What good is a Ph.D. for reading the Bible?

The ideas and viewpoints expressed in the posts on the Ideas and Creations blog are solely the view of the author(s). Luther College's mission statement calls us to "embrace diversity and challenge one another to learn in community," and to be "enlivened and transformed by encounters with one another, by the exchange of ideas, and by the life of faith and learning." Alumni, faculty, staff, students and friends of the college are encouraged to express their views, model "good disagreement" and engage in respectful dialogue.

When I was a Ph.D. candidate in the New Testament program at Yale University, I had the honor of preaching at an ordination service for a classmate of mine, who was being ordained as a Presbyterian minister. When the service was over, a number of my classmates came up to me (apparently appreciative of the sermon) and asked me why I wanted to spend 4-7 years working on a Ph.D. in New Testament when I clearly had a "gift" for preaching. I responded that it was actually my academic study of the Bible coupled with my life experiences that illumined and enlivened my preaching.

I did not grow up reading the Bible. I was almost 19 years old and a soldier in the United States Army stationed in the Federal Republic of Germany when I purchased my first Bible. A series of life changing events led to me "accepting Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior." A few months after purchasing my first Bible, I attended a revival service at a local church. I returned to post that evening describing the service to a group of fellow soldiers, who, along with myself, comprised a group self-identified as the "Soul Patrol." We were African American Christians who strongly believed in the necessity of Christian evangelization. As I told them about the revival service, I emphasized what I considered the "miraculous." I described how people were getting up out of wheelchairs and throwing away crutches, and how blind people were claiming to see and deaf people claiming to hear. I described how people were prophesying and "speaking in tongues" and being "slain in the spirit." At some point in my description, three of them stopped me and said, "Brother Nave, what did you just say?" I repeated my description of all the miraculous events, but they impatiently interrupted with, "No…no…. the preacher…, you said something about the preacher." I responded with, "Yes! The preacher was powerful! She was…" They interrupted again saying, "Stop right there…. Did you say she?" "Yes," I responded somewhat confused, "the preacher was a woman." Immediately the retort was, "Brother Nave, you know women can't preach." "What do you mean, 'women can't preach?' That was some of the most powerful preaching I have ever heard." "Brother Nave, you believe the Bible is the ‘Word of God' don't you?" "Of course I believe the Bible is the 'Word of God,' what does that have to do with anything?" Ironically I was defending the Bible as the Word of God after only having read it for about three months. They responded assertively and with confidence that the Bible clearly states that women are not permitted to speak in church or to have authority over men. One of them opened the Bible to 1 Timothy 2:8-15, and proceeded to explain how God had entrusted spiritual leadership to men.

I looked at the passage for quite some time, deeply confused and perplexed. I shared with them experiences of growing up in Indiana where my father would wake up every morning before the rest of us in order to remove burning crosses from our front yard because we were the first black family to integrate an all white neighborhood. I shared stories of being confused as a seven-year-old kid wanting to eat at a particular restaurant where I saw a lot of white children eating and being told by my father we could not eat there. We could go around the back and get the food to go, but we couldn't go in and sit down to eat. I shared how I had spent what felt like all of my life resisting and fighting against being told I could not do something because I was black, and that there was no way I was now going to do to women the same things that had been done to me. While I thought they would clearly understand my line of reasoning, they were adamant that the Word of God was clear. I remember feeling deeply conflicted, but I was sure about one thing—I could not do to anyone else what had been done to me all of my life. I told my friends that I didn't understand it. I told them that I believed the Bible was the Word of God but that I could not accept the teachings of 1 Timothy, and that if that passage of scripture accurately reflected the will of God, that I wanted nothing to do with God. While I did not realize it, that moment began my journey toward attaining a Ph.D. in New Testament Studies.

Over 30 years later, and three master's degrees and one Ph.D., I can clearly and confidently articulate how 1 Timothy (like all biblical writings) is a product of its social-historical context. I can illustrate how and why the author of 1 Timothy is responding to accusations that the early "Jesus movement" was promoting a "discipleship of equals" and disrupting the patriarchal social order of imperial Roman society by promoting notions of "equality" among women and slaves (e.g. Gal 3:28). I can demonstrate how many of the Christian writings of the late first century—through the use of "household codes"—were written to encourage Jesus followers to honor and respect the social mores of the Roman Empire and to promote the acceptance of this new religious movement within the pantheon of "accepted" Roman religions (Religio licita).

