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The Vocation of Scholarship  

Wycliff Hall Chapel, Oxford

This article, originally presented orally to a group of Langham-funded Junior Scholars at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, in September 2017, was contributed by Mark W. Elliott, Professor of Historical and Biblical Theology, University of St. Andrews.


The vocation of scholarship can be considered as distinct but conjoined to the vocation of writing and communicating. To employ “bodily” analogies, it is like the heart where there are both systolic and diastolic or more simply, like breathing and breathing out. The vocation of scholarship is in the intake of ideas, the weighing of evidence, and the analysis of theories. The vocation of writing is more that of assimilating and then using what one has received in order to create, to probe, to build up and tear down. The two “vocations” are distinct yet inseparable.

What is “Vocation”?

First, what do we mean by vocation? Perhaps it’s a sense of one’s own importance as part of God’s plans. Jonathan Edwards says we should never not act, imagining that this is a pious caution if it actually means acting against our conscience.1 It can be just as bad to stall due to uncertainties as to soldier on. We should go with our judgement.

Personal testimony is a witness to our loss of confidence in our present guiding and calling. We sometimes overdo the obviously soteriological moments in the past and miss the whole person moments of the present in statements such as: “I got saved . . . and then God blessed me with family.” This moment of  further study/PhD and beyond clearly has to do with advancing the kingdom of God by qualifying me to teach and run an institution. The fascination of the subject matter, even if concerns creation, divine revelation, redemption, etc. seems strangely somehow illegitimate.  

To speak briefly of my own experience: Bible study was the heart of the Christian Union and church house groups but also Sunday services. I wanted to know more, and some amount of leadership and interest in urban church made me think that ordained ministry was the way to go. Overly sensitive and prone to isolation and depression, the academy offered a more forgiving route (I thought!) where I could learn things and communicate them, developing a knowledge not for its own sake but in service to others. And the church did not seem to have too much of this theological input, so hopefully there was a “market” for what I could offer.

My PhD was hermeneutical and doctrinal as well as biblical, so I could generalize and be more “churchy” (I’m still not sure that was the right approach.) The thesis was about the Song of Songs, but not just about the text itself.  In the process of research, and facing an uncertain future, I found reading to be a consolation at a time when I had no money and no family (for married people there will be, I suppose, a dip in quality of family life).

Later on, I found out that Boethius reminds us that truth is not an analgesic but rather that it makes one strong to endure and overcome. In the preface to The Consolation of Philosophy Aristotle is quoted: ὄμως δὲ και ἐν τούτοις διαλάμπει τὸ καλὸν, ἐπειδὰν φέρῃ τις εὐκόλως πολλὰς καὶ μεγάλας ἀτυχίας, μη δι᾿ ἀναλγησίαν, ἀλλὰ γεννάδας ὤν καὶ μεγαλόψυχος. In other words, it’s not about the turning out of events, but inner virtue. Knowing that is consolation. We are made by God for God.

Yet not all philosophy teaches us that. The PhD is lonesome and so is all research. It is unusual to join a project with others, and play one’s part. It might be better to work on one project together, and in this respect the experience of many Langham Scholars has been that working on Regional Bible commentaries is a great blessing.

Scholarship as Contemplation

Given that at the present time scholarship is a task for individuals, one might want to think about scholarship and contemplation. One might want to write: scholarship as contemplation.  Only when there is a sense of getting somewhere, but again, it is about going deep to rise high: there is a literal sense before that of spiritual application. There is a need to see the other at a distance, even if we don’t use the term “critical detachment” but rather ‘phenomenological empathy’ as a first step. And this in the context of prayer and moving towards evaluation, as Edith Stein reminds us.

