(The following is the next entry in a 31-day blog journey through John Piper’s, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals: A Plea to Pastors for a Radical Ministry [Broadman and Holman, 2002.] At a link related to Union University, online one can read the full text of “Brothers, Bitzer Was A Banker.”)
“The more a theologian detaches himself from the basic Hebrew and Greek text of Holy Scripture, the more he detaches himself from the source of real theology! And real theology is the foundation of a fruitful and blessed ministry!” (p. 82, quoting Heinrich Bitzer, ed., Light on the Path: Daily Scripture Readings in Hebrew and Greek [Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1982],10.)
Weakness in Greek and Hebrew also give rise to exegetical imprecision and carelessness. And exegetical imprecision is the mother of liberal theology. Where pastors can no longer articulate and defend doctrine by a reasonable and careful appeal to the original meaning of Biblical texts, they will tend to become close-minded traditionalists who clutch their inherited ideas, or open-ended pluralists who don’t put much stock in doctrinal formulations. In both cases the succeeding generations will be theologically impoverished and susceptible to error… We have, by and large, lost the Biblical vision of a pastor as one who is mighty in the Scriptures, apt to teach, competent to confute opponents, and able to penetrate to the unity of the whole counsel of God. Is it healthy or biblical for the church to cultivate an eldership of pastors (weak in the Word) and an eldership of professors (strong in the Word)? (84)
I stand rebuked by Bitzer the banker. The sheep entrusted to me get their share of Greek exegesis and the fruit thereof. However, their shepherd’s Hebrew exegesis leaves much to be desired. After years of keeping up with reading Greek and using resources to keep the exegetical axe sharp in the text of the New Testament, I cannot say the same for the Hebrew. I am hamstrung in Hebrew – reviewing, but not advancing to where I should be—at the level of reading fluently and that as a daily habit.
It is important for pastors and sheep to see that in the last five lessons of Brothers, We Are Not Professionals, Piper has been giving flesh to the pastor’s practice of Acts 6:4: (1) He must take time and be granted time to pray, and to pray without being on the run, (2) he must take time and be given time to read above and beyond sermon and teaching preparation, one hour a day minimum; (I will add here that Baptists congregations as a whole would do well adopt a practice from PCA churches in which an annual two-week study leave – which differs from and does not shorten a pastor’s vacation – is part of the calling of a pastor to a local assembly), (3) he must make time to meditate for long periods on the texts of Scripture, querying apparent difficulties, and (4) he must give himself over to the daily reading of Hebrew and Greek, least he become a table waiter for liberal theology. I need grace to pick up the Hebrew. Yet I and my sheep are being graciously saved in my Hebrew recovery period as I currently am preaching through Acts and teaching through Romans.
I wish the practice of reading the original texts of Scripture and preparing sermons and teaching based on careful exegesis of the biblical text would become something cherished in African American pulpits. Of course there are those faithful few that you know who went to schools where exegesis was the core of the degree program, who now faithfully use their training to provide sound biblical teaching. But for so many African Americans, the closest thing one gets to exegesis in a sermon is a chain-link study through an English text, or quotes from the words of texts by Jakes, Osteen, Bynum, or Albom. The riches of God’s word remain buried under layers of spiritual pabulum, (and we wonder how false-exegetes like those from the Watchtower are making inroads into our communities).
I have pondered what it would take to read as an African American pastor or layman who is part of a church in the African American tradition. I would suggest the following: (1) One must prioritize reading over watching music videos, sporting events and home improvement shows, (2) one must value writings other than the writings of African Americans, whether the writings are classic or modern, academic or popular, (3) one must become concerned about the life of the mind and its significance toward Christian growth and the proclamation of the Gospel (cf. Rom. 12:1-2; Col. 3:1-4; I Pet. 3:15), (4) one must desire effects that are not always immediate and tangible, so that one can move past reading only what is pragmatic and shallow, (5) one must acknowledge that our great God has mediated the grace of his beauty through the minds and pens of others, (6) one must not use the late-coming of the African American church into the history of the church as an excuse for why one cannot appreciate Christian works predating the establishment of the Silver Bluff, First African, and/or Bethel churches, and (7) we must impress upon our children and grandchildren the importance of reading, of reading good works, of reading classical works, of reading in classical languages, and we must read to and with them good works.
For shepherds, there is no excuse. Our discipline also must include daily exegesis. Otherwise, we should become something else, like bankers…. Oh yes, that’s right: many are already acting as bankers from their exegesisless pulpits.