Thursday, March 25, 2010
Greetings from the land of Saguaros and Scorpions. It is a marvelous day here in the desert. Bright sunshine, snow capped mountains, majestic cacti and even a few coyotes have been seen this morning.
I have watched discussion on books and study come and go by and have been struck by how different the lists look when compared to say the lists that either Alexander Campbell or J. W. McGarvey recommended to preachers. In 1883, J. W. McGarvey appeared on the Missouri Christian Lectureship in Independence. He addressed the gathering on "Preacher's Method's." This is an outstanding presentation by McGarvey and shows that the expectations placed on preachers in the 19th century Stone-Campbell movement were seemingly different than in many places today.
McGarvey begins his speech by exhorting every preacher to "continue to grow" lest "inevitable decay" sets in. For McGarvey every preacher needed a "method" that included four areas:
1) a system of study of the Scriptures themselves
2) a system of study of books to deepen study of the Scriptures
3) a system of preparing for the pulpit
4) and finally a system to remain faithful in these other areas of study
McGarvey recognizes there are more ways than one to approach the biblical text, but "historically" and "devotionally" are highlighted (see Kingdom Come, 79-92 for Lipscomb's & Harding's views on these same matters). McGarvey stresses "historical" study of entire books themselves in their original context ... and the original language. To do this we must 1) simply read the entire book through beginning to end repeatedly and getting the "flow" of the book; 2) produce an outline of the book that reflects your grasp of the flow of the work looking for "transitions" especially; 3) and the preacher must master the historical background of the book to ground the exegesis. This includes understanding the "circumstances [i.e occasion] under which it was written, and the influences at work upon the mind of the author." To do this McGarvey notes most preachers will need other sources for help. McGarvey has very high standards that he holds up for the preachers in restoration churches: "Complete, systematic and exact information is what our calling demands, and this we must as soon as possible acquire."
McGarvey recognizes that what he calls for is a "laborious process" and many will be tempted to basically cheat or skimp. The failure to do this was however, in McGarvey's view, "the greatest defect" in the lives of preachers. These brothers "who lack this industry must remain contented with a very imperfect knowledge." McGarvey even questions if they should be preaching! Exegetical study, which McGarvey calls "historical study" must be a deliberate way of life for the minister. Indeed congregations have a right to not only expect this of them but to demand it.
Every preacher, every one of them, McGarvey insists should be concerned with exegesis including textual criticism in his historical study of the text ... even those that do not know Hebrew or Greek. Sounding a different note than heard in some quarters today he opined:
"As a kind of concluding remark to this part of my lecture, that in all of our study of the Scriptures we must constantly consult the original if we can, and that we must by all means use the best version. The Canterbury revision of the New Testament should now totally supplant the King James version, because it is a great improvement as a version, but because it is the only representative in English of the corrected Greek text. A man is not safe in venturing upon the exegesis of a single passage by the aid of the other version."
McGarvey next expounds, in his lecture, on his advice for the preacher to develop a system of study of books to aid the deeper understanding and exegetical study of THE book. He opens it up with the frank confession: "There is a well known prejudice against the use of Commentaries." McGarvey did not share this opinion. Not only does McGarvey see that it is implicitly the height of arrogance on the part of most would be preachers but also sheer foolishness.
"The man who attempts to gain a knowledge of the Bible by his own unaided powers, while the aid furnished by a multitude of learned predecessors is at hand, seems to declare himself the equal in exegetical power of all who have gone before him. In no other department of human study do we reject the aid of our fellow-students; why should we reject it in this?"
So McGarvey confronts the arrogance that many of us ministers fight by thrusting the question of humility in the face of the student of the word. Do we "declare [ourselves] equal in exegetical power of all who have gone before ..." Gets to the heart of the matter. But good commentaries perform at least four services to the serious student of the word according to McGarvey:
1) They "guard against blunders." McGarvey was of the opinion that "the most egregious blunders are those committed by men of inferior learning or judgment who interpret the Scriptures without aid." A really good commentary helps keep the student or preacher honest as well as guards against really bad interpretation!!
2) They are sources of "multitudes ... of information throwing floods of light upon important passages." McGarvey declares "no man can afford to decline the use of these gathered treasures."
3) A good commentary performs a third role according to McGarvey, a good commentary does not simply confirm what we think or make us comfortable in our ways. Rather a good commentary "awakens thought." He says pointedly "everyone WORTH CONSULTING presents the subject in some new phase ... it compels us to think again over the whole ground." A good commentary will guard against a religious version of inbreeding!
