Preachers and Scholars
The apostle Paul was no intellectual slouch. His education at the feet of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3) would equal or surpass a degree from America’s “Ivy League” schools. At one point during his defense before Festus, the agitated governor said loudly, “Paul, you are out of your mind; your great learning is driving you out of your mind” (Acts 26:24, ESV). Paul corrected Festus in the following verse; he was not insane. Rather, he was only “speaking true and rational words.”
Contrasted with Paul would be Peter and John, viewed by the Sanhedrin as “uneducated, common men” (Acts 4:13). If Paul’s education was the pinnacle, then Peter’s and John’s was the pits (as judged by those who esteemed too highly their own intellectual prowess). Nevertheless, Peter and John, uneducated as they were, could still cause the erudite Jewish council to marvel in astonishment because the apostles’ message did not seem to harmonize with their assumed-limited minds. The only thing the Jewish authorities could pin this anomaly on was the fact that Peter and John “had been with Jesus.”
Being with Jesus was enough—enough for two uneducated fishermen (Peter and John) to take on the equivalent of the Supreme Court of their day, enough for a Gamaliel-educated Pharisee (Paul) to boldly carry the case for Christianity all the way to the imperial court of Rome. Of course, they had miraculous help (Mark 13:11). Since we don’t, where does that leave us?
It leaves us with the duty to study. God never said a preacher must earn a doctorate, a master’s degree, a bachelor’s degree, a school of preaching certificate, or even a high school diploma. Some of the grandest sermons ever preached, and some of the greatest soul-saving ever done have been carried out by men uneducated by worldly standards, yet steeped in Bible knowledge.
For example, “Raccoon” John Smith became one of the shining stars of the Restoration Movement in America. Around the year 1815, he preached a sermon at Crab Orchard, Kentucky in which he said, “I am John Smith, from Stockton’s Valley. In more recent years, I have lived in Wayne, among the rocks and hills of the Cumberland. Down there, saltpeter caves abound, and raccoons make their homes. On that wild frontier we never had good schools, nor many books; consequently, I stand before you today a man without an education” (Earl I. West, The Search for the Ancient Order, vol. I, p. 241). [As Smith downplayed his supposed intellectual deprivation, he still wielded the English language more deftly than could many a modern college graduate.]
On the other end of the spectrum was John William McGarvey, whom none could call uneducated. “When McGarvey died on October 11, 1911, he was the acknowledged leader of the conservative scholarship of the world in the field of Biblical criticism. His technical equipment in this field was second to none; even the liberals and modernists with whom he crossed swords respected his unique talents…” (Fanning Yater Tant in J. W. McGarvey, Chapel Talks, p. 4).
God can use both a Smith and a McGarvey to his glory. A man with either background can find an audience somewhere. The main thing is a preacher’s love for, and familiarity with, divine truth. Both McGarvey and Smith had to study, as do we. A preacher who constantly digs into solid reference material, and who reverently approaches the Scriptures, having prayed fervently for the wisdom only God can give, should, in time, become a Bible scholar, whether he hails from the backwoods or the halls of academia.
By “scholar” I mean simply a man who truly knows his Bible, rightly divides God’s word, adeptly handles Scripture. By such definition, scholarship does not equate to degrees earned (or where). Nor is it defined by the number of books written, or articles penned, or the size of social media presence. Peter’s education was too minimal to merit the respect of the Sanhedrin. He had neither diploma nor degree. He was a simple Galilean fisherman to whom the Lord handed the keys of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 16:19). For that matter, Jesus himself did not have an education that would, in the Jews’ eyes, begin to compare with that of Paul. Yet, Jesus not only knew some truth—he was the truth (John 14:6)! An intimate, frequent, prayerful, sincere, never ending acquaintance with Scripture: this is true biblical scholarship. That is what will serve well God’s ministers on earth.
At day’s end, what the brethren think of the preacher, and what the world thinks of him, are lesser concerns that what God thinks of him. The preacher realizes that his is a weighty responsibility. “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1). God is watching and listening. Long ago one scholar (Paul) advised another (Timothy) and, by implication, all future generations of men who would take on themselves the mantle of a preacher: “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:16).