Open Letter to New Testament Students

This is a repost of something I wrote a couple years ago. With a new academic year upon us, it seemed holy and righteous and good to trot it out again. If you’re taking a Bible class in college or seminary, this is for you

Dear NT Intro students,

Our quarter will be kicking off in a couple of weeks. I love the process of digging into the New Testament texts with students–you bring a passionate commitment to living out the Jesus story that is too often missing in the halls of the academy. You remind me why we study the Bible in the first place.

But there’s something you should know. Bible classes are often the hardest classes for seminary students. And I don’t mean that they’re the hardest academically. I mean that they’re often the hardest on students’ faith.

You’re coming to study a book that you love. You’re coming to delve into a book whose various verses and chapters have spoken directly to your heart–and transformed you. You’re coming to build on what you know and to enrich what you’ve already discovered.

But if I am doing my job, you are probably going to undergo a slow process of discovering that what you thought was a book is, in fact, a bunch of books; you’re going to find out that what you know is often incorrect; and what has spoken to you has been edifying, but that text may not ever be able to speak with that same voice again.

Bible professors are not the only ones whose classes hope to leave you with transformed knowledge. But rarely do you have as much invested in the assumptions that the professor is trying to deconstruct.

People lose their faith in Biblical studies courses, and grad school in particular, because they discover the pervasive extent to which the NT was written by humans and speaks differently from what they anticipated.

This can all sound terribly bleak. But I want you to enter the class with your eyes open.

And more than that, I am going to make you a promise.

Here is what I promise to do for you: I promise to leave you with a Jesus who is worth following, a Christian vocation that’s worth risking your life on, and a Bible that will guide you toward both.

In other words, I promise that I will not leave you empty-handed; I promise that my goal is to strengthen you as a faithful follower of Christ. I have not come to steal, kill, and destroy, but to help you better see the One who is the way of life, and how scripture is a witness to him.

So for my part, I promise to leave you with a faith worth believing.

For your part, I ask that you come to learn. Here, more than anywhere else, if you have come to have your prior understandings validated through high academic marks, you are likely to experience frustration. Hold loosely to what you’ve brought through the door, and learn what is coming from your reading, from our discussions, and from the lectures.

Learn what is really on offer, resist jumping to conclusions, press to find out how it all holds together. I promise that I am striving to be a faithful teacher, I need you to enter in with the goal of being a faithful learner.

At the end of the quarter, we will likely disagree about a few things. Or maybe we’ll disagree about almost everything. That’s fine. I won’t down-grade you for that. But I need to know that you’ve learned. And, I hope that in the process you have seen more clearly a Jesus who is worth following. I believe with all my heart that this is what I’m helping you discover.

So if you feel like things are falling apart or spinning out of control, let’s talk. That’s not the direction this should go, but it’s always part of the danger of discovering that the Bible isn’t what we thought it was–or that Jesus isn’t who we thought he was. But the fresh acts of faith that such discoveries engender can themselves be the stuff of newness of life.

I look forward to learning with you in the weeks ahead.


64 thoughts on “Open Letter to New Testament Students”

  1. I wonder if the source of bleakness is not from exposure to new rigor and methods, but moving from a theological community with a main goal of not questioning ( usually because the have stuff to do ), and then not really ever belonging to a new community, so not only are you faced with a different sort of theological task, you are also suddenly alone.

    1. That’s a great point, Mr. Toy. Faith crises often come hand in hand with community displacement or isolation. I suppose that part of the point of the letter was to say, “Here is a faith community, people really following Jesus, and if you’re experience disequilibrium, you’re not alone. We’re walking through this together. Let’s question together–and let’s put it back together as well.”

  2. This is similar to my experience. I went to seminary the first time largely ignorant of the academic side of studying the bible. Needless to say, my beliefs and faith were challenged and I came out of that experience with a very different view of the bible. And, for the record, I came out with a greater understanding of an even greater God. Now I’m in seminary again (PhD) and I find myself in a similar situation. My faith is not suffering, only the pillars holding up various beliefs I’ve held. This is a good thing–quite freeing actually! I’d rather my theology be tried by fire and come out smelling like smoke than to tuck it away from the minds and pens of its critics never to be tested.

