An idea for theological self-education

I almost wrote: “a crazy idea for theological self-education”

Let me describe what I am doing, and how I might want to go on doing it in the future. This description has two parts: (1) the method I propose to use for studying the Bible, and (2) the method I propose to use for getting an “independent” degree, if I can possibly interest some qualified theologians.

How I will study the Bible, again

Beginning one year ago (December, 2019) I started reading the Bible cover-to-cover. I did so in 100 days, still finding time to look up answers to questions with the help of study Bibles and commentaries and suchlike. When I finished, I immediately began re-reading it with a little online study group, this time following an OT-once, NT-twice, all-in-one-year plan. I am of course doing more in-depth background study. Now that this pass through is about 80% done, and I am thinking about what I will do next.

One thing that is clear to me is that I will continue to study the Bible, although I will do so more slowly and carefully next time through (beginning in March). I have toyed with various ideas for concocting a Bible commentary of some sort, and I have all but decided on one particular approach. Namely, I will be answering a limited number of questions about the text, limited particularly by the amount of time I want to spend on each chapter. Maybe I will also prepare a little paraphrase, but maybe not. Here is the result of an experiment demonstrating this idea:

As a grad student, I made myself quite adept (in the opinion of my examiners) in my ability to explain the philosophy of David Hume and Thomas Reid, simply by going through the text and answering every hard question I could think to ask about the text. So I would like to do something similar with regard to the Bible.

If I get through the Bible in three years—again, OT once, NT twice—then I can spend only so much time on each chapter. On the other hand, reading more slowly, I will have time available to do research and writing that, reading faster, I would have to spend in just reading. This still might be too aggressive: it’s about two chapters per weekday. On the other hand, that includes many short chapters, and it is actually only 52 verses per day, and that is assuming I get get weekends and two full weeks off every year. Besides, when I go through the NT the second time, I will be revising and adding to what I have already written.

I have thought about studying theology more systematically, which makes some sense, because not only am I a philosopher and have strong interests in theological questions, but I am also 180 pages through writing a book summing up my versions of (mostly philosophical) arguments for the existence of God. I have been chipping away at it a page here, a page there, a few pages per week for the last nine months or so. It has come steadily. (I have a growing mailing list of theologians and theology students who have offered to give me comments…although few have done so so far. Let me know if you are into theology and want to join the list. I will send new manuscript versions as I make them.)

Beyond work on that, perhaps I will somehow incorporate theological study into my reading of the Bible, but the Bible will remain my main focus. You see, whenever I crack open a book of serious theology, I read a page or two and immediately ask myself, “Why would I read this instead of the Bible, when I have not determined how I would answer many interpretative questions about the Bible itself? I mean, why go to all this trouble of struggling with the answers to specific questions about the meaning of the text (because that really is what theology is about, in my opinion) without first fully acquainting myself with the text? Would that not be much more efficient?”

On the other hand, I can see perhaps incrementally developing answers to a limited number of theological questions by reference to, and in the context of, relevant passages in the Bible. So I might have a question about Original Sin, and I might add new bits to the answer in light first of Genesis 3, and then later in light of texts from Paul. After all, a lot of the sort of questions I am inclined to ask about the text are questions concerning apologetics and theology.

But in any case, I will certainly be finishing this book about the arguments for the existence of God, and to do so I will want to review a fair bit of philosophical theology—the same sort of thing I used to teach to undergraduates in a philosophy of religion course at Ohio State, although now I would be reading at a higher level. I have actually started doing so already.

A theology degree by examination?

Since I am actually wrapping up my first draft of this book manuscript, called God Exists, I started hunting around for reviewers, theology types who were interested in discussing the issues and giving feedback. As I was thinking about this, though, it occurred to me that what I really need is some expert guidance. “Perhaps I might want to get a theology degree,” I thought. And then it occurred to me that I sure do not want to go back to some modern, compromised, dysfunctional institution (which thinks it is doing absolutely fine). I mean, I don’t have to. I don’t need the degree; I want the learning. Still, wouldn’t the degree be nice to have? In any case what I need is the help that would typically go with the degree.

So then I thought: “What about my old interest in degrees by examination?”

My latest thinking on that is: there would be nothing more inherently valuable about a degree from an institution like Harvard than a degree that were endorsed and “granted” by three Harvard faculty members. Traditional employers might respect the official degree, but what if I don’t care about traditional employers?

Why not simply do the study for a particular degree in this way: you develop a portfolio (of some sort) with occasional help from experts, and then sit for a written and oral exam, and portfolio and thesis evaluation, by a panel of three more experts? Then when you say, “Oh, sure, I have an M.Div. But it is an Independent M.Div., or I.M.Div., granted by Jones, Smith, and Brown.” Assuming those three are well-known, then why shouldn’t this be respected as the equivalent of a traditional M.Div. that a thesis committee with those three on it would approve? Similar committees are responsible for determining all advancement in the context of big, bureaucratic educational institutions.

