The Course

This 4-unit course is a "thematic examination of biblical doctrines, including God, Christ, Holy Spirit, man [i.e., humanity], redemption, the Church; consideration of their historical development and contemporary meaning" (Undergraduate Catalog). Of the General Education requirements, it meets both the Doctrine component and (for students with sufficient ACT, SAT/WRII, or TSWE scores) the Writing for the Liberal Arts component. I am in the process of constructing assignments in the hope that the course may also fulfill the Integrating the Major Discipline component of the Competent and Compassionate Action requirement.

Class time will feature lectures, student-led discussions of course texts, spontaneous debates and sermons, edifying tangents, and a couple of really fun exams. Readings introduce complementary and competing accounts of Christian life as well as visions of unbelief. Assignments concentrate on applying and evaluating the lessons of Christian theology for the Church and its disciples today.

This course introduces you to the fundamental teachings of the Christian faith: God, creation, humanity, sin, Jesus Christ, last things, Church, and salvation. Using the Bible, the history of Christianity, and the practices of the various Christian churches as our sources and guides, we will explore these different dimensions of Christian belief. While we will also discuss reading and writing assignments, lectures and discussion will not cover all the course material.

We will learn these fundamental teachings in ways that introduce key insights in contemporary theology:

  • From the legacy of Swiss theologian Karl Barth we will learn over and over that Jesus Christ is determinative for Christian theology, particularly his life, death, and resurrection.
  • From twentieth century theology we will learn that the doctrine of the Trinity is a central theological claim of Christian faith that follows from this fact and in turn informs all others.
  • From a variety of theological voices we will learn that the implications of Jesus Christ reach into every corner of our world and our lives with radical judgments and fresh beginnings.
  • From the last century of biblical scholarship we will learn that the Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed is a fundamental category in Christian theology (especially eschatology, the study of the end-times) and ethics.
  • From postmodern philosophical theology we will learn that the good news of Jesus Christ, not some other ideology or some "universal rationality," judges truth-claims.
  • From missiologists and from brothers and sisters of other cultures we will learn that the good news is inherently culture-crossing, culture-challenging, and culture-changing, and that this is as true of our own cultures and most cherished ways of life as others'.
  • From thoughtful people who reject Jesus as Lord we will learn what life and Christian faith look like from 'outside' — that is, from the very world into which Christ's emissaries are sent with his good news.
  • From the Christian tradition itself we will learn that Christian faith is basically practical, communal, and therefore ethical, and that the life of the Church is therefore fundamental to truly Christian life and theology.
  • From brothers and sisters in other Christian traditions we will learn Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox theology not as fundamentally wrong forms of Christianity but as legitimate exercises of Christian faith with which Protestant evangelicals have legitimate differences.

We will also strive in specific ways to meet the six learning standards Westmont has adopted for our students:

