We Can’t Teach the Bible and Theology Like We Used To

Nicholas Perrin challenges us to see God's Word as it is - a story.

One of the most exhilarating moments in the learning experience is that moment in which the learner transcends habitual ways of looking at things. A new vision, a new map, a new paradigm – there is little to match such “Aha” moments. Therein, of course, stands the beauty of the classical approach. Whereas progressive models of education take for granted and indeed depend upon a worldview radically rooted in Enlightenment thinking, especially its favorite myth that we Enlightenment folk have finally arrived, most classical educators are aware that the Enlightenment lens is itself a historically conditioned phenomenon and cannot be assigned the Supreme Court status it implicitly presumes. After all, if we as twenty- first century moderns now clearly see all things that those of earlier times only dimly groped after, it does not make much sense to be in conversation with so many long-dead folk. The very fact that classical education lays such great store on the contributions of these same long-dead folk means that modernity does not, in fact, have it all sorted it out, despite its pretensions to the contrary. As Paul Ricoeur put it, “We are born into a conversation,” a conversation that has long preceded us.

Despite this awareness among classical educators, I wonder if even in our best schools we often experience a curious lapse of conviction when it comes to teaching Bible and Theology. In my experience, I find that those who teach philosophy, literature, science, and math in classical schools are fully aware that these subjects are not static entities and that, accordingly, it is not the pedagogue’s main calling to back up the gravel truck of knowledge – beep, beep, beep – with the goal of data dumping. At the same time, when it comes to teaching Bible and/or Theology in these same excellent classical schools, I wonder whether data dumping tends to be more the rule than the exception. I may be wrong, but I suspect that a good many Bible teachers fall into a posture in which they convey the propositional, the factual, and the givenness of their subject with an emphasis that far outweighs that of their colleagues who teach other subjects.

If I am right, I can find at least some good reasons for this. I teach Bible at a conservative, evangelical college; I sit on the board of a confessional classical school. If I stop believing the givenness of God’s self-revelation and one of our teachers at the school does the same, perhaps it is time for both of us to start looking for jobs elsewhere. Those of us who choose to teach at a confessional educational institution do so because we believe that all truth is God’s truth and must ultimately relate back to the Word of the self-revealing God. In the Protestant tradition, at least at its best, we start with the Word of God as the bedrock for our epistemology (theory of knowledge). To teach at a confessional school means certain commitments are non-negotiable. When it comes to contemplating the truthfulness of these commitments, I believe that it is sometimes necessary to say, “These convictions are not on the table; they are our table.” In my judgment, Christian classical education must, in the very nature of the case, stop short of an absolutely free inquiry as if everything were up for grabs. Everything is worth talking about, but everything is not up for grabs. To suggest as much is simply to subscribe without warrant to a thoroughgoing skepticism.

But our pre-commitments hardly explain why Bible and Theology are taught so differently so consistently. One reason that we tend to data dump in teaching Bible and Theology (e.g., “Here’s the Bible, here’s what it says, and here’s what we believe.”) is because we are instinctively uncomfortable with attributing to these hallowed subjects the same dialogical dynamism we ascribe to literature, art, philosophy, etc. As a result, we end up applying the principles of classical education to the liberal arts overall, but we then pull back when it comes to the Bible. Perhaps more simply, we lapse into teaching Bible and Theology this way because this is how most of us have been taught. But the way in which most of us have been taught—either by our parents or at church—may have a lot more to do with the Enlightenment than we are aware.

As an evangelical, I am conscious that one of the major historical influences on modern evangelicalism was the Old Princeton School, not least the stalwart champion of orthodoxy, Charles Hodge (1797-1878). Even if Hodge’s heyday was a good century after the end of the Enlightenment, his approach to theology can be seen as the epitome of an Enlightenment approach. In the opening pages of his Systematic Theology, he compares the study of theology to the study of the hard sciences, except that, in the case of the former, all the facts (the Bible’s propositions) are already there, waiting to be systematized. For Hodge the Bible was the architectonic “product of one mind,” at bottom a compendium of truisms. If Hodge sees the scripture as a static datum, and a sizeable swathe within the western church has followed suit, then it should come as no surprise to find the scripture being taught as a static datum.

Of course, as critics of Hodge would later point out, that is precisely what scripture is not. True, scripture is the product of one mind in the sense that God inspired scripture, but God did so through many writers over a long course of history. So rather than being a repository of static facts, the scriptures are actually the inspired residue of the unfolding events of redemptive-history. That which is contained in the Old in seed form has its full flowering in the New. The first fruits of this flowering will occur at the eschaton when the New Heavens and the New Earth are established, and we come full circle back to Eden, yet an Eden that surpasses the first paradise. Take it from me or, if you prefer, take it from Thomas Aquinas or John Calvin, revelation is progressive and maintains an organic inner unity. In short, scripture is a story complete with a beginning, a middle, and an end.

