Isaac Soon on “What Makes a good Biblical Scholar or Theologian?”

As a junior scholar, I don’t consider myself either a good Bible scholar or theologian (yet!) so I can only offer my own expectations based on my encounters with others. I’ve organized these into six key areas:

Awareness and Admission of Bias and Social Location

As an undergraduate I happened upon N. Clayton Croy’s Prima Scriptura and in it one of the first things he suggests exegetes do is write out a paragraph detailing their upbringing, gender, race, ethnicity, economic status and other elements of social location (I would also add sexual orientation and bodily ability). I think this is really wise and as the recent work of David Horrell has shown we all know that we approach material with biases yet we seem blithely unaware of how they may be specifically affecting our interpretations. Being very aware of our own experiential and embodied differences means that we can “supplement” our blind spots.

It also means that we take seriously perspectives that are different than our own. For example, I listen very carefully to female and Jewish interpreters as I am male and come from a Protestant tradition. Being aware of my own perspectival limitations, I listen closely knowing that I don’t hold a monopoly on truth. Explicit awareness of our biases brings much needed humility to scholarship.

Willingness to Change their Minds

Good scholars are also willing to admit when they don’t know something or when they’re wrong. I’m always impressed by scholars who change their views based on incoming critique and new evidence, even to the point that revised versions of their published work are completely altered. I’m suspicious of scholars or theologians whose views never change. One wonders if they are taking new evidence seriously or just dogmatically (and perhaps apologetically) defending their own unique position.

Primary Texts and Foreground Literature

It has been mentioned that good scholars know the data, and it is true that nothing can replace knowledge of the primary texts. Breadth and depth are vital. At the same time, however, the approach to the primary texts is just as important as the texts themselves. Thinking about literature outside the Bible as ‘background literature’ already reveals a predisposition that supposes a hermeneutical hierarchy and affects interpretation. These “background texts” are to be mined for information in order to expound upon the Bible.

Alternatively, I think great scholars read sympathetically in order to understand para-canonical texts (texts around the canon) on their own terms first before bringing them into dialogue with the Bible. Why does this matter? It comes down to appropriation. The tendency is to hijack other materials. But, reading texts solely in order to mine them for information is a destructive task, one that undermines and distorts our understanding of extra-canonical texts. Reading with our sources, however, fundamentally changes the way we view the “background” material, making for deeper engagement of the sources themselves as well as the light they shed on our biblical subject matter. Our sources outside the Bible are not just a means to an end but an appropriate end in themselves.

Generalisation over Specialisation

For those who have done or are undergoing theological study, the formation of bible scholars or theologians is through specialisation. While this is necessary especially for doctoral work, great scholars find ways of gaining competence across sub-disciplines and even fields. When I was at Oxford I was told that if your first book was on Paul, your second should be on the Gospels (or the Catholic epistles, etc.). This kind of generalisation is necessary, not only for jobs (which are few and far between), but also for the quality of scholarship in one’s own given area of expertise. I’m not emphasising a return to a golden age of pre-specialisation where scholars were both theologians and bible scholars. Those scholars had a lot less literature and method to grapple with than we have today. There’s no winding back the clock. Good scholars should be able to navigate multiple different disciplines. The more limited your knowledge outside of your discipline, the more limited your contribution.

Good Writing and Accessible Language

A well-worn style is a must for scholars working in academic or popular settings. I once heard Alistair McGrath say, “Monographs get you jobs, but popular books get you noticed.” Unfortunately for most scholars, we become very good at writing for an academic audience, but very inexperienced when writing to non-academic non-specialists. The lifeblood of biblical scholarship and theology is engagement by the wider public in our disciplines. If they can’t engage us because they don’t understand us then we’re really just monologuing in an echo chamber.

