I’ve recently returned from my trip overseas teaching an intensive one week course on Systematic Theology that crammed a semester’s worth of material in five days. In God’s providence it looks like another opportunity might open up in another country next year in which I might be able to do something similar. There is definitely a real need outside of the west for theological education.
I thought I share my thoughts concerning teaching theology overseas in a Missions context although some of the points in the beginning of this post could be applied in Western contexts also as well.
BEFORE YOU DEVELOP YOUR COURSE MATERIALS…
The first few thoughts are for those who are young and want to one day be involved with teaching in an academic setting. I would challenge one to think about teaching overseas not only because there are more opportunities but because there are real needs overseas. There are too many over-caffeinated seminarians daydreaming about teaching at their Alma Mater where the competition is probably fierce among their other peers who are also pursuing advance degrees from prestigious schools. Meanwhile the need exists overseas.
1.) Be a Pastor. In an overseas missions context often those seeking theological education and enrolled in a seminary classroom are pastors. Even if you have some technical degree and some sort of academic specialization and a PhD, it’s still good to have some kind of pastoral experience before heading out overseas to teach theology. I think it pays dividends. Do not lose focus that you are training pastors and spiritual leaders and not necessarily an MA student who is heading to Oxford and University of Aberdeen for advance scholarship. That is not to say we don’t want to prepare those who might have potential to go on for further studies. A pastoral background is helpful and one should definitely be shepherding the students even as one is instructing the students. Examples go along way, and some things are taught while other things are caught. Don’t forget that even as you teach doctrines you are still pastoring your students as a teacher/instructor. If you are reading this and you are in Seminary, don’t just see part-time pastoral internship as hoops to jump through; minister all-out even as you go all-out in your studies. Being a Pastor-Scholar would make you more effective to the people you are training.
2.) Grow Beyond Your Seminary Materials. By that I don’t mean necessarily to change your beliefs and distinctives that your seminary impart to you. I mean to encourage you to understand that your seminary education was merely the foundation for a life-long pursuit of studies. Read deeply and read broadly. Synthesis what you learned after seminary with what you learned during seminary. It’s important that you don’t just steal your professor’s syllabus but develop your own materials. Theology can only advance if students move theology forward from what they have been imparted from their professors.
3.) Work Harder Earlier is Smarter. You have heard the saying “Work Harder, not Smarter.” I think we can modify that to say “Work Harder earlier is Smarter.” I think if one is not faithful in the little then one probably will not be faithful in the big things. I have wanted to teach in a academic setting since my early days of discovering apologetics and theology. Rather than just wait, even as I taught in our church systematic theology I tried to teach it to the best of my ability for the Glory of God. Things are footnoted even for Sunday School handouts. The materials would be the template and foundation for any future course. If one is not faithful in the little things, how can one be faithful in the larger things? Working harder earlier is also smarter. You can be more ready at a moment notice to teach on something and not necessarily start from scratch if asked suddenly to teach overseas.
DEVELOPING YOUR COURSE MATERIALS…
4.) Incorporate Biblical Theology in your Systematic Theology. Sometimes you hear people slight systematic theology from other disciplines. However, I think if it is done right it is the queen of the theological disciplines. I think it’s easy to merely give “proof text” to establish certain doctrines while teaching systematic theology. To avoid the risks of grabbing verses out of context, I strongly believe the more one incorporate Biblical theology into one’s systematic theology, the less one falls into the pit of mere “proof texting.” When one teach a doctrine, try to trace it’s doctrinal roots from the Old Testament while heading towards the New Testament. Take into account Progressive Revelation. The advantage of doing biblical theology even as we teach systematic theology is that it makes people discover that orthodox doctrines are genuinely Biblical. It reinforce our theological arguments. It also makes both the instructor and the students go to the source of Scripture rather than a mere syllabus or theology textbook. It makes them think about how a verse or passage fit in the flow of redemptive history and Scripture as a whole.
5.) Don’t merely cite verses for what you believe; engage in rigorous doctrinal apologetics in defense of your beliefs from key verses. I think it’s important to present what we believe not just lightly but rather with rigorous arguments from biblical texts that is logically valid. What might be taken for granted by you might not be to your students in their ecclesiastical and cultural contexts so it is best to present every doctrinal beliefs with good argumentation as if you are presenting it before someone who disagree with you. When you do discover your students disagree with you, you are prepared to give the best reason why you believe what you believe. Even with doctrines that the students might already believe, you want to show them that the same rigorous argumentation is also the same argumentation that lead you to believe in doctrines that are new to them or doctrines that they are not sure of. Furthermore, rigorous reasoning from the Scripture equips them against the cults. Some of the local cults might not be something you are aware of so it is always good to present your proofs for the doctrines in your course so as to equip them well to defend the faith.
6.) After demonstrating the veracity of a doctrine, be sure to draw out the implication of a doctrine. If 2 Timothy 3:16 is true then doctrines from Scripture would have implications that equip the man of God for every good work. I like to end each session with a time for questions followed by the question to the students of “Knowing what we now know, how does this impact our life and our ministry?” Doing this every session will eventually teach them that doctrines aren’t just for head knoweledge, but to be treasured and trusted and applied in our lives and the lives of our congregation and used to minister and reach the Lost. Exploring the practicality of doctrines also balance the course from becoming merely lessons on doctrinal apologetics. You show how doctrines shape our worship, our ministry and our lives. You train them to be pastoral.
7.) Plan to use illustrations in your teaching. Illustrations are wonderful to help reinforce explanation and argumentation. There is the risk that some illustrations don’t apply because of cultural differences. We must be sensitive to this but I think it’s still worth the risk. I find rural illustrations to be the most helpful cross-culturally. The Bible often used illustrations from nature and the agricultural world. It seems that those who are rural can quickly identify with them. Those who are more educated and Urban are also “intellectually” capable of picking up on them. Even when an illustration turns out not to fit in the audience’s contexts, I think often people’s fascination with things American and the West will help give one a “pass” in that they learn more about you and it still build a bridge while it makes them aware of cultural mores–and how much more we need to go to the Scriptures.
8.) Historical Theology Encourages the Students as they struggle to grasp doctrines. My original lesson plan had nothing of historical theology although I have read a bit of historical theology and doctrinal development prior to my trip. I mistakenly thought that my students would not be interested in church history and historical theology. I found historical theology to be most helpful to my students during the trip when they struggled to find the right terminology for certain theological concepts. I invoked historical theology to show how they are not the first to try to grasp and find the proper terms for difficult theological truths. Theology is not merely reading the Bible. It is understanding it and then communicating it in our cultural contexts. Seeing the early church wrestle with truths such as the Oneness and Threeness of God, the relationship of Christ as God and Christ as man encouraged the believers that others have gone before and thought hard about the proper terms.
9.) When you refer to the Original Languages, it is okay to show how you got your interpretation. Often in a missions theological education context, the students might not have the tools and skill of the original languages of Scriptures. But they are curious and asks questions about the original languages. I found it still helpful to show them the original languages and why I interpret things the way I do. There is a limitation on merely citing a lexicon and saying the lexicon says so. Context always demand how verbal aspects and lexical meanings are understood so I found it helpful to even show how certain terms are used in other contexts and also in the immediate contexts. It would make them hunger more deeply for God’s Word. More importantly, I felt it was important to show how I got things with the original languages to de-mystify the original language scholar and also to avoid looking like Joseph Prince who always talk about the Hebrew but one isn’t sure where he’s getting it but can only rely on his own authority.
These are my thoughts. I have more but I think this will do for now for this post.
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