The "Magic Wand of Scholarly Consensus" in Hermeneutics
Asked to preach on the topic of “pastor and scholar,” John Piper decided to tell a brief account of his own journey through academia, headed towards the ministry, so that the listener could decide for themselves whether he was a scholar, and whether this was a good thing.
I highly recommend the sermon “The Pastor As Scholar” especially to those who don’t know John Piper well, and want to know more about his ministry and his life. This sermon was also helpful to me as I pondered humility – there are few who model humility in their preaching ministry as well as John Piper.
For myself, the most interesting portion of his journey was his time in Munich Germany, earning his PhD. He describes it this way:
What I saw in the theological educational system and state church life in Germany confirmed most of what I did not want to become. Here were world-class scholars that everyone on the cutting edge in America was ooing and ahing over teaching in away that was exegetically untransferable, insubordinate toward the Scriptures, and destructive to the life of the church. I sat in an ordination where the preacher announced his text from Q (the hypothetical document containing parts of Matthew and Luke, not shared by Mark).
I did my study of Jesus’ love command and worshipped in a lively Baptist church and led a small discipleship group every Friday night, and stoked my fires with Jonathan Edwards and God’s word. But what I saw in Germany could not come close to the theological and methodological goldmine that I had found in seminary. I used that to write an acceptable dissertation and left as quickly as I could. I did not have to work hard to protect myself from this system. I saw it up close and from the inside and found early on that this global king of biblical scholarship had no clothes on.
I was disillusioned by such scholarship.
- Driven by the need for peer approval.
- Using technical jargon that only insiders understand and that often conceals ambiguity.
- A speculative focus in object and methodology (Formgeschichte, Traditionsgeschichte, and Redaktionsgeschichte, and Sachkritik) that gave rise to scholarly articles which began in the mode of Wahrscheinlichkeit and by the end had been transformed into the mode of Sicherheit by the waving of the wand of scholarly consensus.
- Using linguistic skills to create vagueness and conceal superficiality.
- Not pressing the question of meaning until it yields the riches of theological truth.
- Not having the smell of heaven or hell, nor seeming to care much about lostness.
- Not letting exultation into their explanations, and therefore not being able to show the reality of things that cannot be illumined except in the light of exultation.
- Not seeing the incoherence between the infinite value of the object of the study and the naturalistic nature of their study. The whole atmosphere seemed unplugged from the majesty of the object.
I earned my doctorate. They mailed it to me a few months after I left. I took it out of the mailing tube to see if it was real in the Fall of 1974. I put it back in and have not looked at it since. It’s still in the tube in a bottom drawer at home, and no one has ever asked to see it. But, by God’s grace, it did get me my first job.
All that he describes is typical of what I see as “Liberal scholarship” and hermeneutics.
He is very right to say that “the magic wand of consensus” is usually what is used to move “magically” from uncertainty to certainty. (E.g. “we don’t know exactly what this text means, this source says this this says this…etc….but most scholars agree that this is what it says….[later] the expert opinion is this, and not that…”)
This is exactly the sort of method which Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for. It is also the method which dominated the Middle Ages, when theology became overly academic, and the route to truth was to quote the “experts” of old (Augustine and the Church Fathers), or to quote from the “scholarly consensus” on what the experts said (as represented by “The Sentences,” a standard text of quotations from the Fathers). The real innovation of the Reformation was the idea that Scriptures speak for themselves. This was not a half-hazard, highly-personalized enterprise: that is, it wasn’t for Luther and Calvin, although they certainly opened the door for many after them who would be irresponsible in their hermeneutics.
In the history of the church, there have probably been more major theologians turned from law than from any other discipline. Turtullian and Augustine had legal training, as did Luther and Calvin, among others. The reason, I believe, that training for the law provides such a helpful background to studying God’s word is that people are trained on reading a passage as it really is. When you read and study a will, for example, the lay-person may misunderstand and there may be several opinions about a particular clause: a lawyer is hired, however, to cut through the ambiguity, to understand the meaning of texts, and to declare authoritatively what is meant by the will.
Sweeping centuries of scholarly “consensus” aside, the Reformers studied the Scriptures themselves in their original languages, with the testimony of the Church Fathers assisting them in their work. The result was the Reformation, and a new awakening in understanding God’s word.
Unfortunately, very soon after the Reformation, theology once again became highly academic. In “Protestant Scholasticism,” theology became a highly complicated, scholarly task. Gradually, the importance of tradition (in a new, refined sense) became more important than the Scriptures themselves. Tragically, the very places where Luther’s great revival of Biblical truth were once strongest are now the bastions of Liberal thought, as Piper discovered.
In a previous discussion, Don said that the two options are either to trust a Rabbi/pastor, or to trust one’s own self for authoritative interpretations of Scriptures. I believe there is a third way – I think Scriptures really speak for themselves, when they are read correctly and honestly.
I need to do more reasearch and work in this direction however, before I can explain exactly how this works.