Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Children And PhDs


I was re-posted again over at Living Lutheran. This time they picked up my post titled “Reading Someone Else’s Mail” in which I described the letters of St. Paul as high context documents.

A reader who calls himself “Chemnitz” replied. I am assuming that Chemnitz is male. I am further assuming that he took the name Chemnitz from the Lutheran theologian Martin Chemnitz (1522 - 1586).  At any rate, the modern day Chemnitz wrote:

“Luther said that scripture is so simple a child can understand it. This article seems to say that only experts -- those with the correect [sic] gnosis (knowledge) --can interpret the Bible. If Paul was the author, that might be true. But the Holy Spirit is the real author, and He does not hide anything from us necessary for our salvation.”

When we were children, my brother and I were given wooden plaques by our Sunday School teacher. I honestly don’t remember what mine looked like. My brother’s had a picture of a fluffy white kitten chasing a butterfly and bore the inscription “God is Love.” The words are from 1 John 4:8. I loved that plaque. Its message was formative to my understanding of God.

I am currently reading Evolving in Monkey Town, by Rachel Held Evans. The book is breezily written and easily read. It is humorous and thoughtful by turns. I’m enjoying it. On page 27, Evans writes:

“I cannot remember a time when I didn’t know about Jesus. Stories of his dividing the fishes and loaves, calming the stormy sea, and riding the donkey into Jerusalem were as familiar to me growing up as Jack and the Beanstalk and Cinderella. I learned them from my parents and from pretty Sunday school teachers who smelled like peppermint and let me call them by their first names. They were more than stories really. They were grand narratives that flowed like streams into my own story, creating the currents that would move me forward and give me direction in life.”

So, Chemnitz is at least partly right. Portions of the Scripture are so clear and simple that even young children can understand them. I think that it takes a certain maturity of mind to comprehend Paul’s letter to the Romans or the book of Hebrews, but parts of the Bible are clear enough even for children. Thank God.

Then again, I think that Chemnitz has misunderstood my original post. I never said, nor did I mean to intimate, that only experts can interpret the Bible. (The term “gnosis” here is both loaded and inaccurate. I am not a gnostic.) I did not say, nor do I believe that the things necessary for our salvation are hidden from us.

My point was that some parts of the Bible, and in particular some parts of the letters of Paul are closed to us. For example, in Philippians 4:2-3, Paul writes:

“I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.”

Who were Euodia and Syntyche? What was the nature of their disagreement? Paul could assume that his first readers knew. Today, no one can say, not an expert with special “gnosis”, nor even a precocious child. This is a simple example of Paul’s letters being high context documents. Because many of the details of Paul’s writings are lost to us, I maintain that we should hold our interpretations lightly.
Though I don’t know the source for Chemnitz’s assertion that Luther said Scripture was clear enough for children to understand, I will take it at face value. I will also point out that Martin Luther was a doctor of biblical theology. He studied the Scriptures in great depth and sometimes struggled to understand them. He was also known, occasionally, to overstate his case.
I will also say that Lutherans have always required their clergy to be educated, at least partly so that they can explain the Scriptures clearly. This is not some special “gnosis.” It is education to be shared.
Finally, while it may not take an expert to understand the Bible, I have benefited many times over from sitting at the feet of those who do have expertise in Scriptural studies. I have found that those with PhDs are often the most cautious in their pronouncements about the Bible, the most tentative in their conclusions, the most careful to understand the Scriptures in their context, and the first to say “I don’t know.”

Scripture is quoted from the New Revised Standard Version.The picture of the young Jesus among the Doctors is by Rembrandt.

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