Last year saw the publication of an excellent collection of essays on baptist hermeneutics. The book ends with responses from two non-baptists - Brian Brock (Aberdeen) and W. John Lyons (Bristol) In Lyons' reflections he makes the following argument:
Baptist churches, in my view, desperately need to find and offer an alternative to our contemporary culture that is as authentic, as Christo-centric, and as radical, as is possible.
To create such space for this to happen, Baptist churches will need the help of such "experts" as they have to hand, whether such individuals are theologians, biblical scholars, pastors, sages, or even suitable outsiders ("critical friends?"). These people are needed because Baptist churches and their partner denominations must now begin to think about their present day failings and about what must be done to make their communities truly Christ-centred, life-giving, and prophetic. They will need to listen to those who try to facilitate and enhance their church life, however harsh and unreasonable such aid might seem at the time, rather than to those who merely pontificate to them from on high as to what it should be like. They will need to listen to those who will be content to offer critical comments on, even voice outright disagreements with, the community's interpretation of scripture without seeking to smother the life out of such readings with their own prideful or lazy interpretations. Perhaps most tellingly of all, they will have to learn to value such people more, publicly encouraging them to speak freely and often, and submitting to their arguments and conclusions as the community's developing wisdom requires.
... Baptist experts, it seems to me, often seemed reticent to speak too strongly about what they see, not because they doubt their views, but rather because they tend to regard their roles as being ones that involve cajoling, persuading, and easing the way and not as ones that involve instruction, command, and assertion. They are wary of being counted with the pontifcators mentioned above. But here is their quandary writ large. Instruction, command, and assertion are exactly what prophets within a community must do at times because that is exactly what prophetic words requires of them.
(William John Lyons, 'In Appreciation of "Reluctant" Prophets' in Helen Dare and Simon Woodman (eds.), The "Plainly Revealed" Word of God? Baptist Hermeneutics in Theory and Practice (Mercer, 2011), pp.299-301)
Lyons makes the argument that we don't listen enough to our "experts" (this is possibly an unfortunate word) and at the same time our "experts" don't speak enough to be heard.
There will be undoubtedly some Baptists who will be hostile to Lyons suggestions that we 'submit' to anything other than Christ and the 'plain' reading of scripture. The title (and content) of the book rightly wants to question whether there is such thing as a 'plain' reading. I would argue that those who claim to hold to a plain reading of scripture are in fact, ultimately submissive to those who claim to present this 'plain' reading, and therefore, it is a naive and false claim that we only submit to Christ and scripture.
I don't think we should be afraid of Lyons use of the word 'submit' here. In the footnote to the sentence that speaks of submitting, Lyons writes 'the kind of submission I have in mind does not involve genuflecting to positions of authority, but rather involves a communal recognition of a certain individual's possession of a prophetic mandate to speak to the churches and a resolve to listen to what that person has to say and to act upon it.'
It would seem to me, having communcal recognised the prophet/expert, and listened to their words, we also practice communal discernment of whether the prophet/expert has preached the gospel. Here the Mennonite practice mentioned in Presence: Giving and Receiving God (which I've just reviewed), would recognise that their remains a need for the community to weigh what they hear.
It seems also important to acknowledge that not every expert is a prophet. Theological or scholarly learning does not make one automatically a prophet.
Steve Holmes (a Baptist expert!?), perhaps offers some caution, that we don't press to hard for the uniqueness of the 'expert' in two articles that argue for 'the clarity and perspicuity of scripture' (see his 2010 BQ article, 'Baptists and the Bible' and his 2011 IJST article 'Kings, Professors, and Ploughboys').
Paul Fiddes (another Baptist expert!?) has also recently presented the case for the Christian scholar in the life of the church. He claims that 'the professional scholar has stood in the place of conflicting discourses, in the market-place of secular culture, and has aimed to connect the Christian faith with other disciplines of knowledge ... From this perspective, the scholar has gudiance to offer the local church in shaping its mission, as it gather to find the mind of Christ together' and 'to assist church members in working out their "everyday theology", in negotiating the demands of Christian discipleship with the ambiguities and pressures of modern society' ('Dual Citizenship in Athens and Jerusalem' in Questions of Identity, p.140)
I have argued previously that we need to pay more attention to and value more deeply the theologians amongst us, to those that we have released to do the work of deep listening to scripture and the church tradition and speak prophetically into the challenges we face. Our problem often is we think anyone and everyone can discern the mind of Christ apart from the 'expert'.
Is their a place for the Baptist theologian and scholar in our life? I hope so. With bold humility we need to be prepared to listen and they need to be prepared to speak. In these days, Lyons is right to say this is 'desperately needed'.