Friday, August 6, 2010

Self-Taught, No Lessons - Thank You Very Much

I regularly flip through the catalogs I receive from Christian Book Distributors, but I typically haven't paid much attention to the best-selling Bible Studies of this or that preacher or pop Christian icon. Recently, I've realized that since those studies are targeted at and consumed by a large number of Christians, I should become more familiar with their approach, their contents, and their writers. This is part of a larger effort I'm making to see what popular trends are influencing the evangelical church. So, tonight I perused the most recent issue of Christianity Today and found their cover story on Beth Moore particularly troubling. Here is an excerpt that most keenly reflects what's bothering me.
Moore is truly a Bible teacher. Her teaching is rooted in her strong affinity for Scripture. She does not show much interest in theology or tradition, distrusting the way the academy has, at times, handled the Bible. "Godless philosophies have not been my temptation," Moore comments. "In my life experience, the most dangerously influential opinions have been those held by intellectuals and scholars who profess Christianity but deny the veracity and present power of Scripture." Although Moore believes that seminaries are necessary despite the "stunning arrogance" and "theological snobbery" that reside in them, she argues, "Psalm 131 reminds us that [the Scriptures] are not primarily for seminaries, dissertations, and theological treatments. They are primarily for everyday living on the third rock from the sun."
Moore is primarily self-taught. She uses commentaries and concordances when writing her studies, but she relies primarily on her own intuition when interpreting and applying Scripture.
After years of careful study of biblical exegesis and the history of biblical interpretation, I found her remarks offensive and ignorant. Only a "Bible teacher" with no formal training in biblical languages, exegesis, theology, or church history could speak with such disdain for an academic, intellectual approach to the Bible. I sensed the writer (herself a Ph.D. candidate) was also at least uncomfortable with Moore's rhetoric against theological snobbery when she wrote:
Because of this, Moore is not able to draw, as much as she might, on the solid biblical and theological scholarship that emanates from trustworthy seminaries and universities, teaching that actually guards us against heresy and reminds us of the hard lessons of history.
Unfortunately, many of the most popular Christian leaders today are primarily self-taught in the arena of biblical interpretation: Beth Moore, Joel Osteen, Brian McLaren, and Joyce Meyer to name but a few (honorary degrees don't count). Not surprisingly, I'm more a fan of pastors with theological training like John Piper or Mark Driscoll.

Halee Gray Scott, "First Came the Bible," Christianity Today (August 2010), 27. Quotations are from the print edition. The article was not available online.


  1. Usually when I am suspect of someone's approach to Scripture, they open their mouths and confirm my fears. This is very disappointing, not because I am a Beth Moore fan, but because many are. Sure, there has been and always will be an element of snobbery in any institution of higher learning--I think that's part and parcel of human tendency when coupled with knowledge. But to impugn the whole system is simply dishonest and shameful. I'll be sure to be a voice of balance should I hear praise of Moore in the future.

  2. Sure - best to ignore such articles - what do you make of the comment in 1 John 2:27? My mother-in-law used to say 'comparisons are odious'. It is certainly true that one can waste a lot of time with both the scholarly and the unscholarly.

  3. I hear comments like this far too often. There is this idea that learnin' will just confuse you from the truth, and that just because you went to school your interpretation isn't any better than anyone else's. Then the person will bring up something about the H.S. leading them into all truth, and that in someways they can hear God better, because their mind hasn't been tainted with all those liberal ideas. Just typing this is getting my fired up. arghhh!

    Thanks, Doug. :)

  4. Unfortunately, that is the divide that is presented: that the layman (or laywoman) can figure out Scripture just fine and all those scholars are sitting up in their ivory towers. It's even a huge problem in my own church tradition -- in it, academia is often seen as liberal, etc.

    But we should--as scholars, professors, etc.-- feel some sort of obligation to bridge the gap between this sort of tension.

    jmopages at gmail

  5. Bob, I think 1 John 2:27 is about discerning false teachers. The Bible has a lot to say about the need for teachers and the responsibility laid on them. Heb 5:12 and James 3:1 are two examples.

  6. All of us believe we are correct, fair and balanced in our approach in what we understand.

    I believe Moore takes the approach that the Bible is accurate and to be trusted while “some” in academia discount it.

    Take for example your previous blog “Hobbins, Finkelstein, and Khirbet Qeiyafa” in which Finkelstein says:

    “1 Sam – 1 Kgs 11 is a figment of the imagination of much later writers.“

    Hobbins seems to have evidence that would negate Finkelstein’s position. I believe Moore would discount such an approach yet I bet she would agree with Hobbins!

    Moore does use commentaries which come from academia which means she doesn’t reject academia. It seems she refuses taking the side were academia is opposed to what the Bible says. Not everything expressed in a preacher’s sermon is correct and neither are academic positions.

