the challenge of teaching Bible to young Christians (or, true growth is painful)

the challenge of teaching Bible to young Christians (or, true growth is painful) July 6, 2015


IMG_20130515_111812_168I’ve been teaching the Bible to students for 20 years now. That’s pretty amazing to me. The only things in my life that have lasted for 20 years have been family, Yankees, and mortgage.

I’ve taught at the seminary and college levels, and there are huge difference between them, of course. But teaching Bible in either academic setting to people committed to the Bible presents a challenge.

Think about it this way. Bible is perhaps the only topic you can study where you can end more or less as you began and still graduate.

Try doing that with chemistry, math, or history.

In fact, not changing can even been seen by some as an expectation. You might accept your knowledge of the Bible to be deepened or expanded somewhat, but the basic framework of your Bible “house of knowledge” remains as is.

Rooms in the house might be expanded or remodeled, walls might be repainted and some some pipes replaced. But that’s the extent of change.

Renovation, reworking the foundation, creating new structures–even with some of the same raw materials–can often be looked upon with some suspicion, if not distain.

Bible is the one topic in a Christian academic curriculum where many already feel comfortable that they a level of competence, only needing some adjustments, not broader rethinking.

I get that. People are raised with the Bible and with certain ways of understanding it. That knowledge is a foundation for their faith that they wish to build upon, not chop up and re-pour with fresh cement.

Spiritually speaking, many students of Bible expect no change and perhaps little by the way of challenges to familiar ways of thinking. Again, that mentality isn’t hard to understand or even be sympathetic with.

But here’s the problem: seminaries and colleges are academic, degree-granting institutions.

Education, regardless of the discipline, is not about standing still in familiar surroundings but expanding one’s horizons–to see things differently, from new angles, and to put the pieces back together again in fresh ways.

In others words, teaching Bible in degree-granting institutions involves achieving academic competence in the topic, which more often than not takes students away from the familiar and expected toward change and even upheaval.

But Christian academic institutions are also concerned with the spiritual formation of their students–and the study of the Bible plays a big role in that.

It seems we have a problem: studying Bible in a Christian institution brings with it some well know, even unavoidable tensions, because both academic competence and spiritual formation are crucial components.

So how can both change/upheaval and spiritual formation be respected in these settings?

Well, there’s no formula, but let me say first of all that change and spiritual formation should not be presented as on opposite ends of the spectrum. In fact, without change–even deep, unsettling, painful change–one is not being formed spiritually.

Part of teaching in these settings means creating a culture, an expectation, that uncomfortable spiritual change and spiritual growth are not natural enemies–and since we’re taking about the Bible here, my proof texts are Job, Ecclesiastes, and the lament psalms.

Grappling with looking at the Bible differently may be just what is needed to jumpstart spiritual growth–not a new coat of paint or new furniture in existing rooms, but laying new foundations and structures.

But the tricky part–as any professor in similar situations knows full well–spiritual renovation when undertaken too quickly or casually can cause an unhealthy and unwise degree of stress.

We’re not talking about dynamiting the house on day one, but neither are we leaving the house as it is. We are talking about a lengthy process of change.

How to do that? By mixing challenge and affirmation on a regular basis.

Affirm where they are in their spiritual journey as a good and holy thing, not a mistake to be gotten over. God is with them now and has been in the past.

Along with that, challenge deeply their conceptions of their faith and of the Bible and present it as a normal means of growth. one that the Bible itself models (in Job, etc.), and that this struggle will eventually leave them with a more mature–a more biblical–faith because the Bible–and God–are now bigger and deeper than before.

True growth is normally painful.

Like I said, there’s no formula. I know I’m usually winging it, trying to stay alert to moods, the questions behind the questions, and body language.

But I think something like this needs to happen intentionally.

Leaving students, whether in college or seminary, more or less as they were, without challenging the old and showing them new vistas, is not an education.

Ripping them from their world and dropping them into the middle of the ocean isn’t spiritual formation.

Creating cultures where change is expected—not only in schools but in churches before students ever show up for classes–is an important dynamic for a truly Christian education in Bible.

I’ll be honest with you–more than course content, syllabi, or text book selection–this is the issue that I think about most in my teaching.