This point was driven home to me a while ago when I asked a friend who had no theological study what they thought about a book aimed at a popular level audience by a well-known Bible scholar. My friend said he couldn’t even make it through as he found it difficult to understand and heavy. I was shocked, since I thought that it was clear and relatively “simple.” But, it’s true that scholars and theologians speak a different vernacular than every day Christians.

I read an interview by a frustrated scholar who said something akin to “it is the Pastor’s job to reach up to academic language, not for us to dumb it down.” Such a position is mistaken. Being a biblical scholar and theologian is about service beyond academia. Neither should we always have to rely on pastoral leadership who may only have had a limited amount of time in theological training. We shouldn’t expect them to all be “academic translators,” making clear and simple the complexities of our highbrow discussions, whilst also having to be experts in family, marriage, sex, finance, politics, morality, and so on. Few great biblical scholars/theologians are able to engage on a language level that everyday believers can connect with. It’s something we all need to get better at doing.

Partners and Parents First

When I open up a new monograph I often turn first to the Acknowledgements page in order to get a sense of the author and his/her social location. For many PhD theses-turned-monographs the last paragraph is frequently dedicated to a spouse and children. The challenge of finishing a PhD with a family is always evident, though sometimes you can tell in the language used that it has taken a harder toll on a family.

I read one acknowledgement recently that disturbed me even though I understood what was meant. This author had thanked his wife for “releasing him from parenting” so he could do scholarship. I don’t think a good bible scholar ever “hangs up” her or his familial relationships even temporarily. We are spouses and parents before we are scholars. What’s the point of gaining academia if I lose my soul? It sounds harsh but I think if I’m willing to compromise on those I’ve committed to like my spouse and children then I suspect I’m also willing to compromise on my scholarship as well. I think there is a correlation. At the end of my life, if people remember me as a good scholar but a terrible father then I think I’ve failed.

Isaac Soon is a PhD Candidate at Durham University in England.


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Written by
Tavis Bohlinger

Dr. Tavis Bohlinger is Editor-in-Chief of the Logos Academic Blog and Creative Director at Reformation Heritage Books. He holds a PhD from Durham University and writes across multiple genres, including academia, poetry, and screenwriting. He lives in Grand Rapids with his wife and three children.

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11 comments
  • NIce article Isaac, I liked the way you organized your thoughts / observations.

    Have you done any publishing yet? I did not find any books by you neither in Logos nor F.e.b.

    What areas of theology, biblical studies, practical matters interest you?

    Hope you keep the systematized approach in your publishing deliverables.

    • Dear Hamilton,

      Thanks for your thoughts. I haven’t published anything major like a monograph yet as I’m still a PhD student. I’m pretty much interested in anything and everything in the fields you’ve mentioned, but most especially connection theology and biblical studies with practical matters (especially art, ethics, and leadership development).

      Warmly,

      Isaac

  • Seems a little preachy. For what it’s worth, someone who writes,

    “I read one acknowledgement recently that disturbed me even though I understood what was meant. This author had thanked his wife for “releasing him from parenting” so he could do scholarship,”

    and then launches into something he knows the author didn’t intend . . . well, that scares me even more. If you’ll do it with an acknowledgement page, you might do it with your Bible.

    • Dear John,

      Thanks for taking the time to read the blog and give some responses. The post is certainly preachy as I am evangelistic about what I think what makes a good scholar (especially since most of what I’ve said here is just stuff that I’ve received from other senior scholars I’ve worked with, but who don’t necessarily get an opportunity to share or express their thoughts online).

      As far as the authorial intention of the acknowledgement you suggest I’ve proof-texted, I think we may have differing views on the significance of intentionality and whether or not such a thing is attainable. From my perspective I don’t know what the author did or did not intend. What I hope they meant was that they are grateful for their spouse for allowing the time to study. But, the words we use matter and so if I were to take this person at what they said (“releasing him from parenting”), this suggests more than just the opportunity to study but the abdication of parental responsibility. Whether or not this is what the author intended or not, the words themselves suggest a worldview or trajectory I object to (as I’ve done in the post above).

