Reflecting on an academic year of studying the Bible

I’m left with quite a lot to think about after the last class yesterday of a faith and learning seminar for faculty at Wheaton College. We studied the Old Testament last Fall with Dr. John Walton, and Dr. Amy Peeler led this Spring’s focus on the New Testament. About ten of us spent most Wednesday afternoons together from 3:30-5p talking about various aspects of the scriptures.

I can’t do full justice to all of the lessons and learning moments from both semesters, but here are some highlights.

From study of the Old Testament:

  • The imperative to always remember the context for various scriptures. Walton repeatedly stressed this aspect of studying Old Testament passages in light of our tendency to pick and choose verses to justify this or that doctrine. Instead, we should be very faithful to the literary context.
  • Understanding what Walton terms the “cultural river.” By this he meant that it is very helpful to understand the broader cultural arena in which events in the Old Testament existed. He had us read comparisons between biblical passages and those from other cultures that existed at the same time, for instance. This helped us understand views about cosmology, for example.
  • Although there are many similarities between the Jews of the Old Testament and other cultures, Walton was clear about their distinctives, what clearly set them apart.
  • Walton also helped us to see and understand well known sections of the Old Testament in a new way and with a more well-informed interpretation. One example was his explanation of the famous passage in Joshua 10 where it says the sun stood still.
Reading through the New Testament:
  • Although Dr. Walton favored more of a lecture approach with readings of various texts besides the scriptures themselves, Dr. Peeler approached her task with a different style. She had us read through all of the New Testament, book by book, and favored a mix of a small amount of lecture and slides with small group activity and/or whole class discussion.
  • I learned to rethink longheld viewpoints on the role of women in the church from Peeler’s thoughts on Paul’s teachings.
  • I also learned more than I ever had previously known about questions of authorship of various New Testament books, which was fascinating and based on literary analysis of original language texts, among other things.
  • One of the most insightful things we did was to read various accounts of the Gospels in parallel with each other, which showed much more variety in the accounts of the events of Jesus’ life than I had previously known.
  • How could I possibly forget one of my fellow faculty members characterizing the middle part of the book of Revelation as something akin to an acid trip? Or another faculty member deliberately mispronouncing Onesimus as Onesie-muss (from the Epistle to Philemon)?
I grew up in a somewhat peculiar faith context of Exclusive Brethren, which I left when in my late 20s. One of the things I’ve always valued about that upbringing, though, was the strong emphasis on scripture reading and knowledge. However, this faith and learning class helped grow my knowledge about many areas of scripture that I think this faith context twists, misunderstands, or misapplies. (It isn’t unique in this, by any means.) I already suspected or had come to this conclusion in many cases but lacked further insight into why. And it made me look at other portions of scripture in entirely new ways.
A less specific but perhaps more enduring aspect of the past several months in this seminar is that it gave me a chance to be in community with a small group of other faculty for an extended period of time. As a result, I came to better know not only the two faculty who taught, but also faculty who were learning along the way with me. We are all very different in terms of stages of learning, career, and backgrounds, but this seminar brought us together in a meaningful way, with a shared value for learning more about the Bible. It’s been a great experience.

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