Understanding Bible Study Curricula: Theology, Hermeneutics, and Education in the Congregation

Article excerpt

Adult Bible study curricula espouse diverse theological views on the nature and authority of scripture, diverse methods of biblical criticism, and diverse educational approaches. Using a set of analytical questions helps the teacher uncover these dimensions and better understand the curriculum resources.

We want more serious Bible study." "The problem we face is that so many of our adults are biblically illiterate."What's the best Bible study curriculum?" "My cousin's church has had great success with the Disciple Bible study; we should use it here." "These Sunday School resources we've been using just don't teach the Bible." "I want to try an intensive Bible study for small groups in my church. What should I buy?"

These are some of the most frequent remarks about curriculum resources for adult Bible study in local congregations) In response to this desire, resource centers and catalogs overflow with resources for long-term Bible courses, small groups that covenant to meet regularly for Bible study, classes that cover the entire Bible, Bible studies that require homework, materials designed specifically for young adults, and so on. Often when churches select a Bible study curriculum, their main criteria are cost, what someone else says about the material, and ease of use. Pastors, educators, or teachers rarely dig beneath these surface criteria to investigate the theological, hermeneutic, and pedagogical differences among various Bible study programs. A church's satisfaction with a program of Bible study is not just a matter of cost and ease; it depends upon how well the curriculum's aims, focus, and approach to the Bible match what the participants mean when they say, "We want more serious Bible study."

A schema for understanding and evaluating Bible study curricula must address at least three areas: (1) theological view of scripture; (2) methods of biblical criticism; and (3) educational approach. I apply the schema to the Kerygma Bible Study Program as a case study, followed by a shorter summary of the Disciple Bible Study program in comparison. The case study and brief comparison illustrate how the analytical schema can be used to understand any Bible study curriculum.


All Bible study curricula share in common the assumption that the Bible should be studied. But behind every curriculum lies a distinctive theological understanding of the Bible, a particular rationale for engaging in Bible study, and a set of selected foci for Bible study (i.e., the curriculum's "canon within the canon"). Different understandings of the nature and authority of scripture give rise to different kinds of Bible study curriculum.' Many Bible study curricula do not explicitly articulate this theological starting point for the entire program, so it is not a matter of looking for a doctrine of scripture written in the curriculum's introduction. Indeed, explicit statements about the nature and authority of the Bible may not be the most helpful piece; the theology-in-use in the Bible study curriculum is what really counts.

In writing about the uses of scripture in theology, David Kelsey focuses on what "authority of scripture for theology means in these theologians' practices of theology, even if that meaning were at odds with what the same theologians expressly say about the authority of scripture in their normative doctrines of scripture." Kelsey is discussing the uses of scripture by theologians in the practice of theology, but the same point can be made about Bible study curriculum: what matters is not some prior statement of the author's or editor's doctrine of scripture. What matters is how an understanding of the nature and authority of scripture is embodied in practice, in the curriculum. To see this in Bible study curricula, we can employ a variation of the taxonomy Kelsey proposes for analyzing theological methods.4 We can ask three of his questions directly as he poses them, focusing on how the content and method of a Bible study curriculum manifest a response. …