[Three books where I touch on this culture of change are The Bible Tells Me SoInspiration and Incarnation, and The Bible and the Believer.]

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  • Back in the day when I was your typical OPC seminary-bound student, I set my sights on Duke, Princeton, and Union because I didn’t feel like I would learn anything if I went somewhere that just reaffirmed my existing theology.

    I realize that wasn’t a very fair way to look at the Westminsters, but I was into sweeping generalizations at the time. I ended up splitting the difference by not going to seminary at all. Take that, universe!

  • Looking forward to attending Eastern starting next month! I may or may not end up having you as a professor (I’m in THC as an English major)…but I appreciate your thoughts here. I may not agree with everything you write (frankly, your loyalty to the Yankees is distressing, haha) but I value your voice. One thought though here, what is the balance between letting God be the one who changes through His work in and through you (as the mentor/professor) and you making it your work to change? Does that make sense? As a writer, it’s a question I wrestle with in my own call to write.

  • Gary

    Pete, my experience is that it’s best to not talk to Christians about Christianity or the Bible but to instead listen to them talk about their beliefs and experiences.

    • Rene

      Gary, I’ve sat in many groups that did exactly that (I’m over sixty). We sit around in a circle and share opinions about our faith. The leader listens attentively, nods approvingly and moves on to the next person. It becomes nothing more than a pooling of ignorance.

      At what point do we tell them their beliefs are wrong? At what point do we tell them of the alternatives?

      You are right that listening is critical, as opposed to standing in front of them and talking at them. In the latter the leader controls everything, in the former the learner controls everything. There has to be a middle ground.

      • Gary

        Whether or not “beliefs” are wrong is hard for me to gauge. What I can the quite often assess is whether or not what people say is consistent with mainstream history or science or what’s been considered general orthodox by what streams over centuries. When someone says a given Biblical passage is about X (when I’ve learned something else about the original author and audience, the potential culture backstory before them, and the centuries of beliefs between them and us) that’s when I find it hard to meaningfully engage in a way that’s affirming with where they’re at in the way they want to be affirmed where they’re at in their perceived-as-profound one-off revelation. For me, I think I’ve only been in two or three of these group experiences in the last five or so years.

        Despite archetypal Sunday morning grinning-face announcements about doing-life-together and community and truth, I find it all quite puzzling.

        The challenge is not at all about talking about the Bible with the young. I find the youngest free-speaking generation by far the easiest to speak about the Bible with.

        It’s the middle and older generations I find hard to discuss the Bible with. Premise of Pete’s post misses this bigger thing.

      • Victor

        “At what point do we tell them their beliefs are wrong? At what point do we tell them of the alternatives?”

        Wrong about what? ANE interpretations? JEDP? Do the intellectual elites have all the answers? Is God impressed with them?

        What if those same people you need to “correct” turned back at you and said “well, I believe the Bible is literal history, but I’m also giving my time at the local homeless shelter or being a big brother to an inner city kid”.

        I am so sick of the intellectual naval gazing. I was in a Bible study with guys who only wanted to talk about the deep intellectual ideas of theology. Sounded good at first, but, what I noticed was that the local “hicks” in the church they were laughing at were the ones going on mission trips, working in the shelters, taking in a pregnant woman, etc.

        Yeah, these intellectual giants were great at discussing all the nuances of scripture, but they weren’t doing jack for the kingdom of God. It was embarrassing to be around them eventually.

        • I, too, am worried about staring too much at the Navy, but what you present here is both a real thing and a false dichotomy.

          Sure, there are people who use biblical knowledge as a prop to pride and an insulator from service. But those two things aren’t necessarily connected. One could also say that people who don’t know much about the Bible must not really care about God, otherwise they’d want to know more about Him, but that’s also a false dichotomy.

          You don’t avoid learning things just because some people are prideful jerks about it.

        • Rene

          Victor, I understand what you are saying. But there is some kind of connection between what we believe and how we behave. It seems to me Paul illustrates that quite nicely for us with his characteristic doctrinal and practical sections.

          On the other hand we have this: “Even the demons believe and shudder.” Apparently they were orthodox in at least one respect but they were still demons. Or those in Jesus’ day who were considered “experts” in the law but missed the point entirely.