I can explain how and why the content of 1 Timothy contradicts much of what Paul writes in his earlier letters where he acknowledges and commends female church leaders, identifying them with the same title he uses to identify himself—"servant of Christ" (diakonos tou Christou). I can also point out the interesting phenomenon that most English translations of the Bible translate "diakonos tou Christou" as "minster of Christ" when referring to Paul (or other male leaders) but as "deacon" or "servant of Christ" when referring to women. I can clearly demonstrate the transition from the acceptance of female leadership in the early Jesus movement to the eventual rejection of female leadership. I can even show how the name of a female apostle, "Junia" is erased from Paul’s letter to the Romans and replaced with the male name, Junias (Rom 16:7).

Of course one does not need a Ph.D. in order to read the Bible, just like one does not need a Ph.D. in order to conduct a choir or to write a novel or to become an entrepreneur. There are, however, a number of benefits derived from the academic study of the Bible, just as I assume there are benefits derived from the academic study of other subjects.

My academic study of the Bible has taught me more than I can begin to articulate in this blog post. Most importantly, it has taught me that there has never been one monolithic understanding of God or of Jesus. As a collection of writings spanning hundreds of years and multiple historical contexts, the Bible embraces and promotes a diversity of views. Rather than demonstrating that there is only one way to think about the divine, the Bible demonstrates that there has always been multiple ways of thinking about the divine. Furthermore the canonization of various literary genres—satire, apocalyptic, poetic, psalms, short stories, gospels, letters, history, etc… clearly demonstrate the necessity of multiple reading strategies.

Unfortunately, a significant number of students arrive in my Introduction to Biblical Studies course having been taught there is only one way to read and think about the Bible, and when that way of reading is inconsistent with their own experiences, conviction and/or beliefs they are told they are having difficulties accepting the Bible because their "faith" is not strong enough. Faith is presented as what is needed in order to make unbelievable and even unacceptable things both believable and acceptable. However, when these students, who have struggled for so long with their own religious identity realize they are not "less-than" because they read and understand the Bible (and even Christianity) differently, it is though they are actually experiencing "salvation"—deliverance from oppression.

There are so many passages in the Bible that are clear and do not require a Ph.D. to understand. When the authors of Colossians, Ephesians, and 1 Peter declare, "Slaves obey your masters…," the meaning of the text is clear. American slave masters in the 17th and 18th centuries read the passages to their slaves because the meaning of the text is clear. Similarly, when Martin Luther King, Jr. was sitting in a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, his Ph.D. along with his life experiences contributed to him reading Romans 13:1-7 differently than white ministers in Alabama who criticized him for disobeying the "Word of God."

Clearly a Ph.D. is not necessary in order to read and/or understand the Bible, but my Ph.D. has greatly enriched the way I read the Bible. My reading of the Bible after my Ph.D. permits and promotes the inclusion of far more people than my reading of the Bible before my Ph.D. My Ph.D. in biblical studies has taught me to read and understand the Bible in ways the church never taught me—to read in ways that promote the worth, value and acceptance of ALL people, regardless of religion, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, ability or any other category.

Because of what my Ph.D. has taught me about the Bible, I reject the assertion of anyone who attempts to diminish and deny my claim of being a Christian and/or a child of God because I don't read the Bible the one way they say it has to be read. As a biblical scholar and a professor of religion, I also teach my students not to allow anyone to diminish and deny their claim of being a Christian and/or a child of God because they don't read the Bible the way someone else tells them they have to read it. There is no one correct way of reading the Bible, and anyone who tries to teach otherwise would benefit greatly from a Ph.D. in biblical studies.

Guy Nave

Guy Nave

Guy Nave, professor of religion, has been part of the Religion Department faculty since 2001, focusing on the topics of Christianity, biblical studies, religion and social justice, the social construction of religious meaning, and race-religion-and-politics. Professor Nave is currently researching the power, politics and meaning behind the rhetoric of "change," as well as the role of Christianity in bringing about social "change." In addition to writing for Luther College's Ideas and Creations blog, Nave is the founder of the online social media platform Clamoring for Change and is a guest contributor to a number of online sites, including Sojourners Commentary blog series.

