The Duty of a Christian Scholar

Eucharist. Image by Robert Cheaib from Pixabay

This past semester I had the happy duty of reading through a Reformation treatise on the Eucharist, penned by the sixteenth-century Lutheran pastor, Joachim Westphal. I chose this for my student, a Lutheran who took to it right away, as it was one of hundreds upon hundreds (doubtless thousands) of late Renaissance and Reformation texts still awaiting translation into English. To date, her translation runs 50 pages and 18,000 words. I’m rather pleased with her. She’s the only student in my 25+ years at the university level I have ever given an A+ to, as I thought she was already doing work commensurate with graduate school assignments, and doing it very well.

Part of the process of translation, especially of a Reformation text, is knowing theology, Patristic, medieval, and of course that from the Reformation, and so the last part of the semester my student took up the reading of three books on the Eucharist, Sasse’s magisterial This Is My Body, John Stephenson’s The Lords Supper, Confessional Lutheran Dogmatics, vol. XII, and lastly a good helping of Edward Kilmartin’s (S.J.) The Eucharist in the West.

I start this essay with all of this for one reason: you need to know more than just Latin, and the Latin that you get from Wheelock, if you wish to translate and do scholarship in theology. You cannot teach what you don’t have, and thus my semester was spent not just covering the supine, the dative of agent with the passive periphrastic, or the use of the subjunctive in relative clauses in indirect discourse (clauses whose subject is in the accusative and whose main verb is an infinitive).  Teaching an advanced student whose curiosity was not just philological, but also historical and theological, demanded as well recourse to history, Germanic usages of late medieval Latin, medieval peculiarities of Ecclesiastical Latin, recourse scholastic texts, and of course a broad knowledge of the first Eucharistic controversy (it was Westphal who inaugurated the second Eucharistic controversy with his assault on the Zurich Consensus). In short, I and my student needed to know far more than just Latin.

Some years ago I took part in a faculty workshop, and the paid, outside consultant leading the infomercial hawked the Goals and Objectives pablum that has become the coin of the realm in education. At one point he asked the entire faculty if continued scholarship and study in one’s field was necessary for effective teaching in the college classroom. Two of us faculty, obviously not thinking right thoughts rightly, raised our hands. There may have been others, but I didn’t see any, and I was looking. Quite frankly I was shocked. All these faculty, and none thought keeping up with their disciplines was part of their duties as scholars?

Granted, where I taught was never going to be mistaken for one of the Ivies, nor even Phi Beta Kappa, but these faculty members all pretended to knowledge about their purported disciplines. I later learned from that other professor that when he had first come to the college that, after winning a book award, one of the psychology professors had said to him that “we don’t like you here; you’ll raise expectations.”

Over the years, I almost want to say thankfully, I met others who took their disciplines seriously and produced scholarship therein. I give the concessive “almost” as these were a clear minority in this institution, and it hardly allayed my foreboding. This valorization of intellectual laziness could be no better illustrated than when one particular faculty was given tenure on the strength of a single book review. There’s more, but I think the reader understands.

Theoretically, the PhD should be the beginning of a scholar’s life. A dissertation is evidence that you know how to do the work of advanced scholarship and you have the tools necessary for this vocation. Your dissertation should never be your magnum opus; it should be but the door to a more wonderful realm.

But I must make what will seem a huge caveat, namely that you can be a scholar without a PhD, a degree which in many events has often proven a greater detriment to the academy than a benefit. It should not have been, but I believe it has turned out so.

This caveat forges one of the many nails in the coffin of scholarship in general, and can easily be one of Christian scholarship in particular, for scholarship has ceased from being for the benefit of the unformed scholars that come afterward. To be more precise, scholarship seemingly no longer exists for the classroom. (Granted, this was not the problem at the above mentioned institution, since too many had abandoned scholarship altogether.)

Someone may say that scholarship should exist for scholarship’s sake, and I would agree, if, and only if, we see that what occurs in every classroom should as well be designated scholarship, and part of scholarship.

