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Should Pastors Learn Textual Criticism?

I’ve been watching one discussion and participating in another that converge in this post.

The first discussion is via blogs, David Alan Black (extracted to The Jesus Paradigm for a permanent link) and Thomas Hudgins both posting significant numbers of entries recently regarding textual criticism. The second is one I’ve had personally, and it regards the ways in which people lose their faith.

Let’s look at the second first. It’s hard to find a mainline Christian community where the discussion of how and why people are dropping out of church and/or losing their faith. There are many groups and ideas that get the blame. Some blame liberal university and seminary professors. The idea here is that being told about these ideas by people with some academic authority drives people out of the church. Often the proposed solution is to pull back from advanced education, lest one be led astray by the notions of the excessively educated.

On the other side, the blame often is placed on excessively conservative church leaders and parents. Many believe that those who have been pushed into too narrow of a mold will tend to break out when they get the opportunity, or the first time they have a chance, for that matter. The solution suggested is usually that we loosen up and be more open about questioning and re-examining our doctrinal beliefs so that young people don’t feel excessively constrained. In addition, they can come up with different answers in many cases and still remain in the community.

I haven’t done any scientific studies, and I have some doubts about those studies I have seen (question design is interesting, and helps drive results), but my observation is that both of the scenarios I have mentioned are possible, as are many others. The stories of faith, loss of faith, return to faith, and struggles with faith are as diverse as are the people who live them.

My own experience led me from a rather fundamentalist upbringing in the Seventh-day Adventist Church to a relatively moderate theology as a member of a United Methodist congregation. I experienced the various players in these stories. There were the overbearing and oh-so-superior professors, though frankly not many of them. Most of my professors were quite helpful. Some were more liberal than my upbringing, but by the standards of the general Christian community, all would be considered conservative. My father, whose beliefs were doubtless fundamentalist, was at the same time one of the influences in my life that allowed me to explore. He had a practical, living approach to faith that carries over to my practice today, even though I don’t hold all the same doctrines that he did.

I have also seen many people who are strongly influenced by college, graduate school, or seminary. I observe a “seminary effect” in newly graduated pastors. They tend to hold views that were taught by the professors at their seminary. Sometimes they dismiss views held by professors at other seminaries. It’s not a surprising thing. One lives in a particular community and one absorbs its values, unless one is recalcitrant or perhaps just independent. In my case, I held closer to the values of the theology department at my undergraduate school (Walla Walla University) than to those at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, though in the end I left the SDA community entirely.

The positive side of my education was the ability to look at serious issues of theology and Scripture as part of a community of faith. One of the greatest difficulties involved was the simple fact that I was unable, in the end, to remain part of the community in which I grew up. I simply came to disagree with them on too many issues. I was able to maintain respect for them, and for many individuals who helped—and still help—me in my spiritual walk.

The result of my observations of my own experience and that of others, including many who were raised as Christians but no longer are, is that a key component to maintaining one’s faith while learning new things is the ability to explore these issues inside a community of faith. I think that even if your community maintains boundaries, if they can bless you as you move on to explore with another community, the result will frequently be positive. If you’re extremely sectarian, and equate leaving your existing community with “leaving Christ” or becoming an apostate, then you’re likely to drive someone away from faith entirely.

A friend of mine once noted that the greatest problem with the King James Version Only movement, especially as represented in this area by Peter Ruckman, is that it ruins people for the rest of Christianity. They have heard other Christians vilified so much that if they find they can no longer support their movement and its leader, it is impossible to move into a mainstream Christian community. There are those SDAs who still regard me as an apostate. I recall one meeting where I was working with an SDA author, and I was approached by a young man who quickly informed me that he could not comprehend how someone could possibly leave the SDA church because of doctrinal differences. I was prepared to discuss with him, but he wasn’t interested. He just wanted to inform me as to how wrong I was and move on. Fortunately, the majority of my SDA associates had a much more open attitude. They may disagree, but it’s a disagreement we can live with.

So my view is that exploration in community is an essential to keeping one’s faith. In the age of the internet, a congregation will not remain unaware of other positions on major topics. A pastor used to be able to figure on the majority of the congregation getting all their information from him. Not now. There is no “ignorant congregation” option. The only question is where the discussion will take place. I think pastors who try to avoid all the hard issues would have been wrong in the old days, but they’re both wrong and in serious danger now. They need to discuss the major issues of the day with their congregations, recognize that people will read and study books which the leadership doesn’t approve, and learn to work with this.