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  • November 8 2013 at 4:09 pm
    Anna G Stoltenberg
    As a lifelong Christian, I struggled (in my Intro to the Bible class) and still do with reading the Bible. It can be an intimidating book with great expectations on how to interpret sentences, stories and words. Thank you for giving me a new perspective.
  • November 8 2013 at 4:34 pm
    Guy N.
    Anna, thank you for your response. I completely understand how you feel. For me, when I began to understand the depth and magnitude of grace, reading the Bible became far less intimate and far more liberating and empowering.
  • November 8 2013 at 8:29 pm

    Great reading and thanks for sharing!  

  • November 8 2013 at 8:48 pm
    Terri Smith
    Great reading...not sure if you remember me from Payne AME church in Waterloo. I am not a member there - went back to my home church. This is what I love about having a relationship with God. It allows you to go deeper with Him in His word. We all read and interpret the bible differently which is why it is important to attend bible study.
  • November 8 2013 at 9:29 pm
    Aric Elton
    Like you Professor I feel that no one should be denied their right to religion because they do not follow the reading of the Bible the way others do. People within the the Christian faith should be able to read the Bible in anyway they feel fits their beliefs and styles. Like you said there is no correct way to read it, and I found this reading to be very helpful and eye opening.
  • November 8 2013 at 11:02 pm
    Hans Holkesvik
    I really appreciate what you are working to do in our class. Myself, I've never been completely positive about how I feel about my religion and I'm still not %100 sure, but I really appreciate your approach to understanding the Bible and it's contents. Thanks!
  • November 9 2013 at 8:32 am
    Dusty Johnson
    Thanks for posting this, Professor Nave. I took your class on faith and critical thinking over 10 years ago and it continues to give me a clearer lens when studying the Bible. Christianity is about making choices. I hope my choices are welcoming to all people, and show the love Jesus has for us.
  • November 9 2013 at 8:53 am
    Guy N

    I'm not sure if Anna is still following this, but in my previous response to her I meant to write "intimidate" rather than "intimate" (it is in fact still intimate at times).

  • November 9 2013 at 8:55 am
    Guy N

    Hey Dusty, good to hear from you. I hope you are doing well! I'm sure you are making welcoming and thoughtful choices.

  • November 9 2013 at 5:01 pm
    Katie Peterson

    Guy, thank you for writing this post. I appreciate the way that you have us as students dive deep into the meaning of faith and how our faith is formed, whether or not we have to address how that faith began in the first place. I have always been what I consider a rebellious Christian, always trying to dig deeper to find out what my faith means to me, without the influences of church, professors, peers and family because of the fact that may faith is not their faith. Some people do not view me as a Christian and instead always say they are going to pray for me to really find the Lord and accept Him as my savior. I think it's absurd. However, thank you for writing a relatable about such a controversial issue that occurs in my life almost regularly.


  • November 9 2013 at 5:05 pm
    Katie Peterson

    P.S. I wish I would have been introduced this instead of the often "one sided" view that the church often teaches before I took my intro to religion course.

  • November 9 2013 at 8:49 pm
    Guy N


    Thanks for your comments. I hope you continue to dig deeper, because we have only begun to scratch the surface of all there is to uncover. While I totally understand your desire to have been introduced to this approach earlier, you are at a point of realization that a lot of people who are much older have not arrived at yet. Your timing is perfect! I am excited for you! And I am grateful to know you as a fellow sojourner on this often difficult yet glorious journey!

  • November 9 2013 at 9:12 pm
    Shelby Oelschlager


    I really enjoyed this post. I have experienced a similar situation to which you stated about going into intro bible class and feeling ill-prepared because I felt as if I was either reading the Bible completely wrong or I had just been taught something that had no correlation to what I was learning in class. Now I know that I was not the only one who thought the way I did. I also appreciate the way you promote such vast discussions in our class to help us to better understand what it is we are supposed to understand.

