For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, And the discernment of the discerning will I bring to nought.” Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this world? Hath not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For seeing that in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom knew not God, it was God’s good pleasure through the foolishness of the preaching to save them that believe (1 Corinthians 1:19-21).
One of the few remaining trusted authority figures in our culture today is the scholar. Since the amount of information that can be known has grown so rapidly in recent years, and the ability to have a good understanding of most subjects has become quite challenging, it is not surprising to see our present focus on specialization. Since none of us can fully explore every subject, we put a level of trust in specialists who have devoted themselves to a better understanding of their particular specialties.
This trend exists within the religious world as well. Whereas many might be skeptical of what a preacher might say, they may prove more likely to accept a religious argument as true if “scholars say it is so.” Television shows regarding religious subjects will often feature professors from various universities establishing their talking points regarding the subject at hand. In general, people seem to feel more comfortable thinking something is true because scholars say so. But should we place that level of trust in scholars?
There is value in scholarship. A lot of training, research, and study is necessary to provide excellent translations of the Bible out of the original languages; even the ability to read the ancient manuscripts can be quite a challenge and requires much skill. Scholars can also assist in illuminating the truths of the Bible with historical, cultural, and linguistic references that may not be immediately evident to the modern reader. Much can be gained from devoting oneself fully to the advanced study of the Word of God.
Scholars and scholarship can provide a better understanding of the Bible’s text and the cultures from which it came. But scholarship is not infallible, and scholars have suggested many false ideas and promote unhealthy views as well.
It seems as if many people look at “scholarship” as a singular edifice, as if scholarship is mostly in agreement. It is also hard for people to imagine how very intelligent people who have expended a lot of time and effort into studying the Bible and related matters could be wrong. And yet there are as many disagreements among scholars as there are doctrines and viewpoints; for almost every doctrinal viewpoint, there will be scholars promoting them.
Scholars are like all other people; they believe very strongly in certain philosophies, worldviews, and attitudes, and more often than not, their work mirrors those views. Some may change views during their lives; many others may not. Some scholars are motivated by an attempt to understand all things through Christ; others are still beholden to worldly philosophies or have a distorted view of who Christ is (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:19-21, Colossians 2:1-10). We can tell by their fruit: the views they promote and advance tell us a lot about their viewpoints (Matthew 7:15-20)! It is not wise to uncritically accept anything as true because “scholars say so”; as with all things, we must test the spirits to see what is true from what is false (1 John 4:1). What is their evidence? How does that evidence support the conclusions being advanced? Does it make sense of the whole picture or distort the picture by overemphasizing some pieces of evidence to the detriment of others? What seems to be the scholars’ agenda?
Scholarship can be valuable when it honors Christ as Lord, seeks to understand all things through Christ, and in so doing honors what is true. But when scholarship is a handmaiden for worldly philosophy, it can be very damaging. Let us be careful in how we accept the claims of scholars!
Ethan R. Longhenry