This academic year I had the privilege of teaching the Bible in theological colleges. Although I was a guest lecturer at several institutions for many years, my focus was on social justice and poverty, and what the Bible had to say on those matter. This past year, however, was different. I taught full-semester units on biblical interpretation and the New Testament. I had plenty of fun in class. I also had to grade many essays and assignments.
I benefited greatly from the students. They were wonderful. At the same time, since my students came from a wide range of churches, I also learned something about how the Bible had been used by Christians in recent years (in Australia).
In the following I will outline my observations. (Of course, these observations are by no means objective, and they are based on my interactions with a relatively small number of students.) I will start with some worrying trends, and then highlight several encouraging signs.
First, some students shared with me that they were hurt or discouraged by how the Bible had been used and taught. It is sad to hear that the Scripture has been misused as an instrument of condemnation, rather than an expression of God’s profound grace. Yes, the Bible does speak of God’s judgment, but we must bear in mind that the goal of judgment is restoration. When we fail to embody God’s love and grace in the way we use the Scripture, we discourage people from reading the Bible itself.
Second, studying the Bible is no longer widely practised. Most of my students do believe that the Bible is authoritative. And many of them have grown up in Christian families and have been attending churches all their lives, although some of them are fairly new Christians. I have come to realise that a large number of them go to churches that do not regularly study the Bible. They do go to small groups and they do discuss the Bible. But they do not study it. In their small groups they may discuss materials written by some famous Christian leaders. They may do topical studies on certain themes in the Bible. But they do not regularly study the Scripture book by book in detail. That is, there is no longer an emphasis on carefully reading the biblical text within its context. I am not suggesting that studying the Bible should be the only thing we do when we gather together. But I am concerned that local churches no longer see it as a very important thing to do. Christians are taught and told what the Bible says, but they are not encouraged to study it themselves within their own Christian communities. The result is that Christians lack the skill and experience to discern what is healthy biblical teaching.
My third observation is that what many students depend too much on what their favourite preachers and Christian authors say. In the classroom discussions I find myself hearing the voices of some famous Christians. Depending on which essay I am grading, I find myself reading the view of a certain well-known conservative or progressive author. I keep saying to students that their favourite speakers and authors are probably right, but every theological student needs to learn to hear God’s voice through the Scripture. That is, our task is to learn to read the biblical text, and let it transform our lives through God’s Spirit.
But I am very encouraged by the fact that most of the students do love God, and they work hard. This must be the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives. They are not put off by my constant plea for careful attention to the biblical text. They do not refuse my repeated request to “stick to the text, rather than your favourite preacher.” They do want to study the Scripture, and they work hard to do so, because, I think, they love God dearly.
I am convinced that the majority of the students have learned a lot by the end of the semester. This is not surprising, because they have worked hard for it. They have learned the skill to study the Scripture, and are more determined to embody the crucified Christ and risen Lord in their daily life. Academically, many of them have improved greatly by the end of the course. My prayer is that the skill set they have acquired will be beneficial to them and the people around them, and that they will find it useful in their Christian vocations, no matter what they are.
Finally, I am greatly encouraged that some of the students have found a renewed desire to read the Bible. Even though they may have had some bad experiences in the past, they have found that the Scripture is indeed life-giving and life-transforming. To me, this is truly the work of the Spirit, and a demonstration of what the Scripture is—it is God-breathed.