Magazine article The Christian Century

Fresh Eyes, Personal Voice

Magazine article The Christian Century

Fresh Eyes, Personal Voice

Article excerpt

THE TASK OF THEOLOGICAL EDUCATION is not always clearly understood in the church--or it is understood in different ways by various constituencies. We invited five seminary professors to reflect on their vocation, especially on its relation to the life of faith in the church and to the church's effort to be faithful to the gospel. We asked them to consider the ways in which they seek to hand on Christian traditions and also the ways in which they seek to provide students with skills to critique aspects of those traditions.

ASKED BY AN UNDERGRADUATE why she wrote, Flannery O'Connor responded, "Because I'm good at it." When I am asked why I teach New Testament in a seminary, I usually respond more expansively. I invoke the memory of my grandmother and the embroidery cross that always marked Psalm 23 in her well-worn King James Version. Or I recall my first exegesis classes (in which I enrolled solely because they were required) where I became hooked on the puzzling shifts and starts of the letters of Paul. Or I simply admit that my best days are those spent with the Greek New Testament close at hand.

These are all honest statements, although none has the pungency of Flannery O'Connor. They all dance around the truth, which is that I believe this work is my vocation. Even on those days when I scarcely believe in God, when I am appalled by the smallness of the church, or when I find the academy absurd, I have confidence in that vocation.

My vocation is to be a biblical exegete and to nurture for the people of God pastors and teachers and leaders who are also biblical exegetes. To say that I am about the business of raising up exegetes for the church does not mean that my primary goal is to ensure that students master a body of knowledge. Students who report what Haenchen has said about the "we" passages in Acts or what Dunn argues regarding Paul's view of the law in Romans 7 are sometimes surprised (not pleasantly) to find that I respond, "And what do you think?"

There are limits, of course. I am not sure that I want to hear sermons from someone who has never bothered to learn the difference between a Ptolemy and a Pharisee. And I shudder to recall the seminary intern who announced that the lesson for the morning was from 2 Thessalonians and then began to search in the Old Testament. Yet knowing the content of commentaries, even knowing the content of the Bible, does not an exegete make. The point is not that students should ignore, much less disparage, the fruit of scholarly labor, but that they should join the laborers in the vineyard.

Nurturing exegetes for the church does not necessarily mean either reinforcing or criticizing the church's way of reading particular passages. That comment needs elaborating since 1 too have heard the lament that "the professor took away my Jesus, and I can't find him anymore. "

Most of my teaching has been with student bodies who are diverse denominationally and otherwise, and who therefore represent differing and often conflicting perspectives. In such a situation privileging any one tradition would be pedagogically unsound. I learned this the hard way the first time I taught a seminar on the Acts of the Apostles. A Roman Catholic student discovered apostolic succession on every page, a Pentecostal saw only the Holy Spirit, and a Baptist with social activist leanings heard the imperative of sharing possessions. …

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