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IMG_20130515_111812_168I’ve been teaching the Bible to students for 20 years now. That’s pretty amazing to me. The only things in my life that have lasted for 20 years have been family, Yankees, and mortgage.

I’ve taught at the seminary and college levels, and there are huge difference between them, of course. But teaching Bible in either academic setting to people committed to the Bible presents a challenge.

Think about it this way. Bible is perhaps the only topic you can study where you can end more or less as you began and still graduate.

Try doing that with chemistry, math, or history.

In fact, not changing can even been seen by some as an expectation. You might accept your knowledge of the Bible to be deepened or expanded somewhat, but the basic framework of your Bible “house of knowledge” remains as is.

Rooms in the house might be expanded or remodeled, walls might be repainted and some some pipes replaced. But that’s the extent of change.

Renovation, reworking the foundation, creating new structures–even with some of the same raw materials–can often be looked upon with some suspicion, if not distain.

Bible is the one topic in a Christian academic curriculum where many already feel comfortable that they a level of competence, only needing some adjustments, not broader rethinking.

I get that. People are raised with the Bible and with certain ways of understanding it. That knowledge is a foundation for their faith that they wish to build upon, not chop up and re-pour with fresh cement.

Spiritually speaking, many students of Bible expect no change and perhaps little by the way of challenges to familiar ways of thinking. Again, that mentality isn’t hard to understand or even be sympathetic with.

But here’s the problem: seminaries and colleges are academic, degree-granting institutions.

Education, regardless of the discipline, is not about standing still in familiar surroundings but expanding one’s horizons–to see things differently, from new angles, and to put the pieces back together again in fresh ways.

In others words, teaching Bible in degree-granting institutions involves achieving academic competence in the topic, which more often than not takes students away from the familiar and expected toward change and even upheaval.

But Christian academic institutions are also concerned with the spiritual formation of their students–and the study of the Bible plays a big role in that.

It seems we have a problem: studying Bible in a Christian institution brings with it some well know, even unavoidable tensions, because both academic competence and spiritual formation are crucial components.

So how can both change/upheaval and spiritual formation be respected in these settings?

Well, there’s no formula, but let me say first of all that change and spiritual formation should not be presented as on opposite ends of the spectrum. In fact, without change–even deep, unsettling, painful change–one is not being formed spiritually.

Part of teaching in these settings means creating a culture, an expectation, that uncomfortable spiritual change and spiritual growth are not natural enemies–and since we’re taking about the Bible here, my proof texts are Job, Ecclesiastes, and the lament psalms.

Grappling with looking at the Bible differently may be just what is needed to jumpstart spiritual growth–not a new coat of paint or new furniture in existing rooms, but laying new foundations and structures.

But the tricky part–as any professor in similar situations knows full well–spiritual renovation when undertaken too quickly or casually can cause an unhealthy and unwise degree of stress.

We’re not talking about dynamiting the house on day one, but neither are we leaving the house as it is. We are talking about a lengthy process of change.

How to do that? By mixing challenge and affirmation on a regular basis.

Affirm where they are in their spiritual journey as a good and holy thing, not a mistake to be gotten over. God is with them now and has been in the past.

Along with that, challenge deeply their conceptions of their faith and of the Bible and present it as a normal means of growth. one that the Bible itself models (in Job, etc.), and that this struggle will eventually leave them with a more mature–a more biblical–faith because the Bible–and God–are now bigger and deeper than before.

True growth is normally painful.

Like I said, there’s no formula. I know I’m usually winging it, trying to stay alert to moods, the questions behind the questions, and body language.

But I think something like this needs to happen intentionally.

Leaving students, whether in college or seminary, more or less as they were, without challenging the old and showing them new vistas, is not an education.

Ripping them from their world and dropping them into the middle of the ocean isn’t spiritual formation.

Creating cultures where change is expected—not only in schools but in churches before students ever show up for classes–is an important dynamic for a truly Christian education in Bible.

I’ll be honest with you–more than course content, syllabi, or text book selection–this is the issue that I think about most in my teaching.

[Three books where I touch on this culture of change are The Bible Tells Me SoInspiration and Incarnation, and The Bible and the Believer.]
Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.