  3. Professor, I am surprised!

    Well..uh…properly speaking, we are surprised. You are taken aback. Though I do acknowledge that the sense that you intend is gaining increasing currency through its use, yes.

  4. Unfortunately you will not be my professor, but I am taking NT Intro this semester and I hope to find a community where doubts and questions are acceptable and former beliefs are held open-handed in front of the text.

    I feel the hope in what you are saying. Maybe Jesus himself is not like the Jesus I have constructed and it will hurt to have him show his true self. But I want to follow him as he is.

    Thanks for this encouragement.


  5. Prof. Kirk:
    You are right about Biblical Studies classes. I having taken all the Bib Studies classes (abbreviating to BS is wrong on some many fronts)needed for graduation, I have found that in both areas –where my beliefs were confirmed and where they were challenged — I have left with a better understanding of the complexity and the beauty of Scripture.
    You might even want to reassure your students that even if they change their understanding of Scripture, their friends will still like them. Also there is little likelihood that they will be burned at the stake for Heresy. (I know I have had a few major changes in my theology and am still alive.)

  6. I can attest to your class Daniel. I had an open mind and heart so I had a ball. I learned so much in both NT 1&2 that you single handily reignited my love for Scripture and you cause my vision of the Gospel to grow exponentially to see how wonderful it all is. I tell everyone it was your class that lit the fire under my ass, which continues to grow more while I use the foundation you help lay down. Keep doing what you’re doing.

  7. Dan,

    This may be the finest blog post I’ve read this year. When I read it to my wife I said, “This is exactly how I feel, but I would not have been able to articulate it this well.” Thanks for putting into words what many of us feel when we approach the difficult task of teaching the NT to men and women of faith.


  8. One crucial element is sorely lacking in your open letter. You forgot to mention the need for students to brush up on their Mountain Goats lore in light of possible grade deductions for an overall lack of musical savvy.

    I still remember the uncomfortable silence in NT and the Cross when someone had the absolute nerve to ask who, in fact, the Mountain Goats were. I also do not ever remember seeing that individual in class ever again. *grins*

  9. Dude, good stuff, JRDK. Just back from NT herm class. Funny how some see the thrill of enjoying new vistas of truth and others see the threat of losing a grip on long-established notions. Aren’t they both listening to me say the very same things…?

  10. And THIS, good sir, is why you are my “theological crush” ;) ;)

    On a more serious and related note, as I’m on ASC this year I’ve become aware of a very real discussion and concern surrounding the spiritual formation of students at Fuller. Time and again we get stories of people getting that wonderful seminary “deconstruction,” but then getting sent out into the world after graduation not having been reconstructed. For whatever reason, the sentiment in this post ends up being the exception among professors, not the rule.

    I have a feeling addressing this will grow into a larger Fuller initiative, and I’d love to get any further thoughts of yours on this and similar topics somehow. Maybe via email should you have the time?

    1. An equally vexing challenge might be equipping graduates to bring this nuanced understanding and openness to ignorance back to world. The old joke has more than a kernel of truth: If ministers preached from the pulpit what they learned in seminary they would soon looking for a new line of work.

  11. Prof. Kirk,

    Thank you for the open letter. Reading your letter and the reply’s has been great. This has helped to lighten my troubled mood. I look forward to gaining a better understanding or our Lord. Rock my faith, and build it back up with Jesus as the center. Amen!

  12. As a former, and future, student of yours I echo everything you said. You are one of the few professors who respectfully deconstructed some of my preconceived notions about scripture, Jesus and what it means to be a follower of him. This allowed me to see new, exciting and thankfully non-heretical ways to understand Jesus. I look forward to our class in the next few weeks. As my favorite Mountain Goats song goes, “Lord send me a mechanic, if I’m not beyond repair” thank you Dr. Kirk, for being one of my many mechanics. ;)

  13. Prof. Kirk, your words are as true as ever.

    Freshman year in Bible college I lost my faith, I found it again junior year. I will be forever thankful for the destruction that my professors walked me through during my highly formative years in Bible college. My new faith is actually that, my faith.

