Teaching Bible Study Skills in a Seminary Setting: A Disciplined Knowledge for the Shared Life of Faith

May 14th, 2014

Knowledge. Skills. Habits. Capacities. I aim toward the development of each as I teach New Testament. I train future pastors to develop the same attributes in the congregation. I try to signal this on page one of the course outline and syllabus:


The course is designed to develop:

  1. knowledge of the New Testament materials;
  2. knowledge of the history and transmission of the New Testament, from ancient manuscripts to modern translations;
  3. exegetical skills to understand the texts in their own contexts;
  4. interpretive skills that include attention to personal and global perspectives;
  5. an awareness of the joys and challenges of interpreting within community;
  6. imagination;
  7. curiosity; and
  8. a passion for engaging scripture for the sake of the church in the world.

Class opens with prayer and meditation. It may involve spoken prayer, slam/spoken word poetry, a video clip, music, testimony, or something that stimulates the imagination. We gather as an intentionally Christian community, seeking to grow deeper in our knowledge and faith. We spend the rest of the class on the “What?” and the “So What?”


I expect students to learn the actual content of scripture. They quickly get used to my response to their observations and claims about the Bible (or Paul or Jesus): “Where is that in the text?” It’s not enough to read about the Bible; we must first and foremost immerse ourselves in the primary texts themselves. Because we stand in a long tradition of transmission and interpretation, it’s also important to attend to the history of that textual transmission, including the process of canon formation and Bible translation. Finally, serious students of the Bible must be exposed to the various methodologies employed in the interpretation of scripture from pre-­modern approaches, to historical criticism, to advocacy criticism, and beyond. A successful course finds students able to skillfully exegete and interpret the texts in ways that attend to both the ancient and modern contexts, on both the personal and global level.

One skill we practice together is the use of our “analogical imaginations.” Sometimes the Bible addresses issues that are no longer specifically relevant to us (such as eating meat sacrificed to pagan idols; whether women need to veil in church; whether or not Gentiles must be circumcised to be Christians). Sometimes the Bible doesn’t directly address issues that are particularly relevant to us (human trafficking; gun control; abortion). In these cases, we can ask what would be analogous in our own context so that the texts still inform our conversation. We don’t care about idol meat sacrificed to Isis, but surely we should still care about how we use our freedom in Christ: Does it edify or wound the conscience of our Christian brother or sister? We don’t debate whether a woman who prays in church on a Sunday morning needs to veil or wear her hair in a certain way, but surely we still care about how our conduct in worship invites or repels visitors.


Undoubtedly the “What?” is crucial in the process of Bible study, but, as I regularly tell students, we don’t need to gather together in person, some commuting vast distances weekly, just for me to provide them information. Were that the goal, I would give them a reading list and, after a time, simply test them on the material. We gather for the purpose of communal formation (on our best days, maybe even transformation). Every biblical text was written out of a community, for a community, and transmitted by those communities for the benefit of other communities. When we gather to study the scriptures, guided by the Holy Spirit, we are simultaneously connected to the ancient communities that bequeathed the texts, our present community that is being shaped by these texts, and the community that will succeed us that we are helping to shape.

Each class session has enough structure to keep us focused, but not so much that the Holy Spirit can’t speak through the gathered community that day. I’ve taught my various classes umpteen times, but I’ve never taught the same class twice. I firmly believe that God calls together a particular group of people in a particular time and place, with a certain set of gifts (whatever is needed then and there). Each person brings something unique to the conversation, and that person owes it to the learning community to share his or her knowledge and self.

Sometimes a student has a flash of intellectual brilliance; he or she is then awarded with a prize from the “Bible treasures” bag I keep. (I see no reason why rigorous academic study of the highest caliber cannot also be personal and even fun.) At other times during our deep exploration of the Bible, the Spirit gifts the community through the wisdom and experience from the life journey of a particular student. When that happens, we recognize that we are on holy ground, and we honor it.


Toward what end do I help them to develop in these four areas (knowledge skills, habits, capacities)? The goal is to nurture leaders who can effectively and honestly share the good news of Jesus Christ and create spaces for authentic, transformative community to occur far beyond the walls of the seminary. For this reason, I spend much of my personal time outside the seminary with various groups of people studying the Bible. I also consider it crucial to help create excellent resources for deep Bible study. In addition to writing for workingpreacher.org and “ON Scripture,” I am proud to have worked on the new Covenant Bible Study from Abingdon Press. The shape of the material, as well as the way the sessions are structured, cohere with the way that I conduct my own courses.

In the end, since “God’s goal is for us to become mature adults—to be fully grown, measured by the standard of the fullness of Christ” (Eph 4:13 CEB), my highest hopes and aims for my Bible courses can’t be measured on any accreditation scale. I urge all of us to have lives more obviously reflective of the fruit of the Spirit. I want us to know and be known, love and be loved. Finally, I urge us to be brave—brave enough to be fools, for Christ’s sake.

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