          Some people seem to imply that orthodoxy is optional as long as we engage in good practices. I spent seven years at one church where, in that seven years, we taught five Bible classes. Of course, there were scads of music concerts, missions trips, camping trips, other fellowship activities of various kinds. We were a virtual beehive of activity. (In fairness, we did teach one class on how to find the Gospel in the stars.)

          Is this what Paul meant in Rom. 10 when he characterized the ancient Israelites as having zeal but without knowledge?

          What is the connection between belief (knowledge) and practice?

  • HiHoSilver

    If growth is what you want, perhaps start by examining the deeply held traditions of Christianity? What is the ecclesia? Are the traditions of communion, the soul, the trinity, heaven, hell, and so on, are these even Biblical? And what about the history of Biblical translation? Are these translations even accurate and consistent?

    Christ should be the ONLY foundation, all other traditions and ideas should be open to scrutiny.

  • Chris Falter

    In my evangelical circle at an Ivy League institution, we scoffed at the documentary hypothesis. JEPD, you must be kidding me!

    It took me about 35 years and a healthy dose of academic study to realize that I couldn’t just dismiss Biblical scholarship with a wave of the hand and another verse of “Just As I Am.” Your blog and your books have been especially helpful in this regard, Pete, so allow me to thank you publicly.

    The wonderful thing about this journey is that I feel more fully alive in my faith than I ever did before, and much more aware of my fragility and my need of help, guidance, and strength both from God and from my fellow believers. And while I’m thinking about the community of faith, I also want to give a shout out to my beautiful wife Linda, who is my God-given partner in this fascinating journey. 🙂

  • Rene

    “Bible is the one topic in a Christian academic curriculum where many already feel comfortable that they a level of competence…”

    Problem is, they don’t. If all the studies are even close (and we’ve been doing these things for forty years), the vast majority are biblically illiterate.

    But, try suggesting to a local pastor that we really don’t know the Bible all that well and see where it gets you, or that we could do a better job of teaching in our church. That would be like questioning their manhood. “How dare you question my preaching skills!!” And yet we expect that listening to someone tell us what to think about the Bible for twenty minutes each week will somehow satisfy our Bible training needs. It’s pathetic.

    When it comes to our business efforts, athletics and higher education in our culture, we expect and demand excellence from our selves and those around us. When it comes to studying the Bible in the church, we expect nothing.

    OTOH, can you imagine what would happen to a pastor who questioned anyone in his church at this point? He would be out on his ear in no time flat.

    • Gary

      Rene, many Sundays my kids and I look to each other and say this: “Nod and grin.” There’s little to no benefit in questioning anybody’s manhood. If you expect nothing, it makes the hour of the week more tolerable.

      • Rene


  • Hmm. Lots of good stuff here, but I have to take issue with the statement “Bible is perhaps the only topic you can study where you can end more or less as you began and still graduate.” I simply don’t see how that can be true.

    I can see how someone could study the Bible and not change their opinions on a certain topics (which is what I think you’re referencing) but I can’t see how they could avoid adding knowledge. And that’s really what graduation is supposed to measure. I don’t think you’d advocate “you can graduate once you change your position” but rather “here’s the stuff you have to know.” If I know more, but hold the same positions as I did previously, have I “ended more or less where I began?”

    If that’s the standard, then science and math seem like a poor comparison. Why not compare to other humanities degrees?

    • peteenns

      Are you suggesting that an 18 year old coming to college is mature enough and has sufficient enough grasp of biblical studies that he/she can be “educated” by simply “adding knowledge” without changing his/her views?

      • Hmm. Well, I was thinking more about seminary, actually (since you explicitly talked about both undergrad and grad in the previous paragraph). That’s my own background (I left a technical career to go to seminary).

        But, depending on what particular view is in question, then my answer would be “sure.” When I started in seminary, I just assumed Paul wrote Timothy. I was exposed to lots of reasons that might not be the case, and so I moved away from that view for a time. Eventually I became re-persuaded and now I’m once again comfortable with the idea of Paul writing Timothy. So I “ended where I started” (to use your phrase) but I sure learned a lot in the meantime. Did I not receive an education on that topic?

