Let me begin with a true story, though it is a couple of years old at this point: I had been reading the blog of a scholar in a Biblical studies program for roughly two years before I saw a comment that tipped me off that the man was, in fact, a Christian. Until then, despite reading each post on his blog, I couldn't tell whether he believed in God, or had any identification with Christ, by anything he had written on the topic of God or the Bible. I'd actually had the general impression that he was a non-Christian (after all, there are non-Christians who do Biblical studies) because of the way he talked about Christians. Apparently I was wrong ...
What happens when an average Christian reads modern theologians? Whether reading their blogs or their books, it is easy to pick up a sense that they are puzzled why average people do not follow their scholarship more closely. They seem disappointed in the lack of interest. They often assume that people are uninterested in the things of God, or in the things of the mind.
But consider the example of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He is reckoned among the great theologians of the last century. In his most enduring work, he took the Bible seriously and based his agenda for study directly on Jesus' words. His scholarship was an act of study and wisdom; it was also an act of discipleship. For that reason it has been meaningful to generations of disciples.
I suspect that, for every Christian who is actually disinterested in academic theology, there are probably two or three who are interested (or would be), but are themselves disappointed in the academics. Here are some of the reasons why:
- For not standing their ground, and for leaving the sheep defenseless - for fiddling around, if they'll pardon the pun, while Rome burns, and Constantinople, Wittenberg, Vienna, Canterbury, and the rest. Christianity is openly under attack in several quarters and notably within the academy. The person in the neighborhood church can observe that the academic theologians rarely take sides and, when they do, they frequently take the wrong one.
- For writing more about what Barth meant than what Jesus meant;
- For following the times instead of following Jesus;
- For supposedly devoting their lives to teaching one Lord and one book, and making no visible effort to follow the one or approach the other as a student with something yet to learn -- for focusing on side points about their own agendas rather than the authors' points about faith, hope, and love, or trying to understand what Jesus was trying to tell us about the kingdom of heaven, or how best to proclaim it or engage the world with its blessing.
- For pursuing their job as if detached from the great commission, as if detached from discipleship.
I once mentioned that it was a little disingenuous for the atheists in the Biblical studies departments to devote their lives to writing about a book that they have no intention of ever taking seriously. Yet it is a rare theologian whose earnestness about pursuing God's love and wisdom is visibly better than the atheists. The Bible is not a palette from which to dabble in colors to paint a picture of academic cleverness; it is not a means to impress people with scholarly acumen. There is not a scholar alive who can seriously expect to improve on the original material. The best of the Bible scholars realize that the Bible will far outlast them, and their most enduring works will be humble and devoted to the same goal of spreading hope, blessing, and good news, unashamed of the name of Jesus.