I heard a form of this question a few times this year. In some way this is very good as it reminds us that we’ve been talking about Scripture in our community. In another way, it’s not as good, as the statement implies frustration and perhaps a growing disunity between those who hold different convictions, different interpretations and most obviously an “us versus them” when it comes to seminary education. As one who is sensitive to disunity, I keep thinking about this.
The simple answer to the question is no, you do not need a seminary degree to “understand the Bible.” Everyone should read the Scriptures as this is one of the great maxims from the Protestant Reformation, “Sola Scriptura”, and making the Bible available to everyone was another one of the greater convictions and benefit that came out of the Reformation.
Everyone should read the Scripture but no one fully understands the Bible either. No one.
Yes, I am keenly aware of the great stories of those who have memorized chapters and books of inspired text, they’ve read the Bible every day for hours for decades, and someone has identified them as one who “knows the Bible inside and out.” We can presume this individual is clearly well-versed in Scripture, loves the Lord and is doing amazing work for the Kingdom of God but no mortal can fathom the ways of God, no can know the mind of God, no one can comprehensively understand the Bible.
We all like to think that if we were alone on a desert island that we could master the Bible. Well, we definitely couldn’t if we were reading it English. it’s not simply that word meanings are lost in the translation so the solution becomes learning Hebrew and Greek while alone on this island. No and ask anyone who has taken Greek/Hebrew and they will tell you, we’re not even sure we’re using the right words. How often do you hear the line form a professor, “Perhaps a better word for this particular translation to have used was ….”? This is one of the reasons why we have so many translations and no shortage of new ones. The more we understand of the original language and historical context and the more our own languages change, the more translations we’ll have and need so make sure that island has a P.O. Box.
We can learn this truth from Scripture, we can learn it from experience, we can also learn it in places like seminaries. There have been books written about why to go to seminary and it’s been my observation that some are helpful and some over-promise. There are many excellent reasons to go to seminary, particularly vocationally, but among the reasons for me is that seminary gave me access and a measure of formal training in a conversation about Scripture, theology and mission that I really craved.
It was eight years between my first master’s and second and I clearly remember during my first year at Biblical Seminary reading the Drama of Scripture and thinking to myself, “Thank God I signed up for this crazy, intense cohort program, I need this.” In those in-between years, I was trying to read nerdy books, trying to keep up, but I had no real academic community around me that offered the conversation, encouragement, frustration and refinement around me.
One of the best moments of any seminary education is when the professor leads an intelligent room full of people in a discussion on something that seems initially solvable and as we explore contrasting passages, interpretations, traditions, and practical ramifications, we come to a moment of complete frustration and collectively say, “Wait, so what do we do this??” There are some moments when you literally say to the professor, “I can’t leave this room not knowing the answer.” And the prof responds, “I’ll make some coffee for you because you’re never leaving here then.” We stare at the text, shrug our shoulders and the education is learning the history, complexity, and beauty of Scripture.
It’s a humbling experience. One that moves the student of Scripture to prayer, to be Spirit-led, to seek God’s wisdom until we are given the complete answer on the other side of this life. The reality is you actually do learn quite a bit of the historical context and nuances found in our holy text. But that education and humility gives you sense of self-awareness of how great God is and how rich these sacred words are.
So where does that leave us especially those of us who are not seminary-bound? Should we not bother reading Scrpture? Of course not, the best thing we can do is keep reading.Then should we stop forming opinions, convictions and doctrinal statements? Of course not, there’s a place for all of that.
It’s our spiritual and hermeneutic posture that needs forming. My opinions, convictions and doctrinal conclusions will be in conflict with another and that’s ok. What’s not ok, is the arrogance and superiority we assume over the other. We can receive Biblical education in different forms: personal study, academic education, sermons/podcasts, communal learning with fellow believers, etc. and all of this will make a difference in the quality of our informed positions but none of us, from the newbie to the PhD can actually know the mind of God.
To be sure, I’d rather have the understanding of the PhD, unless it’s stripped me from the love of God, Scripture and neighbor. But for all of us, we learn the power of Scripture by sitting at our Lord’s feet and living by word and deed and you don’t need a degree for that.
For some practical resources for study, consider the following:
Use different translations in whatever passage you are reading that day. Biblegateway is very helpful.
The New Testament for Everyone Series by N.T. Wright
Reading/discussing Scripture with friends.