        I’m not arguing that 18-year-olds are models of maturity or that they have a great grasp of biblical studies. They generally don’t. I’m saying that the analogy doesn’t feel like it works well. If I started a degree in math, I wouldn’t think I was awesome at math just because I took basic calculus in high school. On the other hand, a derivative is still basically a derivative. I might radically expand my mathematical knowledge while in college, but the basics shouldn’t change much.

        • peteenns

          I’m not sure your specific example is relevant to my post, Micah, though I do understand what you’re staying. I will say though (not that this describes you) that people come to intellectual conclusions for all sorts of reasons, some of which is social comfort/belonging, deep longings for simpler faith, giving some spiritual stability to their lives–and none of that is likely conscious.

          There are also some academic issues that are more grey–perhaps authorship of the pastorals is that for you though you would be in an overwhelming minority. But, say, someone–whether in college or seminary–arrived thinking the Bible is a perfectly consistent document historically, learned about the synoptic problems on the OT and NT, and went away concluding that the Bible is nevertheless completely historically harmonious, I would say that they may have gained “knowledge” of a topic but they have not received an education.

          • Gary

            Most of the clergy and lay leaders I’ve met haven’t really gone all that much deeper. Pete, you think this is hard as an academic? Try talking to these people about these things from the position of a non-academic lay person of minimal-but-heretical beliefs. I promise you, it’s easier from your post.

          • I think I’m going to start putting the letters NALP MHB after my name.

          • Yeah, great points. I especially agree with the “unconscious reasons for intellectual conclusions” bit, while noting that’s a blade that cuts both ways: we both know plenty of people who have a disdain the bible for reasons that have nothing to do with the internal evidence, but rather because of (for example) hurt that they’ve felt at the hands of Christians.

            With all this said, though, I’m still perplexed by your initial analogy. What would you do to make studying the Bible more like studying math or physics? As Dan Fisher noted above, do I need to suddenly stop believing in the multiplication tables I learned in elementary school? It’s hard to see how that comparison works.

            As for whether someone has learned information or received an education, I have to confess you’re taking the opposite perspective than I would have expected. It really sounds like you’re making the case that someone hasn’t been educated unless they agree with you on a particular issue. Down that path lies the total destruction of academic freedom. We’ve never met and the only things I know about you are public knowledge, but I would think academic freedom is something you’d hold in pretty high regard given the Westminster thing.

            I’d expect an academic environment to demand a student be conversant in the issues and have a grasp of the field in question, but not require any particular belief. This particular piece reads as if you disagree.

    • Rene

      Here’s another way of looking at this. Let’s say that as a church we decide that everyone should be a good pole-vaulter (work with me on this). Here’s how the church would approach it.

      For the next six months we would bring everyone together in a large room and provide a series of lectures on the history of pole-vaulting, proper attire when pole-vaulting, best practices in training, etc. We’d have world famous pole-vaulters come in and share their experiences and sing songs designed to motivate us to be better vaulters. Eventually we’d split everyone up into small groups and have them tell how other, more experienced pole-vaulters have changed their lives (whatever that means).

      At the end of the six months, how many of us would be able to even clear a two-by-four with a pole?

      Turns out the mind is, at least in some respects, much like the body. If it is going to grow, it has to be exercised (challenged). Accumulating facts about pole-vaulting is important at one level but is not the end of the process. Grabbing a pole, skinning up the elbows, making mistakes, etc. is the next step. It seems to me that that is the difference between simple knowledge and wisdom.

      If you want me to be a better pole-vaulter, give me the basic knowledge and then the tools to gather additional knowledge on my own. Then challenge me with thought provoking questions. Then get the hell out of the way.

  • Great post. Thanks Pete.

  • Yeshwa Younis

    Nice Post

  • Casy McFarland

    I started as a Chem major and changed to English. It was at a Christian university with mandatory Bible classes, which I very freely rebelled against because they were too liberal for my fundamentalist tastes. When I sold books back to the bookstore, they were filled with warnings that the contents were heretical.

