By Dr. Bill Wilder
Do you remember watching Sesame Street as a child? I’m thinking of those times in the show when, say, a peach, an apple, an orange, and a potato would be pictured side-by-side as someone sang, “One of these is not like the others, one of these things just doesn’t belong. Can you tell me which thing is not like the others, by the time I finish my song?”
That illustration comes to mind, because I’m aware that a rigorous, academic study of the Bible can seem to be as out of place in the spiritual formation of Christians as a potato in a bowl of fruit. This came home to me one day in Nigeria when it came my turn to answer some questions from a man sent out by my missions agency. “What is the nature of your ministry at the seminary?” he asked. “I mainly teach Greek and Hebrew” was my reply. The man was incredulous. “You teach Greek and Hebrew to students planning to be pastors in the bush?” It was clear that he considered such education an immense waste of time. Alongside practical courses like preaching and evangelism and counseling, Greek and Hebrew were a set of courses that just didn’t belong.
I can well imagine a similar response to the requirement in the Trinity Fellows Program to take and pass challenging academic courses in the Bible. Compared with one-on-one mentoring, working through relational issues, direct involvement in ministry or missions, studying theology may simply represent an unwelcome intrusion into the wounding and wonderful labor of building relationships. “One of these things is not like the others, one of these things just doesn’t belong.” Or so it certainly seems.
The first thing to be said, of course, is that such detractors may be right. It is perfectly possible for the study of Scripture to be “out of place”—for such study to lead to the neglect of other obligations in the Christian life. But then again, such disordering is possible for any good gift of God. We may indeed honor study (of theology or anything else) more than we should; I am guilty of it myself. Yet we may also love our friends or our children or our spouses or even our ministry more than we should. Because we are fallen, we tend to love things both more and less than we should. Study of Scripture and theology is not exempt.
So the question isn’t whether it is possible for the rigorous study of Scripture or theology to be misused. Of course, it is. It is no less exempt from our fallenness than, say, our relationships. The question is whether such study, properly used, is necessary for spiritual growth and transformation of God’s people. It seems to me that the answer to that question is yes, for at least two reasons. The first has to do with our growth in understanding of the truth. The second has to do with the role of that understanding in our sanctification. Let’s take these in turn.
First, study of Scripture is necessary because of our distance from the times and places in which God’s Word was first revealed. Put provocatively, we have to study (which may include taking courses) to even begin to approach the level of an ancient Near Eastern or first-century Palestinian peasant. Those things they took for granted—language, cultural conventions, genres, customs peculiar to their cultures—are foreign to us and so must be studied and learned with some effort on our parts.
Indeed, I am quite certain that the missions representative would have affirmed the need for diligent study with respect to understanding the particular people group (the Yoruba) to which we were called. It is commonplace in missions these days to claim that one cannot hope to understand a given people group without a knowledge of their heart language and an appreciation for their cultures, their customs, their stories, their history.
And yet, if this is true (as I think it is), then is it not also true that a deep understanding of Scripture cannot come without the same commitment to the particular times and places (languages, cultures, customs) in which it was revealed? True understanding of anything (people groups, friends, husbands, wives, children, and, yes, the Word of God itself) requires careful attention, even study. Since God has chosen to reveal himself in particular times, places, cultures, and languages, we must attend to the particularities of that revelation in order to understand and know him better.
This leads me to my second point. Study of the Bible is also necessary because of our distance from God’s truth in our fallen minds and hearts. Or, put more positively, study is necessary because the transformation God intends for us is comprehensive: it includes our minds as well as our hearts and actions. If every part of us has been affected by the Fall, every part of us (mind, hearts, bodies) is included within God’s redemptive purposes for creation in the cross and resurrection of Jesus.
This total transformation is ultimately a work of the Spirit, of course, but it is not without its struggle on our parts. We are tempted to do the wrong things (actions), to succumb to our feelings and inclinations of the moment (affections and will), to accept a version of reality that denies God’s truth in some way (minds). Sanctification thus involves a transformation of all these aspects of our being (mind included).
Indeed, there’s very little hope of transformation in these other areas apart from a transformed understanding of the world through sustained study of God’s truth. If the substance of Christian obedience comes down to love—of God, fellow human beings, and his world—in both our affections and actions, it is also true that Christian love cannot be divorced from the truth: love is, among other things, “rejoicing in the truth” (1 Cor 13).
Why study then? Because we are created, time-and-space-bound beings who must be alert to the very particular times and places, languages and cultural forms in which God has revealed himself and his truth. Because we’re fallen beings who are being redeemed—not without struggle—in our minds as well as our wills, affections, bodies, world. Because such study is therefore not out of place in a faithful Christian community. It is rather one more appointed means of grace which God deigns to use in his gracious work of transformation in our lives. Diligent study belongs to our vocation as Christians as surely as all that we are belongs to Him. Now that’s worth singing about.
Dr. Bill Wilder is current Director of Educational Ministries at the Center for Christian Study in Charlottesville, Virginia. Besides regularly teaching on a host of Biblically centered and theologically driven classes throughout the year, he is also intimately involved with the education of the Trinity Fellows. Among several things, Dr. Wilder yearns to see a resurgence of "worshipping God with your mind" within the Millenial Generation. You can read more about his work and life here.