A Book Review from Books At a Glance
Reviewed by Jeff Block
While Scripture readily speaks wisdom into the life of even a young child who is open to hearing from God, the fact is that no matter how long one studies God’s word, there will remain depths and richness left to discover. A Little Book for New Bible Scholars is written for those who desire to go beyond the basics—what the authors refer to as “the beaten path”—to become lifelong students of the Bible. Targeted at those beginning formal biblical studies in an academic setting, this book is written by E. Randolph Richards (PhD, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) and Joseph R. Dodson (PhD, University of Aberdeen). Both men are professors of biblical studies, have written several other books, and have dedicated their academic lives to teaching students how to properly exegete Scripture, particularly Pauline literature. Their focus, stated in the preface, is to create not just disciples of Christ, but disciple-makers, who know how to tap into the richness of God’s word and pass that richness on to others. It is also clear that Richards’ perspective is largely influenced by the years he spent teaching in Indonesia.
A Little Book for New Bible Scholars is organized as a collection of principles to assist the reader in healthy, biblical exegesis. This is not a book which explains how to properly exegete Scripture, but an attempt to motivate Christ-followers to devote years of their lives to studying how to properly exegete Scripture. It is a brief work (109 small pages), divided into ten chapters, each about 10 pages long. The first nine chapters each describe one principle, plus a final concluding chapter which could have been numbered with the other “principle” chapters.
Chapter 1: Fall in Love
The book’s first principle in effective biblical studies is to fall in love with Jesus. The more you love Him, the more you’ll want to know everything about Him. And the more you know about Him, the more you’ll love Him. The authors emphasize that neither love without knowledge nor knowledge without love constitutes true devotion. They expect the love of God to compel biblical scholars to do the hard work of rigorously studying (not just reading) the Scriptures, as well as biblical languages and extra-biblical material, such as history, systematic theology, etc. We must also develop our exegesis (and therefore our theology) in the context of the Church, both modern and historic.
Chapter 2: More Stuff, Less Fluff
Here, the authors exhort biblical scholars to keep the signal-to-noise ratio high. They encourage us to value depth of knowledge over presentation, calling us to go beyond surface readings of Scripture. In-depth study is required if biblical scholars are to teach more than “a canon within a canon” (teaching through the lens of my preexisting theological leanings or focusing on my favorite parts, including genres, of Scripture) and produce faithful, well-rounded disciples.
Chapter 3: Hold Your Horses!
Passion is not a substitute for preparation. In battle, enthusiasm is no match for weapons, armor, and the training to use them well. So is it with biblical studies. The authors encourage biblical scholars to take time to be prepared before charging into ministry. This will help us avoid overly shallow or simplistic conclusions, being distracted by temporary fads, etc.
Chapter 4: Don’t Play Marbles with Diamonds
“Biblical studies is serious business. We often use the diamonds of Scripture to play marbles when we draw transitory or even trite lessons from it” (45). In chapter 4, the authors focus on the dangers of bad exegesis, explaining that it can dilute or distort the gospel and lead people to faulty, even harmful theology. In contrast, good exegesis – entering into the world of Scripture to learn what it is really saying on its own terms, and then applies it thoughtfully in one’s own context – is not only the obligation of the God-honoring biblical scholar, but changes lives for the Kingdom of God.
Chapter 5: Speak the Local Language
The authors make a compelling argument for studying biblical languages and doing the hard work of retaining and improving that knowledge over the long term. Drawing on his experiences in Indonesia, Richards claims that we cannot truly understand a people unless we speak their language, because too many subtleties, nuances and interpretive options slip by us in translation. A Little Book for New Bible Scholars makes the same claim about the role of learning Greek and Hebrew in studying Scripture. The authors take the position that anyone who aspires to teach the Scriptures should learn the biblical languages, because that direct access to the original biblical text is required to be the best biblical scholar one can be. They go so far as to state that “if the love of Christ does not drive us to study the biblical languages, then the fear of God should” (58).
Chapter 6: Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing
This chapter focuses on maintaining a devotional and personal relationship with God, even as we make His word the subject of intense study. The authors outline the dangers of “feeding the head and neglecting the heart so that there is a temptation to prize knowledge of God more than knowing God” (61). They warn bible students to guard against deemphasizing the devotional life, allowing the rigors of study to crowd out or diminish one’s prayer life, tending toward isolationism, and developing a judgmental spirit.
Chapter 7: Don’t Get Puffed Up
Continuing their warnings about possible pitfalls of the academic life, Richards and Dodson focus this chapter on pride and cynicism. They exhort biblical scholars to prayerfully cultivate the discernment to separate critical thinking from a critical spirit, to resist the temptation to compare ourselves to others, to acknowledge that our gifts come from God, and to continually pray that God will use our friends and family “to remind us that the condition of our heart is more impressive than the prestige of our degree” (76).