For Thomas Aquinas (STh I-II, q182 Reply to Objection 3): “Sometimes a man is called away from the contemplative life to the works of the active life, on account of some necessity of the present life, yet not so as to be compelled to forsake contemplation altogether. Hence Augustine says (De Civ. Dei xix, 19): “The love of truth seeks a holy leisure, the demands of charity undertake an honest toil,” the work namely of the active life. “If no one imposes this burden upon us we must devote ourselves to the research and contemplation of truth, but if it be imposed on us, we must bear it because charity demands it of us. Yet even then we must not altogether forsake the delights of truth, lest we deprive ourselves of its sweetness, and this burden overwhelm us. Hence, it is clear that when a person is called from the contemplative life to the active life, this is done by way not of subtraction but of addition.”

Contemplation is the basis of our plans and our projects.  As for study, the word stadium was seen as very close in meaning to exercise, and that is spiritual exercise. As Pierre Hadot writes in Qu’est-ce que la philosophie antique?: Christianity borrowed certain spiritual exercises from the Greek philosophical world, while emphasising the surrender of one’s own will, particularly in monasticism. One had to pay attention to oneself.

Hence, Basil the Great on Deuteronomy 15:9, “be careful not to harbor this wicked thought,” explains that we are not to look at visible goods but the destiny of the soul. The likes of Proverbs 4:23, “guard your heart,” and 2 Corinthians 13:5 “examine yourselves” affirms Basil’s point. With Evagrius, the kingdom of God is contemplation itself and in this he extends the Alexandrian tradition. However, Jerome is missing from Hadot’s account and with that there lacks the distinctively Christian aspect of monastic study: Scripture, and not just the Psalms. The link of Monasticism and study are evidenced as early as Theodoret in the 420s: as soon as he was made a bishop, he was able to write his first commentaries out of what he had learned as a monk.

As is well known Luther ruled out contemplation. For him, even meditation was to be understood not as an inner word, but the expressing of the word, situated between prayer and “being tested” on the way to read the Bible aright. In the Bible there are clear examples of “scholarship” mixed with vocation. Jeremiah preached the judgement-inflicting word. Now, prophets are not scholars. It is wise men who are taken to be the scholars. Yet the wisdom imagery suggests that before Jeremiah spoke or when those who wrote the book came to such proclamation, it was backed up by a wisdom metaphor and hence wisdom thinking; that is, can a leopard change its spots? Or more precisely, in Jeremiah 13:23, “Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots?” Likewise, Paul hardly had an academic career, but he did spend ample time in study. What went on in Arabia? The retreat into the desert was to contemplate.  Yet towards the end of his life he would receive the rebuke from Festus: too much learning is making you mad! (Acts 26:24)

There is the verse beloved of Origen, namely Matthew 13:52: “Therefore every scribe which is instructed to the kingdom of heaven is like to a man that is an householder, which brings forth out of his treasure things new and old.”

Although Luther was and remains to the fore in the Reformation, there were those who drove the Reformation from behind the scenes, who never much stepped into the public limelight of church leadership. This can be explained negatively as having to do with an introverted personality type in each case, or positively in that their gifts were overwhelmingly to do with learning and scholarship. They had to be scholars to be true to themselves.

Philipp Melanchthon comes particularly to mind. Here was someone who was meant to do the lecturing in NT, and then had to do OT (sound familiar?) He then headed up the translation of the OT, then became representative at Augsburg, where his calmness and clarity of expression were just what was needed. (Less involved at Marburg the previous year?) Here was someone who was responsible for the progress of the Reformation at a time it was under attack from Catholic armies, but at the same time he also did Education theory, Cosmology, and along with Calvin and Bullinger was a leader of the International Reformation in the 1540s–50s. Fundamentally he was a scholar, but he must have gained confidence. He wrote in his diary just days before his death. On the left: “Thou shalt be delivered from sins, and be freed from the acrimony and fury of theologians”; on the right, “Thou shalt go to the light, see God, look upon his Son, learn those wonderful mysteries which thou hast not been able to understand in this life.  I am the rough pioneer who must break the road; but Master Philipp comes along softly and gently, sows and waters heartily, since God has richly endowed him with gifts.”   When Caspar Peucer, his son-in-law, asked him if he wanted anything, he replied, “Nothing but heaven.”  There was that contemplative side of him, even to the end.