Statue of Plato. Image by Michael Kauer from Pixabay

Well over a decade ago at one institution I was associated with I took part in a search for a classicist, someone who would share time with the History Department and that school’s Honors program. We had applicants from Cornell, University of Chicago, Yale, Berkeley, Oxford (two), Ohio State, and Cincinnati (which at the time had the top ranked Mediterranean archaeology program in the country), among others. What we found were candidates who could tell us much, e.g., about perfume jars in fifth-century BC Thebes, or the use of rhetoric in particular Athenian orators, but couldn’t lead a discussion on The Symposium, or talk about what the good life entailed.

One began well on a discussion of the Mytilenean episode in Book III of Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War, but then broke off into a small rant about American Imperialism, using the text as pretext. The students all responded in their evaluations that they were tired of having teachers hector them about their pet grievances, however much they might agree with said nostrums, instead of using the class to teach the subject.

The episode of the search highlights two items. The first that teachers have spent so much time on one particular item, doubtless significant, that they have failed to grasp why our past valued Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Plato, et cetera (namely, that they first recorded in print inquiries into the dilemma of the human condition as it existed within an intelligible cosmos). Along with the Hebrew scriptures, the Greeks began the long conversation that is our intellectual patrimony, yet most scholars spend all their time looking at a particular patch of bark on one tree, failing not only to take in the whole of the forest, but also failing in their ability to articulate why the forest is important to the next generation of students.

The second item this highlights pertains to the use of the classroom. In the modern academy the classroom has too often become the bully pulpit of the casus belli du jour. From my experience, two faculty poles emerged: first, the activists who converted the classroom into workshops on their own ideas; and second, others, from all political sides, who were devoted to their subjects, and thus spent their energies on making sure their students were as grounded as a four-year degree could afford.

So consumed were the first group by au courant matters outside their proper bailiwick, that they had no time for their disciplines, and thus could not teach what they had been hired to teach. Over time these issues themselves had turned into whole “disciplines” devoted to these grievances. They had assumed a life of their own.

The second group saw their discipline, not their current prejudices, as the basis of their vocation. Their students, rightly formed, would be warded from the errors of the tribe and cave that too often lead to fanaticism. Students thus trained in their respective disciplines, would have the wisdom and knowledge required to address the age’s manias and fantasies.

And here I can now return to the curse of the PhD, a degree that so narrowly straightened so many of its recipients that the classroom became a wasteland for students seeking the glories of the past, whether in art, history, philosophy, literature, theology, the Holy Scriptures, politics, et cetera. This horror has now moved into the hard sciences as well (the soft- or pseudo-sciences were lost years ago). The narrowing of the PhD made it all too easy to make the classroom little more than a soapbox from which to proclaim not one’s discipline (since the knowledge of it was so circumscribed as would consume barely more than a few week’s lectures), but the never-ending world of our current concerns.

In this regard, many of the MA faculty (i.e., adjuncts), though not as well equipped as regards languages or archival skills, were nonetheless more capable in presenting to their students the content of the disciplines they loved, owing to the less constrictive nature of their degree.

The application to Christian scholarship (at least at this point) should be clear: while possessed with the tools that can take him many places, and open many doors, the scholar needs to be ready first and foremost to teach, and to teach broadly. Certainly, having a comprehensive insight into the vast world of Orthodoxy is impossible. No one can master all the literature, all the theology, all the history, all the archaeology; nonetheless, we need to be far more than narrow specialists, ones whose constricted scope of study keeps us from reading outside our field.

For the Christian scholar, they need to be conversant with the fathers, the current state of research in these fields, the current state of historical studies, and lastly, they need a broad facility in several languages that allows them not only to read sources, but to interact with scholars without depending on someone else to tell them what texts say.

Languages are things that present an interesting problem in the Orthodox scholarly world, simply because there are so many that would need to be mastered to approach even the beginnings of a comprehensive approach. Set aside that ancient Greeks would not understand Demotic Greek, you have the reality that the languages in modern Orthodox countries numbers over a dozen, and you can see how high the bar to entry is set. Then there are the five main ancient languages, Greek, Latin, Coptic, Syriac, and Armenian, each with its own grammar and questions.