So, unless by some strange reasoning, we allow the liberal arts to play on the full playground of intellectual history but force Bible class to sit still in detention the classical movement will do well to consider how it might better teach the Bible as story. By this I do not mean spending more time on such great stories as David and Goliath. What I do mean is laying hold of the story of David and Goliath and discerning its narrative links with the earlier Conquest (Goliath would not even have been an issue if Israel had been faithful in clearing the land in the first place), with the later Davidic covenant (Yahweh’s faithfulness in this scene anticipates the establishment of the kingdom later on), both of which in turn point forward to the coming of Christ’s kingdom and back to creation. To teach the Bible as story simply means to do biblical theology, relating all of scripture to its beginning (creation) and end (Christ).

It is at this point that we need to keep in mind the nature of scripture and our own post-Enlightenment location in intellectual history. The Bible is not a book of doctrine; it is instead quite simply a story, the story of Yahweh’s dealings with Israel which comes to its climax in the coming of Christ. True, we may and should deduce doctrine and propositions from this beautiful story, but let’s keep first things first. The biblical writers did not say to themselves, “Boy, I have so many doctrines to communicate, so maybe I can tell a story – or write an epistle or recount a vision – in order to illustrate those doctrines.” Instead, the biblical writers just saw themselves as telling it like it was, from God’s point of view, of course. Articulation of doctrines and systems, a special penchant of post-Enlightenment society, comes in second. The story remains primary.

If we are uncomfortable with that, it is perhaps because we know that stories can be ambivalent, whereas propositions have the value of being relatively neat and tidy. Here we must keep a balance. In commending our faith to our children, we want to give them every reason to believe in its truthfulness. But we err if we think that we will accomplish this by reducing wholesale the organic and variegated nature of the scriptural story to a system of static facts. To be clear, this is not to object to systematic theology in principle. We in the church need systematic theology now more than ever. This is to say, rather, that systematic theology must have its place even as the story of scripture must have its place. And the place to begin is with the story: creation, fall, and redemption. If we fail to teach the Bible as God’s grand story, we will inevitably put a number of carts before a corresponding number of horses. We will also likely teach students to think of the Bible, at best, as an odd collection of moral stories and teachings, and, at worse, as a boring, lifeless thing. The culture is already telling young people that the Bible is boring and irrelevant. Why should we allow ourselves, against our best intentions, to con rm the point?

If we are to teach Bible as story, I would also argue that the same goes for the teaching of theology, but for different reasons. Truth, more often than not, is a complex affair; it also often takes time to unfold. It might be some source of comfort to think that on the day of Pentecost all believers everywhere had an immediate and full understanding of the natures of Christ and the interrelationship between the members of the Trinity, but this is almost certainly not the case. While some of the very first believers may have been trying to sort out for themselves the nature of Christ (e.g., Is he of like substance with the Father or the same substance?), such issues did not preoccupy the church until later. And when those issues did come to the fore, the church still took until the early fourth century before it decisively se led the ma er. Other theological questions followed, which in turn provoked various positions along the way. Theological questions continue to emerge, and we are still nding our way among them. To understand theology, you have to understand historical theology, in other words, the story.

When it comes to teaching theology, the post- Enlightenment churchman inside of me is tempted to teach my students with such phrases as, “This is the way it is…”. Obviously, there are junctures where you have to say exactly that and with no apology. However, before we back up the gravel truck of theological knowledge too quickly, we should pay more serious attention to teaching theology as historical theology. Today we stand on the shoulders of our spiritual forbearers; we have inherited a vast theological inheritance. Why not let our students in on that richness by bringing them down the hallway of history, along the long elaborate process through which God’s people learned to discern truth from error? Within the classical model, it is not enough to show students the tree of modern knowledge; we need to show them the roots as well.

If we are accustomed to being taught Bible and Theology as a string of cognitive propositions, this does not mean we have to return the favor in our own pedagogy. In fact, I submit that unless we are satisfied with being grossly inconsistent, we have little choice but to teach our faith like other subjects – as story. Of course, in choosing not to teach the Bible as it has been taught to most of us, it means choosing to teach the Bible as it has generally been taught down through history. The Scholastic period of the High Middle Ages notwithstanding, Bible and Theology have always been taught as story. When we do the same, we really are heading ad fontes in the truest sense.

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