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My Life as a Bible Teacher

I am a systematic theologian by training, disposition, and vocation. I am grateful for this call, difficult and daunting though it is. What has surprised me most as I muddle along through middle age is just how precious the Scriptures have become to me. My teaching, in both a state university and in congregational settings, as well as writing, engages lovingly with Scripture and only then (and on a somewhat ad hoc basis) the wonderful catholic reception of its riches. Why?

There are a number of reasons. I will articulate a few, in the hopes that they may edify readers. First, the Bible is, as all of you know, foreign territory for our students and parishioners. Its language, vocabulary, and idioms are strange to most, to say the least. By this I simply mean that when I read, for example, Ephesians 1 with a class of first-year undergraduates, largely graduates of the state schooling system, I do not expect them to be able to pronounce words like immeasurable.

Some may know how, but most do not, and this is not because they are dumb. Rather, it is because we live in a post-literate society. The great theological themes — for example, the oneness of God and the Trinity of persons — to which I have devoted my life are thus best contemplated not via textbook or monograph but in direct and patient engagement with the sacred page. To be sure, I could get them to read a perfectly respectable introductory volume to Christian theology like Alister McGrath’s Theology: The Basics, but most will engage it, if they do so at all, through some sort of electronic medium that does not encourage staying in one textual place for very long.

And so, instead of whining, I inhabit the great truths of the Christian faith with Scripture as my beginning and end. This is not to say for a moment that I am ungrateful for St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, among others. Rather, I know that only more advanced students of a certain inclination will be able to go there. I appreciate Augustine and Thomas more and more as each day goes by, but even more so, I appreciate Scripture’s clarity, coherence, its subtle metaphysical and moral registers, and most of all, its divine authorship.

Thomas reminds us in the Summa Theologiæ 1, a. 1, q. 10 that “the author of holy Scripture is God who comprehends all at once in his understanding.” This inexhaustibly rich insight sets the tone for my teaching and writing. God authors something that contains literal and spiritual riches. These riches are immeasurable. God in his unfathomable generosity spoils us, scripturally speaking.

When I was in graduate school, I thought that Calvin was reckless and hubristic for writing a commentary — really a spiritual mediation of sorts — on nearly every book of the Bible. I no longer think that. As is the case with Thomas, it is a wonderful gift for theologians to lecture on Job, the Psalms, and Hebrews without it occurring to them that they may — on modern terms anyhow — be overreaching themselves.

Calvin and Thomas know and love the divine author of Scripture, and so are happy to turn to quite different canonical places in order to hear God speak and declare, to use Augustine’s words, “what you are to me. ‘Say to my soul, I am your salvation’” (Ps. 34:3). Their confidence in Scripture’s unity and ultimately its Author encourages me to no end. Even though I lack the technical skills and aptitude for specialist biblical scholarship, I am happy to be a generalist of sorts and to discern the theocentric shape of the whole.

In some respects, I am reversing the relationship between the small and large print in Karl Barth’s remarkable work, Church Dogmatics. As many of you will know, the small print is where Barth engages primarily with Scripture and secondarily with the tradition. In my own work, the contemplation of Scripture constitutes the large print, engagement with how various teachers (past and present) have received its riches the small print. This means, among other things, that I am continually out of my scriptural depth, but aren’t we all?

Even though there are more resources than ever by which to understand the Scripture, Bible teachers have at their disposal something that no resource, academic or popular, print or electronic, can provide their students and congregants. That resource lies in the vocation of all theologians, which is to “be in love with God.” These are words that Eric Mascall, the distinguished English Anglican Thomist, uses, following the lead of Bernard Lonergan, when he speaks of theologians’ “primary need.” Their need “is to be in love with God.”

We teach scriptural riches in order to encourage ourselves, our students, and our congregants “to be in love with God.” Furthermore, Mascall writes, “For, in our secularized universities, what faculty [of theology] will be prepared to declare that its primary concern is to confront its students with the living God?” I entirely accept his point. It follows, then, that God authors Scripture for a reason. That reason is simply that we might fall in love with him. We read Holy Scripture with a view to hearing, and ultimately, loving its author, almighty God.

As we transition to a post-literate society, we will find that some students and parishioners are equipped to proceed to the small print and so take a deep dive into Athanasius’s On the Incarnation or Basil’s On the Holy Spirit. Most will not, however, and that is okay. What everyone needs above all else is loving and ideally sacramental mediated exposure to what Barth once called “the strange new world of the Bible.” Though that world grows ever odder, even so, a word, a phrase, a verse, let alone a chapter or a whole book — most especially the Psalms — opens the gateway to paradise. “Taste and see that the Lord is good.”

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