Depending on Others and Understanding

I frequently encounter people who are afraid of depending on scholars for their knowledge of the Bible. I understand this fear. One thing that got me into studying biblical languages was the desire to know for myself, without having someone else translate.

But when I had learned the languages, I found that one had to depend, to some extent, on textual critics for the text. When I studied textual criticism (not to the extent of becoming an expert), I found that textual critics depend on people who preserve and transcribe manuscripts in many cases. It’s not possible for the individual student of the text to examine the original manuscript for every variant, though imaging is making this somewhat easier.

But in studying the language itself, the individual student is somewhat dependent on lexicographers, on those who have researched the history of the languages and relationships between various texts, on historians, and on and on. You just can’t get away from depending on someone else’s work.

Nonetheless, I still urge people to study for themselves, and not just accept the word of others about what a text or passage means.

The issue here is just where one places scholars and other sources in the process of study and in deciding what one believes.

In study groups, I’ll often ask someone: “What do you think this passage means?” Frequently, the person looks at the notes in their study Bible and reads that as the meaning. One lady took me aside and said that she was concerned. When she read the notes in her study Bible they didn’t make sense. She didn’t think the passage meant what the note said.

I said, “How can you be sure the note is right? Maybe you are right.” Then I suggested looking at notes from other study Bibles or from commentaries to compare. They might not agree, but they would give her ideas of how people had developed their understanding. This comparison of ideas would help her develop her own view and look at the logic behind it.

In another group I was asked to follow a particular book on Revelation in teaching the class, because the author of the book indicated that Revelation was really not that hard to understand and he had made the contents simple. He knew the key, so to speak. I had to tell them that I disagreed with the author of the suggested book at the most fundamental level, meaning that I disagreed with almost every conclusion in the book. Those conclusions I might agree with were accidental, as I came to my conclusions via different logic. But further, I had a shelf full of books on Revelation, most of which claim to have figured out the interpretation, and no two of which agreed. (I wrote a study guide to Revelation, for what it’s worth, but I don’t answer even a tiny fraction of the questions you’re likely to have. I probably just ask more!)

My point here is that while you are dependent on scholars and other Bible students, there are useful and profitable ways of using their work, while there are also unprofitable ways. It is unprofitable to simply accept the conclusions that someone comes to about scripture, and then say that it must be so because that person is an expert. No matter what the topic, you will likely find an expert who disagrees. That’s why scholars do so much footnoting when they write for one another. Scholars check each other’s work.

There are several ways you can use the work of others that will be profitable:

1) Check multiple sources from multiple perspectives. Many people use only study Bibles, commentaries, handbooks, and study guides written from their own (or their church’s) theological perspectives. Branch out. Sometimes the logic will become clearer when you see how two (or more) different views are derived.

2) Check recognized experts on topics for which you lack background. For example, if you know Greek and can look up sources in the literature, you can double check the work of lexicographers yourself. If you don’t know Greek, you’re going to be better off using standard lexical definitions (or people who do). Does this limit you? Yes, it does. I have come to the conclusion before, based on my own study, that the definitions in a lexicon were not adequate. But just because I came to that conclusion doesn’t make it so. If you can’t check my work, you should treat it with caution.

3) Check conclusions by comparing them with other expert opinions. Don’t go straight to the conclusion. Look for the logic. Various study Bibles will confidently assert widely varying dates for a book of the Bible, but how did the writers of the notes come to those conclusions? If you only use one study Bible you will not realize how the process works.

4) Check your own conclusions and thoughts by sharing them. Share both with peers and with those who may be able to correct you, such as pastors or teachers in the church. Listen to what they say in response. Sharing is a form of accountability. If you cannot make your view sound compelling to someone else, re-examine it carefully.

You are dependent on experts, but you can make that an asset, rather than a liability, by making expert use of your experts!

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