    People often simply don’t realize the value in the breaking down and rebuilding of our faith.

  14. Daniel, reading this I really get a sense of your love and care for your students in the difficult transition from uncritical biblicism to a more nuanced and mature understanding of Scripture. I know that care and compassion is genuine and I sincerely admire it. At the same time, however, I worry about the posture assumed in this letter. You seem to me to be saying “your church gave you the wrong Jesus, but trust me, I’ll give you the right one.” There is a bit of a sense of magisterial authority, a priesthood of the specialist, assumed here I find worrisome, all the more so for the mass celebration of your sentiments in the comments.

    1. It also occurs to me that the magisterium you prefer (the creeds) have left nearly the entirety of my course material in Gospels & Acts in my free hands. How, exactly, is “the church” guiding me on the Mark 1-14 about which it is silent?

      1. I certainly don’t find it troubling that seminarians have something to learn and unlearn, nor that they would learn it from you. I certainly have gone through the process you describe in your letter, am still going through it, expect to always be going through it, and am the better for it. Though I think you mistake me for being more credal than I am, you’re absolutely right that the creeds leave most of the interpretation of the Gospels and Acts open to the interpreter (certainly a strength of theirs). And you’re right to call your students to an expectant openness to have their idols torn down so that Christ might become new to them on a more accurate reading of the apostolic testimony to him toward which the skills you offer them ought to lead (and has in my own experience).

        My worry is where I named it, the priesthood of the academic specialist. Let me put it another way: do you enter the classroom with the same expectant openness that your students might shatter and rebuild your own faith? Though you certainly come with great academic skill and knowledge, some of them come with decades of ministry experience. Who ought to be putting their faith into whose hands in that case? Who has the idols and who ought to hold the hammer? Such students certainly can and will learn from you to their great benefit, but are you going to give them a better Jesus than they already serve? You bring certain highly spiritually beneficial gifts to your students, but do you bring them Jesus? Even with your vast learning, mightn’t they bring Jesus to you? Perhaps you do have such expectancy and I just read your letter a tad uncharitably; I apologize if that’s the case.

        1. Hey Adam,

          I appreciate your comments and I wanted to engage you a little bit.

          You say the following:

          “Let me put it another way: do you enter the classroom with the same expectant openness that your students might shatter and rebuild your own faith? Though you certainly come with great academic skill and knowledge, some of them come with decades of ministry experience. Who ought to be putting their faith into whose hands in that case?”

          This seems analogous to asking a physics professor, do you enter the introductory physics class open to having freshmen “shatter and rebuild” your understanding of quantum mechanics? Probably not and that seems relatively obvious. Coming with “decades of ministry” and therefore experience seems to offer little to this conversation unless the experience entails studying the Gospels and acts at a graduate level.

          Lets say someone works as a therapist for several years and then begins a PhD program in clinical psychology. Despite this therapist having several years of experience, would they not have a great deal to learn from even the most basic of clinical foundations classes? Indeed, to go one step further, I would argue that some, if not most, would realize that some of what they “practiced” for years, they would no longer do now that they have achieved a higher level of academic prowess. Research on expertise suggests that experience is really not the important variable but particular kinds of experience such as that which entails feedback from more advanced practitioners in whatever field you are attempting to learn. That seems to be what is being offered in a Gospel and Acts course.

          You also say:

          “Such students certainly can and will learn from you to their great benefit, but are you going to give them a better Jesus than they already serve? You bring certain highly spiritually beneficial gifts to your students, but do you bring them Jesus? Even with your vast learning, mightn’t they bring Jesus to you?”

          I suppose to some extent it depends on what you mean by “better Jesus”. The protestant tradition, it seems to me, is remarkable for their emphasis on using the bible as the foundation for understanding of who God is and how they conduct theology. Thus, using this framework, to understand God better, more fully, is to engage the biblical texts in a way that is faithful to your epistemology. Some, it seems to me, feel that the best knowledge comes from ascertaining what the text meant to the original audience whereas others suggest focusing more on how traditions read and used the scriptures. Either way, using the best of academic tools to achieve this end is likely going to give you a richer picture of the God you believe you serve, over and above the “god image” you achieved by relatively random experiences alone.

