Posted By MSH on September 16, 2011
In addition to my day job at Logos I’m an adjunct distance ed professor of biblical studies at the seminary level. One of the more common questions I get from students is about sources for biblical research papers. Poor sources are the bane of both the student who wants to learn something about the text (as opposed to those who just want the credits) and anyone unfortunate enough to read the work produced through their use (that would be us professors). To give you an idea of the battle, here are some guidelines I have created over the years (based on real life experiences) that I have posted for online students.
1. Sources for the paper must be graduate level. This means that any source that has words like “introduction”; “survey”; “overview”; etc. are not allowed as sources. Additionally, I will not consider any source produced for use by lay people in the church or by undergraduates to be a graduate level source. Part of being in seminary means getting acquainted with academic resources. This isn’t Sunday School. By way of example, I do not want to see the following as a source in your paper: sermon anthologies, church bulletins, sermon notes, websites with no author attribution, your pastor, etc. Rule of thumb: if it’s sold in a local Christian bookstore, it isn’t a graduate level source.
2. Commentaries that do not engage the original languages of the biblical text in some way are not permissible sources. Sources that amount to only commenting on the English translation with no apparent interest in drilling down to the original text (e.g., examining the usage of a Greek or Hebrew word, making some observation of grammar or literary structure) are not allowed. By way of example, I do not want to see the following “commentaries” (loosely defined) in your paper: Matthew Henry, Everyman’s Bible Commentary, J. Vernon McGee’s notes, Warren Wiersbe’s commentaries, etc. Rule of thumb: if it’s sold in a local Christian bookstore, it isn’t an academic commentary and won’t be acceptable. These sources are homiletical and devotional in nature; they are not exegetical. They might help you think about some item in your English translation, but they won’t penetrate that translation to produce nuggets from the text in its original language.
One of the hardest lessons I’ve had to learn as a professor and in my role at Logos is that most Christians think Bible reading is Bible study. It isn’t. This is followed by the corollary that what most people do beyond Bible reading isn’t going to get them very far into the text, either. That is, what most people think of as Bible study isn’t real biblical research. That’s why seminary students occasionally get annoyed when I won’t accept the kinds of sources noted above. They actually believe they’re “digging into the word” when they read Chuck Swindoll. It’s part of my job to convince them otherwise. In fairness, I remember reading Swindoll’s character study on Joshua when I was a teenager and really liking it. But after one or two of those things, I realized I was just reading ABOUT the Bible. I wasn’t really penetrating its content. I wasn’t discovering anything that couldn’t be learned through only a close reading of my English translation. That was a step in the right direction, but soon failed to satisfy. My next step in high school was taking commentaries to study hall (that’s something I recall telling my wife about only after we were married). Looking back on that, it’s easy to see that those tools still barely scratched the surface (and that it was a truly nerdy thing to do). I wanted more.
If you claim to be serious about studying the biblical text or are responsible for teaching biblical content to others, you should be using grown-up tools. As indispensable as biblical language study is, even if you don’t know Hebrew or Greek there are many scholarly books and commentaries whose content is accessible. Lest I be misunderstood, it’s not a sin to use devotional and homiletical tools for personal Bible study if that’s where you’re at. I started out that way. Everyone does. But you should know that’s what you’re using — and not be misled into thinking that the content of those tools is really digging into the text and giving you a clear, coherent understanding of what the text means. That criticism is not designed to say that non-academic tools will lead you astray into bad exegesis and theology (at least not every time — simplistic would be more on target than heretical). Rather, it’s to say that you shouldn’t consider those tools to be more than they were intended to be by their authors. Resources aimed at lay people (and even some for pastors) are simply not designed for any real depth. The problem is that many people think they are because they don’t know better.
So, I hope to help a bit. I’ll be writing a series of posts that will hopefully illustrate the difference and show you what you’re missing with lay-level material. Stay tuned.