  • November 9 2013 at 9:19 pm
    Phillip Hoesing
    Professor, Thank you for always opening up perspective on campus at LC and off campus, as well. I remember you often saying at the end of our Intro to the New Testament classes, "ladies and gentlemen - our time is far spent", after which I found myself in Preus library opening either the Bible or our various texts we used to look at the NT from several points of view. That was around ten years ago, and it's nice to know that there is still time and and still much to consider! Take care
  • November 10 2013 at 10:10 am
    Kylie Kozelka
    Professor, Thank you for writing this, it's such a great feeling knowing that the professors at the school actually care about what's going on with students and to go out of your way to help them. It makes me grateful for choosing Luther. Also, thanks for really opening up my eyes to religion and helping me understand more on how to interpret the bible. The bible was one of the reasons why I actually kind of had a fall out with religion, but reading this and taking your class,it's really making me think and slowly believe again. Thanks!
  • November 10 2013 at 11:20 am
    Guy N

    Thanks, Kylie for sharing. I'm sure you realize that you are not alone. Many have "had a fall out with religion" because of the Bible. I am glad the course and our conversations are helping you "think and slowly believe again." It's amazing how different things look when we actually take the time to "think" for ourselves rather than simply follow (or reject) what others have told us. I'm glad to have you in class!!

  • November 10 2013 at 11:27 am
    Guy N

    Philip, am I getting you mixed up with possibly a brother, I remember Peter (who I believe is now teaching music), or do you go by both Phillip and Peter? I am glad to hear from you that "our time is [NOT] far spent," and that you are continuing to make time for the important questions. Thanks for responding!!

  • November 11 2013 at 9:39 am
    Lindsey MB Bina '08

    Thanks for your post, Prof. Nave.  As a first-year student at Luther, I found my Intro to Bible class with Melanie Johnson-Debaufre such a liberating experience that I continued on as a religion major - I just couldn't get enough!  While my studies at Luther didn't contradict what I had learned or experienced growing up, the historical-critical approach to reading the Bible provided me an opportunity to engage the text with my whole self, so I didn't have to check my brain at the door (or should I say: cover).  Now as a seminary student, I appreciate all that the Religion department does for preparing students for further learning in this field.  Thanks for your passion and your work!

  • November 13 2013 at 1:51 am
    Christian Erazo

    Your article was full of insight and I'm glad to see how passionate you are about your faith. I'm sure it's difficult challenging the religion you are close to the most, but you embrace multiple viewpoints which is essential for any topic. Thanks Professor Nave.

  • November 13 2013 at 11:37 am
    Guy N

    Thanks, Christian. While it is often difficult challenging that which we are close to, I believe we do it BECAUSE we are close to it. It is something that matters to us and we care about it, so we challenge it out of our love for it. If we didn't care, we would simply ignore it. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment on the blog.

  • November 14 2013 at 7:37 pm
    John Lavender

    I have seen the ravages of Ph.D.'s on the interpretation of the Bible.  Generally speaking, the path of (Ph.D.- dom) is not one of humility. I  believe that one can only approach understanding of the Bible with humility.  A few writers in recent years including Thomas Sowell in his Intellectuals and Society have identified some of the problems of the Ph.D.  I do not have a Ph.D. nor the desire at this point of time in my life to get one.  I do however help others who wish to climb such a ladder to achieve their goal.  I will nevertheless praise a Yale professor that I took an online course on the New Testament by Dale B Martin.  His interest in doing Biblical research led me buy a copy of the New Oxford Annotated Bible which I enjoy.

  • November 15 2013 at 12:21 am
    Guy N

    John, I am glad you had a positive online experience with Dale. He arrived at Yale just as I was completing my work there. I regret not having been able to spend more time getting to know him. I am intrigued by your comment regarding "the path of (Ph.D.-dom) not [being] one of humility." Having traveled the path myself, I found the experience to be positively humbling. A colleague, Ellen Davis, writes how "critical reading" of biblical texts promotes the virtues of humility, patience, and charity because the complexity of the texts demonstrates there is no one single correct reading. This realization prevents the arrogance of "certainty" regarding the correctness of ones own reading (especially readings that "exclude" other people because they aren't "true Christians" if they don't believe a certain way). The complexity also causes one to "struggle" with the text, which promotes patience. Lastly a realization of the text's complexity allows for greater acceptance of a diversity of readings/interpretations, which results in greater charity and acceptance extended to those who read differently than oneself. I have rarely experienced churches that encourage multiple and diverse readings (As an ordained minister, I can say the church often seems confident in its ONE CORRECT reading, and often unwelcoming of those who do not agree with that reading). I know few Ph.D. who accuse others of not being Christian because they don't read or believe the one correct way.

    Thanks for taking the time to read and respond to this post. I hope you continue to enjoy your New Oxford Annotated Bible. It is a good choice.

