How should we teach and
learn Christian theology?
A Feature Review of
Theology as a Way of Life: On Teaching and Learning The Christian Faith
Reviewed by Jonathan Huggins
How should we teach and learn Christian theology? Is this any different from teaching or learning something else? What’s the goal of theology? Is that unique? If so, what might this require of the teacher? Adam Neder addresses these questions, and others, in his honest, clear, and challenging new work, Theology as a Way of Life. The title echoes Pierre Hadot’s work, Philosophy as a Way of Life, and the objectives of each work are indeed similar. They both call for an integrated embodiment of the intellectual content contained in the respective disciplines. However, Neder’s work is more comparable to Karl Barth’s Evangelical Theology. Indeed, Barth, along with Bonhoeffer and Kierkegaard are Neder’s primary sources and conversation partners. Neder proves to be a wise interpreter of their work, and applies their insights to teaching and learning today.
The book is written for anyone who teaches and studies theology, though most of the insights are applied to those who teach in college/university settings. Neder’s argument, however, can also be applied to those who teach and learn in church, or less formal, environments. The book argues that theology cannot properly be taught in a detached, impersonal way. To consider ultimate things, like the nature, being, and work of God requires a disposition and response that corresponds to the character of theology’s content. This is not simply about texts, names, arguments, and dates, it’s about knowing, encountering, and being transformed by the God we meet in the Christian gospel. Neder states, “one cannot simultaneously know God while refusing to offer one’s self to God” (43).
Theology Books of 2019!!!
Though there is much to complain about regarding the state of current higher education, especially concerning how theology is taught, Neder doesn’t spend his time lamenting the challenges. Rather, he writes an honest and aspirational account of how we might do better. Neder doesn’t claim to have all the answers. Instead, he highlights the opportunities before the teacher/student, and argues for a compelling vision of what it can be like to encounter God, and to respond with love, in the context of theological education. He writes, “without a compelling theological vision of what it means to teach Christian theology well, and without a clear awareness of its unique challenges and temptations, our instruction will be out of joint with the subject matter, and valuable opportunities will be wasted” (2). This vision is made clear when he writes,
“We want students to know God — not merely to know about God, but to know God personally. We want them to engage with Scripture, doctrine, art, history, philosophy, and plenty of other things, but knowledge of those things is not our ultimate goal– or at least it shouldn’t be. In the midst of all of this, we hope our classrooms become places where students encounter the living God– places where they become contemporaneous with Christ, to use Soren Kierkegaard’s way of speaking. Theology is not for the sake of theology but for the sake of life” (4).
Following the Introduction, which helps the reader see the general aim of the book, Neder structures his argument into five chapters. The first, “Identity,” argues for a Barthian anthropology that establishes who we are in and because of Christ. “The core theological claim of this book is that Jesus Christ establishes the truth of human identity in his life, death, and resurrection” (6). This identity is objective and applies to everyone. The grace of God enables us to subjectively respond to this truth in faith and obedience. This is important for teaching because, as Neder writes,
“by the grace of God, our teaching sometimes participates in the movement of disturbance, awakening, and renewal through which students come to see and embrace who they are in Christ. But we are never in control of this process. If truth is not something a teacher possess, the truth is not something a teacher dispenses. No matter how gifted one happens to be– God alone reveals God. Thankfully God chooses to do something through human witnesses, but the effectiveness of our teaching depends ultimately on the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit” (32).
This argument includes a section calling for prayer to have a central place in our teaching, even (especially) in academic settings.
The second chapter addresses “Knowledge,” or, what it means to know God. Here Neder helps us see that we cannot know God truly without it affecting our lives. This is more than scientific or historical knowledge. It is personal, and transforming. Neder argues, “If Barth and Kierkegaard are correct that knowing God is a way of life, then our task cannot be merely descriptive. We have the additional responsibility to help students envision the existential implications of the doctrines we present– to help them discover what it might mean for their lives to express and bear witness to the truth” (49). So, learning theology cannot merely be about gaining information. “Learning Christian theology is a process of learning to read reality in the light of Christ– learning to ‘take every thought captive to obey Christ’ (2 Cor 10:5)” (58).
The third chapter, “Ethos,” deals with the credibility and integrity of the teacher. It’s important that a teacher’s character corresponds to the message. This can make or break a classroom situation. Referencing Barth, Neder states, “Barth thinks a vain theologian is an embodied contradiction of the gospel and the very antithesis of Jesus Christ himself” (65). This chapter challenges all teachers to consider themselves carefully. It highlights to weightiness of the teaching task. Neder argues, “If our lives do not somehow witness to the truth, somehow reflect and attest the truth in our own limited ways, students will not find us credible, no matter how impressive our theological reasoning happens to be. In the classroom, we are never not teaching…Your life is your final answer to the question of who you think God is. And there is no good reason to hope students will be persuaded by what you say if, when they examine your life, they conclude that you do not believe what you say” (73).
This chapter also includes some examples of what “pedagogical credibility” might looks like. Among other things, it looks like a genuine humility before the subject and students.
Chapter four addresses an inherent “Danger” in teaching theology. This danger should not come from the teacher! Rather, the teacher should provide a gracious and free atmosphere for students to engage both deep and difficult questions. The danger comes from the subject itself. That is to say, in theology we are confronted by God. This can be disorienting and potentially threatening. Not because the teacher is coercive – this should never be. Rather, confrontation with God calls for a response. The Subject makes claims upon our lives, and faithful Christian teaching will not avoid that aspect of the truth. “(I)n addition to examining and describing theological ideas, a fully Christian approach to teaching Christian Theology will involve helping students perceive some of the concrete implications of the material, and thus help them live less divided lives” (91). This goal reflects a motivation of love. Neder writes, “Teaching Christianity is an act of love. Teachers are called to help students perceive and respond to the truth, not to threaten, provoke or scandalize them” (100).
The last chapter is perhaps the most practical. It encourages teachers to be good conversation-makers. This is because “(t)o learn Christian theology is to be initiated into this conversation (with God)” (118). Neder provides several points to consider when thinking about how good teachers can foster this on-going conversation. The hope is that teachers can encourage students to continue this conversation beyond the classroom, because “we are training students to participate in the conversation of Christian theology until they die, not until the course ends” (142). But it’s not just about the theological conversation. He concludes, “Theological conversation is not an end in itself. Its purpose is to help students encounter truth, discover their lives in Christ, and follow him into the world he loves” (143).
This is the sort of book that all teachers of theology, in any context, should read. It will help to think through the purpose of teaching and learning the Christian faith (not just “theology” as an academic subject). It is a clear and concise work, well-suited for a quick read before one begins a course of instruction or study. One does not have to agree with all of Neder’s underlying theological points, or agree with everything Barth, Bonhoeffer, or Kierkegaard say to truly benefit from the points they make about teaching and learning theology. The books is easily accessible and worthy of appreciation by those from any theological background.
Jonathan Huggins is the Chaplain at Berry College in Rome, GA. He received his academic and ministry training from Wheaton College Graduate School (MA), Reformed Theological Seminary (MAR), and Stellenbosch University (PhD in Theology). He is a Priest in the Anglican Church in North America and a fellow with the Center for Pastor Theologians, author of Living Justification (Wipf&Stock, 2013), and has contributed articles to Didaktikos, Anglican Pastor and the Center for Pastor Theologians blog. Follow at @jon_huggins
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com