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. 

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