  • November 16 2013 at 7:57 pm
    John Lavender

    I thank you for your response to my blog entry concerning the value of a Ph.D. and studying the Bible.  I agree with your point that the Bible is often interpreted with a limited set of meanings and that serious understanding of the Bible produces a wider set of meanings.  The words alone cannot be divorced from the translations or the intent of the author.  My response on the blog was a mix of feelings of opportunity to discuss issues I find important and my own experiences of wrestling with God. This sometimes leads me to be too quick and not as thoughtful as I can be, leaving the reader with some confusion.  I need to gtell you that I am 70 years old (graduated from Luther in 1965) and continue to read and expand my horizons of understanding in a handful of topics.  One of the areas of interest has been religion, theology and understanding the Bible.  Years ago, I developed a friendship with a theology student who was studying at Aquinas Institute in Dubuque, Iowa. At Aquinas the Lutherans, Presbyterians and Catholics were studying together to enhance their learning of the scriptures.  The student was doing a literary analysis of the Book of Mark.  I found his telling me of his studies quite fascinating and raising significant issues concerning the traditional teachings of the New Testament.  Later, I would read a book "Jesus The Man" by Barbara Thiering.  Her thesis based on her interpretation of the Dead Sea Scrolls was most fascinating.  Dr Thiering is an example of a Ph.D. with great humility, for those who read the entire book.  I was shocked that the church, in this case, the Lutheran Church chose not to respond to the subject of thoughts being introduced by such scholars.  The seminaries appear to have become very quiet. Perhaps I was not reading the right publications.  In more recent years I would read "Paul Was Not a Christian" by Pamela Eisenbaum.  Again, I heard or read nothing. I was not expecting a specific interpretation of the Bible that would accept or rejet these points of view, but something.  Having been raised as a ELCA Lutheran I decided about four years ago to join a Missouri Synod Lutheran Church where a specific interpretation of the Bible (As presented in the Book of Concord) is espoused.  I continued to go to this church mostly since *I was shocked at their view points and wondered how Lutherans in northern Germany had their ideas so well preserved from the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries.  I had two grandchildren confirmed in the Missouri Synod and the Catholic school they attend, students are amazed at their knowledge of the Bible.  By complete accident I found a book "Bach's World by Jan Chiapusso open for me a whole new world of understanding of interpreting the Bible (I truly believe that Westin Noble would be shocked that I would value such a book).  Now for something completely different, like getting back to the subject at hand.  My experience with the Ph.D. has been that they have been the great guardians of the paradigms of topics of inquiry.  Whether it is the reaction of physicists to "The Elegant Universe" by Brian Greene or historians reacting to Gavin Menzie's (1421: The ear China Discovered America", the guardians go nuts.  I am a geographer by academic background and the greatest geographer I ever knew (Roy Chung), never got his Ph.D. and knew his subject better than all of the Ph.D.'s I have ever read or met. In the field of Geography I have been privileged to know many of the outstanding scholars either having met with them or read their publications.  I tend to wander in my writing and hope I have not lost you.  Thank you for providing me the opportunity to clarify or confuse my points of view.

  • November 17 2013 at 2:18 pm
    Guy N

    Thanks, John. I don't know if you ever get an opportunity to return to Luther for Homecoming or any other events, but I would love the opportunity to meet with you when you are ever in town. Your experiences are rich, and I am sure I would benefit greatly from our conversation!

    Thanks for your gracious and thoughtful response.


  • January 16 2014 at 6:53 pm
    John Lavender

    I hope you have not given up on communication with your blog.  I have returned to reading "A History of Western Philosophy" by Bertrand Russell.  I know that Russell was an avowed atheist.  His section of his book (Book Two: Catholic Philosophy) has caught my eye again.  I believe that Russell has done a great job on describing Catholic Philosophy.  I have been forced to amend one of my long standing views of Russell, that is, his failure to recognize Christian values as a part of understanding western philosophy.  After some years, I went back to this book and have been quite impressed by a Ph.D. review of Catholic Philosophy and its development through time.  I would appreciate your comments on Russel's work.  Thank you.  Hope to meet you when I come to Luther for a visit. 

  • January 20 2014 at 4:41 pm
    Jim Casterton
    I am a 1985 graduate of Luther College. The excerpt from this blog which appeared in the most recent issue of Luther Magazine is the most interesting thing I've ever read in that magazine, or in almost any magazine, for that matter. THANK YOU!

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