Thoughts on Teaching the Doctrine of Scripture
Something has become abundantly clear to me as I embark on my first full course teaching an introductory course on Christian theology this term — and it’s not something I anticipated at all. Is it possible to “overdo it” when it comes to the doctrine of Scripture?
Of course, it’s probably possible to try and cover too much ground on any theological topic (particularly in an intro course), or to just take an approach to the subject matter that makes it difficult for the average university student to stay engaged. And I’ll certainly acknowledge that I will need to rethink how I approach this topic. Surely the fault lies with me, that is, and not the material.
It is also the case that those who teach theology have constantly to consider the audience. A class of 20 religion majors isn’t the same audience as a class of 50 non-majors who are coming from all sorts of disciplines, with different religious backgrounds and levels of interest, each one enrolled in the course because they need it to graduate. The latter context is where I find myself this term.
So how does one teach the doctrine of Scripture in a way that is engaging and relevant? Contrast different understandings of the nature and scope of divine revelation? Talk about the Bible as religious literature, as history, as a source of ecclesial doctrine, etc.? Examine the different theories of inspiration — from dictation to verbal “plenary” inspiration to limited inspiration to the category of “witness”? Which aspects of the doctrine do you include, and which do you leave out?
After clobbering my class with all of this (and more) over the course of three class sessions, I’m having to rethink not only how I approach the material but how much I try and cover. It’s not that students are incapable of learning the material: it’s that it is sometimes heavy, technical material that is prompting them to ask questions in which they are not particularly invested.
Now I’m all for challenging undergraduate students to expand their horizons, undermining their preconceptions, and asking them questions that shake their paradigms and prompt them to come to a more fully-formed and understood faith. So the questions, and introducing students to new material they’ve never thought about before, is what the task of theological education is all about. But where, I wonder, is the line at which that task has been accomplished, and another 30 minutes of lecture on verbal plenary inspiration isn’t accomplishing anything further for their intellectual and spiritual formation … and perhaps ought to be left for the theology majors when they take an upper-division course or get to seminary?
I am also conscious of the fact that examining Holy Scripture as its own distinct theological locus is a rather modern undertaking. Prior to the modern period, by and large, theologians took it for granted that the Bible simply is the Word of God, and so being of divine origin it bears certain characteristics. Only today have we perceived a need to engage the question of the nature, or “ontology,” of Scripture. Perhaps this has become necessary — or perhaps we are being complicit with the modern project by granting this doctrine so much space, and doing it as prolegomena to theology rather than locating it further down the line (perhaps within the doctrine of the church, or of the Holy Spirit).
Instead, should we perhaps keep things focused on the register of the Bible’s reliability and authority, rather than theories of inspiration and contemporary debates over inerrancy?
I wonder if any of you who have done some teaching in this area have any thoughts to share on how to approach the topic, and how much detail to try and cover, particularly with such a general audience.