What Makes Someone A Bible “Scholar?”


Since Martin Luther and the printing press thrust the Bible into the hands of every Christian, it has become increasingly difficult to recognize a Bible scholar. Scholarship is not the only important way of understanding the Bible; hearing the Word preached in the worship of the assembly is the most important and preaching is only rarely scholarship. But there are times when the issues raised by the Bible are too important or too complicated to not pay attention to scholarly opinion.

Lots of folks read the Bible regularly, even memorizing large portions of it. But having the Bible memorized and being able to quote verses about a given topic does not a scholar make. So what is scholarship? How do I recognize a good scholarly opinion on a topic?

I’ve always thought of three components that are required. First, scholarship always requires engagement with what has come before. That is, if you are to express your idea/interpretation/etc, then you only can do so in reference to what others have said before you. Sometimes you work to refute them. Sometimes you confirm their work. But you always engage it and are aware of what has been said.

Second, scholarship is made available for criticism. To publish an idea (internet, journal, book, etc) is to submit it to the community of scholars for criticism. In this sense, preaching is not scholarship. No one is able to critique what is done (angry e-mails on Sunday afternoon aside). A scholar makes their work available to others and responds to criticism. If you aren’t willing to honestly do so (deal with what critics say, and not just dismiss it), then you are not yet a scholar. Scholars will also be critiqued by those who are not scholars. I would suggest that a good scholar will be just as capable of answering critiques and responding to those that are not scholars.

Third, scholarship requires “evidence.” In the humanities (theology, philosophy, history, etc) our arguments are (almost?) always inductive ones. That means that a point will never be “proven,” if what we mean by that is the certainty of a deductive argument (If A then B). Rather, inductive arguments are either good or bad arguments. Some rest on better support and evidence than others. Some make better sense of all of the relevant evidence than others.

What counts as evidence and what is a good argument is usually discipline specific…it follows the rules of scholarship. This is the most self-referential/circular part of it. Only those who are trained as scholars are usually able to discern what is good and bad evidence in a particular case. But in my opinion, usually it is a matter of “common sense”. By that I mean, if a non-scholar understands an argument (sometimes they are encoded in jargon that must be explained) then the reasonableness of the argument should normally be apparent without some “special” reasoning. I’m sure that there are cases where this is not true, but I think this would be “generally” reliable.

What does this look like practically? It means reading… a lot. I once estimated that I have read somewhere in the neighborhood of 100,000 pages of theology since I started grad school. It is an estimate, but that is roughly equivalent to 300-400 books in theology and I am very new scholar. Good scholars know what lots of people have said about a topic.

It also means “arguing” a lot. I don’t mean fighting with people. I mean hashing out ideas with people, many of whom disagree with you, until you learn how to make a case well and anticipate deficiencies in an argument. Though it does not replace face-to-face discussion, I’ve found that Web 2.0 sites are really good at honing argumentation skills…as long as you can avoid the uncivil ways that these sometimes go.

I don’t believe every Christian or every pastor is called to be a scholar. I do believe that both scholars and pastors (and others!) tend to pretend that the work of the other is less important. St. Paul has some wisdom for us on that: “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!'”

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  1. says

    Excellent explanation for those who wonder if they are qualified enough to count themselves as Bible scholars… in fact, anyone can be a scholar if they are willing to put the work in, as you have made abundantly clear. Thanks so much Jeremiah.

  2. John Meunier says

    Thanks for this, Jeremiah. As a student who does not aspire to be a true scholar, what I find frustrating is professors who do not act like scholars when they teach. What do I mean by that? They do not engage with other scholars and the historical big ideas but instead use the lecture and reading as a way to drive home their conclusions.

    What I desire as a student is to get a sense of the range of scholarly opinion and debate — including over time. What I often get is a “Thus saith the Lord.”

    I don’t know if this is because MDiv students are considered too dense to appreciate scholarship or the professors are too interested in advancing their own agenda. Or something else.

    • says

      I think I understand the phenomenon that you are talking about John. Sometimes I wonder if this isn’t in part because faculty members understand teaching and scholarship to be very different things.

      I also remember serving as a TA and marking a student paper down for that argument not attending to good scholarship. That student went to the faculty member with the argument that “I’m not training to be a scholar. I’m training to be a pastor.” I responded by suggesting that his congregation will know when his preaching is not supported by a good argument. (The professor agreed with me.)

      I’m not sure why both students and faculty have such a tendency to oversimplify. Maybe it is just easier.

      Final thought: I think you are right that faculty members are often more interested in increasing their tribe than they are teaching students how to become scholars. I also suspect that you are more sensitive to this given the area about which you are a scholar.

  3. says

    This is a helpful clarification Jeremiah, as the label “scholar” can sometimes feel like a trump in an argument. Not all scholars are created equal!
    Question…how do the “scholar” and “practitioner” labels interrelate for you?

  4. Shawn says

    I have one basic concern about all I have read here, which leaves me with a question. Where lies the definitive answer to every question about the will of God and the way in which we are to apply the word of God to our lives?
    For my part, I read and I believe. Then, I study to further my understanding.
    To what extent do you feel that the various ages and locales, and the beliefs of those who penned the Bible (and their contemporaries), are responsible for its content? In what way(s) are Christians of today obliged to be bound/guided by the full and exact precepts of the Bible?
    I confess myself not a scholar (of the Bible or anything else), but I constantly seek wisdom and new understanding. It is MHO that the quest for wisdom and understanding is of far greater importance than scholasticism. This is why I visited this site.

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