What Is True Scholarship?

Is the following true scholarship? Or is true scholarship something else?

And Jesus said unto the theologians: “Who do you say that I am?”

They replied: “You are the eschatological manifestation of the ground of our being, the ontological foundation of the context of our very selfhood revealed.”

And Jesus answered them, saying: “Huh?”

I have huge problems with the idea that scholarship is simply a huge vocabulary. Nowadays, someone can some up with something that sounds scholarly simply by using a digital thesaurus. In this post, I want to challenge specifically the idea that true scholarship consists in writing for other scholars. It simply does not consist in that. What is merely the outside packaging of something does not constitute what is inside.

True scholarship, in my opinion, consists of mastery of the material. It consists of a specific kind of mastery, as well. It means that a true scholar can explain his field in such a way that a middle-schooler can understand it. That has to be a fairly complete mastery. There has to be understanding of the concepts, not just of the words. In the quotation above, for instance, there is a sentence where the words are so obscure that the meaning is not obvious. If there is any meaning in the sentence, it has been hidden by the difficult words.

However, there is an opposite extreme, as well. There can be a reaction against false scholarship which is equally problematic. The problem then is that people can think that there can be no true scholarship at all. And, as a result, in the interests of making people understand, the content is dumbed-down. There can be a pride in simplicity for simplicity’s sake. It manifests itself when people say “Well, I’m not going to give a lecture now, I’m going to give something that people can understand.” Now, that kind of thinking does not always result in this dumbing down. However, it often can.

To apply this to pastors, I believe that the best route to go here is to have a mastery of the content. One can also say it this way: that a pastor ought to be completely mastered by his content. He ought to be mastered so completely by the deep things of the Gospel, that he can make anyone understand it. He ought to be able to use simple words to describe difficult concepts. Of course I am not saying that the Gospel is inherently difficult to understand. However, as Peter says, there are some things in Paul that are difficult to understand (it’s a good thing that understatement is not a crime!). These difficult things are still valuable for the sheep to learn. If they are to learn them, then we need to be able to explain difficult things in a way that is easy to understand.

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10 Comments

  1. December 16, 2009 at 2:44 pm

    You’ve done a good job of pointing out the difference between “simple” and “simplistic.” There are those who understand their material well enough that they can make the complex aspects of it “simple,” or at least, comprehensible. Then there are those who deny that anything in God’s Word is complex, and then, as you put it, dumb it down, thereby distorting the truth in the name of a false “simplicity.”

  2. Reed Here said,

    December 16, 2009 at 5:03 pm

    Master the content, let the content master you, seek the Master to master you, and just maybe you can approach a level of clarity and simplicity that effectively presents the profound, serving steak that is butter-soft to the palate.

    Good post Lane.

  3. Dean B said,

    December 17, 2009 at 10:47 am

    Pastor Keister

    BOQ I believe that the best route to go here is to have a mastery of the content. One can also say it this way: that a pastor ought to be completely mastered by his content. EOQ

    I agree with this statement completely, but would simply add one additional thought. Complete mastery can only be achieved when one has seriously engaged the opposing viewpoint fairly without creating a straw man of your opponent.

    This reminds of an excellent article by Carl Trueman I read a couple years ago entitled “Why and How I teach Heresy”. http://www.reformation21.org/counterpoints/carl-truemanwhy-and-how-i.php

    Additionally, in most Bible Studies I have attended many leaders merely facilitate discussion. The best way to fill up an hour discussion it to ask people there opinion on a particular subject. Under these circumstances the participants merely walk away with more questions in their head than when they arrived nothing has been accomplished and no real teaching occurred.

    I am not suggesting teachers/elders/pastors become dogmatic on every topic but they should have at least mastered the subject enough to have an informed opinion on most subjects so they can refute most if not all objections in a bible study. On matters of indifference the leader should be humble enough to be able to have members walk away from the meeting who still disagree. This implies that the attendees should be informed enough to identify subject that are matters of indifference. Conversely, the leader should have the strength of character and conviction to teach the sheep what is right and wrong on a issues where it is not a matter of indifference. This also means the leader should be know what subject matters are actually matters of indifference.

    Because I am confessional I believe those distinctions are quite clear.

    Dean B.

  4. Paige Britton said,

    December 17, 2009 at 1:52 pm

    Great job, Lane.
    I guess “mastery” is a relative term nowadays, given the proliferation of commentaries! There has to be a moment when one says, “I’ve researched enough — time to make the sermon/article/lesson!” — though twenty thoughtful scholars/relevant parallel passages go unread. This is why I love a good commentary from someone like Doug Moo or D. A. Carson (or many others), whom I can trust to have done a lot of sifting of information for me in the first place. I can then sift further, making myself aware of the main streams of thought, but choosing to present only what is relevant to my audience when I write or teach. I love to dig as far as I can, though, for the sake of those who are intrigued enough to ask the deeper questions.

  5. December 21, 2009 at 4:52 am

    [...] an emphasis on actual bible teaching.  Green Baggins addresses this issue briefly in defining what exactly is true scholarship, in the biblical [...]

  6. Reformed Sinner said,

    December 21, 2009 at 1:10 pm

    I always tell my seminary students that you have learned well if and only if you have:

    1) Be truly humbled by the content taught, and have a heart to serve and give to the Church and the people around you.

    2) Be able to explain it to little children.

    But Lane puts it so much better…. :)

  7. December 21, 2009 at 7:14 pm

    This is one of the reasons that I respect R.C. Sproul, Sr., so much. He can explain complex theological concepts so clearly for both academics and laymen alike. His commentaries on the Westminster Confession are a great example. D. James Kennedy had the same gift.

    I taught a space science course to third graders many years ago, during which they actually built model rockets and launched them. It challenged every bit of my subject expertise to be able to explain the concepts to the young children so that they truly got the idea. It was an extremely challenging and rewarding experience.

  8. Confed said,

    December 21, 2009 at 9:27 pm

    True scholarship is using the free press to convey the moral-producing doctrine of the gospel to all the world,especially the powers that be which seek to stamp out the vestiges of our faith, with fearless biblical conviction, exegetical rigor, and boa-constrictor logic.

    I know, the snake reference really killed the solemnity and eloquence.

  9. December 25, 2009 at 10:18 pm

    [...] I’ve had this hanging around for longer than a week, but Lane Keister at Green Baggins asks ‘What Is True Scholarship?’ and proposes that pastors will demonstrate the extent of their academic knowledge of the Scriptures [...]

  10. Durell Flood said,

    December 29, 2009 at 5:23 pm

    “It means that a true scholar can explain his field in such a way that a middle-schooler can understand it”
    -Why this particular age? Am curious not being cynical or skeptical.

    -It is also good for the laity to be willing to ask what something means. A 3 or 4 year old has the wisdom to ask when they don’t know what something means.

    -Wouldn’t it be also in accord with scholarship to know what to say, when to say it, and to whom to say it? Meat to adults, milk to babes type of thing. And determining when someone is not ready for something?


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