On Valuing Scholarship

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A Testimony from the Fifth Century

Over sixteen centuries ago, Augustine was a man in search of truth. Though he was raised by a godly mother, he was influenced away from the church by false teachers and his own curiosity. As a teacher and student of rhetoric, he was so impressed by rhetorical skill that he was easily swayed by false teaching if it was communicated well. Augustine followed after various theories on the nature of truth and of God, with little regard for the truths taught by the church. It was as if he had already determined that the teachings of the church could not be reconciled with what he perceived reality to be.

But his mother continued to pray for her wayward son. Augustine’s teaching career took him from city to city, until he took up a teaching post in Rome. Here, he met a church leader of great renown: Bishop Ambrose. Such was the reputation of Bishop Ambrose, that Augustine’s own strong-willed mother willingly submitted to the bishop’s rebuke regarding how she celebrated the sacraments!

Augustine began listening to the bishop’s teaching. At first, his curiosity was mainly focused on the rhetorical skills of the church leader, and Augustine admitted that he cared little about the content of Bishop Ambrose’s teaching. However, God had also gifted the bishop with the ability to teach Scripture clearly and properly. As Augustine listened, a change of thinking began to take place:

I listened to him straightforwardly expounding the word of truth to the people every Sunday. And as I listened I became more and more convinced that it was possible to unravel all those cunning knots of calumny (slander) in which the sacred books had been entangled by tricksters who had deceived me and others. (The Confessions [New York: Vintage Books, 2019], 100)

God used the clear thinking and teaching of a scholarly man of God to appeal to the mind of Augustine.

What was happening? God was using the clear thinking and teaching of a scholarly man of God to appeal to the mind of one who would eventually have a powerful influence on the church and Bible scholars for centuries to come. Listen to the change of mind that God brought about through the teaching of His man, the bishop:

I (Augustine) came to see that in commanding that certain things must be believed without demonstration, the church was a good deal more moderate and very much less deceitful than those parties who rashly promised knowledge and derided credulity, but then went on to demand belief in a whole host of fabulous and absurd myths which certainly could not be demonstrated. (Ibid., 102)

God used Bishop Ambrose’s well-sharpened knowledge of Scripture to appeal to the mind of Augustine until, finally, Augustine came to a place of genuine faith and surrender. St. Augustine’s godly mother had prayed and agonized over her son’s waywardness, and God responded to her prayer through the Spirit-empowered scholarship of a man whose training had equipped him to be exactly what Augustine needed.

Justification for Valuing Scholarship

Ephesians 4 paints a triumphant picture of Christ ascending into heaven and giving gifts to the church: apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers. Where would we be without the writings of the apostles and prophets, who along with Christ form the foundation of our faith (Eph. 2:20)?

The evangelists quickly took the gospel to the far reaches of the Roman world, and today they continue to reach people groups who have yet to hear the gospel. Many of us have benefitted from the shepherding of a compassionate pastor. 

What about the teachers? Some may respond that, due to the sentence structure, pastors and teachers are the same people. However, while the roles do overlap, the structure does not necessitate that these two designations refer to a single group. It is better to understand this verse to be referring to two groups of people that sometimes overlap: pastors are also teachers, but there are also non-pastoring teachers whom God has gifted to the church (Thielman, Ephesians [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010], 275).

We often fail to recognize the value of the gift that Christ gave to the church when he gave us teachers.

Why is this important? It is significant because we often fail to recognize the value of the gift that Christ gave to the church when he gave us teachers. God knew that the church would be prone to misunderstanding His Word, to interpreting His teachings to fit their own agendas, to becoming entrenched in wrong thinking that inhibited their spiritual development. Christ foresaw this, and thus He gave the gift of teachers to the church.

In John Wesley’s sermon, “An Address to the Clergy,” he stresses the importance of pastors who are equipped to properly understand the precise meaning of the Scriptures. What a tremendous responsibility pastors have to lead in their churches into the unity of the faith and knowledge of the Son of God (Eph. 4:13)! What a tremendous challenge we have to avoid the shame of improperly dividing the Word of Truth (2 Tim. 2:15)! How much then should we value those who have dedicated their lives to gaining an exceptional level of competence in understanding God’s Word deeply? How much should we look to benefit from their skill in the art and science of biblical hermeneutics, their knowledge of historical interpretation, and their comprehension of the original biblical languages? God gave us treasures when He gave us people with the capacity to be highly qualified teachers, and it is imperative that we value them as the gifts that they are.

Why This Must Be Said

We live in a culture where scholarship is downplayed or even outrightly mocked. One cannot browse social media for long without being reminded again of the existence of the “educated idiot.” Why would we disparage the educated, if not because our pride is hurt when someone else’s opinion is esteemed more highly than ours?

We live in a culture where scholarship is downplayed or even outrightly mocked.

In our society, everyone has a voice. We can self-publish a book, start a blog, or send out our opinions for the masses to read on social media. No longer do we need to earn our voice through relevant experience, demonstrated wisdom, or hard-earned educational accomplishments. If we think something, we have the ability to disseminate our thoughts to the masses, and this fosters the thinking that all opinions are equal. 

