From Athens to Jerusalem

March 30th, 2012 | | 1 Comment
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The last in a three-part series on Christian education.[1] As I am a pastor by training and an educator by hobby, I am certain my reflections will be limited and misguided. I invite correction by those with greater wisdom and experience. Please comment below.


Modern educational principles apply unequally to the various disciplines. Owing to the unique content and skills objectives in each discipline, very little of what works in one class will work in another, except in the broadest possible terms. Nowhere is this more evident than in Bible classes. Because of the special character of biblical content—it alone of all texts is living and active—much of the modern (i.e., humanistic) approach falls woefully short here in particular. I would suggest three crucial areas where Bible classes must resist faddish techniques and philosophy and recognize its curricular uniqueness.


Bible classes must be Word-centered.

Contemporary wisdom says that education must be student-centered in order for real learning to take place. Undoubtedly there is much truth in this, though likely the pendulum has swung too far from the days of teacher-centeredness. But whatever may work in other classes, when it comes to Scripture, the educational approach must be Word-centered. In an age where democratic egalitarianism rules the day, we must be careful to recognize the limits of subjectivity. Not everyone’s opinion is equally valid, and this is especially so when it comes to expositing God’s Word. Student-centeredness will result in shallow, subjective readings, pooling ignorance at precisely the moment where wisdom is most needed. Teacher-centeredness, contrarily, will result in an unfortunate elitism, as though the teacher alone had all knowledge and understanding. Better by far to center the curriculum and the class on Scripture itself, letting God speak through his living and active word (while recognizing that even God’s Word affirms the unique calling and equipping of some individuals to handle and instruct others in its truth [cf. Ephesians 4:11-13). I have watched scores of fifteen- and sixteen-year-old students sit rapt with attentive awe to countless Bible lectures (yes, lectures—you know, that thing you’re never supposed to do as an educator) because God’s Word was working actively within them, producing eternal fruit. Educational philosophy simply cannot contain the wonder of God’s revelation.


Bible classes must be text-driven.

I have been told on a handful of occasions that text is passé, that image now drives our thinking. Administrators have paraded research before us, insisting that the brain better grasps and retains images than words. This may be so. I am hardly qualified to dispute the research. But I do know that God did not reveal himself to his people through a series of images;[2] he revealed himself to us through the Word. I suspect some of this springs from the fact that image is even more difficult to read than text, allowing for greater misinterpretation. This is undoubtedly part of the reason God forbids anyone to image him: distortion would be inevitable. Because we live in such an image-saturated world—and an increasingly post-literate culture—we must emphasize text and its interpretation even more than our secular counterparts. Of all people, Christians must be literate, even literary. We must train our students to handle and interpret spoken and written word, so that they can handle and interpret the spoken and written Word. Images or activities that distract from patient, integrated, meditative reading we dismiss.


Bible classes must be knowledge-based.

In the age of Google, education has grown increasingly skills- and concepts-based, as memorizing content now serves almost no purpose. We all forget whatever facts we do not rehearse regularly, and we can all find them again whenever we need them in the time it takes to type our inquiry into a search box. In every other course, I think this makes a good deal of sense—but not when it comes to Scripture. We have been called to hide God’s Word in our hearts (Psalm 119:11), to meditate on it constantly (Joshua 1:8; cf. Deuteronomy 6:4-9). Being able to locate verses in a search engine hardly fulfills this injunction. Against the grain of almost all modern educational philosophy, we must emphasize memorization and mastery of content. Living single-minded, Christ-centered, biblically integrated lives requires that we plant God’s Word deep within our hearts, allowing it to take root and produce redemptive fruit in every aspect of our being (heart, soul, mind, strength). This demands internalization of the Word—and a resolute faith that God’s Word, apart from clever educational gimmicks, can and will produce the desired result. Teaching Bible-study skills seems a valuable enterprise, but teachers must balance it with clear communication of non-negotiable content (such as the Trinity, Christology, substitutionary atonement)—knowledge that they will not receive apart from direct instruction. God has raised up teachers for this purpose, not to serve as guides on a journey of self-discovery, but to communicate clearly “the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people” (Jude 1:3).


Like Tertullian, then, we ask the question, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”[3] Athenian—that is, secular—wisdom has much to teach us in certain arenas. But ultimately these humanistic methods of study have little to do with teaching by the authority of Scripture.

[1] For more on Christian education, see my article “The Principled School” in Christian School Education.

[2] God uses images too, of course, not least his creation (cf. Psalm 19:1-2; Romans 1:20). The tabernacle/temple also springs to mind.

[3] De praescriptione haereticorum, ch. 7.

Peter Worrall says:

A few observations:

I have wrestled with the term student-centered and what it might mean. Can I be God-centered, student-centered and word-centered? I think that sounds Trinitarian (lol), but seriously tere can be only one. I am shifting from student-centered to God-centered. Which relates to epistemology. I think that I agree with your third point as far as it reflects an epistemology that includes relationship. There is a cold, humanistic knowing that many modernist churches and schools brought forward and postmodernism is reacting to with an emphasis on relationship. I think there is a synthesis in a true epistemology.

I agree that text should drive Bible class, but I think that we should include general and special examples of revelation in our Bible classes. Let the stream flow from the text but the text then describes various expressive forms of education including dance, drama, art, architecture, song, and object lessons which should also enhance our understanding of God.

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