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Spring 1995 · Vol. 24 No. 1 · pp. 98–103 

Teaching the Bible: Paradigms for the Christian College

Douglas B. Miller

The Christian liberal arts college is only one setting in which the Bible is taught. Others include home, church, Bible college, and informal study groups, each with its own particular emphases and advantages. The Christian college institution has arisen from one particular form of academic vision: that training for a person’s career be in a context of mutual challenge and support from like-minded Christians. While this effort has not been without controversy, the Christian college in this country continues as a strong and venerable institution, with widespread popularity and support.

Should stress fall on teacher modeling, critical analysis of subject matter, or on community process?

The special contribution which the Christian college has to offer the church for Bible instruction can be evaluated by examining three paradigms: the Formational paradigm, with emphasis on faith and Christian character; the Liberal Arts paradigm, with emphasis on analysis and careful thinking; and the Anabaptist paradigm, which emphasizes obedience to Christ and locates biblical interpretation in the context of the people of God. 1


This instruction has love as its goal, the love which springs from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a genuine faith. {99} Through lack of these some people have gone astray into a wilderness of words. (1 Tim. 1:5-6, REB).

What I have called the Formational Paradigm puts primary emphasis on the invitation to a faith commitment, and on the development or maturing of that faith among the already committed. To accomplish the first goal, a teacher will find appropriate ways to confront students with faith decisions. The latter goal is sometimes referred to as “growth in character” or “becoming like Christ.” It is a matter both of doing and (even more) of being, rather than only thinking or verbalizing, lest one go “astray into a wilderness of words.” This process may be, but need not be, informed by such psychological theories as the moral development concept of Lawrence Kohlberg or the faith development proposal of James Fowler.

Sharon Parks has focused on the particular developmental needs of young adults. 2 She especially emphasizes the importance of modeling. Students of young adult age, in the process of transition from dependency upon parents to a healthy interdependence with others, are looking for persons who will embody a life philosophy worthy of their respect and emulation. The teacher has the opportunity and responsibility, then, to demonstrate the viability of a Christian faith commitment by living that out before his or her students. This applies both in the classroom (for example, in personal vulnerability and in the respect shown for students), and out of the classroom (in such areas as family, community, and church involvements).

With these emphases in mind, the teacher is called to be something of a spiritual guide, even a mentor. 3 He or she is expected to challenge the wayward and give comfort to the hurting, not unlike similar expectations of a pastor. The immediate matters of classroom and course work, then, become subject to the overriding purposes of Christian discipleship. Some urge, however, that the liberal arts classroom is not well-suited for developing Christian character in its students (“love which springs from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a genuine faith”). Others feel that the professor has a role to play as a leader of young people but largely outside the classroom.


“Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine “ (1 Cor. 11:19, NRSV). 4

Following the lead of such education pioneers as Alfred North Whitehead, 5 the aims of the Liberal Arts paradigm involve the “search for truth” broadly defined. The values associated with this search include the {100} recognition (perhaps even celebration) of multiple perspectives on a given issue, and respect for those who hold positions different from one’s own. The usual assumption is that truth may best be discovered through rational discourse and analysis.

The teacher operating in this paradigm also serves as model, but here it is a model of reason, of academic style. The teacher is an expert, one who knows the data and methodologies of a given field of study and is therefore able to introduce it to the learners. The teacher is the one best able to present the concerns of a given discipline within the context of its history. The teacher is likewise best qualified to suggest or recognize the important questions that may lead to fruitful reflection and valuable results.

It is in this way of approaching the Scriptures that the liberal arts college is most at home, and makes a distinctive contribution to the study of the Bible. It is also here, perhaps, where it is most misunderstood. Does not giving young people (in particular) lots of options seriously confuse them? Why not simply teach “the truth” instead of laying out a variety of “opinions?” However, the apostle Paul recognized the value of “factions,” even within the church itself. It is by such diversity, encouraged and introduced by the teacher, that “who” and “what” are “genuine” will emerge. 1

In an age of growing irrationality, the emphases of this paradigm are needed more than ever. Clear thinking, an appreciation for alternative positions, an ability to listen sympathetically and assess evidence, a wariness regarding emotional appeal, and rigor in one’s self-criticism are vital; they hold out some hope for resistance against, as well as constructive response to, the ideological aberrations of the present time.


“If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own” (John 7:17).
“Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said” (1 Cor. 14:29, both NIV).

Two distinctives of the sixteenth-century Anabaptist movement have relevance, not only for church life, but for Bible instruction in the Christian college. The first of these is obedience to Christ, a value also addressed by the Formational Paradigm above. 6 It is not merely that obedience to Christ is enjoined, or required, but there is a belief that understanding itself is intimately related to faithfulness. This is sometimes referred to as an “epistemology of obedience.” Coming to a knowledge of the truth requires that one first choose “to do God’s will.” 7

The second Anabaptist emphasis of immediate interest is that the {101} assumed context for biblical interpretation is the believing community. Within this community, with its diversity of gifts, there occurs a mutual discernment of what God is saying and doing. The scholar, while bringing a unique contribution, does not in principle direct this process more than anyone else. 8

These two emphases may contribute to Christian college Bible instruction as follows. First, the purpose of each course must ultimately be related to informing and motivating active discipleship. This requires that a practical payoff be made clear even when introducing something as cumbersome as the rigors of exegetical method. It means speaking “prophetically” against that which is inconsistent with Christian life and witness. Some adaptation to the presence of non-believers, whether they are sympathetic or hostile, may also be necessary.