    At the same time, I felt “called” to ministry, but wanted to dodge it. The semester I changed to English I also had a Biblical Literature class. The intro to English (for English Majors) class and Bib Lit class sent me over the edge. Midway through the semester, I changed my major yet again to Ministry (time to stop running, I guess), but two or three weeks before the end of the semester, my whole religious foundation crumbled. My fundamentalist world was rocked. Suddenly, the Bible was not what I thought it was, God was not who I thought he was, and every ounce of certainty I had was totally drained. The two classes combined amounted to a dramatic shift in the way I viewed written language, especially in the Bible.

    That summer I was desperately holding onto a God I no longer believed in. I was still set to become a Ministry major, but was almost positive I didn’t believe in God. I still attended church… because I *wanted* to believe in God. A different church each week – no answers. There was one church I was fond of, but never committed to it.

    Halfway through the summer, my apartment was burglarized. Everything (seriously!) was gone. I stayed in a hotel I couldn’t afford for three days, and when the pastor of the church that I was fond of heard about it, he opened the church to me. I stayed there for a week until I could find another affordable apartment.

    That pastor’s generosity and that church’s love affirmed something so valuable about God to me. It affirmed His love, His church, and that He was my provider and protector.

    I found faith again through it.

    The next year I began the ministry program with a totally new outlook on scripture. It was not a book of certainties, but questions. Because of good professors, things began to fall back together again, but in a new way. And interestingly, as I completed the study, I found that most of what I had affirmed before my loss of faith I could affirm again. God was still God – only better than how I knew him before. I could affirm the truth of scripture without being tied to literalism or the historical reliability of the stories. The Bible was more alive than ever.

    All that to say – thanks for the job and struggle you go through for your students. To be freed from the previous way of thinking is absolutely liberating, but also terrifying. To enter into a new and healthier understanding is fulfilling and exciting. Your students get to experience an awesome adventure.

  • James

    The struggle of students to change and yet somehow remain unchanged reminds me of the personal journeys of GK Chesterton and CS Lewis in Orthodoxy and The Pilgrim’s Regress respectively. Both record starting out in (and rejecting) the faith only to return to it eventually in a fresh way. “I am a man who with the utmost daring discovered what had been discovered before…I did try to found a heresy of my own; and when I had put the last touches to it, I discovered that it was orthodoxy.” GKC

  • Daniel Fisher

    “Try doing that with chemistry, math, or history.

    In fact, not changing can even been seen by some as an expectation. You might accept your knowledge of the Bible to be deepened or expanded somewhat, but the basic framework of your Bible “house of knowledge” remains as is…”
    I fear I’m not getting the comparison. One’s understanding of chemistry, math, and history usually has plenty of new information and application piled on, but rarely does this take away anything the student brought to school – Graduating with a degree in math doesn’t require one to jettison a prior “basic framework” of the multiplication table, for instance?

  • BHodges

    This post resonates in many corners of the Christian world, my own (Mormonism) included.

  • Jameson Graber

    I’m new to this blog, and I like a lot of what I see. I think I agree with the point of this post, but I was compelled to respond to the same line as Daniel Fisher: “Try doing that with chemistry, math, or history.” Well, I’m not sure about history, but I am a mathematician, so I take issue with that comparison. In fact, mathematics may be the most “fundamentalist” of all disciplines: when we teach math, we only want students to learn new things, rather than rebuild their foundations. On the other hand, you’re right, most students don’t start by thinking they know all the math they need to already.

    My own college New Testament course, which I took at a secular university, was not especially mind-blowing for me. My father was a Presbyterian pastor and taught me to take the Bible very seriously. In fact I think in college I would have called myself some kind of “inerrantist,” but that’s weird because I never believed half the stuff most inerrantists believe. That’s because my dad never held back on just how “human” the Bible is. So when our college textbook (written by Bart Ehrman) tried to shock us with stunning “inconsistencies” or curious resemblances to other ancient documents, I have to say I was pretty unimpressed. So I never had that experience of being a poor defensely evangelical thrown into the ocean of modern biblical scholarship.

    Which makes me think, it doesn’t have to be this way. It’s really OK to teach your kids things modern scholars now know about the Bible. They won’t suddenly become atheists. On the contrary, they might become like me, who in college was quite the defender of the faith against those secular professors. I’ve mellowed since then, but that’s another story.

    • peteenns

      Welcome, Jameson. And thanks for your comment.