One thus feels constrained to ask, can anyone be a scholar?

Now, I must confess, I am a scholar, but not of Orthodoxy per se. Though my initial years of grad studies took me to Byzantium, I did not finish there, but in late Medieval and Renaissance Europe. My scholarship all revolved around the Renaissance and Reformation uses of classical and patristic sources. Thus, I am a scholar who is Orthodox, one who can enter the conversation, but I think more importantly, I am one who can benefit many an Orthodox scholar who has questions about the West. Indeed over the years I have been. Which all means that scholarship is not anything you can do by yourself.

This is why any scholar first needs humility, and then also a broad and happy network of peers. Scholarship cannot be done in a vacuum.

While Orthodox scholarship exists in service to the Church and in service to the Truth, it does so not only as a means of catechesis, in the most broad sense, but also as apologia.

Knowing history, philosophy, philosophy of science, and also the breadth of theology are the beginnings of the great task of Apologetics, that is, the defense of the Faith. Because of the breadth and complexity of the assaults on our Faith, we cannot afford a blind ignorance and an apologetics of platitudes (“just have faith, and all will be OK”). In short, we must state correctly our detractors’ cases, for if we cannot make their best case, then we are essentially giving to the faithful a completely false sense of knowledge about the dangers to their faith, and setting them up for hard falls.

I grew up in a Protestant group that held doggedly to all sorts obscure notions (not so obscure for Protestant fundamentalists, mind you, who are quite numerous, but obscure when measured against the Faith as held all times, everywhere, and by all), and many I knew who when faced with the most elementary contradictions to these doctrines quickly folded up the tent and moved on to other systems, thinking the Faith had been answered, when all that was gainsaid was their obscurantist idiom.

Being grounded in the truth, and making sure that the faithful are equipped with answers, and as importantly, that they know where they can find them, is then the duty of the Christian scholar.

Scholars to be scholars must exist in academies, in collaboration (no one scholar can know all), so that each with breadth of knowledge, but trained as well in numerous languages, disciplines, and interests, can contribute to the building up of the Church. My hope is that we can produce scholars, and many of them, that will then be ready to teach our youth, equipping them for the intellectual tasks ahead (such as the necessary catechizing of their own children), and equipping all the faithful to every good work. This demands that we do our homework, never be satisfied with trite and easy answers, avoid self-appointed know-nothings who feign knowledge they don’t have, and practice the humility necessary to fill in our own lapses by those who can help us.



  1. Very well put. This reminds me of my own experience while studying history up to the graduate level. My university had a scattered few introductory courses on particular topics but for the most part taught specialized courses. I often had to jump in the deep end and swim around until I had enough of a grasp of the background I could follow along (especially the case with medieval history). In the end, I don’t believe I even became an “expert” in any topic because I just got those specialized snippets of various periods of history. Rather, I view my education in a more technical sense: I became quite skilled in research and writing according to the historical method. I still carry on an intensive intellectual life but it’s for the sake of personal writing projects rather than classroom teaching (as I’ve always been a lousy public speaker).

    That being said, I did teach basic English in Asia for six years and this also reminds me a bit of the difference between students there and students in America. In Asia there is intense focus on STEM subjects and the arts and social studies take a back seat. Indeed, I found students had a very underdeveloped interest in art and social issues. In contrast, American students are–or at least used to be–given a much more well-rounded education that doesn’t seem to stress any particular subject over another. The key difference to me seems to be that Asian students learn subjects that will benefit collective enterprises (particularly corporate and governmental institutions) while American students are given opportunities for individual exploration and social life. Which is better, I don’t know, but highly specialized focus seems to carry an agenda with it that can be exploited while the “well-rounded” broad focus provides a solid foundation that lends itself towards greater adaptability/flexibility. I see this as having little difference with what you described as occurring between the two “faculty poles” at the university level.

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