4) The final function of a good commentary is that they "do in the main give us the right interpretation of passages, and the right application of those ..."
At this point in the lecture McGarvey sort of pauses. He wants the student, the preacher, to have more than commentaries. But it will also pay for us to ask what KIND of commentary did he recommend? He tells us explicitly. He is forceful on this point too. The preacher should "procure two or more" of what he calls "standard" commentaries on "every portion of Scripture." Further he says
"In making selections, always choose from the more recent rather than the older works. In all departments of literature immense advances are being made on the knowledge and methods of former times, and in no department are they more rapid than in the interpretation and illustration of the Bible."
Get a book that is abreast of the latest information. One that is informed by the best recent scholarship. He says the books the preacher seeks should "be the best commentaries in English." Thankfully McGarvey tells who and what he thought those commentaries were for his day. It is most enlightening given the trend in most preaching schools that McGarvey does not list a single commentary written by a member of the Stone-Campbell movement ... INCLUDING HIS OWN! The preacher, the student of the word, needed the works of these men:
2) Ellicot ("who produces some of the finest specimens of grammatical exegesis")
3) the towering figure of J. B. Lightfoot who in McGarvey's opinion was "the finest
in the way of profound historical research")
Missing is any mention of even Alexander Campbell's stuff. McGarvey's Commentary on Acts did not make the list. Lard on Romans did not. This is, in retrospect, fascinating. He was on guard against the ever subtle creeping in of tunnel vision and sectarianism.
But as I pointed out, McGarvey thought other works were equally important as standard commentaries. He lists Smith's Bible Dictionary, which wold be an equivalent of the Anchor Bible Dictionary of today. In his mind it "contains the cream of all knowledge possessed by the most cultivated minds in Great Britain on Bible themes." Every preacher needed Conybeare & Howson's Life and Epistles of Paul, they need Rawlinson's History of the Seven Ancient Monarchies to dig into the "Old Testament." Pressense' Life of Jesus, and his Early Years of Christianity along with "Canon Farrar's Life of Jesus, His Life and Epistles of Paul are to be found in the library of serious preachers. McGarvey believed the preacher should grasp the history of the Bible and the state of contemporary research as it bears on textual criticism. He places this in the field of "evidences."
"The study, then, of the state of the Greek and Hebrew text, by the aid of works on Biblical criticism, is the first task before the student of evidences."
And what kind of books should the preacher master to learn about this kind of stuff. We learned earlier in the lecture that McGarvey is critical not only of the King James Version but also its underlying text. So the preacher committed to a "method" in Bible study will have read, understood, and have in his library such ground breaking works of scholarship (for their day) as:
1) Tregelles' History of the Printed Text (of the English Bible)
2) Scrivener's Introduction to the Critical Study of the New Testament
3) and most unnerving for some today is Westcott & Hort's edition of the Greek text.
After the preacher has digested these works he "is prepared to study appreciatively Westcott's work on the Canon, "the most masterly work on the subject now extant in the English language."
In McGarvey's view the preacher should develop a method where he will "study the Scriptures" at a "fixed part of every day." Cultivating the habit of historical study, exegetical study every day for "over the course of a year he will be astonished at the result."
We would do well to remember that McGarvey is not lecturing those he intends to make into scholars! He is addressing ministers ... preachers!! He was not afraid to challenge the ministers with the "laborious" task of digging deeply in exegetical reverence into the written word of God. By the time he delivered this lecture, McGarvey was a household name in Stone-Campbell churches. He had already published commentaries on Acts, Matthew and Mark, and many other studies. Yet once again not one work of the "brethren" makes his list of recommended books to preachers. When we look at his views of what a good commentaries does for the student we understand why.
When we look at the authors he lists and the books named, McGarvey is unabashedly promoting the very best of contemporary scholarship upon "the brethren." He was not afraid of that scholarship. He was not afraid of books because his object was the pursuit of truth and not some already agreed upon position. In my view, and that is what it is, I think if McGarvey were alive today he would recommend books like F. F. Bruce's Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free; N. T. Wright (anything by him); Christopher Wright; Walter Brueggemann and others. I have given lists of books elsewhere but I think it is refreshing, enlightening and even challenging to know what some of the leading lights of yesteryear thought was worth owning and reading.
When McGarvey was given the chance to recommend a book he did not do what so many tend to do. He did not recommend something a hundred years old. He did not simply recommend "in house" writers. He recommended the "best in English." Nor did he even recommend his own commentary. Perhaps we can learn from this great student of the word ... perhaps we can profit from his wisdom.
He who has an ear let him hear,