widely accepted than in the early years of our community. Christadelphians who wish to study the Bible deeply using the best tools available are sometimes even ridiculed, and it is claimed we should have a simplistic faith which simply does not bother with anything more than a superficial understanding of the Bible, best read from the KJV and interpreted as literally as possible. Personal study of the Bible is discouraged, in favour of simply accepting what others tell us to believe.

Ironically these attitudes are held by people who still do use and appeal to scholarship in their study of the Bible; typically seventeenth to early twentieth century legacy scholarship, such as theological, lexicographical, and historical writings by Bochart, Gesenius, Strong, Thayer, Edersheim, Bullinger, Young, and Cruden. Little or no attempt is made to check if these scholarly sources are accurate, or if they have been superseded by subsequent research.

The real issue here is not scholarship. The issue is whether or not we value God's Word enough to study it in depth, and whether or not we believe it's important to be accurate in our understanding of Scripture. There are Christadelphians who do not place value on deep Bible study, and have little interest in checking whether or not their understanding of it is accurate.

We all have a different capacity for studying the Bible at various levels, and we should never despise those who are content with a basic understanding, or have not been given a talent for sophisticated investigation of Scripture. But neither should we deride those who desire to understand the Bible more deeply, and who use the best tools they can in order to do so.

[1] Osborne & Woodward, ‘Handbook for Bible study’, pp. 13-14 (1979).

[2] Robert Roberts, “The So-Called Discrepancies”, The Christadelphian 25, no. 290 (1888): 476.

[3] Roberts, “Baptism”, The Christadelphian 32, no. 368 (1895): 49.

[4] Charles Walker, ““Modernising” Genesis”, The Christadelphian 69, no. 813 (1932): 121.

[5] Louis Sargent, correspondence, The Christadelphian 110, no. 1190 (1963): 364.