Choosing a Theology Textbook: Primer on Biblical Methods

Most Christian universities or colleges have introductory courses on the Bible, and this is true for a great many secular institutions as well. In giving students an “introduction” to the Bible these courses take any number of different angles or approaches. Some focus on the historical settings in which the Bible was written, its diversity of literature (genres), the history of its oral transmission, production and canonization, etc. Another approach might be to concentrate less on theories about the Bible and direct students toward the Bible itself, its central themes, story line, etc. Or various combinations of the two.

All this presents the daunting challenge of choosing the proper textbooks. I leave questions about the best angle up to you, but I will highlight a text that could efficiently introduce students to the many methods of biblical study. Even with the most eager students, nothing sucks the life from a room like the words “redaction criticism”, “form criticism”, “ideological criticism”, and “materialist readings.”  On these topics many of the textbooks I have reviewed frustratingly seem more geared toward graduate students than first year undergraduates. So I was pleased to see Corine Carvalho’s new Primer on Biblical Methods. Continue reading


Theological Educator As…(Ruminations of a Novice. Pt. 3)

I came across this quote by C.S. Lewis some time ago and have been mulling over what it might mean for an educator to take this to heart.  Certainly Lewis’ point applies to teachers of any sort, but what would it mean specifically for a theological educator?

It often happens that two schoolboys can solve difficulties in their work for one another better than a master can. When you took the problem to a master, as we all remember, he was very likely to explain what you understood already, to add a great deal of information which you didn’t want, and say nothing at all about the thing that was puzzling you. I have watched this from both sides of the net; for when, as a teacher myself, I have tried to answer questions brought to me by my pupils, I have sometimes, after a minute, seen that expression settle down on their faces which assured me that they were suffering exactly the same frustration which I had suffered from my own teachers. The fellow-pupil can help more than the master because he knows less. The difficulty we want to explain is one he has recently met. The expert met it so long ago that he has forgotten. He sees the whole subject, by now, in such a different light that he cannot conceive what is really troubling the pupil; he sees a dozen other difficulties which ought to be troubling him but aren’t (Reflections on the Psalms [Harcourt, Brace & World: New York, 1958], 1-2).

At the very least, Lewis reminds us that good educators model honest inquiry. Fear must not dissuade us from asking tough, uncomfortable questions. This applies not only in preparation for courses, but in the presence of students as well. Nothing is more corrosive to cultivating a love of learning than giving the impression that you have it all figured out—you don’t, and you know it.

But there is more going on here. Lewis pulls out into the open—without naming it—an elusive skill of good educators. It is hard to put your finger on it, but you know it when you see it or when you experience it in the classroom. I don’t know what else to call it but empathy. Good educators empathize with their students’ struggle to learn; they enter into their labor with them, and in doing so they come to understand the students’ questions from their perspective. They come to feel again the tension of it, and are then able to address it.

For the theological educator I think this boils down to loving students. To empathize with them is to enter into the struggle of their unknowing;  I struggle out of my supposed knowing and enter into their place. I suffer the cost of pushing back into those questions that are long-settled in my mind, and this is costly. I would go so far as saying that for the theological educator, empathizing with students is a form of embodying the love of Christ. In me, I hope they see something of Christ’s willingness to suffer the cost of entering into our place as finite, human, unknowing, creatures.

Said differently: for a Christian, theological educator the doctrine of Christ should have a pedagogical function, shaping one’s philosophy of education at a more fundamental, basic level than general theories about teaching, learning, and higher education.

“Theologians, write for the church not just the guild

The second day of the conference I attended in Wheaton featured several excellent papers, not the least of which was Scot McKnight’s. I could comment on any number of his points (and I very well might next week), but for now allow me a few remarks on his thoughts regarding the publishing habits of Christian academics and his call for theologians to write for the church and not just for the academic guild.

Most of you write things no one but specialists can understand. Most of the people in your church, and probably more than most, aren’t reading the sorts of things professors write these days. Some professors think they are writing popular theology because they don’t overload their books with footnotes. Instead, they’ve only got about 100 footnotes in a 200 page book. That’s not popular theology. […]

The need here is so great that one is tempted to call a moratorium on evangelical theologians writing for the guild, or at least reducing their guild writing and require each theologian, each biblical expert and each church historian to write one book for the church – for ordinary lay people with enough snap to it to make it genuinely readable, pleasurable and inspiring – before they can write academic pieces. […]

Now let me do some fingerpointing: Continue reading

Theological Educator As…(Ruminations of a Novice, Pt. 2)

One of the roles of a theological educator is to model “theological discernment”: how one goes about theological reasoning with faith, hope, love, and not a little bit of joy.

Ellen Charry describes theology as above all “a discipline of discernment.” Whether one begins by examining the Biblical text,

the doctrinal tradition, a personal encounter with God, a sobering personal experience, or the culture in which one is located theology is thinking through and beyond these points of entry until deeper realization of God’s truth emerge (Inquiring After God, 53).

Charry’s observation that theology is “a discipline of discernment” strikes me as altogether right. Theology, not as a body of knowledge but as a task or craft, necessarily involves the practitioner in a weighing and sifting that is certainly as much art as science: whether they are an everyday Christian confronted by a perplexing cultural text, a pastor preaching on a difficult topic, or one of us strange beings who make our home in the University or seminary and for whom theology very often takes place in preparation for classes or in the presence of students.

Learning theological discernment is certainly more easily “caught” than taught, but some intentional pedagogical strategies can invite students actively into the process. For example, I have my students in systematic theology wrestle throughout the course with Rowan Williams’ thoughts on theological method from the prologue to On Christian Theology. Continue reading

Rowan Williams on the “accessibility” of the church

Rowan_Williams_1110959cThrough various blog links I stumbled upon an interesting interview with Rowan Williams. If you spend any time on TF you know I am an avid  – though novice – reader of the Archbishop. I wouldn’t call it a scholarly investment; I simply find him provoking and refreshing in equal measure. Williams helps get me excited about theology and the church again when I start losing hope in either (his sermons particularly).

The interview touches on the “accessibility” – or relevance – of the church in our contemporary setting. While there is certainly food for discussion on that topic, his comments are illuminating about the “downward spiral” of having low expectations of young people. I see this in the classroom almost every week: so little has been expected of my students in the past that I fear many of them expect little of themselves.

Ian Hislop: How do you balance that attempt to be of the age, to be accessible, and yet not be banal.

Archbishop of Canterbury: The point is often being confident enough about what you are inviting people into, which is not simply an entertainment but a journey and process of change. Continue reading

Simone Weil & Theology’s Invitation

I have not historically found myself at home in the writings of Christian mystics, so I don’t spend a great deal of time in them. However, I find Simone Weil’s description below quite beautiful – and very near the mark for how we might think about the theologian’s practice of “pushing all those who come near into the opening”:

The beauty of the world is the mouth of a labyrinth. The unwary individual who on entering takes a few Simon Weilsteps is soon unable to find the opening. Worn out, with nothing to eat or drink, in the dark, separated from his dear ones, and from everything he loves and is accustomed to, he walks on without knowing anything or hoping anything, incapable even of discovering whether he is really going forward or merly turning round on the same spot. But this affliction is as nothing compared with the danger threatening him. For if he does not lose courage, if he goes on walking, it is absolutely certain that he will finally arrive at the center of the labyrinth. And there God is waiting to eat him. Later he will go out again, but he will be changed, he will have become different, after being eaten and digested by God. Afterward he will stay near the entrance so that he can gently push all those who come near into the opening” (“Forms of the implicit love of God,” in Waiting for God [1951; 2001], p. 103)

We might even view a Christian liberal arts education along the lines of Weil’s thinking here:  Continue reading

Is the spiritual formation movement in theological education wrongheaded?

This question is one of many raised by Edward Farley’s Theologia: The Fragmentation and Unity of Theological Education (one I wish I would have read years ago!). Let me give you Farley’s assertion, then the FarleyEdwardargument that informs it:

[T]heological education has assumed that its unity and subject matter had no relation to the sapiential knowledge which accompanies faith’s concrete existence (piety). The flurry of activity going on these days about ‘formation’ and ‘spirituality’ is no doubt some sort of attempt at the restoration of piety [in theological education] … Because the aim has been to spiritualize the theological school’s life and ethos but not its course of studies, the formation movement perpetuates the inherited separation of piety and intellect. Presupposed here is that spirituality pertains to a realm other than the subject matter and end of studies … Furthermore, formation and spirituality seem to be viewed as to have little to do with faith’s sapiential knowledge (theologia). This may be why it has been so easy to talk about and urge a formation which lacks spirituality’s very essence, namely, discipline. This lack of a cognitive element and the discipline necessary to it may be the reason formation in the present-day sense exports intellect from piety (pp. 160-61).

How does this strike you?

Lying  behind Farley’s statement is a rather detailed historical tracking of theological education’s circuitous route from the patristic age to the present. The result: Continue reading