Truth be told, I am an academic by nature (although I am not very smart). I am not a practical person. In high school, I liked Pure Maths, but didn’t enjoy Applied Maths. At University I liked browsing the academic journals in the library. When I finished my BSc (Hons) and MSc degrees, my professors suggested that I should do a PhD. But I didn’t take up their offers because I thought I wasn’t smart enough.
Then I migrated to Australia and worked in IT. When I turned thirty, I enrolled at a Bible college. I thought God wanted me to serve him, and theological training was a steppingstone to full-time ministry. I started working in my church as a pastor while I was still at college. But meanwhile I discovered (once again!) that I loved academic studies.
Pastoral ministry taught me a lot. I had many opportunities to hear the stories of people whose lives had been transformed by the gospel. I spent time with the poor, as well as the wealthy. I visited the sick at hospital. I learned to deal with inter-personal conflicts between church members. My wife and I had little money, and we learned to trust God for his provision. Life was difficult, but I would not trade those years for anything else.
But my passion for academic studies continued. I enrolled in an MPhil as soon as I finished my BA in biblical studies. The MPhil was a research master’s degree, where I had to write a major thesis. God led me to study under a respected New Testament scholar in the UK. But the MPhil was costly, because I had to fly to the UK a few times (even though I could do most of the research in Australia). Yet, once again God supplied all our needs, even though we had little income.
After that I worked in an international aid and development organisation. My job was to speak at theological colleges and churches about poverty and development. For almost seven years I studied the issues surrounding poverty and social injustice. Meanwhile, we attended an inner-city church where a significant number of members were refugees or living with mental health issues. This gave us the opportunity to stand in solidarity with the poor and marginalised.
I learned that poverty was a complex matter. And the longer I was involved in aid and development, the more I found my life impacted by the pain and suffering of those living with poverty and social injustice. Since my academic discipline was in biblical studies, I spent a lot of time thinking about what the Bible had to say about poverty. I began to realise that there was a big gap between academic biblical studies and the lived reality of those living with poverty.
During that time, I started working on my doctoral degree part-time. Since my primary passion was the Bible, I decided to research on the New Testament, rather than poverty and development. And since I believed that the research topic should be relevant to real life issues, I chose to study the apostle Paul’s view of suffering. I completed my PhD at the age of fifty, and by God’s grace a revised version of my dissertation is now published. Unfortunately, nowadays there are very few tenured teaching positions for New Testament scholars. And so I don’t see myself getting a permanent job for a long time, if it happens at all. But God has given me plenty of opportunities to teach as an adjunct lecturer.
Reflecting on this long journey, I would like to say a few things about what I have learned in the process.
First, the Bible is important. I don’t say this lightly. I say this based on years of pastoral experience and involvement in aid and development. I say this after a lot of time living in want and having to trust God for his financial provisions. I have no regrets in doing many years of intense study on the Scripture. It is a privilege.
Second, I thank God for biblical scholars. I am indebted to those who have gone before me to master the biblical languages and provided students with valuable tools to study Greek and Hebrew. I am thankful to scholars whose works enrich and deepen my own understanding of Scripture. Ultimately the church is the beneficiary of their labour.
Third, and most importantly, I tend to think that academic biblical study is an integral part of a long journey of knowing God and his purpose for his creation. For me, academic study is not a pathway to a promising career. Nor is it something to satisfy my intellectual carving for abstract ideas. I did a PhD because I wanted to know God, and it is still my desire to know him through the Scripture. An academic vocation may be a by-product. And yes, I like playing with abstract concepts in my head. But my primary reason to study the Bible is that I may know God through the Scripture, and allow God to transform my life for his purposes.
Of course, God does call people to be full-time academics. But it is not a “career” to be pursued in order to become successful. Instead, it is a vocation that calls for cruciform commitment for the sake of the Christ in the service of the church and the mission of God. The apostle Paul, a very learned figure in the Bible, did not set out to become a renowned or distinguished scholar. Instead, he wanted to know Christ and the power of his resurrection, and share in his sufferings—being conformed to his death (see Phil 3:10).
(I suppose many would disagree with me here. I should say that these are my reflections on my own journey. Different people have different experiences and convictions.)
Fourth, it is worth taking time to work outside the academy. When I was a pastor, I realised that I could become out of touch with the world if I spent all of my time dealing with people inside the church. Likewise, biblical scholars can lose touch with the reality faced by the people outside their teaching institutions. After all, the Bible is about real people living in the real world, and one cannot truly understand the biblical text without spending time outside the academy.
I know that it is not practically possible for many—if not most—scholars to engage in work outside the academy. And I want to emphasise here that full-time biblical academics have my highest respect. But I wonder whether there are creative ways to engage with the world in some tangible and concrete ways?
I grew up working in a factory in East Asia, and I worked in IT in corporations in both Australia and overseas. These life experiences are incredibly valuable when I teach the Bible. I did my MPhil and PhD part-time while I was working part-time (in IT or the aid and development sector). And now I have a small office-cleaning job, which serves as a reminder of what it is like to earn a living through low-paid menial tasks. Again, Paul, being a leather-worker (or “tent-maker”), was a good model of being a bi-vocational pastor, missioner, and theologian.
Fifth, let us realise that genuine Christian faith involves Christ-centred transformation in every sphere of our lives. The goal of biblical interpretation is not primarily about apologetics or defending the truth, but living out the life, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus in everyday life. Some years ago, a respected scholar was invited by an aid and development organisation to speak at a special event about poverty. He eloquently demonstrated that in church history Christians were generous in giving financially to the poor. He refuted the claim that the church failed to care for the needy. He called on the audience to continue the long church tradition of involving in charity work.
I agree with this scholar’s argument, and I admire his humility in his presentation. But I was disappointed by his simplistic view of poverty. Even a standard textbook on aid and development will show that financial generosity alone (though important in itself) is a limited and insufficient solution to poverty. He might have won the argument in showing that the church was active in serving the poor in the past. But his rather simplistic view of poverty reduction would not win the heart of those who actively walked with the poor in the twenty-first century.
I understand that it is impossible to know everything and be involved in everything. But it wouldn’t do to ignore the culture and the struggles of people outside the four walls of the seminary or the building of a well-resourced middle-class church. If we don’t have friends from a low socioeconomic background, how can we truly understand Jesus’ fulfilment of the Isaianic text of proclaiming good news to the poor in Luke 4:18? If we are ignorant of the issues around refugees, and if we don’t personally know any refugee, how can we understand the many biblical texts concerning them? If we don’t have friends from different ethnic backgrounds, how can we recognise the cultural and racial dynamics in the Book of Acts and Paul’s letters? If we don’t get to know people living with a disability and those suffering from domestic violence, how can we teach the Good News in the Scripture effectively?
In the four Gospels we find that Jesus was very often on the road, and he gathered a community of believers from all walks of life, not least the poor and marginalised. The narratives in the Gospels serve to draw us closer to God’s heart, and challenge us to see our own inadequacies. Spending time with those who suffer helps us to see the amazing work of God in their lives and understand the biblical texts accordingly. We will do well to follow Jesus’ footsteps.
So, is it possible for a biblical scholar to do all of the above? Given the heavy workload and demand within the academy, it is very hard. But I know scholars who do the above in various ways. They do personally spend time with the poor and marginalised, and pour out their heart to those in need in prayers. They engage with real people in the real world. Some do that a lot, and others do less. But no matter how much or little they do, they are an inspiration.