But all opinions are not equal. The value of one’s opinion is not determined by the number of “likes” their comment gets. The opinion of one who has spent hundreds of hours mastering the biblical languages, read dozens of books on a topic, and perhaps even published articles on the subject is far more valuable than that of the novice who just encountered the idea that morning. Our culture does not understand this, and as a result, we are suffering the same fate as the one in Proverbs 5 who ignored his teachers: left to our own opinions, we reject wisdom and embrace ruin. All around us are broken people who, judging themselves to be wise, have rejected the paths of true wisdom and followed the path of destruction. They did not listen to the teaching of their “Bishop Ambrose,” because, in their thinking, one opinion is just as valid as the next. 

How Do We Value Scholarship?

We need our scholars. Surely we do not deny God’s ability to use the uneducated. But God’s normal pattern is to use the rightly-divided truth of His Word to reprove, correct, and train in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16), and the precise wielding of the double-edged sword (Heb. 4:12) is best learned from those whom God has gifted and prepared for that purpose. Therefore, we must ask this question: how do we demonstrate a proper valuing of scholarship? Here are a few principles that can help us to gain maximum benefit from the teachers God has given to us.

1. Use Them in Our Churches

There is often a difference in the presentation of those who primarily teach and those who primarily preach. A teacher is often more material-driven, which may cause them to be less exciting. Perhaps they are less popular evangelists. However, the value of an evangelist is not measured in the number of tears shed during their closing illustration, but in the precision and effectiveness with which they bring God’s Word into confrontation with our lives. Does the Spirit use this person to communicate His truth in a way that is effective for life-change?

In many cases, a church would be more revived by a week of biblical instruction than by traditional revival services. There is nothing more powerful than a sermon that masterfully explains and applies the message that Scripture conveys. Sadly, some preachers rely more on the eloquence of their words than the power of the message (see Paul’s words in 1 Cor. 2:1). This is not to disparage any style of preaching, but rather to demonstrate the high value that our professors and teachers can bring to our pulpits. Whether through a week of special services or through a month of weekly online instruction, we must be sure our teachers’ schedules are as full of speaking engagements as they wish them to be.

2. Be Slow to Dismiss their Teaching

Clearly we can’t expect to embrace every word that comes out of the mouth of an educated person. Like the Bereans, we must study the Scriptures to test whether our teachers are presenting sound doctrine (Acts 17:11). However, we should be slow to dismiss what they are teaching. If they have put in the work to acquire tools we don’t have and have earned the respect of the church for their faithful and reverential handling of God’s Word, they have earned the consideration of being heard and even the opportunity to justify their conclusions and explain their meaning. We should not simply reject any teaching that differs from what we have always thought. 

Our most effective teachers are not just theological echo chambers. They are the ones God has called to evaluate our understandings of Scripture and recommend adjustments where necessary. With all the variations of doctrine in churches throughout the world, surely we wouldn’t think that our childhood pastor or Sunday school teacher was impeccable on every point. Even if the teaching of our scholars challenges something we’ve long held to be true, we demonstrate a proper value of their scholarship by giving sufficient consideration to what they teach.

3. Create an Atmosphere Where Biblical Truth Can Be Taught without Fear of Reprisal

The tendency, if a teacher calls us to reconsider a long-held opinion on God’s Word, is to assume that they have abandoned the old paths. Perhaps they have bought into another opposing theological position, and the only way to protect our long-held beliefs from their errors is to mute their voice. They are assigned a label, their platform is reduced or removed, and we are free to continue understanding everything as we always have.

Why would we want our best minds to only be expressed behind closed doors?

Unless a teacher is straying from the core doctrines of the church or demonstrating a disregard for the authority of God’s Word, sanctioning them is the worst thing we can do! Why would we want our best minds to only be expressed behind closed doors? Why would we want insights into God’s Word to be silenced? To strong-arm our scholars into only teaching what is precisely in accordance with what we already think is to stop ourselves from ever experiencing growth. That fear of reprisal creates an impossible basis for the honest study of God’s Word, as we have already predetermined what God’s Word is allowed to teach on any given subject. We must reject any attempt to mute the voices of those who lead the way in expressing the biblical understandings of our movement.

4. Support Their Work and Development

There are scholars in our movement who need to be widely published. Yet, since none of our Bible colleges have research professors, we are not seeing commentaries and books published that reflect our conservative, Wesleyan understanding of the Bible. Many of the newest, best-researched commentaries are largely from other theological perspectives, and are not the potentially best places for us to go to know how to helpfully articulate what we believe to be the accurate teaching of Scripture. The scholarly books being published in our circles are few and far between and were probably written very early in the morning before a full schedule of classes was taught.

Imagine if we cared enough about accessing conservative Wesleyan scholarship that we funded grants to allow our best teachers to take a year off from teaching to write.

Imagine if we cared enough about accessing conservative Wesleyan scholarship that we funded grants to allow our best teachers to take a year off from teaching to write. Imagine a robust library, filled with well-researched, convincingly-presented arguments for our doctrinal distinctives. Imagine the next generations being able to benefit from the excellent teaching that we enjoy, as they stand on the shoulders of the published scholars of our generation to ground and advance their understanding of God’s Word. That is possible! We have the people to accomplish that. If we value our scholarship, we will support their work and development.

Conclusion

Between our Bible college professors and our well-studied pastors, God has gifted our movement with excellent teachers. In contrast to the trends of our culture, we must highly value the expertise and giftings they offer. As we receive their instruction with eagerness and discretion, God will continue to equip us to avoid errors and to bring us into the unity of the faith and Christian maturity (Eph. 4:13-14).