How To Fix Your Theology Program

Dec 8, 2019

While I am not a fortune teller, I would bet green money that the theology program at your classical Christian school has changed quite a bit over the last several years. In fact, I would wager that of the many subject taught at your school— biology, algebra, literature, history, and so forth— no single subject undergoes more frequent changes than theology.  

Why?

To begin with, it isn’t simply that many theology programs are in a state of constant flux. Rather, many theology programs are in the process of becoming “Bible programs,” and many Bible programs are in the process of becoming “theology programs,” and no point of stasis is ever reached. Instead, there is an eternal cycle back and forth. 

From time to time, some faculty member points out that graduating seniors cannot name the twelve apostles, are largely unfamiliar with the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, and do not have a basic understanding of the plot to the Old Testament. “Our students need greater Biblical literacy,” someone says. “How can we teach them theology if they don’t know the Bible? And they’re not learning the Bible from their churches.” As a serious response to these justifiable concerns, the school scraps their systematic theology course, their apologetics course, their hermeneutics course, and “just teaches the Bible.”

However, “just teaching the Bible” is a far more grievous and vexing task than it ever seems beforehand, especially for teachers who have never before taught the Bible in an ecumenical academic setting. Teachers quickly get bogged down explaining just a few chapters from this or that minor prophet. Contentious questions emerge far more frequently than anyone would have guessed. The sin of Onan must be explained. The “righteous” patriarchs have slaves and many wives. Bloody foreskins are angrily thrown around. There’s incest. The idea that there is “a big story” to the Old Testament crashes on the rocks of a hundred off-color details, a thousand bizarre plot turns, and scores of unlikable figures who nonetheless “find favor with God.” More so than any other subject, Bible classes prompt students to raise their hands and say, “My pastor says…” and, speaking from experience, I can tell you that what comes after those three little words often derails class for a solid forty minutes.

The problem with “just teaching the Bible” is that it usually means very little Bible reading takes place. Anyone who wants to claim any passage of the Bible is “perspicuous” should first have to teach the book of Genesis to a coed class of 8th graders who all attend different churches. Long story short, the project of “just teaching the Bible” typically falls apart within a few years and the school returns to a “more academic approach” to theology.

Fresh off the heels of a failed Bible program, though, many schools are apt to throw the word “biblical” into the titles of their theology classes, and so classes with titles like “Biblical Theology” and “Biblical Hermeneutics” take the place of classes on the Pentateuch and the Gospels. This solves nothing.

Why?

Most classical schools take a topical approach to teaching theology. Granted, it seems perfectly natural to have a hermeneutics class and an apologetics class simply because seminaries have such classes. “As opposed to teaching one kind of hermeneutics, we’ll teach a broad survey,” reasons the rookie theology teacher or inexperienced board member. “Students can go back to their churches and ask which approach to Biblical interpretation is best.” The problem with topical theology classes is that the textbooks used in such classes have usually been published in the last few years.

Perhaps there is a classical school out there which uses Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses as hermeneutics class curriculum; however, most hermeneutics classes use a book with a title like 7 Ways to Interpret the Bible which was published by IVP in 1998. Be not deceived. Classical students do not respect recently published theology books. Here are 9 reasons why.

First, books like 7 Ways to Interpret the Bible do not require a teacher. They are easy to understand and do not necessitate a guide. The teacher is a pointless middle man.

Second, because such books are easy to understand, they can be read quickly. The theology teacher is always the last person to know this, though, and spends four months covering 7 Ways to Interpret the Bible when it could have been easily capped off in a week.

Third, if the teacher is covering a survey of opinions on the matter of hermeneutics or apologetics, he cannot teach or preach the class with any sort of authority. Unlike an apologetics or hermeneutics class taught at a seminary, the teacher cannot advocate for any particular position. He presents a consumeristic range of options for students to peruse, though they are not obligated to choose any. Students ought to turn up their nose at a teacher who does not teach with authority.

