Philosophy of Education:

New Testament

Luther was right that the Church is where the Word is kept. Teaching the New Testament should equip disciples to hear, keep, and proclaim the good news in all they do.

As I educate students in the Christian tradition, I maintain the expectation that today's students are tomorrow's (and even already today's) teachers. Our students are in the process of entering teaching professions of all kinds: Pastoring, missions, small group leadership, parenthood, and friendship. My theology and Church history classes already aim to make students better readers of Scripture. This goal takes center stage in biblical studies, which I teach in church and integrate into the theology curriculum in my classes.

The category of Scripture is so profoundly deep that it almost defies description. (This did not stop me from giving it my best shot in my dissertation, Living and Active: Scripture in the Economy of Salvation.) The Bible is a historical artifact whose original home is a distant culture at the epicenter of salvation-history. It is the standard by which Christian faithfulness is measured. It is a text of vast complexity that demands the same interpretive skills as all other texts (only sharpened considerably). It is a normative work of intertextual and intratextual interpretation. It is the Word of the Holy Spirit, whose true appreciation demands faith and calls for theological discernment, not just phenomenology. It runs through every Christian tradition around the world and over two millennia. The worshiping Church is its home and lifeblood. It is an object of centuries of scholarly scrutiny, much of it helpful even when unfriendly. It is the constitutive text of the people of Westmont college and of the college itself, and as such it is bound up with the identities of those who find themselves confronted by it in unfamiliar, exhilarating, troubling ways. To teach New Testament is not merely to teach a text, but to teach this text and its worlds of old and new creation.

Doing justice to all these dimensions of the New Testament demands that students learn both the discipline of original context and the discipline of past and present ecclesial interpretation. They must respect the Bible as literature and respect it as prayer, praise, and (sic) prooftext. They must learn its content while they attend to questions of authorship, dating, and tradition-history. Its good news must be free to confront them, offer God's righteousness, and grow them in holiness. Their teacher must challenge the complacent and support the intimidated.

What follows are a few concrete teaching techniques I use for meeting these many goals. I am concentrating on the unusual ones here because the standard, tried-and-true approaches need little elucidation. Naturally students will need to learn the content, as well as text, grammatical, historical, literary, translational, canonical, theological, redaction, source, and form critical techniques and an introduction to the quests for the historicist Jesus.

First, Scripture is performed; recitation is commentary; inflection is interpretation. Students hear me read the text aloud, and should learn to read it aloud themselves. In seminary I learned enormously just hearing my professors read the texts. One of them, Richard Hays, made his students speak as well as hear them.

Second, Scripture is written. Students can report on assignments of copying texts, and artistically inclined students can create illuminated manuscripts accompanied by written defenses of their interpretive moves.

Third, in teaching the whole New Testament, I begin with the letters rather than the gospels. Here I have several reasons.

  • The ecclesiality of the letters is more obvious than the ecclesiality of the gospels. When courses begin with the synoptic gospels, the witnesses' alleged distortion of "the historical Jesus" threatens to make the Church a problem to be overcome rather than a chronicler to be celebrated and trusted. For students used to treating the texts positivistically, beginning with the letters for which the Church is a given offers a smoother introduction to the whole Bible's ecclesiocentric character.
  • Beginning with Revelation, then the anonymous catholic epistles, then both the undisputed and the disputed Paulines, introduces critical issues in a less radical way. The class can then move from light to heavy — as the rabbis did.
  • Beginning with the letters also gives students time to learn and appreciate the basics of reading texts, the specific concerns of first-century churches, the idea of Hellenistic literary genres, and early Christian exegesis of the Tanakh. This distributes the intellectual load more evenly though a semester.
  • Study of the gospels adds Palestinian cultural considerations to the Greco-Roman and diaspora Jewish factors that already apply. Culturally the class moves backward into an era more distant culturally (because it is more Jewish and less Hellenistic) and chronologically.
  • Familiarity with the setting of the letters will cast synoptic differences and source considerations in more constructive light: Having learned about the catholic network of apostolic churches, students will appreciate rather than fear the dynamics of Gospel tendency, writing, and transmission.
  • Beginning with the letters can help keep students from uncritically assimilating them into the narrative of Acts.
  • Encountering Jesus traditions in the letters affords a historically sensitive glimpse into the ways Paul and the others appropriate precanonical Jesus traditions.
  • In lectionary churches the Gospel reading typically follows the Epistle. Culminating our course with the Gospels could reinforce the pride of place that they have in the Church's tradition and highlight the ultimate Christocentricity of the whole New Testament. (Hey, maybe the class should stand during the last part of the course!)

Of course there are drawbacks to this approach. Most New Testament introductions assume a different sequence. Acts and late letters like 2 Peter are harder to fit into the sequence. Students might get the wrong impression that the Bible's Christocentricity is subordinate to its ecclesiocentricity.

Fourth, I can introduce students to the subsequent history of interpretation of certain key texts. Since my "wish list" of research projects includes a book tentatively entitled Eight Verses that Changed the Church (and Two that Should Have), this is an opportunity to combine teaching and research. Students should learn that for better and for worse, the Bible is a living memory of the Church, not a static tradition (nor even a static text!).

Fifth, I am considering a written project in which students develop a Sunday liturgy and/or a lesson plan around a particular text or set of texts. This could help them apply what they are learning in ways that lead into the life of the church, not out of it. It could also give them keener discernment for how Scripture is practiced in local churches.

Finally, I express my own love of Scripture especially in writing and preaching in the strangely named tradition of "theological interpretation of Scripture." My research, occasional writings, and sermons have developed theological and ethical interpretations of texts such as Gen. 2-3, Gen. 6, Jonah, the Lord's Prayer, Mark 8, Luke 1, Luke 9, Acts 15, Rom. 9-11, 2 Cor. 5, Phil. 2, 2 John, Rev. 3, and Rev. 22. A theological commentary on Deuteronomy is underway. Students should be exposed to overtly theological interpretation alongside less overtly theological critical methods. I might assign a hermeneutical critique of one of these projects.

The Bible is an incomparable treasure, and we all need its riches. I teach biblical studies to help weave Scripture into the lives of students as firmly as it is woven into the life of the Church.

Philosophy of Education

Liberal Arts


Church History


New Testament