Dilettantes, Interpretation, and Scholarship

There has been an interesting blog discussion surrounding the qualifications of an interpreter of the Bible. Jim West started the ball rolling with his post in response to this “news” story about “bible scholars” predicting a nuclear attack. Jim’s basic point is that nutballs shouldn’t be allowed to interpret the biblical text. I don’t really disagree with Jim on this point, though you can’t really prevent anyone from reading the Bible. And someone who is a careful reader can get the point of much of the Bible — even without formal theological education or a degree.

Then Peter over at Adverseria posted on “Dilettantes and the Bible” and takes to task those who interpret outside the community of faith. Once again, I get the gist of his point and I agree with it to a certain degree, though he picks on “most scholars” as “dilettantes” since they interpret outside the community of faith. Here I disagree on a number of points. First, and perhaps I am being picky, but no biblical scholar — even those who never darken the doors of a church — would qualify as a “dilettante” (here I am assuming a biblical scholar is someone who has serious academic qualifications and devotes his or her time to studying the Bible). According to Dictionary.com, a dilettante is “an amateur or dabbler; especially, one who follows an art or a branch of knowledge sporadically, superficially.” That one may not be a member of a community of faith does not qualify one as a dilettante, IMHO. Second, I would daresay that “most” biblical scholars are part of a community of faith; perhaps they are not part of your community or perhaps they are using a method of interpretation that is not directly relevant to your community of faith, but that doesn’t mean they do not belong. Third, I am not sure that Christian history would support Peter’s claim that the church is the best context for interpretation. Finally, I totally disagree with him when he asserts that “we [=those faithful interpreters] should not even enter into debate with them [= scholars outside the community of faith] on questions of interpretation.” This sort of exclusivism does no good. We should humbly listen to all interpreters and sift the good from the bad.

Jim West picked up the ball again with his “Further Observations on Dilettantism and Biblical Interpretation” where he lists his qualifications for the “ideal” interpreter (college degree in reigion/Bible/theology, Jewish or Christian, and community of faith). I guess if we are talking “ideals” I can’t disagree too much, though what is totally lacking in Jim’s qualifications are some things that I would think are essential: humility, grace, perserverance, sensitivity, etc. I am also not convinced that formal training is necessary, though if we are talking “ideals” then I am willing to let it stand.

Finally, James Crossley over at Earliest Christian History put in his two cents with his post, “Who is best at biblical interpretation?” I tend to think James is spot-on in his comments. The Bible is a public document and everyone has the right to read and interpret it. In terms of who is the best interpreter, I would daresay no one is! We all have our faults, our blindspots, our weaknesses. We need each other — whether within or outside of the community of faith — to keep our interpretations honest and plausible. I’m not saying that all interpretations are valid or even that all are fruitful; only that all (OK, to be honest, “most”) interpretations are worth considering.

Anyhow, I didn’t mean to ramble on…

UPDATE: Chris Heard has some excellent thoughts at Higgaion on this debate.

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8 Responses to Dilettantes, Interpretation, and Scholarship

  1. Matt Page says:

    I guess the problem with West’s comments are that he is in danger of chucking the baby out with the bathwater. There are sadly far too many loonies interpreting the bible, but I suspect that (worldwide at least) they are outnumbered by those of us who have no theology / related degree, but who take more sensible approaches. Some of these “non-scholars” have made decent contributions to theology.

    What’s more there’s also nothing to stop someone with a credible theological qualification taking a loony position either!

    Secondly, there is a danger of elitism. If you have the time and the finances to pursue a degree you are in, otherwise it’s tough luck.

    Finally, whilst I regret the fact that every loony preacher, when challenged about their credentials, has probably made the point I’m about to make, I still think it has some validity, so here it is. In Jesus’s day there was an established system of proper training in scripture that was considered the only way to gain the requiste knowledge. But the evidence suggests that not only did Jesus not undergo this training, but that the 12 people he trained up to start the faith didn’t have it either.

    Proper theological training is very important, and for theology as a whole to move on it does need a body of properly trained personnel. And sadly loony preachers do detract, to an extent, from all the good work that is done elsewhere. But there’s no reason to go to West’s extreme, particularly given that “proper training” doesn’t quite guarantee what he would have us believe.


  2. roundapple says:

    Some of the most sensible comments and interpretations (not formal, article or book length)of biblical material I’ve heard come from people who are just educated laymen. On the other hand, the most curious (ranging from challenging to outrageous) interpretations have come from scholars who had “proper training.” While I agree with Matt in his comment that “proper theological training is very important,” theology certainly helps but may actually not be necessary for interpretation. Any interpreter brings his social, cultural and educational baggage in any act or method of interpretation, with varying results depending on the intention.
    I would hesitate to use terms like “loonies” or “nuts” since such terms are value judgments, the content of which differ from one generation to another. The very existence of varieties of early Christian belief (from extant historical documents) and controversies in the early Christian (or sectarian?) communities (even within the New Testament documents) should make us take any interpretation with the proverbial grain of salt. Interpretations are sometimes made with an eye to making the bestseller list.
    The deadly conflict in England and Europe over the first translations of the Bible into English is a lesson from history. The result was that it “handed over” the Bible to anyone who could read, away from those who felt they had the sole franchise to interpret scripture. The very act of publishing a book (or an article on the Net)is an invitation for a reader to participate, whether the reader is actual or imaginary. The desire to recover such a franchise on the part of academic scholars or leaders of communities of faith (notice how often they are at odds) is recidivism (in its original sense of “falling back”); it smacks of a fundamentalist belief in a normative reading. While I certainly find some current interpretations laughable at the very least, it only takes a modicum of emotional intelligence and common sense to filter the wheat from the chaff. Whether reading the Bible results in personal transformation (ranging from Augustine of Hippo to members of modern and postmodern cults) is not solely the result of “reading” an interpretation.
    I think, however, that any reader or interpreter has a right to draw the ethical line. Such a “line” can be fuzzy but nevertheless must be drawn to prevent injury or harm to individuals and societies. (I’m thinking of Waco for example, which demanded a political, rather than violent, solution) Drawing the line involves engaging the other side in an often endless debate. The “right” side may not always win (as debates, politics and history go). But the sure loser is the one who does not have “grace, perseverance, humility, etc.” The “et cetera” is the extra factor which often makes a difference.
    And “dilettante” is a word which derives from “dilettare,” meaning to delight. The right to delight in a text should not be taken away from anyone who earned the right to read it. In the Third World where I come from, and where education comes at a heavy price, such notions can be dangerous to health.

