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Thoughts on Teaching the Doctrine of Scripture

January 20, 2013

Bible02Something 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.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. January 20, 2013 1:28 am

    I’m inclined to say that all discussions of inspiration and inerrancy are just theological bulwarks erected in answer (or non-answer, or refusal) of the question about the reliability and authority of the Bible. I don’t see how we can expect students to understand what’s at stake in those more terminologically pigeon-holed discussions unless we connect them all back to a general discussion of the topic as ways of responding to that question.

    But then, I’m a heretic.

  2. January 20, 2013 1:56 am

    One thing that I would love to see treated in such courses is the phenomenology of the ‘Bible’ and its reading and the raising of the question of how this might shape our conception of the sort of thing that the Scriptures are. The norm of engaging with the Bible as a mass-produced, publicly sold, privately owned, individually and silently read book, with all scriptural books in a set order between two covers, with chapters and verses, navigational and study tools, etc. is a very modern phenomenon. We don’t reflect upon how this might change things enough. The Bible isn’t just a ‘text’, it is a material object embedded in particular social practices, inviting certain forms of engagement, while discouraging others. The shifting material forms of the Scriptural text change more than we might think.

  3. January 20, 2013 1:58 am

    The fact that a communally owned and uniquely produced text can function as an icon of scriptural and divine presence in a way that a mass-produced (let alone digital) text can’t is just one example of many that can be given here.

  4. January 21, 2013 1:58 pm

    You could always just reach for Barth on the Schriftprinzip. 🙂 But then, I know how much you love the Reformed Confessions course.

  5. January 21, 2013 6:50 pm

    Hi Darren,

    Of course, it is possible to over do a particular doctrine, even the doctrine of Scripture. I can recommend Muller in vol. 2 of his PRRD where he provides some helpful insights here.

    Also, if we understand God as the principium essendi of all theological endeavor, and Scripture as the principium cognescendi externum, I am not sure how we can do theology – no less teach it – without understanding Scripture as self-attesting authority. You can, certainly, make your way as the ancient and medieval church did, assuming the authority of Scripture without articulating the nature and function of that authority. But, then again, that assumption was what precipitated the need for a Reformation. The early creed and confessions therefore generally teach the subject – however brief – of the nature of Scripture. To put it blunt, without Scripture there is no theology. And students of theology deserve to know why they are working from the Christian Scripture and not the Koran or Plato. Students also need to understand that if Scripture is not self-attesting with regard to its authority, and that if its authority is not infallible and inerrant, then it is actually no more reliable as a principium of theology than the Koran or Plato.

    Furthermore, depending on how you define “modern” I am unsure that the doctrine of Scripture and the importance it plays in theological prolegomenon, is a particularly modern phenom. Its in many of the Protestant Creeds, and begins to show up in systematic texts in the the latter 16th c (Muller, 23).

    Anyway, just two cents from your friendly neighborhood confessional Presbyterian!


  6. January 22, 2013 4:51 am

    Thanks for the comments, guys. Jim, I think you’re exactly right on the needs that are present here, and on the distinction between “God as the principium essendi of all theological endeavor, and Scripture as the principium cognescendi externum.” This is where my thoughts on the matter have been drifting. I wonder if an over-anxious approach to the doctrines of Scripture and inspiration run the risk of eclipsing this distinction — particularly where Scripture is treated first in a pedagogical sequence.

    Then, it seems, we’re implicitly suggesting that theology is directed toward Scripture and its interpretation, rather than from Scripture toward a gracious God as its true object.

    Next time I teach the course I may try and keep this firmly in view in the lecture material, and ease up on the technicalities of theories of inspiration. If they come up in the course of conversation it’s nice to have that material to fall back on, but with an audience of non-majors it seems like this runs the risk of becoming a distraction.

  7. James Cassidy permalink
    January 22, 2013 2:38 pm

    Darren, I too want to avoid an over-anxious approach to anything. I’m all about being cool and level-headed in the theological endeavor (believe it or not, I really am!). But I think that there are other factors which go into determining the significance of a particular doctrine in one’s theological system other than position and air-time. For instance, in the Westminster Confession of Faith, the doctrine of Scripture is chapter 1 and is given 10 paragraphs, while the doctrine of God is chapter 2 and is given 3 (relatively pity) paragraphs. Why? Its certainly not that the Divines regarded the Bible as more important God! Nor is it that they idolized the Bible or made Scripture the be-all and end-all of the theological endeavor. Even a cursory reading of the divine’s theological and sermonic writings will dispel that myth. But the occasion and context in which one is doing theology is also a significant factor. The WCF is shaped the way it is quite simply in part because the doctrine of God and the Trinity was not a large point of contention at the time. Rome, antinomians, and anabaptists are the ones against whom the Confession is written (I understand the WCF as being, in part, a polemical document), with the emphasis on Rome. We can perhaps better understand why Scripture is given such prominence.