In that sense, the life of study is slightly superior to the active life, pastoral ministry included. Think about John the Evangelist, whether or not he is identified with John the Seer of the Apocalypse. In Acts 4, John enters the temple with Peter proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead (v. 2), At 19–20 we read: “But Peter and John answered them, ‘Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.’”  A good motto: What did you see and hear?  By Acts 5:30 John has disappeared from view to become a contemplative in a self-effacing way, to disappear and be known for what he wrote rather than for what he did.

In John the Evangelist we have the contemplative to draw on what von Balthasar did with Schelling’s three categories. And yet John is active because he unites the Marian receptivity with the Petrine initiative taking. One can and may be lost in a cloud of scholarship if by this we mean prayerful investigation of the truth of a matter.

Teaching and Pastoralia

The Reformation insisted on the fourfold office announced in Ephesians 4:11–12: “And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” The late, great Reformation scholar David F. Wright used to argue for this. Now where the text has τοὺς δὲ ποιμένας καὶ διδασκάλους, actually I think this means that pastors are teachers and teachers are pastors, not that they are separate groups.  Yet Calvin in his Ecclesiastical Ordinances sets up the order: pastors-doctors-elders-deacons in his interpretation of this. This was arguably quite an exegetical liberty and yet who can deny that doctors have their place in the church.  (See Jeannine Olson’s chapter in The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin)

Living scholarship, however precise, is precise and lively for the purpose of pastoralia, of course. Why do I research what I research? Normally it starts with what I have to teach. What needs to be discussed? On the one hand, it is those things that everybody is talking about; on the other hand, it is everything that nobody is talking about but that needs to be brought to the center of attention. The point is: avoid fads, dig deeper.

Simply, one is not wrong to do one’s scholarship for and through one’s teaching. How can the lecture I taught last year (one on Melanchthon, in my case) become stronger, more thought-provoking, and more persuasive, as well as informative, richer, and more gripping? We might not expect our students to read many primary sources, but we must in our research.  This arrangement is perhaps more realistic than our attempts to pursue more specialized things. Certainly, if a book is to emerge from our hard work, it will in some sense be an informed version of road-tested lectures. Indeed, textbook-monograph hybrid is something that publishers such as Eerdmans are quite keen on today.

The Purpose of Theology

The academic world seems to demand three to four years of testing, whether the BA or PhD. But academic life in the West is constant probation. Even when tenure is reached, there is a weight of expectations. Academics evaluate, and we do that with our colleagues, who do it to us. Sadly, it is hard to have strong relationships with people in same or nearby fields.

Theology as something useful for a purpose, or rather, theologians and theological work and their projects, are never as an end in themselves. And yet, the act of contemplation which forms part of it, and the need to see the world and the text and the ancient (and modern) cultures as “other” is in some ways very much an end goal.  

The chances for relevant, faithful, ecclesial (so long as not too narrowly confined), prayerful, and worshipful theology are better where theology in terms of its product is not an idol, nor an academic career. Scholarship is a vocation, and with this calling comes contemplation and activity, all in service of the church. 


Mark Elliott is Professor of Historical and Biblical Theology in the School of Divinity, University of St. Andrews. He researches and teaches in the history of biblical exegesis and doctrine. 

He also teaches the history of biblical hermeneutics at honors and postgraduate master’s levels, and supervises in the areas of history of theology (especially patristic and Reformation) and theology and spirituality in the modern age.

 

  1. I thank Kees van der Knijff of VU Amsterdam for this reference.
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Tavis Bohlinger

Dr. Tavis Bohlinger is the editor of Word by Word's Lecture Hall and Creative Director at Reformation Heritage Books. He holds a PhD from Durham University and writes across multiple genres, including academia, poetry, and screenwriting. He lives in Grand Rapids with his wife and three children.

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Written by Tavis Bohlinger