Note especially that I’m not saying what the position of the congregation needs to be. The key is that the congregation cannot be deceived. The pastors and teachers in the church need to openly discuss the issues, give their views and their reason for holding them, and then work with the congregation. If people find that they are no longer within the boundaries of a congregation, do your best to find a way to bless them as they seek elsewhere. I’m not suggesting that you change your beliefs or the doctrinal statement of your church in order to keep people. There are times to change and times not to change, and that is a process of discernment for a congregation. But if an individual or group needs to move on, that should be facilitated with a loving attitude. “Truth with love” is a difficult standard to meet, but I think it must be our goal, even as we recognize that we may fall short of the truth ourselves.

Which brings me back around to the discussion of textual criticism. How much textual criticism does a pastor need to know? One of the problems I have with this discussion is that we keep piling things onto the pastor’s plate. Who else is going to handle this issue? But my experience is that often pastors barely have a working knowledge of their English Bibles while people who read the biblical languages are trying to get them to learn more advanced things. I recall one continuing education event in which one of my authors, an Old Testament scholar, was teaching a group of United Methodist pastors. A number of the pastors couldn’t keep up with finding the Old Testament texts referenced. I had been concerned they might not have studied the Old Testament enough to even have the questions the speaker was answering. I was unprepared to find that they couldn’t find the texts.

In that context, what is the most important thing to pursue in terms of pastoral education? Is it textual criticism or basic biblical knowledge? And then what about the range of things we want pastors to be able to do? I recall sitting with a pastor while planning an event and somehow our discussion turned to my education. He remarked that he was “in awe of” my ability to pick up my Greek New Testament or my Hebrew Bible and just read. I was shocked by the phrase “in awe of.” I’m kind of in awe as well. I’m in awe of the experience. There is nothing like sitting down to my devotional reading with the text in the original languages. But I am in awe of the power of the word and thankful that I can experience it in that particular way.

After a moment, I simply responded that I was in awe of his ability to sit down with a couple, and through counseling, restore a marriage. The point was simply that God gives different gifts to different people. I cannot imagine being a marriage counselor. If I didn’t have many other reasons not to want to become a pastor (quite apart from not being called by God), the idea of people coming to me to share problems with their marriages would drive me away.

So how long does it take one to train to be an effective marriage counselor? A church administrator? A human resources director? A theologian? A biblical scholar? A textual critic? The problem is simply that we have too many things that we expect pastors to be. I think this is where we need to share the functions of the church more. The ideal can be the enemy of the good, in that we ask so much of pastors in their education that they simply can’t make it. But it’s more important that we ask all these things of a single person. Most of the pastors I’ve met simply would not have time to maintain a high level of proficiency with their biblical languages. They’re too busy with other things.

Which brings us full circle. How can a church sponsor a community where exploration can take place on serious issues of theology and biblical studies, not to mention social issues, when there is no way the pastor can be an expert in all these things? Believe me, the number of things I’ve been told “every pastor should know” is quite astonishing and beyond the ability of a super-genius.

Divide and work together.


We need to divide the tasks between members of the church. Unlike some, I don’t have a problem with paid staff, provided the staff is paid for the right things. We should be paying the staff to do the work or ministry of the church. I suspect practically any church out there has people in it with business experience. Most have people with training in counseling, teaching, and various other academic subjects. Not all churches have all of these things, however.

So first, divide the work of the church amongst the members. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been invited to teach about biblical studies by a pastor who didn’t have my knowledge of biblical languages but knew there was something that needed to be taught. There are lots of people with the right sort of knowledge. Don’t try to force them into the boxes created by planned curriculum. Let them bring their experience and knowledge into action.

Second, work together. Not all churches will have people with expertise in biblical languages, for example. Find the churches that do. Work together. Share your educational time so the congregation can hear from other people with different expertise. Will they hear some things you consider wrong? Doubtless they will. Get over it. They’re going to hear such things in any case.

I think we have tremendous resources in the church. The problem is that we aren’t making the necessary effort to use them.

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