Monday, January 30, 2012

Is There A Doctor in the House, by Ben Witherington III

Book Review by Chris Haven

Ben Witherington III has written a helpful little book on what it takes to be a world-class scholar in Biblical Studies. My wife laughed when she saw the book’s subtitle, “An insider’s story and advice on becoming a Bible scholar,” and quipped that only someone like me would ever read a book like that. She’s probably correct in her assessment that this book’s subject matter is probably going to appeal to a very small section of Christian readership. However, in reading the book I discovered that there is actually quite a bit of material that would be interesting to those who are not planning on apply to the University of Durham's PhD program next fall.

In the first chapter, Witherington gives a brief introduction to what it means to be a biblical scholar. Biblical scholars are said to be General Parishioners (“G.P.”). They have to acquire a well-rounded knowledge base.

In chapter 2, the subjects of choosing a school, program and mentor are discussed. The cost of a program is upwards of $100,000, and will take up to seven years to complete. The pros and cons of study overseas as versus in the United States are laid out as well. Witherington also has a helpful discussion on “find your voice,” that is, the ability to sift through material and to humbly arrive at well reasoned conclusions that are your own.

Chapter three is a call to original languages and sources. This is perhaps the most outstanding (and difficult) element of becoming a biblical scholar. True scholarship in the field of Biblical theology requires at least a working knowledge of seven languages: Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, English, German, French, and Latin. The first three are the languages of the Bible; the last four are languages of secondary scholarship. Witherington shares a story in a later chapter of one PhD candidate who had a gaping hole in his research because he had not consulted important scholarship written in German.

Chapters four and five is where a reader who is not so much interested in the “how to” of becoming a scholar will likely find the material a bit more relevant. Here, Witherington talks about context and genre as tools to better understand the Bible. As for context, the contemporary reader of the Bible is exhorted to consider that the Old Testament era did not contain “democratic societies or capitalistic economies.” Context also shows that in the Old Testament individualism was unknown, conversion was an odd concept (since fundamental change was not usually seen as possible – “Can a leopard change its spots?”), grace was viewed suspiciously (a cycle of reciprocity), the Pharisees were not the “bad guys” by and large, and Jesus was actually born in the back of the ancestral home in Bethlehem (not outside an inn).

Chapter six addresses the need for the scholar to be engaged in “cross disciplinary training,” that is, boning up on systematic theology as well as biblical theology. Scholars are also exhorted to keep high moral standards as are worthy of their calling. This is a helpful reminder that academics are not just to love God with their minds, but every fiber of their being.

In chapter seven, we are introduced to a critical skill required of all scholars, namely, the ability to write well. Witherington provides helpful advice to the would-be scholar in suggesting that an author should determine for whom he ultimately intends to write. Witherington has chosen a writing carrier that focuses on three levels of readers: (1) laypeople, (2) students, and (3) scholars. He also warns that Christian scholars will experience a kind of persecution from secular academia and the media, pressuring them to retreat from faithful proclamation of truth. The reader is reminded that the Christian scholar is first and foremost a servant of the Lord and His church.

Chapter eight reveals another skill set of the scholar. He or she must be able to interpret the Bible. Witherington puts forth historically established hermeneutical principles and gives an assessment of each: Sola Scriptura, Scripture is its own best interpreter, Analogy of Faith, Sensus Literalis versus Sensus Plenior, Prediction versus Fulfillment, and the Quadrilateral. A helpful feature of this chapter was his summary of how a person should interpret and then apply the text (pp. 107-8). I also very much appreciated the succinct explanation of how a reader of Scripture should take into account the place in redemptive history where the biblical passage occurs. Witherington rightly, in my view, points out how some traditional covenantal theological perspectives do not sufficiently take into account the progressiveness in revelation, which leads to a rather flat reading of the Bible.

In chapter nine, Witherington asserts that a scholar must be able to lecture and teach. In my view, this is where many scholars fail. They may be brilliant, but they cannot teach “their way out of a wet paper bag.” Helpful suggestions include using power points, showing artifacts through an "elmo" projector, and exhibiting genuine enthusiasm for the topic. We are also reminded of the classical rhetorical virtues of ethos, logos and pathos. This concept as it is related to preaching is covered in Bryan Chapell’s excellent book on homiletics, Christ-Centered Preaching.

The tenth chapter again addresses the reality that the character of the scholar must be shaped by the subject matter of his or her studies. In this chapter there is also a challenge to prevailing concept of “objectivity” which a priori presupposes that skepticism of the Bible is the only proper starting point for the scholar. Witherington rightly calls out this view as equally unscholarly as is gullibly accepting the Bible. Scholars who trust nothing historically in the Bible should not be seen as somehow more objective. This is simply unvarnished bias.


