I am not the first nor the only one to have noticed this. Better thinkers than Larry Peters have decided that the critical process has lost its way and no longer deals with the text as we have it or the Word on the page. So the preacher is left with little from the academic to help him express anything but uncertainty and the conclusion that even the uncertainty itself makes no difference since the message is largely symbolic. Think here of Brevard Childs and his so-called canonical criticism that insists the text must be dealt with as a text to heal the breach between biblical criticism and theology. The goal and intent is to place the Scriptures where they belong -- within the communities of faith where people gather at its call and hear it proclaimed to them as a means of grace.
Perhaps the biggest problem liberal churches face is that they have bought into the academy lock, stock, and barrel and no longer know what Scriptures says without the prompting of those who spend most of their time avoiding its plain sense and skeptical of its own history. While conservative are by no means immune from the pressure of the academic to interpret Scripture for the common man, they are better placed to believe that Scripture speaks plainly enough for us to know and understand what it says and means (and not as if those two are constantly at odds with one another).
My friend Pastor Chris Esget wrote of a conversation in which an ELCA pastor mades an interesting statement there about Holy Scripture: “The academy is necessary to help us understand the meaning of the texts, which can be different from what they say.” Granted that he’s talking about the importance of understanding Scripture in context, I find this notion deeply troubling, and perhaps the single greatest difference between our church bodies. One of my axioms is if you have to add words to Scripture to explain why it doesn’t mean what it clearly sounds like, you’ve got the wrong interpretation.
Pastor Esget is rightly suspicious of a tendency more common to liberal churches but not entirely lost upon conservative ones and that it the idea that special expertise must be used to distinguish between what Scripture says and what it means. There are, of course, times when it may be more difficult in this regard but in most cases the plain meaning of the words is there divinely intended meaning - given the importance of discerning the context and the Lutheran concern for distinguishing Law and Gospel!
Esget then quotes Luther: [The Bible] is the book that makes all wise and clever people into fools and can only be understood by fools and simpletons. That is why you should let go of your arrogance and other false attitudes and hold this book in high regard: as the highest and noblest sacred object, as if it were the riches treasure trove that can never be emptied or exhausted. Many years ago I read the whole Bible twice and if it were to be compared to a tall sturdy tree and if all the words were branches and twigs, I have in effect shaken all these branches, curious to know what was hanging on them and what they had to offer and each time I was able to knock down a few more little apples or pears. [p217]
Is that not the promise of God who makes foolish the wisdom of men and speaks to the minds of the simple believer the great wisdom of eternity? No one is saying that the role of the academic is superfluous to the life of the church or that the insight of the theologian and exegete is necessary. Of course they are important and essential but both serve a common purpose and are not at odds with each other. The most common purpose is to equip the preacher to preach the Word within the community of the baptized, to teach the faith to those within and outside the household of the faith, and to use that Word as healing balm within the realm of pastoral care. Once these purposes are no longer central to the study of the Scriptures, the Word will no longer be plain, clear, or simple. Once they no longer lead us with confidence to the Christ who saves, the Scriptures will be a closed book whose message is dark and uncertain.
That brings to mind the catholic principle that pervades the Lutheran Confessions. We are not innovators or speculators but deal always within the realm of the certain and sure -- the Word of God that endures forever and that which has always been believed, taught, confessed, and practiced. The penchant for novelty has become the hallmark of the academy. The pursuit of what might be has replaced the love of what is. Each mark of separation from the life of the assembled church on Sunday morning leaves the academic with little more than novelty which erodes the eternal and urgent message of the kingdom to be preached in Christ crucified and risen, the fulfillment of the whole of the Divine Word. Speculative concerns make for interesting conversation but poor theology and even poorer help for the task of preaching and teaching that Word to people. If there is one thing that ought to raise a warning bell within the academy it is the delight in that which is new or novel for Scripture also teaches us that there is nothing new under the sun -- especially not when it comes to the elevation of reason over Scripture and the relegation of tradition to the past.
One last thing. It is a terrible thing to have a skeptical mind and a sentimental heart. (Naguib Mahfouz) A skeptical mind has left us with little confidence in the Word of God that promises salvation to all who believe and absent that confidence (faith) belief erodes into mere sentiment and feeling defined by individual preference and what makes the person feel better. The academy has not turned us all into professors but left us all to the rule of our hearts unleashed from every constraint. So what does Scripture say? Everyone did what was right in their own minds (hearts) -- because they had no Word left to direct them otherwise!