Is There A Doctor In the House: An Insider’s Story And Advice On Becoming A Biblical Scholar

Is There A Doctor In the House: An Insider’s Story And Advice On Becoming A Biblical Scholar March 23, 2012

***A Guest Post by Lawrence Garcia.

Scholars, we energetically read their books, we quote their work to lend credibility to everything from blogs to school papers, and yes, some of us self-proclaimed “up-and-comers” emulate them aspiring eventually to become actual biblical scholars ourselves. But do we really have what it takes? Are we even aware of the years of the economic, emotional, physical and mental travails that sit unmentioned behind the polished covers of our favorite scholar’s works? If not, Ben Witherington’s Is There A Doctor In the House: An Insider’s Story And Advice On Becoming A Biblical Scholar is a sobering concoction of scholarly advice, warning, and autobiography that will help to crystalize our decision of whether or not to embark on the journey toward becoming a Biblical scholar. Witherington writes:

In other words, to be a serious student, much less a teacher or scholar of the Bible, you must love learning—and not just learning during a particular period of your life, but lifelong learning. At the outset of my journey toward becoming a Biblical scholar, I realized that this huge undertaking would require more than just a commitment to some intensive years of education. I would have to follow Johannes Bengel’s dictum: “Apply the whole of yourself to the text, apply the whole of the text to yourself.”

Is There A Doctor In the House functions much like a practical guide for those few souls who are either considering, embarking, or even currently on the formidable path of becoming a scholar of the Bible. We will need to seriously consider (and re-consider some more) which University to do our PhD work, the pros and cons of studying at home or abroad, and the selection of a mentor—the person who may or may not “help you develop your own critical thinking and your own views.” Like the character Christian in Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress, at times we will enjoy strengthening companions along the way and at others we will experience fierce competition from “fellow-degree seekers, particularly the ones in the same class and stage of the program as you.”

We future scholars likewise glean valuable principles from hearing the tales of Witherington’s own experiences while choosing to study abroad at Durham, under great scholars like C.E.B Cranfield and C.K. Barrett. One particular example struck me while Witherington retold of a nightly-scholarly meeting he had once attended (the names of those present make you wish you could have been a fly on the wall); Witherington then recalled one of the prestigious attendee’s command to go:

“Let’s go ad fonts”—that is, to the original sources—is still ringing in my ears. No matter how many commentaries you read, theologies you study, histories you ponder, if you study the requisite languages , you have settled for taking other people’s words for the meaning of this or that sentence, phrase or word. You have settled for the use of secondary sources. Secondary sources are necessary, but they are no substitute for God’s Word in its original languages… because the Bible’s instruction to “study and show yourself approved” is referring to your own direct engagement with the original language biblical text.

However, even if you aren’t planning on becoming a biblical scholar this book is still for you. Anyone who teaches and preaches from God’s Word, be it on a street corner or in a home group, can glean insight and wisdom from the work that will assist them in becoming better biblical teachers. After all, sensitivity to cultural context, familiarity with the biblical languages, and a working knowledge of ancient history are necessary for anyone who wants to understand the Bible, how much more so for those who presume to teach it to others. And if you think the scholarly journey may not be worth it, here is a brief snippet from one of Witherington’s poems that happened to be peppered throughout the book:

When Mission is on the move

By those whose efforts serve to prove

That nothing’s wasted in God’s hands

When we respond to his commands

Then we shall hear him say “well done”

To those who worked under the Son.


Lawrence is the Senior Teaching-Pastor of Academia Church in Goodyear, Arizona. He is a pastor devoted to the educational growth of his congregants, and the raising up of a new generation of disciples, who will think, tell, and live out the Christian story. Lawrence is currently attending Liberty University.

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  • Anonymous

    I wish I’d had more of this kind of direction while in seminary.  I felt like it was assumed that people would get on the right track for scholarship or maybe I just didn’t know the questions to ask.  

  • ellie_1

    The bible has a way of being clear about topics that matter.  In desiring to be loving and accepting, I think we Christians talk ourselves out of accepting the meaning of some things that really are clear.  And, even though we’re always learning, we can know enough to instruct others effectively.

    Although I’ve studied scripture intently for some 25 years, I felt the need to pursue a doctoral degree since I had put so much time in and it has truly been the greatest passion of my life; but also to make sure I had covered all the topics necessary to be an effective and valuable asset to the Body of Christ.  Additionally, my people skills needs some honing.

    The cost of formal education is really tough, but I’ve found issues at some seminaries that make it difficult to trust leadership. Sadly, for that reason, I am no longer pursuing my degree at this time as i may have to foot further afield to acquire a sound education. and not able to do that at this time due to additional family responsibilities. 

    With reference to the above article, if God has a call on someone’s life, why would they need to compete? Scholarship sounds difficult but worthwhile. Informally, it has been so far.  


  • While I appreciate this perspective to a point, and I appreciate as well a lot of what I’ve seen from Witherington himself, I would hate for this book to discourage those who can’t become fulltime academics, from entering the waters of scholarship on even a limited level. True, we can never hope to gain credibility with the authorities, and we may even get in over our heads, but I believe there is value even for the “amateur” believer to engage with primary sources and serious thinking. It’s far too frequent that people of faith abandon serious grappling with real issues to those with degrees. I find it telling that there wasn’t a single scholar among Jesus’ original twelve.

    I do not discount the value of scholarship. Scholars such as Wright, Witherington, McKnight, Yoder, Eller, and many others have greatly helped me think about what I do and do not believe…even when I find myself disagreeing with them. The best of them, even when making a scholarly point, retain the humility of a disciple first. But I hope none of them, or those who would emulate them, ever tells the true inquirer to just leave the serious inquiries to the experts.

    • ellie_1

       it’s a good point that the 12 hadn’t had formal training, but they were from the nation Israel so it was nearly impossible to be reared in their homes without quite an extensive knowledge if only peripherally of their history.  More so than someone not from Israel. The point that we oftentimes want to leave the issues to those with degrees is definitely worth pondering.  After what I’ve seen though, formal education can at times work against people if some things aren’t in place first as people tend to just follow others beliefs without at least a mental challenging of them.

  • Stevekimes

    Excellent article.  Ben Witherington has a lot of wisdom about the Bible and life.  

    I have found that fulfilling my studies of the Bible have taken me from my studies.  Living a life of love, charity and taking up the cross with Jesus takes a toll, and my mind and energy isn’t what it used to be.  I still try to be a life long learner, as well as a teacher, but I find that the living out the kingdom of God doesn’t allow me to concentrate on studies as I used to.  And yet, isn’t living the word what study is all about?  Once lived, is the study necessary?  There is a joy in the study, a joy I fail to participate in, but in a sense, there is a deeper satisfaction in seeing one’s life fulfill the word, and not just perpetually discover it.