Fourth, 7 Ways to Interpret the Bible is not a book any sane person needs to read twice. The students know their encounter with 7 Ways is not like their encounter with Paradise Lost or Pride and Prejudice. A lifelong relationship is not beginning, but a tawdry one-night stand.

Fifth, because 7 Ways to Interpret the Bible has no authority, cannot be taught with authority, and is not a sufficiently complex book, class becomes more of a book club wherein everyone’s opinion is equal and everyone shares their feelings.

Sixth, 7 Ways to Interpret the Bible is obviously a personal favorite of the teacher who has chosen it, thus many students feel as though class itself is nothing more than an errand they are running for the convenience and amusement of the teacher. Kill your darlings.  

Seventh, because 7 Ways to Interpret the Bible is a new book and likely a personal favorite of the teacher, there is little chance it will be taught for many years in a row. If the teacher doesn’t get a great response to it, he can (and will) simply choose a different book next year. New books are hard to respect and highly apt to get changed out. This means that 9th graders are unlikely to talk to 10th graders about 7 Ways. However, if students don’t like Paradise Lost or the Analects of Confucius, the problem is either with the students or the teacher, but not the book. We know those books are good.

Eighth, the cover of 7 Ways to Interpret the Bible is typically really lame. The Goodreads reviews and Amazon reviews of the book are mediocre at best and claim that other books on the subject which have been published more recently are far better. Students also know they’re not going to impress anyone in college by saying, “I read 7 Ways to Interpret the Bible back in high school.”

Ninth, 7 Ways to Interpret the Bible simply does not make sense at a school which claims to be classical. It does not fit. It is a small thing, but makes the intellectual face of the school asymmetrical, like a man missing just one eyebrow. The school’s apologia for teaching Milton, Austen, and Homer simply has nothing to do with 7 Ways and the book is recognized as an outlier, an imposter, the odd man out.

Allow me to suggest that the solution to Bible program woes and theology program woes is unfashionable and aggravatingly simple. If a school has a Bible program that continually encounters the aforesaid problems— especially the problem of teachers parking for weeks on short, obscure passages from the Old Testament— that school should give up all pretense of teaching the Bible and content itself with merely reading the Bible out loud. A Bible class which met for three hours a week could read the entire Bible out loud in class by the end of February. Beginning in 7th grade, this project could be undertaken every year though graduation. Imagine graduating students who had read the entire Bible six times.

A small caveat: I offer this suggestion to the school with Bible program woes, which is not every school. However, if a school frequently changes their Bible program, it has woes. Healthy things do not change constantly or easily.

As for fixing theology program woes, let me suggest the following scope and sequence:

Freshman year: City of God by Augustine (the whole thing)

Sophomore year: Summa Theologica by Aquinas (the whole thing)

Junior year: Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion (the whole thing)

Senior year: City of God (the whole thing again)

Note: before going on, please take a moment and consider how odd it is that an Eastern Orthodox classical educator is not telling you to add For the Life of the World or Being as Communion to your theology program— and that this Eastern Orthodox educator is telling you to spend a whole year teaching John Calvin. He isn’t arguing for diversity and then trying to shoehorn some very doable Orthodox book into an otherwise Reformed curriculum— isn’t that weird? Isn’t that an unusual amount of respect for anyone to have for old things?

Do not teach a range of theological options. Teach Augustine. Do not teach lately written books on fashionable theological topics (community, the Trinity). Teach Aquinas. Do not teach exciting books on intersections between politics and religion. Teach Calvin. Teach irrelevant theology books which have lasted. Teach heady books which require a guide. Teach theology books which inspire awe. Establish a theology program which does not require a complete overhaul every three years. If you respect things that last, form a theology program which lasts.

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs is an author, lecturer, and teacher of classical literature at Veritas School in Richmond, Virginia. He is the author of How To Be Unlucky, Something They Will Not Forget, and Blasphemers. His wife is generous and his children are funny.

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or its leadership.

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