Dr. Jack Seymour is a Professor Emeritus at Garrett-Evangelical Theological seminary. He co-chairs the editorial committee of Horizons in Religious Education, the book series of the Religious Education Association (REA). Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For a Christian educator, nothing is more important than faithfully teaching the Bible and assisting congregations to build engaging settings for Bible study. Understanding scripture and drawing on its wisdom is foundational to the Christian life. In fact, many of the conflicts in the church today as well as the church’s fear to challenge the wider culture can be traced directly to ineffective Bible study. Too often preconceptions block the ways scripture invites us into abundant living and builds community. We need serious and systematic study!
Scripture is at the heart of faith. From the earliest times, scriptures have been crucial to the Jewish and Christian communities. For Jesus, the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) was scripture. In his day and today, Jewish worship centers around a systematic reading through the Torah. Torah precepts to love God and love neighbor focused Jesus’ teaching. Furthermore, he quoted the scroll of Isaiah over and over. This too came from worship as Jewish communities also read passages from the scrolls of the prophets (Haftarah). There were also other books used to interpret the signs of the times. Yet the Jewish scriptures were not gathered until late in the first century (CE).
Paul and the gospel writers also drew on the same Jewish scriptures Jesus did – on proclamations in the Torah and the hopes of the Prophets – as they sought to understand the profound experience and impact of Jesus. What became the Bible as we Christians know it was first shared in worship and then was expanded as followers sought to understand the “way of Jesus.” Key books stood out as reliable guides to faithful living. The church gathered these together into an inspired guide for later generations.
Scripture is always interpreted. In each time, we need to ask what scripture means for us and our living. For example, while Kosher laws are still very important to many Jewish believers, most Christians do not interpret them as crucial for faith. However, many Jews and Christians practice fasting which is similar to “food laws.” Each time we fast and say “no,” we remember God’s call on our lives. Furthermore, keeping sabbath is similar. As we keep sabbath, we are reminded that God is the giver and sustainer of life.
Jesus used the scriptures of his time to interpret everyday life. For him, the “great banquet,” the Shema (the command to love God and neighbor), and the “realm of God” were important lenses to understand God’s presence and call – and our responsibilities. Paul too used the scriptures as he drew on “suffering servant” images from the prophets to understand Jesus. Matthew used the foundational Torah stories about Moses to understand Jesus as messiah. We too use the scriptures to understand how to follow Jesus.
Scripture is embodied in context. As the Jewish leaders learned during their captivity in Babylon, the Torah stories that depicted God residing in Jerusalem had to be understood anew. As slaves in a “strange land,” they struggled with what it meant for them to be separated from their homeland and oppressed. Particular psalms and laments expressed their fears.
The gospels were also embodied in a context. They were written during a time of significant conflict between Jewish leaders and Roman oppressors. Mark for example is written during or immediately after the Roman/ Jewish War that saw the destruction of the Temple. The other gospels emerged when the Romans were tightening their oppression of Jewish and emerging Christian groups. As gospel writers sought to witness to the power of Jesus, their own time profoundly affected the ways they constructed their stories.
These three realities affect how we teach the scriptures. We honor the power of scripture to reveal God, we struggle to understand God’s calling, and we seek to make it real in our world. In Teaching Biblical Faith: Leading Small Group Bible Studies (Abingdon Press, 2015), I suggest that each teacher engages these realities as we pay attention to the people, to the text, and to the teaching process.
Content is always impacted by experience. We engage the biblical text as fully, honestly and faithfully as we are able. Yet, we teach people – people who come with concerns, joys, hopes and questions; people who come with knowledge, preconceptions, and expectations. Just like the followers of Jesus on the road to Emmaus were consumed by questions about “the things of Jesus of Nazareth (CEB Luke 24:19),” we too come to the scriptures to grow in faith, to address life concerns, and to seek to be faithful to God’s will.
Finally, we all know that certain approaches to teaching open up the scriptures to help us grow and others simply provide information that we may or may not retain. A good teacher prayerfully studies the text and humbly attends to the learners. A good teacher explores approaches that assist learners to make connections and live the power of the scriptures.
We pay attention to the text, we pay attention to the people, and we pay attention to how we teach. I invite you to look at Teaching Biblical Faith. You will find 10 approaches which have been tested. Each is a best practice of Bible study. They range from historical study of biblical texts, to prayerful appropriation of their meanings, and to missional responses. I also encourage you to look at chapter 14 in Teaching Biblical Faith where I seek to guide us to “shape” a biblically-enlivened congregation, where preaching, study and mission are linked to release the power of scripture to guide mission. Finally, for those of you who minister to children, I suggest a new Bible story book that pays attention to the text, to readers, and to the processes of story-telling. See Elizabeth Caldwell and Carol Wehrheim, eds. Growing in God’s Love: A Story Bible (Westminster John Know Press, 2018).
Without a doubt, teaching the Bible is at the “heart” of our work as teachers because the Bible is at the heart of our faith. Through studying the Bible, we see how the Hebrew people relied on God to help them love God and neighbor, we see the ways Jesus pointed to God’s action emerging in lives, and we learn the ways his followers sought to faithfully follow God and continue to live the “Way of Jesus.” Indeed, teaching the Bible is at the heart of our work.