As for the second Anabaptist issue, the course and all that pertains to it should be viewed as a servant of the church in general, and in particular of the local congregations represented by the students in the class. The teacher’s goal must be to better equip the student to participate in his or her own believing community’s process of “weigh[ing] carefully what is said.” Such equipping may come partly through a student’s greater awareness of additional perspectives, possibilities, and historical options. The teacher must be careful to keep his or her personal agenda secondary.

Though the classroom is not properly a faith community, it is still possible and valuable to organize the class as a workshop or laboratory of theological discernment in community. This can be done through debates, small discussion groups, and the general ethos that obtains in the daily classroom experience. To accomplish this, the teacher must deliberately play a role of peer to his or her students. The teacher’s position must not dominate the process merely by virtue of status. 9


I have suggested three educational paradigms which may inform the process of teaching the Scriptures in the Christian liberal arts college. 10 There is clearly overlap among them, but there is likewise a significant tension among their goals. Also of concern are the disparate roles of, and time demands upon, the teacher who would attempt an integration of all three. 11

Some help for integrating the above-mentioned emphases comes from the Christian education proposal of Thomas H. Groome. 12 His cycle of pedagogical steps is applicable to a single class period but also may be extended across an entire semester. He begins the teaching event with a “focusing activity,” and proceeds to movement one, “naming the present {102} circumstances.” The next requires “reflection” upon these circumstances, after which there is encounter with the Christian “story” and “vision,” primarily through the Scriptures. Following this comes movement four: discussion, evaluation, and decision concerning the relationship between the present situation and the biblical perspective. The fifth and final step is an invitation to a “new or renewed” way of living, following the mandate of what has been encountered.

Groome’s “shared praxis” approach has potential to include the following: an invitation to faith, and challenge to Christian growth, with the teacher as model and mentor; the importance of clear thinking and analysis, with the teacher as expert; and the insistence on the faith community as context for shared understanding and mutual discernment, along with challenge to obedience, with the teacher as co-learner among other vari-gifted members.

My experience suggests that young adults both embrace and resist elements of all three paradigms. Some get excited about the challenge of new ideas, about exploration through discussion, and about the possibility of coming to their own conclusions from the information presented. Others resist diversity, and insist that the teacher function only as expert or as mentor. Still others remain apparently indifferent and resistant to all styles and presentations.

In some ways, it is true, the Christian liberal arts college cannot do adequate justice to the first and third paradigms. Some may feel that the attempt to involve these merely hinders it from doing what it really can do well, namely, follow the second paradigm. However, in view of the special needs of young adult persons, the distinctives of the Liberal Arts Paradigm need to be complemented by that of the Formational Paradigm. Further, my hermeneutics and ecclesiology require that elements of Anabaptist emphasis be involved as well. What I have seen encourages me to believe that the tensions resulting from working with all three perspectives can be creative and fruitful in the lives of young adults who desire instruction in the Bible during this significant time of faith maturation. {103}


  1. It may be quickly acknowledged that these approaches to Bible education overlap and, in practice, have elements in common. On the other hand, each has distinctive emphases, not all of which are always compatible.
  2. The Critical Years: The Young Adult Search for a Faith to Live By (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1986).
  3. David E. Schroeder, “Faculty as Mentors: Some Leading Thoughts for Reevaluating Our Role as Christian Educators,” Christian Education Journal 13 (1993) 28-37.
  4. The importance of this verse for the Christian community was first suggested to me some years ago by President Marlin Miller during a chapel service at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary.
  5. The Aims of Education (New York: Macmillan, 1929).
  6. If there is a distinction to be made in this regard, it might be that the Formational Paradigm emphasizes “being” while the Anabaptist stresses “doing.” Such caricatures have some value for identifying necessary and complementary values.
  7. Cornelius J. Dyck, “Hermeneutics and Discipleship,” Essays on Biblical Interpretation: Anabaptist-Mennonite Perspectives, edited by Willard Swartley (Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1984), 30.
  8. John Howard Yoder, “The Hermeneutics of the Anabaptists,” Essays on Biblical Interpretation: Anabaptist-Mennonite Perspectives, 11-28, esp. pp. 20-28.
  9. One of the most suggestive of educators in the area of context in Christian education is Parker J. Palmer. See To Know as We are Known: A Spirituality of Education (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1983). Compare also, Donald E. Miller, Story and Context: An Introduction to Christian Education (Nashville: Abingdon, 1987).
  10. These three may be related somewhat roughly to five models of teaching presented by Sara Little’s book, To Set One’s Heart [Atlanta: John Knox, 1983]: Information Processing and Indirect Communication (2nd paradigm), Personal Development & Action/Reflection (1st & 3rd paradigms), and Group Interaction (3rd paradigm).
  11. Of interest in this regard is the recent work by David H. Kelsey, Between Athens and Berlin: The Theological Education Debate (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993). If I understand Kelsey correctly, both the first and third paradigms described above would partake of the “Athens” type of education, while the liberal arts paradigm would be much more of the “Berlin” type.
  12. His Christian Religious Education (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1980), is generally acknowledged as a landmark in the field of Christian education. A concise introduction to his approach may be found in his essay, “Theology On Our Feet,” in Formation and Reflection: The Promise of Practical Theology, edited by Lewis S. Mudge and James N. Poling (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987) SS-78. He addresses the place of Christian education more specifically within the church in Sharing Faith: A Comprehensive Approach to Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1991).
Douglas Miller is Assistant Professor of Biblical and Religious Studies at Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kansas.

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