Friday, 10 February 2012

Surviving critical biblical scholarship: Advice from Dr Simon Gathercole from Cambridge University

           For those (South Africans) unfamiliar with Dr Simon Gathercole, he has been teaching New Testament at the Department of Divinity, University of Cambridge for the past five years. Before that he was Senior Lecturer at Aberdeen, and before that he did his PhD under Prof. James Dunn in Durham. He is currently finishing his fourth major academic book; he is the general editor of the influential Journal for the Study of the New Testament and has written dozens of scholarly articles. Apart from all this, he is an elder in his local church where he preaches on occasions; has been part of several documentaries (including The National Geographic Society; Bible and Church in England etc); is married and the father of two children.

Before Christmas I had lunch with Simon who is currently on sabbatical. We go to the same church here in Cambridge and our children like to play together sometimes. Maybe one day I’ll write something about the Durham experiences we shared over lunch (I have a M.A. in biblical studies from Durham). What I would like to share today however is the advice Simon offered to Christian theology students who wants to pursue further academic study. The fact that Simon was an atheist as a teenager and became a committed Christian in high school makes his advice all the more significant (I think).


Simon, what advice can you offer to Christian theology students (who want to pursue a PhD) to help them as they go through the initial stages of critical biblical scholarship? A few pointers?


Be involved in a church where you have good teaching. You need to be receiving your primary input into your theology, that which shapes your thinking - from a church. It is quite difficult to survive a PhD if your primary input in your Christian life is your academic work, partly because the danger in doing a PhD is that you develop your own theology in complete isolation from others. That can be fatal really. Obviously we’re going to come up with nuances... but if you come up with something which fundamentally shapes your theology which nobody has ever thought before, that’s pretty dangerous. We can partly do that because when we’re doing a PhD we usually research something small, and because we do it all the time it might become bigger in our minds than it really is. That’s a danger.


So you were involved in church work right through your PhD? And you preached from time to time?


Yes... If you can’t explain and justify what you’re doing to a normal person, then maybe the fault is not with the normal person. It may be comprehensible and understandable in some abstract scholarly realm. So that could be a useful check.


Some academics may say that you’re subjective because you “hide behind the church”, and therefore you do not really explore things. You are now at Cambridge University, you would disagree with that?


Yes. I think it partly depends on what kind of a church you go to as well. If you go to a kind of church which is negative about intellectual reflection, then that is probably not a great place to be if you’re doing a PhD either. One should be in a church which has a good balance between intellectual rigour and faithfulness to Scripture. It’s not a matter of hiding behind the church, it’s a matter of not doing what you’re doing as a pure individual. One of the verses I think about is “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it” (2 Tim. 3.14).

For those interested, I place pictures of Simon's three books below. I think you will be able to find excerpts of it on Google Books. See also the Wikipedia link at the very bottom as well as a short Youtube I did in Afrikaans about our lunch.


JNJ said...

Good advice, I especially like "If you can’t explain and justify what you’re doing to a normal person, then maybe the fault is not with the normal person." That's a real watershed. If we can't communicate our work to normal people, if we can't transform our work into something that helps normal people, I think it's in vain. Thanks for posting it. Good advice, not only for students, but for everyone teaching/preaching!

Doc Shaphan said...

Well balanced advice - there are two poles, the ultra "scientific" that itself has many biases(!), and the ultra"spiritual" or literalistic fundamentalistic - if good enough for Paul, good enough for me!"
The XVIII and XIXth centuries of Missions changed the face of the New World - a wonderful era of missionary saints and heroes. But often the churches and esp. faculties were headed by less enthusiastic rationalists that even undermined the basic truths of the Good News with a mod-gospel that does not radically change lives and the morals of whole nations.
The church needs sanctified, Spirit-filled academics to lead the next generation of fervent evangelistically minded missionaries and ministers and academic leaders!
As written elsewhere I see the understanding of the MEANING and experiencing of the letters of the Sacred Texts as a basis for academic study. With all respect both Jesus and his disciples (esp. Paul) belonged to a Messianic school of thought that is basic to all Scripture. Without a personal knowledge of that school of thought diachronistic word-studies are partial.