dianoigo blog

Wednesday 27 March 2013

Theology vs. Bible Reading

One of the starkest differences between the Christadelphian community and many older Christian denominations is the attitude within the groups toward theology and Bible reading.

Christadelphians have historically placed a lot of value on personal Bible reading, but no value (or even a negative value) on a formal theological education. Many follow a daily reading plan that takes them through the entire Bible each year. However, the group's founder, Dr. John Thomas, had a very cynical view of theological studies, as seen in the following quotation:

"The same thing is styled in our day 'theological science,' 'divinity,' 'ethics,' 'hermeneutics,' and so forth; terms invented to amaze the ignorant, and to impress them with the necessity of schools and colleges for the indoctrination of pious youth in the mysteries they learnedly conceal." (Eureka, Vol. 1, 6th ed., p. 198)

This negative view of theology as a discipline of study persists among some Christadelphians today; and while no longer unheard of, it is still very rare for a Christadelphian to study theology at an institution of higher learning.

Contrast this with the attitude prevalent in some mainline church denominations. There, it is accepted that it is the priest or pastor's job to understand the Word and teach it to the congregation. That is why he (or she) goes to seminary and gets a degree in theology. Regular Bible reading by the lay members of the congregation may not be discouraged, but neither is it expected.

In my opinion, both of these opposite attitudes are flawed and a balance needs to be struck between theology and Bible reading. In the case of mainline churches, a biblically illiterate congregation will stagnate spiritually, and be vulnerable to deception by false teaching, whether inside or outside the church. Even among those with a theological education, regular reading of the Bible helps one to be grounded and see the "big picture" of God's revealed purpose rather than getting "tunnel vision" for one's area of specialization.

On the other hand, regular Bible reading with a complete absence of theological knowledge in the church is also a recipe for error. For instance, as Grant R. Osborne explains:

"The Bible was not revealed via ‘the tongues of angels.’ Though inspired of God...the absolute truths of Scripture were encased in the human languages and cultures of the ancient Hebrews and Greeks, and we must understand those cultures in order to interpret the biblical texts properly. Therefore Scripture does not automatically cross cultural barriers to impart its meaning." (The Hermeneutical Spiral, pp. 23-24)

One who follows a daily Bible reading schedule may easily forget that the Bible is not one book, but many books written over a long period of time in diverse historical, socio-cultural and linguistic settings. Without some understanding of this background we simply view the Scriptures through the lens of our modern Western mindset, which inevitably leads to misinterpretation and misapplication of the Word. 

There are limits in how rightly one can divide the Word of truth armed only with a Bible, a concordance and one or two other study aids. At some point, one needs a greater knowledge of biblical languages, cultures, history, etc. And while one must think for oneself, one should also become familiar with the volumes upon volumes of previous Bible scholarship rather than pretend one is wiser than all who have gone before.

As someone who has some experience on both sides of the "Theology vs. Bible Reading" fence, I encourage Christadelphians and mainline churches to learn this from each other: theology and Bible reading are not enemies. They are both vital for God's people.