  3. I agree with your additions to Jim’s list of qualifications. The task of biblical interpretation (as well as interpretation generally) includes personal characteristics as well as academic and technical skills.

  4. Jim Linville says:

    The two issues of “dilittantism” and secular vs. theological perspective really are getting me down: the latter moreso.

    As an avowed non-member of any “community of faith” (a term I think has a lot of value-judgment) who happens to have a degree or two, I really resent any implication that I am disqualified to interpret the Bible. Sure, I have no place telling a Christian or Jewish congregation what to get out of reading it in terms of moral lessons or spiritual edification. I would certainly be a ‘dilettante’ at that. But this does not mean I have no place telling an academic community–and anyone else with a taste for such things– about my views on the origins or literary qualities of the now-biblical documents.

    Many amatuers have made some very good observations about the Bible and on the methods of studying it. I have had several in my classes. This does not mean I would buy a book they have written on it (yet???), but interested non-professionals can be good readers regardless of their philosophical / spriritual background. And yes, sometimes they justifiable call “Rubbish!” on a scholar.

    Tyler points out that everyone has their shortcomings based on their own perspectives: so be it. But in the “community of thinking” and range of topics I discuss as a professional Hebrew Bible scholar, I don’t think my atheism puts me at more ofa disadvantage than someone with a very conservative Christian theological education. The real issue is command on the basic tools: language, cultural settings, comparative data, etc. etc.

    At the heart of the tension all is the question is what sort of special status the biblical materials should be granted in terms of how to interpret them. Is the methodology the same as the study of any other ancient text? Here I think secular and faith-based scholars reach a fork in the road they so often travel along together. Of course the road probably joins up again a little later, but the divide is still there. Many people have found different ways of working with a foot on both sides of the “secular” and “faith-based” interpretational divide. I sometimes wonder how they do it, but I am generally pleased that they do: I have learned a lot from them.

    Who has the right to interpret Hindu, Buddhist, or ancient Ugaritic religious texts? Only those belonging to those “communities of faith”? The Bible is in the public domain. HOw it came to be, how it was interpreted, and its impact of society over the centuries is a topic open to anyone to examine and critique. Of course some of the resulting work will be unconvincing, experts can be wrong and beginniners will sometimes get lucky. But by and large it is an intellectual activity that must not be censored.

  5. Well said, Jim. I think the main issue is “Biblical Interpretation for whom?” There are so many facets to interpretation, so many angles which one can take to the task, so many perspectives, that it is silly to reduce it to one perspective. When I think of the commentaries I have on any particular biblical book, they are all coming from different perspectives, and depending on what my question is, I will choose a different commentary. If I am trying to figure out a text critical or philological problem, I will pick ICC, Hermeneia, or Anchor; if I am pondering how I am going to preach the passage, then I will pick another, etc.

    That being said, I think it would be unwise to cloister ourselves off into “our communities” and not listen to each other. I have always maintained an eccletic stance in my teaching and in my interpretation.

    I think Jim has an excellent point about the basic tools one needs to interpret (language, cultural setting, comparative data, etc.). These tools may be gained through the process of formal education, or they may be gained through hard individual work. How they are gained is immaterial, IMHO.

    Anyhow… interesting comments. I must return to some other work!

  6. Scott says:

    Matt: But the evidence suggests that not only did Jesus not undergo this training, but that the 12 people he trained up to start the faith didn’t have it either.

    ME: What evidence are you talking about? Do you know the educational process in First Century Mediterranean Galilee? Do you understand the distinctions Judeans and Galileans made between each other, and their in-group out-group worldview? What would a first-century Judean say to a Galilean that had not studied at their yeshiva and with their teachers?

    EVERYONE should be allowed to study the ancient texts… EVERYONE. However the above statement by Matt is a good example of why humility and education are sorely needed. Declarative statements are made(especially within the community of faith)with finality and surety. I have come across some academic material that suggests that Jesus did undergo some sort of educational process. Not an education in the way we would think of one, or one that Judeans would respect, but possibly some learning in his youth. Same for the 12.

    I wonder if academics within the community of faith that insist the Bible must be interpreted within the community of faith are as elitist when it comes to other religions texts. I wonder if they take a stance of humility before an Islamic scholar and declare that they must learn from him because they are ill equipped to understand anything about his faith because they are not in his community of faith? I doubt it.

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  8. undild says:

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