Perhaps it’s a minefield every newbie in the School of Christian Studies has to tiptoe through when planning to teach the Bible to a group of college students, mostly in their first year of study. It’s what author Tom Newell called the devotional/academic fault-line.1 This old geezer (meaning me and not Dr. Newell) – a recipient of M.Div. with Languages and Doctrine of Ministry degrees from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, had to formulate objectives and teaching plans for the New Testament Survey class entrusted to me by the School of Christian Studies and academic administration of Charleston Southern University. Would I approach this assignment from a devotional perspective, or from an academic one?
Developing a syllabus for prospective students moved this question to a front-of-the-line position in my personal preparation. In consultation with many of the more experienced professors, however, my own learning curve stumbled over the devotional/academic fault-line in a more familiar context beyond a university classroom. How we navigate the currents of devotional and academic Bible study just may be one of the more critical compass settings in the broader spread of Bible study at home and in the church. Biblical literacy in the nation may be trending downward as a result of imbalance in these functions. At the beginning of the semester I wanted to avoid that kind of confusion with the students CSU had entrusted to my instructional care.
With this conviction as a guide, I communicated a simple objective of the New Testament Survey class: as a result of this study these students will fall in love with the New Testament. When we met for the first few sessions I was overwhelmed with the sense that this should have been the prime focus of Bible teaching for thirty-five years of pastoral preaching and teaching as well. Several truths affirm this reflection—
(1) Loving God’s Word creates a personal need to study God’s Word.
Reading and studying Psalms 119 has been a primer in what happens in the heart of an individual who loves Scripture. King David expressed a love for God’s precepts, his testimonies, his law, his judgments, his word, his promises, and several other representative words for Scripture in numerous verses (see vv. 47, 48, 97, 113, 119, 127140, 159, 163, 165, and 167). As a result, he meditated on God’s Word and hid God’s Word in his heart.
(2) Scripture faithfully reveals the person of Jesus Christ.
Jesus confronted his religious detractors with a profound truth about Scripture. He said, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me” (John 5:39). Loving God’s Word opens our hearts to the truth about our Savior and the fulfillment of God’s redemptive plan in him.
(3) Scripture is a living connection to a living God.
The historical, literary value of the Bible is attested by the many scholars who have studied it and taught it. There is, however, a distinction in factual knowledge about Scripture and an intimate relationship with the one who inspired its writing. The author of Hebrews reminds readers, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart”(Hebrews 4:12, ESV). Peter wrote of the transforming power of God’s Word, “Since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Peter 1:12, ESV).
(4) Devotional study engages and transforms.
Evaluating the spiritual condition of students has been a challenging first stage of teaching the New Testament. Students who are believers can grasp the spiritual truths revealed by God’s Word. Paul wrote, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14, ESV). Therefore, devotional study engages only those who are professing Christians. In the same way, as referenced in 1 Peter 1:12 above, God’s Word is the imperishable truth that confronts and transforms unbelievers.
(5) Devotional study creates a hunger for deeper understanding.
The author of Hebrews references mature and immature understanding of Scripture. Chapter 4 includes a profound reminder about going deeper in grasping biblical righteousness. He wrote, “For everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:13-14, ESV).
Christian discipleship involves deeper study in order to avoid the error of private interpretation. Peter wrote, “Knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation” (2 Peter 1:20). This depth involves a lesson the Apostle Paul communicated to Timothy, when he wrote, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15, ESV).
Newell’s devotional/academic faultline confronted me with a basic teaching challenge: the fine point of presenting the New Testament to a room full of basically freshman students. Giving them knowledge about the New Testament, the times in which it was written, the authors God chose and inspired to write it, and something about those who would read it were certainly commendable goals. However, the conviction that they should love God’s Word, the God who gave it, Christ the Lord who is the subject of every page, and the Gospel entrusted to Christ’s church was even more compelling.
Central to this dilemma is a side truth. Our digital world is changing exponentially. The learning metrics of the times are transitory at best. This devotional/academic faultline of teaching God’s Word to twenty-first century students poses the potential of inserting something eternal into their lives, whether from a devotional or academic perspective. The permanence and ever-lasting truth of God’s Word is affirmed in many Scripture passages. Peter’s First Epistle identifies the transience of life and the eternal assurance of God’s Word. He wrote, “All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever” (1 Peter 1:24-25, ESV).
The devotional/academic faultline may be more an academic consideration anyway. But, teaching them to love the New Testament will have ever-lasting impact on their lives. That is my prayer.
(1)Newell, Roger, “Teaching the Bible along the Devotional/Academic Faultline: An Incarnational Approach to the Quarrel between Love and Knowledge” (2003). Faculty Publications – College of Christian Studies. Paper 26. http://digitalcommons.georgefox.edu/ccs/26