    Now, if we went simply on the basis of position and air-time given, we might fall prey to the mistaken notion that the Westminster Divines were over-anxious about the doctrine of Scripture. We might even conclude the same about old Princeton, and Warfield in particular. But when we consider the spirit of the ages in which they lived, their weighty consideration was warranted. We can conclude the same about Barth and Van Til with the central role each gave to the doctrine of the Trinity in an age of great neglect (though I do believe they have radically different doctrines of the Trinity).

    So, given our current milieu, I wonder if in fact a sound and full treatment of the doctrine of Scripture isn’t in fact warranted. You’ll have to judge that for yourself. But I do think that it is possible to keep the two principi distinct while giving greater air-time (and maybe given position) to the cognescendi externum. Simply giving an accent, due to contextual considerations, does not by itself collapse the the one into the other.

  8. January 22, 2013 6:49 pm

    Jim: I do see what you are saying, and all things being equal I certainly agree. My thinking through this topic right now is more pedagogical, however — i.e. how do we most effectively communicate a robust doctrine of Scripture in this sort of classroom setting, with this kind of student.

    Were I teaching theology majors, or seminarians, or an upper-division course on dogmatics, I do think my approach and “air-time” would be balanced a bit differently.

  9. January 22, 2013 6:57 pm


    I haven’t taught this particular class, but I have taught at the bible college level previously (freshman in particular). And just recalling the level that incoming students are usually coming in at; talking about the ontology of scripture, and such concepts requires a depth that most simply don’t have (and often don’t care to have). Not that the audience gets to drive the lectures/lessons/instruction, but I’d say, as you are, that obviously that’s the point; you are there to communicate in accessible fashion for these students (whatever their background and motivation).

    Just looking back on my own undergrad days, and classes like the one you’re teaching (we called ours Text and Canon–which actually didn’t come until my sophomore year … so I’d already taken a Theology Proper class), I think what would have been helpful for me (which didn’t ever really happen for me until I graduated from seminary and started reading Barth and Torrance on my own) is if the prof would have framed the doctrine of scripture from within a proper theological order; an order that, as Webster does, places it within the realm of salvation (sanctification), and the Holy Spirit. Even if I hadn’t fully grasped the implications of this then, at least it would have started the ball rolling for me in a way that would have been more fruitful. Instead, scripture, for me, and my classmates, was emphasized as an epistemological seed-bed which ultimately placed me (and my exegetical capacity) prior to God and knowing God—or it made me more of a rationalist than I already was at that point.

    Anyway, I know you have certain goals you are supposed to meet for justification of that class; but I think laying out the relation between an order of being/knowing is the best way to go, even if much of your class is not a religious studies major/minor (i.e. it’s just a requirement). I would think if scripture is emphasized as the place where we encounter God in Christ, that for anyone who has a Christian pulse, this ought to pique interest!

  10. January 22, 2013 7:15 pm

    Maybe you engage in an abductive process of discussing what makes scripture stand out amongst competing “revelational” claims. Which of course, it’s Jesus. And thus in the process of foiling Christian scripture with other “scriptures” a deeper discussion on what revelation actually is could be broached (i.e. personal versus simply paper). Foiling the discussion in this way might turn the lights on for some of the students, and illustrate what distinguishes Christian scripture as scripture; and in contrast to other purported scriptures (for other faiths), Christian scripture is grounded personally in the life of God (i.e. it is not simply a code book of laws and regulations etc.).

    Just brainstorming.

  11. Tyler Wittman permalink
    February 3, 2013 2:44 pm

    Though the polemical context of Protestantism’s break with Rome certainly gave the doctrine some immediate exigency, there are examples of inspiration being treated within the medieval ordo disciplinae that place it either right before or after the doctrine of God. I think this more or less meshes with what evangelicals like Vanhoozer will call ‘first theology’, i.e., the mutually informing intersection of God, Scripture, and interpretation.

    In the prologue to Bonaventure’s ‘Breviloquium’, he treats Scripture briefly in terms of its divine origin in the Trinity and the consequences this has for how we read it. That it’s the subject of the prologue is telling. Likewise with Thomas, the formal ontology of Scripture is assumed, but the consequents of this ontology (Scripture’s role and interpretation) are treated in the final article of the first question to the ‘Summa’.

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