  • Christian orientation. You will become more familiar with Christian doctrine, scripture, church history, world religions, and biblical scholarship as we describe the teachings of the ecumenical and evangelical Christian tradition and how they developed over time and in close consultation with the Bible, sometimes over against rival traditions. You will come to see how the faith that we believe (in Latin, fides quae creditur) lives through the faith by which we believe it (fides quâ creditur). You will do this through active listening and reading, discussion, written reflection, theological analysis of the many settings in which the Christian faith is lived, from the formal activities of churches to the lives of people around you, and active participation in others' lives and (if you call the faith your own) in the life of a Christian community.
  • Diversity. In your interactions with the course material, readings from Christians from elsewhere in the world and other traditions from Roman Catholic to Mennonite to secularist, and from modern to postmodern, and interactions with other Westmont students and people elsewhere, you will have a variety of opportunities to encounter people whose lives, faith, and unbelief are very different from yours. You will gain a sense of both the challenge and the promise the universal Christian faith offers all, from particular cultures to particular institutions to particular individuals, who accept its invitation to enter the Kingdom of God. This can make you more knowledgeable, empathetic, and incisive in weighing, understanding, and interacting with those objects of God's mission, judgment, forgiveness, and transformation.
  • Critical and interdisciplinary thinking. Christian theology explores the full implications of the good news of Jesus Christ. This course will show you that since Jesus Christ is Lord of all, every area of human and cosmic life has the potential to signify his reign. You will also exercise and explore the proper roles of critical thinking in discerning those signs and judging their significance and implications. Our readings and lecture topics will expose you to Christian theology embedded in literature, philosophy, history, visual and musical media, physical and social science, corporate worship, and service to others. You will learn how to think theologically, by yourself and with others in the course, about the central practices and teachings of the Christian faith and about all that it touches.
  • Research and technology. Course assignments will take you repeatedly into our textbooks and back to other course material in order to answer new, critical, and synthetic questions. This will turn you into an information gatherer and researcher of our course materials and the other sources of information we will be drawing on, from people and institutions outside our course to other materials from elsewhere in the college and from your culture. You will learn how to represent and cite these sources, both written and oral, in your own work so as to study with academic honesty and integrity. In the normal course of our semester together you will also find yourself gaining familiarity with a variety of information technologies, from the word processors on which you write your papers to the on-line syllabus and the instant messaging you will use for group chats.
  • Active societal and intellectual engagement. The Christian faith is not an idea or a feeling, but a life — a life together under Christ's discipline. As members of a team, you will learn the rules of working together in the Kingdom both by studying the Christian faith and by working with one another in small groups and classroom discussions. Helping one another and working on your own through the demands of writing- and speaking-intensive assignments that relate the Christian faith to Christian life will cultivate the skills that will help you after college in the workplace, volunteering, school, church, and at home.
  • Written and oral communication. As my "rules of the game" state, I assign regular written exercises in a variety of genres. You work according to a regular reading, thinking, and writing schedule. You are formally and radically accountable for writing well, citing sources properly, introducing and organizing your answer, answering the entire question, and drawing on all the requested sources. You edit rather than merely write, and judge fellow students' arguments as peers rather than simply formulating and submitting your own. All this makes for more conscientious writing. You also write and deliver presentations in class, discuss your work with one another, and converse with me in one-on-one appointments. These activities foster more conscientious speaking. Together they help you communicate effectively in a range of genres, listen as well as articulate, and learn to put new as well as old ideas in words and to purposes truly your own.

This course contributes both to the foundation of a more thorough education in religious studies and to Westmont's General Education curriculum in serving the school's vision of Christian liberal arts collegiate education. It focuses on the substance, logic, and integrity of Christian belief (including its dependence on the Holy Scriptures of the Church), the ethical (that is, practical) form the faith takes in Christian community, and the historical shape of Christian tradition. Far from constricting our picture of life, these foci bring all things into perspective. Jesus Christ is the Word of all creation and the one true embodiment and Lord of humanity. His human nature comprehends all human endeavor that is not compromised by sin. His indwelling Spirit sanctifies and empowers faithful human life in its entirety. His Church is gifted and commanded to participate in him and in holy and virtuous fellowship in all that it does. So Christian doctrine properly describes and governs every truly human enterprise. You will see that our course readings and lectures respect this quality of theology in diverse and sometimes surprising ways — wrestling boldly and faithfully with the insights of modern and postmodern philosophy (particularly in the helpful and unhelpful ways they frame Christian categories), the natural sciences (particularly in the forms and implications of the doctrine of creation), the behavioral sciences (particularly in the doctrines of Church and salvation), art and literature (particularly in the ways they have creatively appropriated and communicated the good news), history (particularly in its storytelling about the missions and failings of the Church in the world), and communication (particularly in the course's demands for critical thinking, clear expression, and teamwork). As Jesus of Nazareth is the definitive revelation of both God's character, the form and goal of all creation, and our atonement for all that falls short of the glory of God, no good or evil thing is beyond the scope of Christian doctrine.

Christian doctrine changes lives. It has changed the world. If you participate in this class (whether or not you call on Jesus as Lord), it will change you too. Our goal for the course is to gain academic knowledge whose practical power changes us. We ought to believe differently, live differently, and of course think differently.

Rules of the Game
A Few (Strong) Suggestions on Essay Writing
Pointers for Presentations
Chatting to Learn and to Teach
Peer Review Guidelines
Review Form (PDF)