January 7, 2012
Is there a Doctor in the House? Ben Witherington
Just finished Ben Witherington’s new little book, Is there a Doctor in the House? It has a bit of the feel of a reminiscence but is mainly advice for younger folk who are thinking about becoming Christian scholars. It is particularly pitched to New Testament scholarship, since that is Witherington’s area, but I think most of the book applies equally to the other areas of Christian scholarship as well. Here are some things about the book that I appreciated:
- He makes no bones about the fact that PhD level study is difficult and trying. But trying and working hard, says Witherington, is a good thing. Just be sure you have counted the cost and that you have what it takes. Of the 13 PhD students that began their studies when Ben did, only half completed the degree (apparently one of them got divided into two). I was interested to see that his dissertation on Jesus and women in the gospels was sent back for revisions. So, just when he thought he was done, he had to go back again and work on it for another year. Can you imagine? But in the end, he claims it was the best thing that happened to him. It forced him to write better and think better. BTW, this dissertation is available in a more popular format in Women and the Genesis of Christianity.
- The theme of intellectual and ethical consistency comes up in repeatedly throughout the book. A biblical scholar, he claims, must exhibit the transformed life that the biblical text models and promotes. It would be inconsistent for a biblical scholar to lack the personal and ethical depth that is such a crucial dimension of the Bible. I’m glad to see this because these days Christian leaders and teachers are often given a pass, as if just because they are leaders it doesn’t mean that they are necessarily wiser or “holier” people. It’s in keeping with our society of lowered expectations. But I agree that there should be a difference. There should be higher ethical expectations for leaders and teachers. It’s not just that they ought to be good representatives. There is also the question of the credibility of the message: is it really livable? If the people who know the most about it and are the most invested in it, don’t practice it, then who can? And if they who teach it don’t practice it, who can call us to live it?
- Along with this, Ben Witherington is clear about the purpose of biblical scholarship. The primary goal is to serve the church. Odd connection here, but I remember having a kind of revelation about this at the 2003 meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. I’m not sure what tripped it, but I walked around thinking about it a lot and it really stuck too. Witherington is fairly critical of “research scholars” in the biblical field who are content to limit their vocation to the academy. Biblical scholars can also succumb to the temptation to promote their own egos or academic instead of their calling to serve the church. “Research by a Christian is never done just for its own sake, or even just to advance knowledge in a given field. It is done in the service of the Lord and to his church.” (83) I just want to offer one caveat, though: the relationship between research and application is by its nature ambiguous. Sometimes completely “impractical” research bears enormous practical results, for good or ill. So let’s not be too hasty about dismissing so called impractical research or researchers. Still, i agree about the basic direction and calling.
- As you might imagine, Ben Witherington is not the sort of person to downplay the importance of knowledge for the church and the individual Christian. After all he has dedicated his life to the pursuit of biblical knowledge. But it is part of a whole. “Christian thinking and believing must be fleshed out in Christian living, or we are like barren trees with on fruit.” (110) He has a crazy example of the places ignorance can led. He recounts a conversation from his youth when an Appalachian couple (stereotypes aside…) expressed that the moon landings were all faked. Why? Because the Bible says that the earth is flat. You can read about it in “Revelations” (the way it was pronounced) where it talks about the four angels standing on the four corners of the earth. ”God bless their hearts,” as they say in the south.
This is a fun book! I highly recommend it. You can see a different take on it at Mark Corte’z blog too. He thinks that it is too broad and he might be right in terms of its stated purpose (“becoming a biblical scholar”). But I think this is a case of something being outside the box and still being effective. Plus, it will be an accessible read for people who might be thinking about a life in biblical scholarship who have not even started down the road yet. I’ll take any advice I can get from a scholar of this stature.