This might be revolutionary; but at this point, it is a revolution that I think needs to happen. We need to make the degree-granting process independent of giant, expensive, and increasingly totalitarian universities.

Of course, I might have trouble finding even one person who is willing to put his own reputation on the line by “granting” an “independent degree” to an independent scholar, or “recognizing” such. But I would be willing to serve as the student in such an experiment.

Any interested and qualified Bible scholars and theologians out there? Want to be on my committee? We would potentially show undergrads how to get such degrees outside of the traditional university system, too, which would be a great thing.

Besides, I won’t be finishing anytime soon. So you’d have time to back out if you want. I won’t be hurt, because I’m mostly after the knowledge as opposed to the degree.






Please do dive in (politely). I want your reactions!

15 responses to “An idea for theological self-education”

  1. Deb

    “whenever I crack open a book of serious theology, I read a page or two and immediately ask myself, “Why would I read this instead of the Bible….”

    Exactly! The best theology resource is a good reference Bible. Let Scripture interpret Scripture. All the answers are there regarding: etiology, eschatology, humanity and theology. If you want to go deeper, a Strong’s concordance is a simple way to dig into the original Greek and Hebrew.

    “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” 2 Tim 3:16-17

    “But the anointing which you have received from Him abides in you, and you do not need that anyone teach you; but as the same anointing teaches you concerning all things, and is true, and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you will abide in Him.” 1 John 2:27

    1. This wasn’t exactly my point, but I’m sympathetic to what you say. The point is that if one is not thoroughly versed in the Bible and not fully prepared to answer the hard philosophical questions about the meaning of doctrine by first having absorbed the Bible, why think you will do a good job in the attempt?

      I think I know the answer based on my experience with history of philosophy: scholars looove to come up with theories based on what a single text (or two or three) must mean, rather than treating the text as data that theories must do justice to.

      I say, start with the data. I too am excited to spin a theory of the Trinity (for example) because so many important questions about it seemingly aren’t directly answered. But nah. I mean, I might outline a two-paragraph position, but I will focus mostly on the text and see where it leads, and if my theory isn’t supported, fine.

  2. KM

    I was really wrestling with some questions several years ago and the way the Bible was being used at the church I used to attend.

    This led to a search for books on hermeneutics (the art and science of interpretation). This made me realize how often many Christians give interpretations that don’t consider the original intent of the author.

    Here is one of the most helpful books I have found so far –

    I also found lectures by the author, Robert Stein, here –

    His lectures are very entertaining and have been very helpful to me personally.

    1. Thank you! This is very helpful!

  3. Larry……I would like to invite you to my website.
    Money has no value there.
    It started as a letter to my family which became a website.

    It’s Not about Man’s Religion, Denominations, or Spiritual Organizations.

    Gods Church is: Jesus Christ and Born Again Believers having the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, Our True Teacher, Our True Guide, Our True Comforter, along with God’s Written Word and the testimony of Creation. They are one in the same, the living breathing Church Of God. They are adopted Sons and Daughters of God.

    The time has come for each of us to earnestly reconsider the assumptions, beliefs, and teachings of “man’s churches”, compared to God’s pattern for His Church.

    That said the falling away of man’s Christian Churches has become undeniable to Believers and non-believers. Returning to Jesus Christ, God’s Pattern for His Church and God’s Pattern Christian Families is urgently needed as we enter the end of days apostasy of which we have been forewarned.

    If nothing else at the top of the home page see:
    Gods Family, Gods Church, Rebuild/Restore/Renew

    We need to return to Gods Pattern for Families and His Church.
    Soon mans churches will be shoe horned into the end of days
    church of the Prince of this world and his followers of which
    we have been forewarned.

    Best to you and your loved ones.

  4. Evelyn

    Love this! I hope you do get an independent degree. You’re always paving the way Larry!

  5. Larry –
    If you look into the Jewish semikha and Muslim ijaza, they were traditionally a license (to teach, etc) conferred by a recognized authority (a professor) on a student. Many students, especially in the Middle Ages, travelled around accumulating learning and certifications from many experts. I think it’s a good model of the independent degree!
    –Michael Tinkler

    1. Wow, Dr. Michael Tinkler! For ancient Wikipedia history, here is an independent source, folks! He was driven away by the Yahoos who descended and took over.

      Thanks, very much. I just did not know about this tradition at all! I will have to look into it!

