Does One Have To Be A Scholar To Interpret The Bible? -- By: Malcolm O. Tolbert

Journal: Faith and Mission
Volume: FM 04:2 (Spring 1987)
Article: Does One Have To Be A Scholar To Interpret The Bible?
Author: Malcolm O. Tolbert


Does One Have To Be A Scholar To Interpret The Bible?

Malcolm O. Tolbert

Professor of New Testament,
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary

A Pentecostal preacher in the community where I was pastor boasted that he had never prepared a sermon. In fact, he did not even select his text prior to going to the pulpit. He simply opened the Bible (King James Version) at random, placed his finger on the open page, and read the text that appeared at that point. Then he began to preach, depending on God to give him the message for the hour. He had a proof-text to substantiate his theology of proclamation. Had not Jesus said, “And when they bring you to trial and deliver you up, do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say; but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit” (Mark 13:11)?

It did not bother him at all that he was taking the text totally out of its context and applying it to a completely different kind of situation. Neither did it concern him that he knew nothing at all about the Greek language in which the text was written. He never raised any questions about the historical and cultural context of the passage read or any of the other matters that scholars would think essential to a serious and valid interpretation of a biblical text. His people accepted his preaching on the same basis. They were sure that it was the authoritative message given to the pastor from the Holy Spirit about the passage upon which he expounded. Any question such as the ones I have raised would have been considered inappropriate at best and blasphemous at worst. The Spirit of God was not limited by the educational background and preparation of the speaker. In fact, any preacher who possessed adequate academic credentials was suspect. Such people did not really depend upon God for their message.

To be sure, that preacher represents an extreme view of the question we have raised. But it is to some extent in harmony with the attitude of thousands of preachers and hosts of believers among us today. In broad sections of evangelical Christianity there has been, and still is, a deep suspicion of anything that smacks of an academic approach to the study of Scripture. Sunday School classes all over the land have adopted the Bible as their only text and depend upon teachers without any special training in biblical studies who spurn recognized scholarly aids to teach it. Some of them think that scholarship is essentially unspiritual and that scholars do not tell the truth about the Bible.

Popular Interpreters of the Bible

Many prominent and popular Bible teachers on television and radio

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