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.