What Makes a Good Biblical Scholar?

Over on the Logos Academic Blog (theLAB) there’s been a series of interesting pieces from biblical scholars answering the question, “What makes a good biblical scholar.” I thought I’d weigh in here on the Logos Blog, too.

I cannot give a secular answer to the question of what makes a “good biblical scholar,” even though I am deeply grateful for the benefit I’ve derived from non-Christians in the field. “Good” is not a concept whose definition I’m willing to cede to our secular age. There is none good but one (Mark 10:18). So my answer to the titular question is unshakably Christian: it’s love that makes a good biblical scholar—love for God, and love for his image bearers.

Love isn’t enough to make a 1) good 2) biblical 3) scholar, but it is a necessary starting point. To deserve those three descriptions requires loving the Lord with one’s heart, soul, mind, and strength; and loving one’s neighbor as oneself.

A Good Biblical Scholar

Truly good biblical scholars will love the Lord enough to submit to his truth claims in light of the competing claims of the broader scholarly guild. Love will motivate them to do the hard work needed to be responsible and careful, because part of their job is to say to others, “Thus saith the Lord.” You try not to misrepresent those you love. Love for God will insulate good biblical scholars from certain scholarly temptations.

Good biblical scholars must also love their neighbors enough (starting with the household of faith but not ending there) to keep their scholarship tethered to the church and the world. Academic pursuits do not always have obvious connections to real-world needs, but it is the work of a neighbor-loving scholar to continually seek those connections. Likewise, not all academics are gifted at popularizing, but the best scholars humanize their work by writing as if non-specialists might actually be listening. You get the sense they actually care whether or not others understand the issues they write about.

I was struck by a comment about historian Peter Brown in a recent profile in the Daily Princetonian. The writer observed that Brown’s

empathy as a person and a scholar… colors his work to a rather distinctive degree. His profound interest in others, whether now or in the past, equips him to reconstruct social relations.

Love for neighbor is a direct benefit to one’s scholarship—in perhaps unexpected ways.

Kevin Vanhoozer has commented that the truth of the Bible is discerned only by “right readers read[ing] rightly” (207). Every scholar is a reader. A “good” biblical scholar has to be a “right reader.” It’s a dual love that makes him or her one. Love doesn’t guarantee right reading, but it is essential to it, because human goodness consists finally in love of the good.

Alan Jacobs, a Christian public intellectual who humbly disclaims that title, makes this same argument by appealing to an Augustinian voluntarist conception of will, which is in turn equivalent to Jonathan Edwards’ “affection” (and my own definition of “love”):

Fundamentally, it is the reader’s will that determines the moral form…reading takes: If the will is directed toward God and neighbor, it will in Augustinian terms exemplify caritas; if the will is directed toward the self, it will exemplify cupiditas. This terminology is of course Augustine’s version of the Pauline distinction between living spiritually and living carnally. That one can read charitably only if one’s will is guided by charity is a pretty obvious point, yet it is neglected in hermeneutical theory even more than the charitable imperative itself.

(A Theology of Reading, the Hermeneutics of Love, 31)

A Good Biblical Scholar

I personally subscribe to something close to biblicism, à la John Frame (the Bible is our ultimate authority and our only perfect, verbal authority; but the Bible itself gives us other epistemic authorities, especially through its teaching on general revelation); but I don’t care to deny the title “biblical scholar” to those who have a different worldview. Quite obviously, atheistic scholar Bart Ehrman is worthy of the title—far more than I am ever likely to be. But, naturally, I would prefer it if biblical scholars tried to be biblical. I’d like the word “biblical” to carry a normative force, not merely to delineate a research focus. Only Christ can make that happen, and one day he will: every knee will bow, and every tweed-jacketed, leather-patched elbow will bend.

Before that wonderful not-yet, while we’re stuck in the fallen already, I’d like to make what I wish were a few tautological observations: bachelors are unmarried, popes are Catholic, and truly evangelical biblical scholars are biblical. They should submit to the Bible not just in their conclusions but in their methodology.

The conventions of the biblical studies guild—from peer review to careful citation practices to the production of festschrifts—contain many goods that truly biblical scholars can make use of, and indeed must. Scholarship is one significant part of the dominion blessing God gave to all creation (Gen 1:26–28); it is therefore fundamentally good along with the rest of God’s works. Scholarship is not a creation of man; it’s a discovery. But the fall has touched all parts of scholarship: sometimes “biblical” and (the prevailing definition of) “scholar” will clash. A good biblical scholar manages to hold the two terms together even when others are skeptical that such a thing is possible.

A Good Biblical Scholar

I personally don’t think anyone deserves to be called a scholar unless he or she has “advanced the discipline,” and I have not done this. Scholars add to the store of human knowledge in their respective fields, and that fact makes “scholar” an honorific—and a title I don’t think one should bestow on oneself.

Likewise, “Doctor” is an honorific in Western society, and that’s one reason why getting a doctorate from an online degree mill is illegitimate. (Let another man praise thee and not thine own credit card.) A “doctorate” isn’t even worth much if it isn’t used—or can’t be because the training wasn’t ultimately useful. I think that’s the worst aspect of fake degrees: the people who are supposed to be served by a given “Dr” don’t get the benefit of a carefully trained teacher. You’re not loving your neighbor if you claim training you don’t possess.

Earning even a “real” PhD simply gives one a small ticket assisting that one to earn the further and more important honorific title, “scholar.” I believe in salvation by faith and scholarship by published works.

All my talk about “earning” and “working” complements my overall comments on what makes a good biblical scholar. You can love the Lord and love your neighbor in any profession, even ones that don’t require (frankly) as much life-consuming work as biblical scholarship. But scholarship of any kind requires lots and lots of reading at minimum—and certainly some writing, and likely some teaching. There are many people who teach Bible, love the Lord, love their neighbor, and are not scholars, and that’s perfectly okay.

But if you have the gifting and calling to serve the church and the academy at the same time, and you want to do it well (I speak perhaps to young people aiming this direction), I pray that you will love the Lord and your neighbor enough to work hard to be a good, biblical scholar.


Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as a writer for Faithlife. His most recent book is Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible.

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Comments

  1. Dr. Dale Buffington says:

    Mark
    a good note and response. Having been learning and teaching people to learn with caring and loving them all they learn and hear are clanging symbols (paraphrase loose).
    I have earned my MDiv from ORU in Tulsa and my DMin from The King’s University in Los Angeles, what I teach my students was those dust collectors on the wall do not make me smarter or more spiritual than the next man. But it does show that I put in a lot of time and finished my programs.
    But over those years the students always complemented me on caring about them.
    Academicians can be biblical scholars but without love it only dives us scholars something to talk about in class.
    Be Blessed
    Dr. Buff

    • Thank you for the comment, Dr. Buff. May the Lord give us grace to love those we serve. I wish I could say I have always lived up to my own words here.

  2. Duncan Nondi says:

    a good piece of advice, since I’m pursuing my MDiv and at the same pastoring a local church. At times we pursue certificates with aim of earning more respect at the neglect of love and care.
    Blessings!
    Rev. Nondi

  3. John Dennis Maher says:

    Very well thought out piece. I especially agree with your last section clarifying that which determines and authenticates the identification of one as a Biblical SCHOLAR. Thank you for your insight and succinct truthfulness.