          If I spend years studying Algebra on my own, I will likely learn some and fool myself into believing other things that likely have no foundation outside of my imagination. Likewise, if I read the bible over and over on my own, I will also likely learn a great deal and yet fool myself into believing many things that have no grounding outside of my own imagination. This is partially why we study under tutors who have been chosen by institutions based on their credentials.

  15. Daniel: I love this post. Coming out of a highly fundamentalist background to Fuller and then GCTS, Bib Studies classes were by far the most difficult on my faith during my MDiv. Thankfully, I had some professors who were able to help me into a more critical view of the Scriptures while maintaining my faith (something that my fundamentalist paradigms couldn’t handle…and thus had to be shattered).

    I hope that all of your students read this, and all of them emerge from the class with a deepened faith coinciding with their deeper understanding of the Scriptures.

  16. Your reflections on your class mirror my seminary experience in general. One thing I hope to learn in seminary is what the Bible truly says properly interpreted as much as possible. The challenge comes when we return to our faith communities armed with this new knowledge and we share what we learned with those who may have believed something else for a lifetime. The challenge is to learn to articulate what we’ve learned in an intelligent way with care & respect.

  17. Wow! I am speechless. You, O wise professor promise to leave your hitherto ignorant student with a “faith worth believing” because obviously the pathetic faith they bring with them is not worth believing. Mr Kirk you certainly bring new meaning to the term “academic elitism.”

    1. John, I know it can read like that. See Adam’s comments above.

      The context of the NT course of study, and what sometimes happens in such courses, is the given from which I’m working. The fact of the matter is that most students find that a significant amount of deconstruction happens in NT courses. There are numerous reasons for this, some of it simply having to do with the guild asking a different set of questions. In the face of that given, I’m promising not to leave them with a pile of rubble. I think that the comments here from my former students help capture this.

  18. I like the part about not leaving students empty handed. I wish more biblical bloggers (The ones that affirm Christianity as their belief system) were the same way.

  19. Daniel,

    I walked straight into your class (and Greek) never having read the New Testament. That was baptism by fire for sure! Yet it also allowed me to have a beginner’s mind and to match the gospel that Jesus had written on my heart (in the midst of tragedy) with the narrative of the Good News. The bible is like an onion – there will always be layers to peel back and discover and ponder. The God I love is beautiful and complex – as is His word. Amen. Thank you for celebrating a storied theology.

  20. Daniel, I love the way you challenge common preconceptions regarding Christ and the New Testament texts, and commend you for being forthright in preparing your students for what they will be going through. Along with you I pray all will discover more of the Jesus worth following and believing in.

    We all need to be thinking about how to respond to those who lose their faith in the midst of studying scripture and theology, or by not doing it. When that does happens, however, it may more often be the case, as I think it was with a seminary class mate of mine, that prior internal debates merely find rationalizations in outwardly appearing intellectual conflicts. This can be the loss of a “faith” based on faulty reasons for believing, or on superficial feelings about Jesus, etc. Whatever others experience in their theological journey, we are all called to press on toward the goal of the highest calling in Christ, that we grow ever more closely into the full maturity of the image of God we can only more fully know through the clearer knowledge that can come through the most intense and thorough relationship to God’s living Word through scripture.

  21. Hi, J.R., I am new to your blog and am a conservative evangelical pastor. I have never heard of you (sorry), and don’t know anything about you except the current blog piece. Saying that, I want you to know that my question isn’t an in-your-face question, it’s an honest inquiry. Are you saying to the NT students, “I will show you how to extract the valuable parts from the Bible?”

        1. I have the same question as Tim here, I think what he was asking, “Has (there) been an “A-ha” or “Hmmmm” moment that is common to many of your students?
          Or, in my terms, what specifically do you find are common fallacies or misconceptions?