Chapter 8: Biblical Studies is an Equal Opportunity Vocation
Chapter 8 makes a case for diverse, global theology. The authors call non-Western, minority and female scholars to engage in biblical studies and actively contribute to the global theological conversation. They exhort these lesser-heard voices not to allow themselves to be labeled or limited by others, or to think of themselves as somehow less capable than westerns to contribute. And they caution them not to give up when others try to dismiss their work. I especially appreciate his request to non-westerns to help those of us in the West see what we may be missing.
Chapter 9: Stay the Course
Here, Richards and Dodson encourage students to continue their formal biblical education until the Lord calls them to stop. Specifically, they address a number of “common but unreliable indicators that a student [has finished his or her training]” (91). These include:
- I’m tired of school
- I’ve already learned all I need to know
- Further education would be a boring and repetitive
- I’ll just study on my own after I graduate
- There’s nothing new left to research
The authors debunk each of these, and encourage biblical scholars to pursue further education for the right reasons – which boil down to faithfulness to God’s calling in our lives. They sound the call for students to consider the dual role of “minister-scholar” (the term I have heard and prefer is pastor-theologian). These are those who who attempt to live on the border between the Academy and the Church, investing in both scholarly and pastoral work.
Conclusion: Don’t Miss the Forest for the Trees
This could easily have been labeled a tenth chapter / principle. In this concluding chapter, the authors exhort us to engage in a few specific behaviors or habits which will help us keep the big picture in view. First, make sure you’re actually serving in ministry; don’t let the time-consuming rigors of study excuse a lack of practical ministry participation. Second, remember that biblical study is not an end in itself; it’s a tool for personal devotion and corporate ministry. Third, invest in people; they are what really matter. Forth, take care of your heart, making sure your devotional life is strong and accountability is present, so that you don’t end up disqualified for the work to which God has called you and which is the goal of your studies.
The book concludes with a helpful “snorkel vs scuba” analogy, challenging the reader to decide how deeply he or she will dive into God’s word. Richards and Dodson state, “Take the time and effort to gain the training and tools to go deeper into God’s Word … You can only take the church as deep as you go yourself” (109).
Overall, I appreciate this book. I fully agree with its premise and many of the conclusions drawn in it. It is a very quick and accessible read on a very important topic, and I believe the authors successfully achieve their stated goal of helping to prepare students to navigate formal biblical studies well. I particularly value their emphasis on falling in love with Jesus (chapter 1), personal piety in an academic setting (chapters 6 and 7), learning the biblical languages (chapter 5), and their discussion of the pitfalls in approach to exegesis (chapter 4).
I also relate to the style of the book: a list of principles, presented conversationally and well-illustrated by stories from the authors’ personal, frequently cross-cultural, experiences. Richards and Dodson do a great job flowing back and forth between first person perspectives—something not always done as well as it is here.
However, a number of the authors’ illustrations, though illustrating theologically defensive propositions, are somewhat misleading or incomplete. For example, in chapter 3, they encourage students not to settle for shallow answers to difficult questions (I agree!), but then they illustrated the point by citing questions posed to one of the authors which I would have labeled as “trivia”—specifically related to names in the Book of Daniel. As a result, a very legitimate point—know the Bible well—comes into conflict with another of their principles—keep the main thing the main thing. Unfortunately, the book contains a number of examples like this.
There are also times when the authors, in the name of careful exegesis, walk by clear biblical teaching to get to a “deeper meaning” which may be questionable. For example, in chapter 2, they spend several pages exegeting Luke 20:45-47 (the story of the widow’s mite). They conclude that a “second, subtle warning” exists: “Be careful, religious leaders, that you don’t use someone’s piety to squeeze every last dime out of them” (30). While I acknowledge that there is more to the story of the widow’s mite than the immediate message about faith in giving, and I agree that preachers shouldn’t manipulate people, we must be careful not to get so clever in our exegesis that the meaning of this passage becomes “don’t push too hard for pious people to give.” Focusing on “second, subtle” messages in the text may not always be the most helpful approach to exegesis.
Taken as a whole, this book is quite valuable, and certainly worth the very quick read. A Little Book for New Bible Scholars serves as an effective primer on the importance of taking the study of God’s word seriously—a very important message indeed. But when we read it, or other books on “digging deeper” into the depths of Scripture, we must discipline ourselves to avoid the extremes in our approach to biblical studies. Richards and Dodson do an excellent job helping us avoid shallow thinking and underdeveloped conclusions. But we (and they) must also guard against giving students the impression that advanced degrees and “second, subtle” meanings are required to know and love God and His word.
Jeff Block is a student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and blogs at www.jeffblock.com.
Buy the books
A LITTLE BOOK FOR NEW BIBLE SCHOLARS, by Randolph E. Richards and Joseph R. Dodson