Monday, March 01, 2010

What is "orginality"?

I came across a great quote recently that should be an encouragement to anyone embarking on a doctoral thesis. The quote speaks to the perennial concern for originality. In a field like NT studies where every inch of the territory has been excavated numerous times one feels the great fear of whether it is even possible to say anything original. This is even communicated by some professors when they interview potential doctoral candidates. "Don't study the NT", I was once told, "nothing new has been said in over 500 years. Study something like the Shepherd of Hermes!" While I think that more people should study the Shepherd, this was very deflating. By the way, at the time I didn't really even know what the Shepherd was so the thought of spending years studying it was beyond incredible. I don't feel that way now of course. Well to the quote. George B. Stevens, a NT scholar of the late 19th century once said:
"Originality does not consist of thinking new things but of thinking for ourselves."


Brian said...

Wow. Great quote! It is a breath of fresh air to this M.Div student.

John Thomson said...


As a preacher at ground level I am not looking for you and others in scholarly circles being concerned not with originality but integrity. I am looking for scholars who live with a fear of God and a respect for Scripture as God's word seeking to bring its nuances to the church.

I am however increasingly worried that this is not the agenda of the scholar. Innovation and name-making seem to important. I read blogs by scholars and often feel biblical studies is just a game. I read scholars who have specialized on a few texts and seem to know little of the bible in a more genral way. there almost seems a fear of quoting Scripture lest one is excoriated as a biblicist. In some cases the flippancy with Scripture and the freedom to indulge in coarse language makes me wonder whether the scholar has prayed at any time in the recent past. I find scholars that I believe to be fairly conservative willing to happily think/speak of other scholars as brothers who are universalists etc.

I could go on, but you get my drift. Do you guys serve the church? Can we rely on you?

Anonymous said...

John, this is a great comment. Thank you. I happen to fully agree with you, but the academy where a scholar has to earn their credential must pass this bar. It is not the only thing, but it is first thing in getting a Ph.D. Now what I like about the quote above is the emphasis on ownership of ideas. I think it is important within the context of the church and theology that serves the church that theology first be owned and lived out by the pastor and scholar.

John Thomson said...

Thanks Joel. I do appreciate your point.

I should have taken the time to reread my initial comment and edit the mistakes.

Matt said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John Smuts said...


How do modern scholars square their enterprise with 2 Timothy 2: 2?

One could argue that the constant quest for originality encourages the natural desire to move away from the 'good deposit' that Paul wants us (Timothy) to guard.

Ryan Schutt said...

Wow, thank you very much for sharing this. It comes as a huge relief to someone who is just finishing his final year of undergrad with the hope of going on for a few more degrees in the coming years.

It is so easy to get caught up in the hamster wheel of academia, frantically trying to out put original material and then feeling like a complete failure when you don't...and I don't even have my BA yet!

I'm going to hold this close to me in the coming years.

Tim Byrnes said...

It's funny that you mentioned the Shepherd of Hermas...I just started reading it yesterday! I am using the Loeb Classics Library translation. I like what I've read so far, but it obviously doesn't ring quite like our NT. The emphasis on repentance in the spiritual life is refreshing. The sin that our friend Hermas is initially convicted of, though, admittedly makes a youngish single guy like me a little uneasy!

A. B. Caneday said...

Thanks, Mike, for the quote. This succinctly expresses what I have told my students but with too many words.

"Originality does not consist of thinking new things but of thinking for ourselves."