The final chapter of the book is all about “counting the costs” of becoming a scholar.  Not only is there the cost of the education mentioned above, but books as well that can cost as much as the tuition. Perhaps the biggest cost is not financial, and not paid by the would-be scholar. It is the cost paid by the spouse and children of the scholar-in-training. Witherington cites Mark 10:28-30, suggesting that Jesus has called his followers to put his Kingdom even above family.  I found myself struggling with the concept of how one does this responsibly, in conjunction with the equally applicable teaching of Paul in 1 Timothy 5:8 where not providing for one’s family makes one worse than an unbeliever in God’s sight. Perhaps this is the greatest ethical tension for the scholar-in-training.

In conclusion, this book provided helpful insider information about becoming a biblical scholar. It also gave some helpful tools for better interpreting the Bible for the non-scholar. Those thinking about going on to do advanced studies in Biblical Studies will find this book very helpful as a guide for how to get there. Those who are not will benefit from the book at a certain level as well. 

I was provided this book for free by Zondervan to provide this review. 

Sunday, January 15, 2012

William Tyndale, by David Teems


Book Review by Chris Haven

By Teems' own admission, there is much about Tyndale’s life that is unknown. In seeking to present the historical man, Teems relies heavily upon the sixteenth century world of which Tyndale “would have been” a part. In approaching the story of Tyndale’s life this way, Teems is able to present a number of contemporary people and issues that make for very interesting reading.

Teems gives a good taste of late medieval culture. The institutional church and state were (unhealthily) conjoined. A person entered both by birth. “At the heart of medieval Christianity,” Teems writes, “was a reliance on fear and manipulation” (p. xi). The burning of heretics was a regular occurrence, where the church authorities pronounced a person to be guilty of heresy and then turned that person over to the secular authorities (whose laws made heresy a capital offense) for execution. Teems well conveys “the strict controlling motherhood of the Catholic Church over its children” (p. 167).

We are also provided much information about the development of languages. Latin was the lingua franca of Europe in the late medieval period. Scholars would not dream of condescending into a vernacular language, like English or German, in conveying their lofty or religious ideas. Hence, men like Tyndale and Luther, were not only radical in their endeavors to translate into the “common tongue,” but viewed by many as quite “low brow” for doing so. In the early sixteenth century, English was used for cursing, not theological discourse.

Teems furthermore gives insight into what a medieval education was like.  Entering university at fourteen was commonplace. There a student would receive a “liberal arts” education made up of logic, grammar, and rhetoric (the Trivium) and arithmetic, astronomy, music, and geometry (the Quadrivium). “Disputation,” or oral defense, was a staple of the medieval theological education. However, the Bible itself was not studied.

Not surprisingly, there is much about the history of Bible translation in the book. While John Wycliffe was the first to translate a Bible into English, Tyndale’s translation was much superior and had far broader influence. Wycliffe’s translation was Middle English (think Beowulf), hand written, based on inferior Latin manuscripts, and not plentiful in circulation. Tyndale’s work, on the other hand, was in early modern English (think Shakespeare), printed on presses, based upon Erasmus’ recently published Greek New Testament texts and Hebrew texts, and were more effectively circulated.

Teems paints an unsightly picture of Thomas More. Although granted Sainthood by the Roman Catholic Church, it’s difficult to see him as such after after reading Teems. More was a zealous defender of the Roman Catholic Church and its theology, and Tyndale seems to have brought out the absolute worst in him. While God does not take delight in the punishment of the wicked, More apparently did. Teems shows More’s obsession in seeing Tyndale and his ilk incinerated at the stake, and More’s writing to Tyndale is filled with coarse ad hominem abusive attacks (as was not uncommon in polemical discourse of the day).

Tyndale is presented as a lover of God’s Word who had the mind of an artistic genius. In a way few English writers have been able to achieve, Tyndale deftly combined “Economy…Simplicity [and] Elevation” (p. 67). Tyndale’s work was essentially the basis for the 1611 Authorized (King James) Bible. Aside from perhaps Shakespeare, Tyndale has had the greatest influence of any singular person on the English language. In addition to the thousands of words he invented, many of the most beloved and memorable passages of Scripture in our modern translations are Tyndale’s phrases.  

Tyndale spent his life on the run, as a fugitive-scholar. His crime? Translating the Bible into English. In the end, Tyndale would give his life for his craft and passion. One of the lessons one can learn from the life of Tyndale is that human traditions (among other things) blind men to biblical truth. Even if Tyndale’s theology was not correct at points, he at least grounded it in the Bible. His views were at least biblically plausible positions to take. This could not be said of his opponents.

Teems has produced a well-written account of the life and times of William Tyndale. He is sympathetic to Tyndale and his causes. He shows how Tyndale’s exile from England shaped and enriched his translation. Tyndale is shown to be a man of self-control and steady conviction. While fair in his portrayals, Teems is not afraid to reveal the warts of Tyndale’s pursuers (e.g., Tunstall, Wolsey, and More). In the end, this book should educate and inspire its readers to strive for lives of greater significance for the things that eternally matter. 


I received this book for free from Thomas Nelson Publishing to write this review.