  7. Yes - thanks Doug. Amateur though I am in this field, I do have sensors for the will to power and unbridled enthusiasms. I wonder though how many of the characters in the Bible went to a particular college. It seems to me that the schools of the prophets don't always get a good press. While I am no fan of populist spirituality (I have been in some of that shady company), I find that the trained scholars can have their own attitudes that can discourage learning and growth. It is more than my own insecurity that makes me avoid these conversations - why I answered here I am not sure. I and another auto-didact are learning together today - he is fluent in Hebrew and Greek (modern) so I can bounce some ideas. One thing that I find important for me is not to fear being wrong. I spent my life in the logic and abstraction of programming - it is humbling to learn from all those inefficiencies, bugs, limitations, and so on that I and others let live in computer systems.

    You mention in your quote of the PhD candidate - 'trustworthy' seminaries and universities. What is trustworthy? Adjectives do not make an institution trustworthy. As I work through the psalms in this marathon I am currently running, this aspect of trust is foremost. I see that one cannot trust in the translations here - two famous words are used for trust in the psalms both בָּטַח and חָסָה. I realize there is a dilemma in concordance - but the scholarship of the 16th century leaves me furious at times. What I am saying is that even though I do not put my trust in pop 'Christian' opinions (God forbid) - I am equally skeptical of my pastor with his doctorate in philosophy and all the well and not so well trained priests at whose hands I have suffered training and abuse over the past 65 years. And I don't trust the scholarship even of people who were born on the same day I was - like Neils Peter Lemche - who certainly is very well trained and far better at Semitic tongues than I am.

    So you raise an important question - but it is not so easily dismissed by any corner of the argument. One might be tempted to think the pop stars of the manipulative spirits were given to us to bring to shame the ineffectiveness of famous scholars and institutions. No - I reject that reduction. Rather I would say that every small interaction is part of our growth or correction - whether it be with an enthusiast that we later find is only worth limited trust, or a well-trained teacher who really enables inspiration. (And there are a few of these - thank God and thank them too. I learned under one in Calgary - Peter Craigie - all to short a time. His son is now our morning show host here in Victoria. In him you can see the impact of a secure upbringing. A good journalist has much to teach us about questions, discernment, and inference.)

  8. The snobbery and arrogance usually comes in when those with 'letters' would dare to disagree and take to task those who are 'self-taught' for their perversions of Scripture.

    Great post and thoughts

  9. Tony, I'm not disagreeing that some in academia have a bent toward discrediting the Bible. I can think of several. Academics regularly disagree over virtually every theory. However, that's not a reason for her to minimize the importance of biblical scholarship in general.

    Bob, I agree that the issue is more complicated than an either/or reduction. Your position of being skeptical and questioning expert and enthusiast alike is a good one, in my opinion. I, too, wondered what the writer considered a "trustworthy" seminary. Obviously that is more subjective. I trust individuals more than institutions.

    Joel, I hate it when that happens. Thanks for stopping by.

  10. The element of snobbery is not nearly as dangerous as the element of being theologically wrong while having the souls of men and women and their future generations in your hands.

  11. If you were trying to make me mad today then job accomplished!

    There are so many things wrong, on so many levels, with the Moore blurb you could start a whole new blog to deconstruct it.

  12. Scott, I knew you would appreciate it. I really think you'd enjoy the entire cover feature on Beth Moore.

  13. Hey, anyone interested in does she teach the truth? LOL She takes a scripture or 2 out of context and twists it to say what she wants it to, well tries to and it works for most of the people who listen to her!She does not need school because God speaks to her, because she does Contemplative prayer. (No I do not believe her)
    On TV and video she shoots scripture out so fast you can not look them up while she is teaching.
    This guy gives some good examples:

  14. Surely there is no greater arrogance than to criticize academics, theologians, and scholars — people who devote their lives to learning and accumulating knowledge — because they are likely to come up with different conclusions than the ones you're already committed to.

  15. Okay, so what you are saying then is that if a person doesn't attend seminary, they must not be able to teach the Bible. I don't read Beth Moore anyway, but it sounds like you are twisting her words to have her say that seminary is useless. All I know is, a whole lot of people have come out of seminary puffed up with knowledge, and devoid of the love they entered with. Knowledge is good and necessary when it comes to teaching the Scripture, but to hire a pastor or preacher primarily because they have a degree Is not only foolish, its dangerous. Can the Holy Spirit not teach a man or woman? Is that not His responsibility? JE

    1. J. Earl, I think it's just as foolish and dangerous to follow an uneducated person who tells me their understanding of the Bible comes from "the Holy Spirit." My education helps me "test the spirits to see whether they are from God" (1 Jn 4:1 NIV). I don't think formal theological training is necessarily a prerequisite for faithful teaching of the Scriptures. But I think far too many people who don't know what they are doing freely take up the role of teacher without understanding what a dangerous responsibility it is (James 3:1).