  6. Ghost

    Commenting on the question “Why would I read this instead of the Bible?”, I’ll remark that there is no perception without interpretation. There is no “raw” text of the Bible to speak of; every reader will undoubtedly be influenced by many layers of presuppositions: their own theological background and cultural environment, the theological background of those who undertook this or that particular translation from Greek. Whether we like it or not, we’re always reading the Bible along someone else’s take of what the larger picture is supposed to be.

    Now, since we’re already doing it, we would be wise to be conscious of it (rather than unconscious), to get acquainted with a variety of interpretative traditions, and to pick interpretative traditions that have stood the test of time.

    1. If the claim “there is no perception without interpretation” is universal, then there is no reason to read commentaries, because they too will not get to underlying realities but themselves require interpretations, and so on as infinitum. And if some interpretations are better than others, how do we confirm that without somehow being able to read the raw text itself? Why suppose, as you imply, that the oldest and strongest tradition of interpretation is best? Maybe they’re just bullies who got their way for centuries, like the Catholics.

      Anyway, this postmodern claptrap never did stand up to true critical analysis, in my opinion.

      The fact is that we can determine with a high probability in the vast majority of cases what the original text was. The Dead Sea scrolls beautifully underscored this. And then we need to distinguish between qualitatively different interpretive difficulties. Most of the words in the Bible are the same across different translations, or are adequately similar cognates; variant readings make no doctrinal differences, but are worth looking at; and while differences of translation can make a difference to doctrinal messages, we can easily compare translations and directly take up each issue as it comes. The truly difficult part comes in interpreting motives, grappling with surface-level contradictions or other problems, and deciphering metaphor. Those problems would remain even if we used the same “raw text.”

      Anyway my point wasn’t that I want to avoid reading commentaries (I’m reading three right now…), but that I didn’t want to start diving into the minutiae of theology, or not too much, before knowing the Bible much better. All theological puzzles, if they really are theological and not just philosophical, are solved by reference to the Bible, and the Bible represents a system that it would behoove one to acquaint oneself with before attempting to systematize it. Basically, the whole project of systematic theology properly conceived is an attempt to make a complete model of the doctrines of the Bible. How can you build such a model without being thoroughly acquainted with the data the model is supposed to fit?

      1. Ghost

        Thank you for taking the time to reply, Mr. Sanger,

        I agree with your strong emphasis on the necessity to be familiar with the actual words of the Scriptures, the Gospels, the Epistles, etc. Yes, we do need to know what we’re interpreting in order to proceed with that interpretation.

        At the same time, while necessary, this is by no means sufficient. Consider the story of Saul of Tarsus when he was persecuting Christians. He was an expert in the Jewish texts, having studied at the school of Gamaliel. Despite his extensive knowledge of the Scriptures, he did not recognize “Him, of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, wrote”. It was only after “the scriptures are opened” for him that he finally “gets it”.

        There were also the disciples who, for three years, lived and talked and walked with Christ. But when it was time for Him to go through His Passion, they abandoned Him and lost faith. When they found the empty tomb they wouldn’t believe it, and when they first saw Him on the road to Emmaus they didn’t recognize him. And they didn’t just read about it in an authoritative text, they actually lived through it all and they still didn’t “get it”.

        And it didn’t stop with the apostles. The body of Christians continued to struggle in order to “get it” over the following centuries, during the great theological debates, up to the present moment. This act of “getting it” turns out to be something that doesn’t simply come out of the “raw text” itself, but requires genuine strokes of insight some might even call miraculous.

        To get back to the original remark I made, because I did mention I have a preference for interpretative traditions “that have stood the test of time”, what I meant is simply this: we the Christians of today have inherited a series of such strokes of insight that we take for granted, that most Christians accept as a “finished product”. By going back to the earliest discussions that happened within Christianity and proceeding from there, we get to experience these strokes of insight in “fast forward”, as they accumulated, in context, to see the process by which those early Christians moved an idea from a state of uncertainty to the fully developed doctrine. It wasn’t just a process of iterating over the “raw data” that anyone could theoretically replicate.

        And there are also issues that remain contested, that established traditions continue view from multiple sides.

  7. Suzy Q

    I would like to suggest that you pick up a copy of “The Jewish New Testament”, by David H. Stern, a Messianic believer in Jesus. Most theologians focus on the Greek language when the Old Testament and part of the New Testament were actually written originally in Hebrew. It is generally accepted that Matthew and perhaps many others were originally written in Hebrew. Jesus and the early decibels were Jews. The early church was comprised of Jews along with gentiles added along the way.

    We are attempting to read and interpret ancient texts which were originally written in Hebrew, translated into Greek, translated into English…..and understand the meaning through modern 21st Century American eyes! We cannot begin to understand the idioms and customs of that day without understanding what the original writers meant.

    I would like to encourage you to investigate my assertion.. If you are truly a seeker of truth you’ll be thrilled by the whole new world of understanding which will open up to you.

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