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.