Theological expertise in the digital age

By Matthew L. Skinner, guest blogger

I have a love-hate relationship with my Bible software.

I love it. It puts tons of information at my fingertips. It contains so many resources and allows me to access them so effectively and interactively that I can leave about thirty pounds of reference books on my shelves.

I hate it. For a digitally-reared, data-consuming audience, it spews out uninterpreted facts and figures, daring users to discover something significant within the information. I want to know what the word “grace” means in Romans and how it functions. More concretely, I want to know what the Apostle Paul thinks it looks like and how he experiences it. Yet I read papers merely asserting that “grace” is clearly important to Paul because he uses the word 24 times over 16 chapters. Thanks for nothing, Bible software.

And now the new release of my Bible software has expanded to include images of ancient Greek manuscripts. While part of me geeks out over this, another part worries that I’m not long from receiving my first email from someone who claims to have found an overlooked copyist’s mark in Codex Bezae—and that this mark changes (or finally proves) everything.

Misguided or nutty biblical interpretation certainly did not originate from the information age. My printed reference books can easily provide what’s needed for exegesis-by-statistics, and history has yielded plenty of text-critical proposals that have not been deterred by an absence of supporting evidence.

What’s more, I generally welcome the move to put specialists’ tools into the hands of everyone. The new digital frontiers we’re traversing have the potential to make experts—in any field—more accountable. Today, experts don’t just dispense information as much as they explain it and work with it in a fuller view. This is something, I think, that can benefit churches right now.

The Protestant impulse—and, to a degree, other traditions as well—has always struggled with what to do with its theological and academic professionals. If anyone can be enlightened by reading scripture, who needs a scripture scholar? But if we really believe that things like biblical languages and ancient contexts are crucial (for the record: they really are), how can we expect everyone to learn all that stuff? As Jim Rice noted in a recent post, although our theologies may reject the notion that the word of God requires an authorized mediator, Christians still usually hold that discerning the word of God, separating it from false expressions, is vital. Such discernment is an editorial function conducted by Christian communities. Trained specialists are supposed to help with this.

Rice also notes with some uneasiness that our culture is in general becoming more and more used to doing without editors, as individual readers themselves must sort through the deluge of information they experience via digital channels. He’s right to raise concerns, insofar as a surfeit of digitally-delivered information and opinions potentially affects communities of faith and how they might go about considering what is valuable or reliable information about God, ourselves, and the world.

Social networks of course provide potential arenas for communities of faith to do this discerning/editing, perhaps much more transparently and efficiently than they used to do it. Such communities will probably continue to rely on experts, their tools, and their methods as they do so. (At least, I hope they will. I like feeling useful.)

Yet I also hope that these emerging forms of communications bring about a change in what counts for expertise. On the Web, one can turn to plenty of accredited specialists who possess knowledge and scholarly acuity. If all we need from these experts are imprimaturs, those can be found quickly. Earlier I mentioned how new media can force experts to become more accountable for what they know. As it concerns biblical scholars, this may indeed prompt me and my colleagues to be a little more willing to guide laypeople through text-critical arguments or other arcane matters. But mostly, I think, this state of affairs charges us to add energy to the discourse, precisely as new media makes that discourse more public. It compels us to make the conversations a little more interesting and to make a case for why it’s so important that communities of faith do their biblical interpretation and spiritual discernment expectantly, critically, and well.

In the end, no Bible software can perform this task. Communities of faith need people to do so.

Matthew L. Skinner is Associate Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, a contributing editor to ON Scripture, author of The Trial Narratives: Conflict, Power, and Identity in the New Testament, and a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA).

The New Media Project at Union Theological Seminary is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact