on teaching theology

A friend asked me recently to reflect a little on how I teach an Introduction to Christian Theology course at Irish Bible Institute (we run university undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in Applied Theology and exist to serve, strengthen and help train men and women in ministry and leadership in the small but developing Irish church).

So the course is at first year UK/Irish university level, with students who are active committed Christians but who may not have studied the Bible and theology formally much before. Later in the degree we get into Christology and Pneumatology.

So this is a little bit of ‘reflective practice’. And a question for discussion here is where and how has the structure or content of your teaching / preaching / theology developed and changed over the years and why?

When I started out I pretty well followed what had been modeled to me. I assumed that the ‘right’ way to do introduce students to the highpoints of Christian theology was in systematic categories. Isn’t that what most evangelical statements of faith do ? – a series of bullet point summaries of what is believed about God, Scripture, Man, Jesus, Spirit, the future and so on. But after trying this for a while I felt increasingly dissatisfied.

Now of course this might have just been the teaching (!) but …

– It felt too much like a series of disconnected topics. There was little holding them all together. Each one too easily felt like an ‘end in itself’.

– It felt too much like the purpose of the exercise was primarily to know the right information and propositions that constitute orthodoxy. And in the process it too easily could slip into to being too much about ‘us’ – defining our theology and thinking.

– It also could become predictable – students ‘knew’ the ‘right answers’ (or thought they did!)

A few clarifications here! I believe in orthodoxy and the normative authority of Scripture. And I’m not rejecting systematics as having no value.

But over time I’ve re-shaped the course to a more narrative shape. I want students to get the biblical storyline, and how the myriad of sub-plots fit within the whole. Most of all I want them to get their place in the story within the ‘mission of God.’

This changes doing theology profoundly. It is theology asking questions of us. It puts us and our narrow concerns off centre and in their proper place within the flow of God’s work in the world, and taking our (small) place within the story of God’s people.

Was it Barth who said the Bible is not primarily for information but for transformation?

So in my course, story is the overarching framework. And the more you frame it this way the more all the great doctrines of the Christian faith make sense within a storied theology.

– The story of the Bible – the redemptive mission of the triune God

– The story of creation to new creation (eschatology)

– The story of God’s people (Israel, church)

–  The story of mankind (broken to restored image)

–  The central story of Jesus fulfilling all that had gone before and shaping all is to come (kingdom of God, cross, resurrection, ascension, Lord)

–  The Spirit within the bigger story (fulfilled promise, deposit)

–  Or take one aspect of the atonement, justification: essentially Paul unfolds what this means by telling the story of Abraham, Israel, Law, faith in light of Jesus.

I’m well aware I’m not doing or saying anything radically new here, this is just my personal ‘story’. But, let me suggest that the default theological starting point for many (most?) evangelical students is still very much a point by point systematics rather than narrative.  So I’ve found that opening up theology as story not only helps people ‘get’ the Bible, it also draws them in afresh to that story and their place of serving the Lord within the story of their own lives. And that’s one of the most satisfying and exciting things to see happen in a classroom …

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Advertisements

11 thoughts on “on teaching theology

  1. Love this! I wish my intro to theology class had been like that. (Mine definitely fit your description of the typical evangelical starting place–spiced up with a bit of classical Pentecostal pneumatology.)

    I guess just it’s the luck o’ the Irish [students]! Sorry that was really bad… 🙂

    My husband actually teaches a class for high-schoolers with a similar approach. The idea is to give them a firm grasp of the overall story of the Bible–but it also serves as a back door approach to laying a solid theological foundation. The idea of a class like that for young people is met with skepticism by adults each time it’s offered, but the kids seem to love it! Many have been in church their whole lives and have no sense of the continuity of the narrative or what it reveals about God’s heart/character and his desires for mankind.

    Often, students respond with a new-found hunger to continue pursuing the heart of God on their own, and to share what they’ve learned with their friends. So cool!

  2. Sounds great. ‘Fair play’ (as we say over here – sort of means ‘good for him’) to your husband. Intriguing that the idea is met with scepticism !

  3. Makes a whole lot of sense to me. Following a similar ‘storyline’ as you have referenced above should be the new way of teaching theology. I applaud your efforts.

  4. Hey Patrick, first-timer here. I followed the link from Scot McKnight’s blog.

    I am a new Youth Pastor and have taken a similar tack. My first set of sermons is a series of stories. That is, the story of God, the story of sin, the story of liberation, atonement, law, etc. With each theme I trace it through Creation-Fall-Israel-Jesus-Early Church-Us-Restoration.

    It is fun for me but difficult for the kids to think in a new way. It is hard for me to communicate all the things buzzing in my head even as I figure out the way narrative theology changes things. But I am encouraged to see others trying the same thing and it gives me patience that I am just struggling and learning, my story developing inside God’s Story.

    Chris Folmsbee’s books have been great, especially “Signs, Stories, and Sacred Rhythms”.

    —jacob

  5. Thank you Patrick, I really enjoyed what you wrote and how you are wrestling with the issue of how to teach theology better. I think the danger at times, in systematic theology is to think that we have a system to fully understand God. The word that is greatly excluded within evangelical circles is “mystery”. God, at the end of the day, is still a mystery, there is a lot that we still have to discover, a mystery that we cannot fathom. And as somebody said, we are not comfortable with mystery, because it doesn’t allow us to be in control, but if we leave mystery out, we miss the great adventure of continuing to know and discover Him. That is the reason why studying theology as the great story is so much more helpful because the story goes on, God is still directing His masterpiece.

  6. Thank you Patrick, I really enjoyed what you wrote and how you are wrestling with the issue of how to teach theology better. I think the danger at times, in systematic theology is to think that we have a system to fully understand God. The word that is greatly excluded within evangelical circles is “mystery”. God, at the end of the day, is still a mystery, there is a lot that we still have to discover, a mystery that we cannot fathom. And as somebody said, we are not comfortable with mystery, because it doesn’t allow us to be in control, but if we leave mystery out, we miss the great adventure of continuing to know and discover Him. That is the reason why studying theology as the great story is so much more helpful because the story goes on, God is still directing His masterpiece.
    +1

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s