Thoughts on Teaching Bible at a Christian College

Thoughts on Teaching Bible at a Christian College May 8, 2013

After teaching almost entirely at the seminary and doctoral levels for eighteen years, I’ve been teaching Bible courses to college students at Eastern University for the last three semesters. So, of course, this makes me an expert.

All kidding aside, I’ve had to do some thinking about how to pull this off. Teaching Bible in a Christian college can be tricky, especially introductory courses (I teach both OT and NT Intro), because the students are in so many different places.

Some arrive with little to no knowledge of the Bible, others have been around the biblical block a few times and are tired of it, and some are eagerly awaiting the chance to examine their understanding of the Bible and move to another level. I’ve even had some students already conversant with some aspects of the academic study of the Bible and are now looking to take those conversations to a deeper level.

Add to this the psychological/spiritual factor. Some students are in searching mode concerning their faith, while others have thus far in their lives not been encouraged to make the faith of their parents their own. Some are a bit nervous about leaving familiar territory, which causes stress, while others are on autopilot and just want to pass the course and get on with things. And I don’t need to mention all the other “normal” factors of college life that pull and stretch first year students beyond what they thought was possible.

All this diversity in the same class of about 40 students. “Your job, Enns (should you choose to accept it) is to walk in there twice a week and say something meaningful. As always, should you blow it, we will make believe we do not know you. Good luck. This tape will self-destruct in 5 seconds.”

Teaching these students is the most challenging teaching experience I have ever had–and by far the most rewarding.

I have the privilege and responsibility of being in on the ground level, trying to bridge the gap between where they are now (collectively and individually) and where I think they need to be at the end of the semester–not to mention modeling a path of lifelong study of Scripture and walking with God.

I’ve had to think very intentionally about what I am trying to do in these intro classes, and it boils down to this:

My ultimate goal is spiritual formation. In biblical studies classes, a means toward that goal is to find a regular, rhythmic, balance between confirming and challenging the students in their present state of biblical understanding and spiritual development.

It also means being available–in class and out of class–to help them work through potential crises of faith that invariably come up when intellectual and spiritual growth happens, as well as leading further onward those who are more ready and so inclined to proceed into the unfamiliar.

In other words, respect the students where they are while at the same time embracing my responsibility to not leave them there.

That’s a tough call, especially given the various factors of diversity I mention above, and it can’t be scripted. You just sort of know when it is happening, and if you ask the students they will tell you. (I try to give period gut-check moments in class for individual and/or group written reflection.) Sometimes they don’t even need to be asked. Which leads me to my last point:

Intellectual and spiritual growth at a Christian college requires transparency, vulnerability, and commitment to community. It is my job as the professor–especially in teaching some potentially tough topics–to create that culture.

I’m still working on it.

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  • Matt Blackmon

    Thanks for that affirmation Pete. I think you are right on target, and it is what I sought to do for five years at a former institution, only to find out I was not a good fit because of my dedication to transparency, vulnerability and commitment to community that may lead to some very messy re-examinations of things we have held near and dear. Moreover, those three things terrify an institution whose sole goal is to be premier among its vanishing peers as they require examination of mission, methods, focus, goal, and outcomes and all three indict political spin.

  • scotmcknight

    Excellent… precisely my experience over 17 years.

  • Eric Hatfield

    Peter, I am so appreciative of what you are doing on this blog and clearly what you are trying to do as a teacher.

    I have been a believer for 50 years, and in much of that time it seems that there were just 2 classes of christian teachers and writers: (1) those who kept to the traditional evangelical faith and didn’t rock the boat too much, but didn’t answer all the hard questions and weren’t very academic, and (2) those who were scholars in the academy, answered the hard question but with an approach and answers that seemed to lack faith.

    I am appreciating you doing both – truth and faith. And I appreciate your pointing me to Dennis Lamoureux who is walking a similar path. Thanks to both of you.

  • David A Booth

    Dear Dr. Enns,

    Thank you for your post. I can relate to the challenges of teaching the Bible to people from such diverse backgrounds because I am a pastor.

    Every Sunday morning and evening I teach the Bible to a congregation that includes an editor of a well known study-Bible, people who have read the entire Bible dozens of times, people who almost never read their Bibles, teenagers who are excited about knowing God better and putting His word into practice, teenagers who are skeptical about whether God exists or that the Bible actually tells us about Him, children who cannot yet read, and a deaf child who receives my teaching through the mediation of American Sign Language.

    Suddenly your class doesn’t seem all that diverse!

    BTW – I really appreciate your comments.

    Best wishes,


  • J. Stewart

    Thank you for clarifying and confirming the difficult task I am up against in my first years as a professor. I know I don’t want to leave students where they are but I struggle with respecting where some of them are. I don’t struggle with all of them just the ones who believe they already know the material and aren’t open to anything they read or hear.

  • Norman

    Pete, I think God raised you up for such a time as this. These students are extremely blessed to have you for this critical time in their lives.

  • Craig Vick

    Where do I sign up? I wonder if transparency is made even more necessary because some of us were taught, by teachers with good intentions, that modern scholarship has an agenda (almost evil).

  • James

    In official retirement I can propose answers to questions I never dared raise in polite conversation. My sphere of influence in the faith community has shrunk and maybe that’s a good thing. I’m more critical of sermons, blogs and books and sometimes groan, here we go again. I’m also excited when diverse pieces of the puzzle start to fit in place. I guess I’m looking for the grand theory of everything–shove over Stephen Hawkings. Somehow, the grandest and most compelling quest of all boils down to observing the Great Commandment as you suggest–loving God and neighbor. Time to phone that crusty old fella again!

  • rvs

    I hear a lot of Bible guys in higher ed. use the “royal we”–when talking about their schools. “I… the royal we,” as Lebowski puts the matter in The Big Lebowski. I sometimes wonder if students think that it’s unnatural for Bible profs. to disagree, or even to use first-person singular.

  • Andrew

    “Transparency, vulnerability, and commitment to community.” Super important! Thanks for you thoughts.

  • Eric

    Thanks for these reflections, Peter. Mind a couple of questions?

    One, how do atheist or “spiritual but not religious” students (assuming there are any) fit into your first objective?

    Two, would you offer a concrete example of that balance between confirming and challenging? Maybe one of the written exercises you use?

    Last, how do these objectives translate into courses readings and assignments?

    Sorry if these sounds like a dean’s list of assessment questions, but I’m presently in a departmental reflection process on course goals myself and your post was a timely read.

  • I love this! I teach Bible at a Christian university, mostly NT Survey, and I really resonate with what you’re saying.

  • Prayers always for God’s grace and wisdom, strength and peace. I was one of those students coming in off the battle lines war-weary and needing God’s Word. Spiritual formation is where its at with today’s youth… as is transparency and integrity… no higher calling than leading tomorrow’s generation towards God’s dreams and visions. All the Lord’s best.

  • Jesse

    Hey Peter,

    Thanks for your insightful thoughts on this post. I’m a first year HS Bible teacher, teaching overseas, and I can completely resonate with what you said about the trickiness that comes with having students all over the place spiritually and motivationally and trying to make an impact that isn’t limited to one or two subgroups.

    My biggest need, after coming to the end of a (typically) difficult first year teaching, has been for a mentor who’s thought through the types of questions that I’ve been facing. So, that to say: anytime you want to share more insights and thoughts from your own teaching experience, I’m all ears. I’ll be sure to look through your past entries as well.