The story that opens Ben Witherington’s book Is There a Doctor in the House?: An Insider’s Story and Advice on Becoming a Bible Scholar clues you in that this isn’t going to be a typical “how-to” book for higher education. In a few paragraphs, Witherington recounts an episode in his life that includes a sweaty run through an airport, an almost-missed plane, a pair of torn trousers, and an embarrassing greeting. The immediate impression is that humility matters. Bible scholarship is different than other forms of higher education, and Witherington makes that point over and over again, not just through the advice he offers those considering this path but also through the humble way in which he offers it.
The purpose of the book is narrow. Witherington isn’t writing for those who want to be serious students of the Bible without becoming teachers. Nor is he writing for teachers of the Bible who have no ambition at becoming published Bible scholars. Instead, his target is a growing number of seminary students who desire “to become a good and even well-published Bible scholar” (20). But even if Witherington’s target audience is narrow, he insists that the learning process must be broad. He writes:
“…to be a serious student, much less a teacher or scholar of the Bible, you must have a love for learning – and not just learning during a particular period of your life, but lifelong learning” (21).
Pushing back against the anti-intellectual climate of some parts of evangelicalism, Witherington lays out the necessity of careful thinking when it comes to the Bible. “Ignorance is not bliss when it comes to the truth of and about God’s word,” he writes. “Indeed, ignorance is the enemy of the truth” (23).
This emphasis on truth-seeking is felt throughout the book. He not only stands against those who embrace ignorance as a virtue (some segments of evangelicalism) but also against those who embrace agnosticism as a virtue (the postmodern turn). “It is important that you do not allow your piety to outrun the evidence or overrule the pursuit of truth in the service of the truth,” he counsels. “Christian Bible scholars above all must be truth seekers” (34). And truth-seeking means that we are not dealing with ideas, but reality. He goes on to write:
“…in fact the writers of the New Testament are not merely encouraging us to enter a debating club where ideas are thrown around like Frisbees. The New Testament writers believe they are talking about realities – real persons like Jesus, real events like the resurrection, real experiences like the new birth. The moment theological or ethical reflections forget that ideas are ways of talking about such realities is the moment when one has untethered theological or ethical discussion from its historical or real foundation” (69).
There are some wise words of counsel here, particularly in relation to humility and the ability to admit when you are wrong. I love this quote:
“The Bible teacher or scholar doesn’t need someone to invent humility pills; just taking in and taking seriously regular doses of the wisdom of the Bible is enough to humble any normal person” (124).
And then there’s this good word of warning:
“It’s precisely when the text does not cough up the results you were expecting or wanting that you find out what sort of Bible teacher or scholar you actually are” (127).
The best part of Witherington’s work is his insistence that biblical scholarship be done in service to the church. “It is not enough to know the Bible if you want to teach it,” he says. “You need to know the God of the Bible” (77). He goes on: “Research by a Christian is never done just for its own sake, or even just to advance knowledge in a given field. It is done in service to the Lord and to His church” (83). Amen!
I resonated in particular with his desire to see more cross-disciplinary conversations in biblical studies. “Not only do we need more dialogue across disciplines, we need more Bible scholars who actually are committed to be biblical theologians and biblical ethicists, seeking to apply the insights they have gained from the Bible to current and pressing theological and ethical issues” (73). Yes, yes, yes! The church is hungry for scholarship that not only gives insight into the meaning of the text but presses those insights into application for today’s world.
As one who is considering future Ph.D. plans, I benefited greatly from the wisdom of Ben Witherington. Is There a Doctor in the House? is a helpful primer on becoming a biblical scholar with a heart for the church.