Teaching Bible and Theology at Messiah University
A Messiah University education is a faith-filled education. All of our academic programs devote attention to issues of faith and help students explore what it means to be a Christian in their chosen academic disciplines. It’s the privilege, however, of the Department of Biblical and Religious Studies to focus explicitly on the doctrines, commitments, and practices of the Christian faith. In other words, whereas other academic departments at Messiah University seek to make connections between the Christian faith and their respective academic disciplines, most of the courses offered in the Department of Biblical and Religious Studies have the Christian faith as their primary focus.
All Messiah University, students must take two General Education courses from our department during their academic careers, one in Bible and the other in Christian theology. Students typically take the Bible course during their first or second year and the theology course during their second or third year. Together these two courses comprise the “Affirming the Christian Faith” component of Messiah University’s General Education curriculum.
Teaching in our department is a great privilege and a great responsibility. Like other faculty members at Messiah University, we believe that students are best served when they are encouraged to read widely and think deeply. Our courses are therefore academic, demanding close readings of texts and exposure to new ideas. This is challenging intellectual work, but not intellectual work for the sake of intellect alone. Our ultimate goal, as stated in our department’s mission statement, is to help students “develop and deepen Christian commitment, interpret matters of faith intelligently, and minister to others with wisdom and compassion.”
In other words, we want to help students make progress on their journeys of faith. This requires deepening their understanding of and appreciation for the most important resource we have for understanding God: the Bible. In addition, we seek to equip our students for the long haul by introducing them to the world of Christian theology and the theologians who have shaped the church’s thinking since the time of Jesus.
In both of these areas of the curriculum (biblical studies and theology) students will meet Messiah University professors who love God and who seek to follow Jesus in every area of their lives. All of us see teaching as a calling, and we are committed to strengthening the church by helping our students consider God’s call on their lives.
Bible: What We Do and Why We Do It
Students at Messiah University take their Gen Ed Bible course during their first or second year. This course helps students to understand what sort of book the Bible is and equips them to read the Bible well. Students come to Messiah with various levels of biblical knowledge and understanding; some students, for instance, have read some parts of the Bible but not others. This course aims to introduce them to the Bible in ways that will help them better understand the whole.
This effort reflects Messiah University’s Confession of Faith, which reminds us that God speaks through the Bible “to reveal God’s way and purposes, to nourish our minds and souls, and to instruct us in how we ought to think and live.” In other words, we believe that the Bible, which is inspired by God, has authority over our lives and our churches. Study of the Bible must therefore be done in a spirit of anticipation, knowing that God is revealed in the Bible so that we might love God more fully and serve our neighbors more faithfully.
All communication—even God’s revelation to us—takes place in a context, and if we do not understand that context, we run the risk of misunderstanding the message. Therefore, to help our students understand God’s word to the world, we introduce them to ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean history and cultures and encourage them to imagine the contexts in which the writers’ messages were first delivered. This is an exciting endeavor, and we celebrate with our students when “the lights go on,” when formerly confusing texts begin to make sense.
Of course, understanding the biblical text brings not only joy but demands. Indeed, living in light of Jesus’ teachings and his example of selfless service removes us from our comfort zones. Because Scripture calls for right living, not just right thinking, our Bible classes emphasize living lives of service and reconciliation in obedience to Jesus’ words and in keeping with the University’s mission to prepare men and women “for lives of service, leadership, and reconciliation in church and society.”
Theology: What We Do and Why We Do It
Students at Messiah take their theology (also called “Christian Beliefs”) course after they’ve taken their Bible course. This is not because the material is more difficult, but rather because we believe the Bible serves as the foundation for doing Christian theology. We believe that reading the Bible well enables students to do the kind of theological reflection that will deepen and sustain their faith.
Proper theological reflection includes Bible study, but it also means entering into conversations about God and the Christian life that have taken place over two thousand years of church history. Indeed, much of what we do in our Christian Beliefs classes is best understood as introducing students to the theological questions, and answers to those questions, that have been posed throughout the church’s history.
Messiah theology professors take different approaches as they help students enter into this conversation. Some professors are quite transparent about their theological views, advocating certain answers as the best ones; other professors endeavor to be more neutral, introducing students to various perspectives without identifying their own. Similarly, some readings outline a variety of theological options, whereas other readings emphasize a particular answer to a problem. In the end, the goal of these courses is the same: to equip our students with the best tools and resources for understanding and affirming the historic Christian faith.
Given the range of issues we cover in our Christian Beliefs classes, students will likely encounter ideas that are both similar to and different from their own. Messiah University is a hospitable, embracing community, committed to welcoming faculty, students, and viewpoints from many different Christian traditions. At the same time, the University’s roots in the Anabaptist, Pietist, and Wesleyan traditions means that Messiah University students will be required to engage ideas from these particular theological traditions. Students are not required to adopt any of these traditions as their own. They are, however, expected to reflect upon all the material they encounter in a given course, even if some of that material challenges the views they currently hold.
Wherever we find students in their journeys of faith, our goal is to work with them pastorally, though also rigorously, to raise and answer the most crucial theological questions. Because learning, like discipleship, is a lifelong process, it is never the case that our students find that all their questions are answered or that they have a fully finished theology by the time they leave our program. In fact, many of them are just beginning to take certain questions seriously. Our modest hope is that each student will take steps toward developing a theological framework that is personally meaningful, socially responsible, faithful to Scripture, and conversant with the history of Christian theological reflection.
Some Final Words
The Apostle Paul, who encouraged early Christians to “run the good race,” is well known for his athletics analogies. It’s in that spirit that we reflect on our work as professors, which is not unlike that of coaches. The best coaches work their players hard in view of a larger goal. For us, that goal is to prepare thoughtful disciples of Jesus Christ for the long haul, disciples who have learned to read the Bible well and have begun to develop a theological framework that is truly their own.
This sort of training is sometimes exhilarating, sometimes exhausting, and often somewhere in between. But because of its great reward, it is always worth the best efforts of students and faculty alike. As faculty members, we stand ready to discuss ideas after class and to share with our students our own experiences in the Christian journey. In all of this, we hope that they will find our classes occasions to grow in intellect, character, and Christian faith.
Department of Biblical and Religious Studies