The Preacher as Student

The Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann describes the objective of his teaching and scholarship about as well as one could hope for in so few words:

“to enable the church to discern the world anew according to the script of the Bible with particular attentiveness to the character of the Bible, and thereby to accept the world as a place of joyous missional obedience” (“That the World May Be Redescribed,” Interpretation 56 [2002]: 359). Biblical scholarship–at least, scholarship that attends to the Bible’s capacity for shaping Christian identity and life–assists the church in faithfully discerning the word of God and the world in which that word operates. Because “attentiveness to the character of the Bible” is crucial for discernment that flows out of biblical interpretation, it is essential that preachers stay up to date with developments in biblical scholarship.

No student of the Bible should read alone; biblical scholarship offers preachers access to a wide community of fellow Bible readers. Still, many pastors fail to avail themselves of scholarship, preferring instead to pull old notes from files or fall back onto hackneyed interpretations of texts. Why is this? I rarely hear pastors say they have nothing to learn from expanding their knowledge of biblical scholarship. (Those who do think this are probably just too polite to tell me.) Instead, the barriers that most pastors experience are lack of time and inadequate knowledge of where best to begin or resume their studies. These barriers are related. Limited time means that most pastors crave efficient study and fear wasting hours when confronted with ever-expanding choices of books and articles to which they can devote themselves.

What’s a time-strapped preacher to do?

*Use the Internet only with extreme care. A day may come when this will not be true, but right now the vast, vast majority of biblical commentary and reference material available for free on the Web is alarmingly poor. For every good site (such as this one, of course) there are scores not worth your time. If you know tried and true sites, stick with them. But don’t expect Google to lead you to something helpful.

*Subscribe to a theological journal that makes you think. It requires an investment of time, but every pastor should regularly read at least one journal that is not specifically devoted to lectionary commentary or preaching assistance. Several journals seek to explore the interface between the Bible and Christian ministry (the best, off the top of my head, are Word & World and Interpretation). These will not help you cobble together a sermon on Saturday night, but they will help you foster a deeper engagement with scripture and keep you up to speed on new developments in biblical scholarship.

*Be aware that a growing number of seminaries and divinity schools are offering their alumni/ae free access to journals via the ATLASerials database. Through this online resource you can access articles from the archives (and sometimes from current issues) of dozens of quality journals and magazines. If your alma mater offers this, sign up and start reading.  Luther Seminary alumni/ae can sign up for free access here.

*Team up with colleagues. A new lectionary year always seems to lie just around the corner, and you can plan in advance to use it as an opportunity to dig more deeply into a biblical book or two that you plan to feature in a series of upcoming sermons. Maybe you’d like to investigate current scholarship on the book(s), but there are far more commentaries and other resources than you could possibly read. Form a study group with other preachers. Plan together to work through a particular book and assign each person a different commentary or monograph. Your group’s discussions will then include the voices of multiple scholars, and you might discover a new interpreter or two whose written insights resonate with you.

*Build a basic library. If you got out of seminary with few books and were called to a church with a small or out-of-date library, you owe it to yourself and your congregation to invest in a core library. At minimum, you need a substantive Bible dictionary and a collection of biblical commentaries. As for the dictionary, the six-volume Anchor Bible Dictionary has been the standard for a decade and a half. It will have company when the final four volumes of The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible are released in the coming years. Biblical commentaries offer a lot of scholarly bang for the buck. No commentary series is perfect; pastors should buy the best individual titles from a variety of sets. If the convenience of a complete series is too attractive to pass up, a good option for a church library is the twelve-volume New Interpreter’s Bible. Nearly every major theological publishing company also sells a one-volume commentary on the entire Bible.

*Don’t be afraid to be a groupie. There is nothing wrong with sticking to a core of authors whom you like and respect. It is always good to keep eyes open for new writers who also feed your mind and soul, but don’t apologize for playing favorites.

Of course, new scholarship is not always good scholarship. Sometimes new scholarship is simply about having better information by which to assess old and familiar readings. But keeping up to date as best you can with biblical scholarship is an important means of nurturing, in Brueggemann’s words, your “particular attentiveness to the character of the Bible” and your capacity to discern the word of God in this world.