          1. Jim and Tim, there are several points: for some it has to do with the theology and stories of the Gospels themselves–the Kingdom of God as a world-transforming power is often at the margins, at best, of conservative evangelical theology. For some it has to do with the fact that the Four Gospels were not written to provide independent attestation to common events, but to interpret those events in keeping with the four (sometimes very different) theologies of the four Evangelists. For some it has to do with the ways that Jesus replaces the OT with himself–introducing a level of discontinuity (and special place for Jesus) that they find troubling. Then there are other theological particulars such as who is Jesus (Messiah is not the same thing as Divine) or how does the cross save (cf. Luke-Acts where atonement seems to be absent) where people are surprised that the Bible doesn’t affirm what they thought.

            In all, though, each of these points to human hands at work, a creative process, and even at times a certain fallibility that many of us are uncomfortable ascribing to the Bible.

            1. Greetings, Mr. Kirk.

              As I was browsing Google search results on anti-intellectualism in church, I happened to come across this blog post. As with other such material, I intended to just browse this blog post and move on as a lurker. But, I saw something which struck me as deserving a comment.

              Before reading on, please remember that I mean no disrespect by the frankness of my words. :-)

              Jim Jacobson asked: “I have the same question as Tim here, I think what he was asking, ‘Has (there) been an “A-ha” or “Hmmmm” moment that is common to many of your students?[’] Or, in my terms, what specifically do you find are common fallacies or misconceptions?”

              You partially answered: “For some it has to do with the fact that the Four Gospels were not written to provide independent attestation to common events, but to interpret those events in keeping with the four (sometimes very different) theologies of the four Evangelists.”

              To this, I respond by asking: But why cannot the four accounts of the Messiah’s coming have been written for both purposes?

              With all due respect, the problem here is that you are blurring the line between offering an interpretation and observing a fact. Yes, I agree that a seminary student should be open to the possibility of deconstructing and reconstructing their belief system as new facts which they learn compel them to. The ability to do so at will without losing one’s faith is an important hallmark of full intellectual maturity. However, under the former condition, I do not believe that any intellectually honest professor, either in a secular or seminarial atmosphere, should gloss over disputable issues and, in doing so, present their interpretations of the disputable issues’ facts to their students as fact. Otherwise, to do so under the former condition creates an environment heavily inclined towards indoctrination.

              In light of this, I respectfully assert that your statement which I quoted crosses the line and does the latter under the former condition. It seems that you reinterpret the nature of the said four accounts to fit a certain version of the controversial Q Source Hypothesis and, then, teach this reinterpretation as a factual correction of the said misconception which your students bring to your class under the expectation that your open-minded students will reconstruct their belief systems around this teaching.

              In light of this, the next two questions logically arise: How many of your interpretations do you teach as fact? And is doing this not, by definition, indoctrination?

              As Adam Nigh (September 14, 2011 at 7:24 am) asked: “My worry is where I named it, the priesthood of the academic specialist. Let me put it another way: do you enter the classroom with the same expectant openness that your students might shatter and rebuild your own faith?”

              Rhetorically speaking, I think that, thusfar, your silent answer is “no.”

              From what I understand, it is this kind of prepackaged teaching *and* the anti-intellectual traditions of the churches, among other things, which helps undermine seminary students’ faith.

              Thanks for reading and responding.

              In respectful passion,

  22. are you trying to say that you won’t adhere to teaching me my preconceived meanings and presumptions on the text prior to studying it? You and D. A. Carson should do a “Pre-seminary Fallacies” book

  23. I agree with Will. This post should also be required of any student looking into seminary. As a future seminarian looking forward to taking this exact class (most likely Fall 2012), I am thankful for this advance ‘heads up’.

  24. This letter should be something that professors of any genre aspire to give their students to end large preconcieved ideas beforehand. I am now PUMPED for class

  25. JRDK,

    I have enjoyed reading your gracious and patient responses to skeptics, doubters and those confused just as much as the post. I’ve always been thankful for people who have slowly helped me deconstruct in order to reconstruct ideas that were not fully developed and thought through. I understand the delicate nature of what your doing, and appreciate the point you made about reinforcing the value and worth of following Jesus. I pray right now for discernment and clarity as you engage personalities and life experiences from all over the spectrum.

    All For His Kingdom,

    Adam Morgan

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