This week, I attempted to teach the entire book of Romans to my NT Intro students in a 45-minute lecture. I stood in front of my students, some of them Bible-idolizing and some of them Bible-illiterate, and I tried to walk that fine line between teaching and preaching, between information and emotion. I gave the most pertinent background information and I highlighted Romans’ literary features. Then, we discussed the terms and imagery that Paul uses to explain salvation, and I pleaded with them to understand that salvation was more like a process than a one-time decision, that sin was serious and that Christ’s sacrifice was miraculous.
I made a valiant effort but at the end of the class, I still felt like a failure.
How can I sufficiently describe some of the most complex theological concepts in the Bible when I myself still fluctuate on the particulars? How does justification work? Is salvation a past action or a future action or both? Is “once saved always saved” even a biblical principle? What does sanctification look like in the life of the believer?
Isn’t a Bible professor supposed to know the answers to all these questions BEFORE she attempts to teach them to her students? Fail, fail, fail.
Then, for my New Testament Theology class, we read the script of a brilliantly crafted lecture by scholar and bishop, N.T. Wright (“Whence and Whither Pauline Studies in the life of the church?”). In it, Wright presents one of the most eloquent and comprehensive analyses of Pauline thought I had ever read. There is a beauty and clarity of thought in his words, in the simple yet profound truth that he declares. I had to wipe the tears from eyes more than once while I read (Who would have thought that Pauline theology could bring anyone to tears?). I was in awe of him, in awe that someone could not only understand Paul so thoroughly, but could teach the core of his message with such precision and depth.
And it struck me that Wright’s lecture affected me in the way it did because it did not just teach me truth; it demonstrated a truth. N.T. Wright has been studying the Bible, teaching, pastoring (is bishoping a word?), and lecturing for more years than I have been alive. He did not have such a clear understanding of the intricacies of Scripture twenty years ago. It was a process. Much like sanctification.
Sanctification is the process by which a believer becomes more and more like Christ. We tend to assume this refers to an ethical or moral change, but I think it is more than that. As we study and read and live and love, the Holy Spirit does not just help us grow in character. We also grow in knowledge and understanding of God and Scripture.
If a solid and deep understanding of the Bible and its theology comes only after the long process of learning and teaching, of articulating and correcting, then I have awhile before I will be confident in my knowledge and certain in my theology. And that is how it should be.
I will probably never understand the Bible the way N.T. Wright does. However, I understand more every day. I am still in the process of sanctification—a sanctification of mind, heart, and life. And although I do not have perfect understanding, I praise God that I have enough understanding to teach others…others who are just starting the process of sanctification or have yet to begin.