Every week I spend perhaps an hour, responding to spiritual or theological questions that people send me by Messenger or email or through my blogs. Some weeks there are many questions. And believe me, I am pleased that people would ask.
I am guided in this by my three “Patron Saints of Answering Questions.”
Bruce Metzger. Many years ago, New Testament scholar Metzger lived just across the Delaware River from me and was teaching at Princeton. I wrote and asked, “Say, could you help me? If you were a young evangelical, wanting to take a doctorate in New Testament, where would you apply?” Or so I wrote in my naiveté to Metzger, one of the leading scholars of the day! Nevertheless, he immediately sent me back two hand-typed, single-spaced pages, outlining his (excellent) recommendations. It changed my life: on the list was Aberdeen University, where I eventually did go to study. And as a professor, I use Metzger’s books in my studies and in my classes.
Herbert Henry Ehrenstein. I know very little of his biography, mainly that he served alongside Donald Grey Barnhouse of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. Also that he participated in two works that were founded there: The Bible Study Hour on radio, and Eternity magazine. But I first heard of Ehrenstein in the early 1970s, on a Christian radio program out of Boston. He gave teaching capsules on John DeBrine’s Songtime, a ministry that still exists today. I knew very little about the Bible, and so I decided to drop him a note, asking my most burning question: “Where did the Old Testament saints go when they died?” He immediately sent me back a short letter – along with a hand-drawn diagram!
I never met either man nor had any further contact other than replying with thank-you notes, but I think of Ehrenstein and of Metzger every week.
When I get yet one more question – usually in Spanish, sometimes not very clearly-stated – I ask, “What would Metzger or Ehrenstein do?” Men who had a whole lot more on their plate than I will ever have, but who gave me rapid, gracious, and useful help.
There are limits of course, and I’m sure my Patron Saints had them. At times I suspect that someone is writing a term paper and wants me to do a chunk of it for them! There are people who ask, “What is your opinion on XYX?” I answer, but receive further feedback: “Yeah, but what about this? What about that?” Someone is trying to proselytize me! Last week someone wanted a statement from me that they then used out of context as ammo against a theological opponent. A very small percentage – 2-3 people a year – get hostile. But most are friendly!
A fairly regular question, believe it or not, is “Here’s a link to a YouTube video, what do you think of it?” A video which might be a half-hour or two hours long. So it’s: “Bueno – why don’t you sum it up for me and then we’ll see what we can do?”
I do not respond well to, “Tell me how to understand Greek. But I don’t want to have to study it.”
On the other hand, there are people who pour out their hearts with some inner struggle. Lately it’s been, “I’m terrified, because some preacher said the world will end Tuesday, Wednesday at the latest.”
My third patron saint:
The Rabbi Hillel. He lived some decades before Jesus’ ministry. A man approached Hillel’s chief opponent, the rabbi Shammai, and said “Teach me the whole message of the Law while I stand on one foot.” Shammai picked up a 2×4 and chased the man away; maybe he suspected that the man was being cynical, and who knows? The inquirer then asked the same question of Hillel and got an earnest answer: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the entire Torah. The rest is commentary – go and learn it.” Saul/the apostle Paul started life as Hillelite, and he kept up the tradition – according to my calculations, 1 Corinthians includes his answers to at least seven questions the church had asked him by letter (see 1 Cor 7:1).
Hillel, St Paul, Metzger, Ehrenstein.
ADDENDUM: sometimes I write to Bible scholars to get help on some point. What I do, and what I recommend to others, is: Be clear and brief; don’t ask multiple questions; don’t argue; don’t try to convert them to your way if thinking. Say thank you and move along.
See also: “Missionary, your newsletter is an act of worship.”
“Answering my mail IS ministry,” by Gary S. Shogren, Professor of New Testament, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica