Another excerpt from my doctoral thesis, again exploring what it might mean to recover a Wisdom Culture in church ministry today. In this section I touch a hot stove, hinting that part and parcel to the wisdom tradition of Jesus and Paul and most teachers through the ages is the acknowledgement that God gives to the church certain individuals with a special calling and training to be sages and wise experts in the spiritual life. This rubs many Americans the wrong way. Here goes:
Lucian, a second-century satirist, ushers us into the world of ancient Rome with wit and wiliness in The Ignorant Book Collector, where he lampoons a man for possessing many books but understanding none of them:
You will scarcely have the assurance to call yourself an educated man; you will scarcely pretend that your acquaintance with literature is more than skin-deep … you may get together the works of Demosthenes, and his eight beautiful copies of Thucydides, all in the orator’s own handwriting, and all the manuscripts that Sulla sent away from Athens to Italy, and you will be no nearer to culture at the end of it, though you should sleep with them under your pillow, or paste them together and wear them as a garment; an ape is still an ape, says the proverb, though his trappings be of gold. So it is with you: you always have a book in your hand, you are always reading; but what it is all about, you have no idea; you only prick up asinine ears at the lyre’s sound.
Observing the average church-going Christian’s reading habits and the state of biblical literacy today, one is tempted to go into a Lucian-like rant and decry the fact that while our homes are filled with shelves of Bibles and Christian books, many go unopened collecting dust. Are we 21st century ‘Ignorant Bible Collectors’—always with a book in hand (or on our device), always reading (or scrolling and skimming) but having little idea what it’s really all about? Are the words of life becoming inscribed on our hearts, or merely printed on bumperstickers and posted as memes on our social media page? Despite having had 2,000 years of practice in pedagogy, the church’s task of “teaching and admonishing one another with all wisdom” (Col 3:16) continues to be a perennial challenge.
As long as students have been gathering around sages, they have been testing their patience and causing gray hairs. Consider the weary tone of one exasperated first-century pastor: “Though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food” (Heb. 5:12). Or, Paul’s warning to his young protege Timothy about would-be teachers who, in Paul’s opinion, need to go back to school: “They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm” (1 Tim 1:7).
Before the blame is laid at the feet of the average church-going Christian for our increasing biblical illiteracy, should we not first examine the pedagogical methods and Christian formation approaches that have led us here? My contention is that too much teaching in the church today is through “disembodied words” and “naked ideas” bouncing off distracted minds already saturated from non-stop info-mania outside the church. In order to become more effective in our efforts to form hearts, minds and souls into the character of Christ, perhaps we can recover some time-tested pedagogical practices from the ancient past.
In the previous chapter, I examined the teacher-student relationships of Jesus in light of the broader Jewish world of rabbinic sages, Torah-teachers and charismatic prophets. This chapter continues exploring teacher-student dynamics in the ancient world by examining Paul among the Greco-Roman philosophers.
First, a story to set the scene.
When I asked my young pastoral intern for his proposed next steps for catechizing a brand new believer we had just baptized, he said essentially: “She has the Holy Spirit and can talk to Jesus on her own. What else does she need?” I pushed back a bit, asking about the role of the pastor and the rest of the church community in Christian formation. The intern admitted that they played a small role, but doubled down with a heavy dose of suspicion toward the idea that Christian formation is somehow reliant upon human teachers and pastors.
He then reached for an analogy: “If you needed life-saving surgery and were about to be operated on by a young surgeon just out of med school with shaky hands,” the intern argued, “but then found out the greatest surgeon who ever lived was in town (who also happens to be divine!) and is willing to do the operation, who would you choose?” His point: Why go to a pastor for soul care when you can eliminate the middle man and go directly go God?
This intern represents many among us who approach Christian faith within a very western, individualistic worldview that is suspicious of institutions, uncomfortable with positional authority, and almost allergic to any human teacher claiming to be wiser than the average Spirit-filled believer. The temptation for such people is to retreat into a privatized “me and Jesus spirituality” void of external checks and balances, to follow the promptings of the “inner voice”, and when challenged give that inner voice ultimate authority by insisting its the Holy Spirit’s voice. In such situations, any appeal to pastoral authority, claims to some expertise in one’s field or wisdom gained through advanced biblical training or years of leadership experience are all met with resistance.
In an insightful essay, Tom Nichols laments what he calls the “death of expertise” in our cultural moment:
Today, any assertion of expertise produces an explosion of anger from certain quarters of the American public, who immediately complain that such claims are nothing more than fallacious “appeals to authority,” sure signs of dreadful “elitism,” and an obvious effort to use credentials to stifle the dialogue required by a “real” democracy…I fear we are witnessing the “death of expertise”: a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laymen, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers—in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all … There will always be doctors, lawyers, engineers, and other specialists in various fields. Rather, what I fear has died is any acknowledgement of expertise as anything that should alter our thoughts or change the way we live.
Our world of democratically elected church boards believing in the dreamy ideal of the democratization of wisdom in the Body of Christ is foreign to the world of the New Testament. To grasp the sizable gap between our world and Paul’s, we need only read the likes of Seneca or Epictetus, Lucian or Dio Chrysostom, as well as early Church Fathers such as Origen and Gregory Thaumaturgus. Ancient teachers—especially those known for their moral exhortation (including Paul and Jesus)—would lament the rejection of “expertise as anything that should alter our thoughts or change the way we live.”
Moral philosophers and Christian theologians through the ages have spent their lives pursuing and dispensing wisdom and expertise for the express purpose of altering their student’s thoughts and changing the way they live. To these ancient “experts” in wisdom we turn in this chapter as we continue our search for a more effective mode of Christian formation today.