Book Review: Is There a Doctor in the House?, by Ben Witherington III

Is There a Doctor in the House?  An Insider’s Story and Advice on Becoming a Biblical Scholar, 2011, Zondervan.

I picked up this little book thinking it would only appeal to my interest in academia, but found it to be of value to all involved in Bible handling – students, preachers, teachers, scholars.

The label “scholar” gets thrown around a little too easily.  If one person in the church is starting to learn biblical Greek, they get labelled a scholar.  They may  barely even be a student yet!  In this book, Witherington reflects on his experiences as a student, pastor, teacher and writing scholar.  His manner is winsome, his sometimes amusing experiences shine through, and his insight helps the reader to see just what is involved in being truly earnest about God’s Word.

He begins with an excellent illustrated guide to a PhD, before explaining his own experiences getting a PhD in Durham in the 1970’s.  It is great to read of his exposure to such scholars as C.K. Barrett, C.E.B. Cranfield, T.H.L. Parker, etc.

Even if you don’t care to understand the differences between the British and American doctoral systems, the book quickly moves into a survey of the necessary fields of study required of biblical scholars.  While brief and maintaining momentum, these chapters give helpful insight into language study, historical/cultural background study, literary sensitivity, as well as integrating biblical research into theological and ethical studies.

The latter chapters address the necessary subject areas of research and writing, hermeneutics, key skills in lecturing and teaching, as well as the character issues that can easily get lost in the mix.  The book ends with a brief survey of the sacrifices involved (not just for the scholar, but also for the spouse), and a resounding, “I would do it all again!” from a man delighted by the privilege of his study, his career, his vocation.

I interact with folks who hold to a kind of self-taught piety.  They have their library of 66 and the Holy Spirit and consider themselves to be un-credentialed scholars.  Maybe some are, in some way.  But where their attitude becomes derisory toward academic biblical scholarship, I do get concerned.  This book should be required reading for all who care to sit in judgment over the academy, as well as those fascinated by it.

Most of all, this book graciously raises the bar on our commitment to really doing the work involved in handling the Bible well, and offering the fruit of that study to others in ministry.

(If you are in the UK, click here to go to the book on Amazon.)

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Preaching As History Making

The book of Acts is a fascinating study.  It is the only inspired account of the birth of the church and early church history.  Yet like all of inspired Scripture, it goes beyond mere history.  While some are quick to oversimplify their categorization of New Testament genre into stories of Jesus (gospels), instructions for the church (epistle) and history of the early church (Acts), plus the apparently troublesome apocalyptic book of Revelation (their view, not mine), this is too simplistic.

Acts, for example, is an inspired historical document, and it is also inspired theological writing.  We do Acts (and ourselves) a disservice if we too quickly dismiss Acts as being non-normative or applicable for the contemporary church.  Equally, we get into confusion if we too quickly apply every element we choose and claim it is normative for all situations (most who over-quickly apply Acts tend to be selective in this approach).  We need to carefully consider the book of Acts with appropriate hermeneutical skill and submit ourselves to appropriate application of the whole text.

In Acts we find historical narrative accounts, and we find recorded speeches (or better, inspired summaries of speeches).  In fact, Walter Liefeld helpfully points out that while quoted speech typically serves in ancient literature as introductory to action, in Acts the speeches are the action.  In my spare moments lately I’ve been enjoying a personal study of the speeches of Acts.  Apparently (I rely on the arithmetic of others), in the roughly 1000 verses of Acts, roughly 300-365 verses consist of speech material.  Some of this is preaching, some is leadership speech, some is legal speech (not mutually exclusive categories).

Ben Witherington asks why Luke includes proportionately so much more speech material in his history than ancient writers like Herodotus, Tacitus, Josephus, Polybius, or Thucydides, for example?  His answer is worth considering:

“This is because Luke is chronicling a historical movement that was carried forward in the main by evangelistic preaching.  This distinguishes his work from that of these other historians who are more interested in the macrohistorical events involving wars, political maneuvering, and the like.”

Before we even give ourselves to consideration of appropriate hermeneutical principles for interpreting and applying the book of Acts; before we engage in rhetorical analysis of the speech material; or before we enter the debate about whether the speeches are accurate representation of the original speaker, or Lukan theology placed in their mouths, etc.  Before any of that engages our attention, let’s not miss the obvious.  The history of the early church is carried forward by the planned and impromptu speech of preachers.  Much of it is evangelistic, some is primarily to believers, some is perhaps opportunistic.  But this much is clear – the history of the church, in the early years, down through the years, and in these years, is carried forward in the preaching of those to whom God gives opportunity. Let’s allow that truth to soak into our souls, fire our hearts and ignite our ministries!