How to Teach Theology


By John Drury




This is my first time to teach systematic theology and I’m wondering if you have any materials you could share with me that might help me get the course off the ground.




The first advice I would give to any first time teacher of theology is one word: McGrathAlister McGrath's textbooks are incredibly accessible yet quite learned.  He is a an Evangelical Anglican, which makes for a broad knowledge of theological literature from an edifying perspective.  His Theology: An Introduction is great, and has an accompanying website through Blackwell publishers with quizzes, handouts, the works.  Plus he has a little version Theology: The Basics, which is an excellent textbook for introductory theology students.  It assumes nothing from its reading, defining every term and walking them by the hand through the Creed.  If your students are beginners, you could definitely teach with it, using his larger textbook as a resource for yourself.


The pedagogical advice I would give is the following:




Plan your course around the Apostle's Creed.  This will give you a balance of topics and a clear course outline without much fancy planning on your part.  Plus, if you have students memorize the Creed at some point in the course, they will have a shorthand version of the course imprinted on their mind forever. 


With reference to the particular doctrines, one of the things I do is have a standard worksheet with the basic categories of discussion for each doctrine which the students can fill out during the learning activities of each class session. They will also be their main means of studying for the exams.  The sheet has across the top a place for the name of the doctrine, the next line is for the key question addressed by the doctrine, then large space for three big questions: who? what? why?  The "who" category is for telling the history of the doctrine's development in connection with its key proponent (incl inspiring stories about him).  The "what" would include discussion of the doctrine's basic concepts: terms, ideas, scriptures related to it, etc.  The why category would be for the practical significance of the doctrine: why does it matter?  The best way to get at this is to ask of each doctrine what would happen (in our minds, in the church, in our lives, etc) if we did not believe this doctrine and/or the heretical version won the day.




There is so much content in systematic theology that one must be highly selective.  The way to get the most bang for your content buck is to focus on terms!  Theology is like learning a new language, so vocabulary is key.  A Christian who reads the Bible even a little bit has theological questions and insights, but she is often turned off by theology as irrelevant.  Why?  Because theologians use so much lingo that she gets lost and assumes that it has nothing to do with her questions.  What she does not realize is that the lingo is not about ego but actually for conciseness.  One loaded theological word can do the work of a whole paragraph.  So once she learns the terms, she can get on to the meat of asking her question and thinking it through.  But without the terms, she is up a creek.


By having students master terms, the theological literature is opened up to them without them having to understand all the details of historical theology (which takes a lifetime).  They don't need to know the subtle differences b/w Athanasius, Arius, Eunomius, and the Cappadocian fathers.  All they need to know is what homoousias means and they'll have the "brand name" short-hand for the whole mess known as the Trinitarian controversy.  So I would give them a big list of terms at the beginning of the course that they are responsible to know for quizzes and exams.  McGrath's textbooks have sufficient terms lists in the back to get you going on this.  Then spread out the terms throughout the course.  This is something they can do on their own with accountability (quizzes!), and you can fill out with detail and explanation, adding the relevant names and stories that make theology fun. 




The focus in any introductory course is to help students to gain a positive disposition toward the subject matter.  This comes most easily via the instructor's contagious passion for the subject matter.  This is the "caught not taught" factor.  In my opinion, the fuel to keep the instructor's fire burning is reading really good theology (not just introductory stuff). 


But there are also intentional things that can be done in the classroom.  For instance, there is the discursive process of making a case for why theology matters to them in their real lives.  This is the kind of question the instructor simply needs to ask (repeatedly)of him or herself, then argue for that significance in lectures, personal attitudes, discussions. You can even ask the students to make a case for why theology is important.  One can also display that significance by showing how theology is useful in things students care about.  For example, I often spend time breaking open a passage of scripture in class and display how my theological training gives me insight into scripture.  Or, apply theological principles to a personal spiritual struggle ( e.g., justification by faith and one's struggle with guilt and shame).  Or, use theology to interpret a movie, a song, or whatever.  The list is endless, and it starts with the instructor's interests and gifts but also takes into account the values of the students.




The reason I am a minimalist about content (focusing mainly on basic terms) is that I think theology is more of a skill than a content.  The content of Theology is not itself.  The content of theology is doctrine, which is imbedded in the Bible and Church History.  Systematic Theology doesn't necessarily add to this doctrinal content, but rather organizes, illumines, makes explicit, interconnects, develops, and applies this content.  So what an introductory course in theology should do is initiate students into the practice of theological thinking.  This can be done through having them write essays that deal with a very specific question.  Good discussions help with this also.  Having them read some classic theologians works too, because they see a great mind at work and learn to imitate them (no necessarily repeat their views, but imitate their processes). 


You can also point out in lectures and discussions certain patterns of Christian thought that can be applied in multiple areas.  E.g., Unity and Distinction of the Humanity and Divinity of Christ is a pattern that you would first teach during the content aspect of Christology, but then later when you get to the doctrine of the Church, you can ask them to apply the logic of unity and distinction to the problem of Church and Culture under that doctrine.  I try to set aside one such pattern for each doctrine that I note to my students will "use" later in another doctrine.  I do this as part of the transition "what" questions for each doctrine (see notes on worksheet above).  A previously learned pattern can be applied at any point, but most easily during a discussion, especially if it has gotten "stuck" and needs "loosened."  This way they will only practice twelve or so patterns in a twelve week course, but they have learned the skill of applying doctrinal patterns to other problems, which is transferable beyond what you have shown them.


To see how some of this stuff plays out in a particular course, go to my website where my theology intro course “Foundations of Christian Faith” syllabus is posted, at the bottom of the page under "