      Warmly,

      Isaac

      • Isaac,

        People tend to think that they have exclusive truth. They’re right, and anyone in opposition is wrong.

        First and foremost, that is wrong. None of us are 100% right on everything. No matter how strong our delusions are.
        Secondly, nobody likes a Know it All. Usually, know-it-alls are wrong more times than not. Going back to the first point, regardless how much we like to think we are right on everything, we’re not, and pretending to be, just shuts down any discussion, any opportunity to learn and to grow. And worse: we lose credibility in our witness, and our God.
        Third, since I do not know everything, it is stupid for me to act stupid when someone else is wrong on a particular issue. God knows everything. God accepts me, even though I am wrong (probably more than I care to admit, or know). Now, if God knows all truth, and he accepts me, when I am wrong, how can I not be just as gracious as God is to me?

        My theology professor is very humble; teaches his students to be very humble, in particular, when approaching Scripture. He pictures Scripture as us going on a journey, but rather than just travelling across the planet, we are also travelling through time, meeting a people who do not speak 21st century English, who do not know the things we know, they understand the world completely different than we do. They do not understand the world as a ball hanging space, for example. They did not have the Bible, or those who had some, did not have it all, as we do, and they certainly did not have it bound in several hundred to thousand pages, and certainly did not have Logos.

        Obviously, we THINK we are right in our positions. For most situations, people tend to not believe something they know to be wrong (backlash from family, friends, would be one good example as to why people might say they believe something they know to be untrue). So, being open to listen to other points of view is wise. And I do believe that your article is wisely written, and hits the core issues.

        And, for the record, you are correct. I do believe, in what you say about scholarly duties vs. familial obligations. And a lot more gracious to John, than I would be.

    • John

      I think you are being a bit critical. Isaac made a very valid point. Studying is important, but, not to the point of defaulting on one’s other obligations and commitments. The fact Isaac was demonstrating the humility in which he spoke, I found to give him credibility. Rather than criticize the author, he expressed his disagreement, but, acknowledged his understanding of the statement.

      He was extremely appropriate and even though it may not have intention, or even realized he did so, Isaac actually showed humility in an area where he disagreed; and in response to your “preachy” response.

      • What I meant to say is this post was well-written and really touched on something that the church needs to hear today. Family is important. And it never comes second to our studies. Isaac, kudos to you. Thanks for this helpful reminder. I wish you the best in your academic pursuits. I’m sure you’ll make a huge impact.

  • Thanks for your answer.

    I think it would be great for someone like you to help bridge the gap between systematic theology and orthopraxis in Christian living for the regular sheep.

    http://thirdmill.org/seminary/lesson.asp/vs/BST/ln/1

    If sheep attempted to think through their accepted beliefs, and check them in light of Scripture, I think they would be able to evaluate doctrine better to see if it is so as per the Scriptures.

    https://ebooks.faithlife.com/products/167643/renewal-theology-systematic-theology-from-a-charismatic-perspective

    The above resource has a chapter on Christian living which I think is a nice addition to systematics.

    https://community.logos.com/forums/p/176030/1016632.aspx#1016632

    L8 has attempted to help in the build own systematic theology project as shown above.

    https://community.logos.com/forums/p/174070/1015582.aspx#1015582

    1015339.aspx

    In my post answering Francis I list some of the areas that I think could be included in christian living, there are others.

    Hope to inspire you to create awesome resources to edify the regular sheep.

    Kind regards.

  • Great post! For the record, I didn’t feel like your tone was too “preachy”. Thanks for sharing with us.

  • Thank you. You have invited us into your thinking processes and work motivations both fulsomely and helpfully.
    Usually, these reflections have been so brief as to be nearly useless – in this case, you have rewarded us with your time and some extended reflection.
    Every blessing in your studies and future ministries.

Written by Tavis Bohlinger
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