A Sort-Of Philosophy of Teaching

A Sort-Of Philosophy of Teaching
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Tuesday, March 22, 2011 at 7:44pm

I have been a professor of theology for nearly 44 years. I have had a lot of time to think about the best way to “teach Bible doctrine” to my students. Long ago I decided that the best method is to communicate (by lecture) what the Bible itself teaches, subject by subject. This is similar to how sermons are preached, except in the classroom we are able to welcome student questions and input.

Over these years I have heard my share of criticism for using this method of teaching, sometimes from other teachers. “Teachers like Cottrell just spoon-feed the students,” says the critic. “He tells the students WHAT to think; I, on the other hand, tell them HOW to think.”

Of course, there are courses that can tell you “how” to think. If you, the student, are looking for courses that tell you how to use your reasoning powers to examine evidence and evaluate truth claims in order to judge them to be true or false; if you are looking for courses that tell you how to use and interpret the Bible – such are available. You could take courses in epistemology and logic; in the Bible area you could take a course in hermeneutics. I deal with epistemological issues in my course on basic apologetics.

But by the time you get to most of my courses, I assume that you already know HOW to think, how to use reason and logic, how to evaluate evidence and arguments, how to use language to communicate ideas. I believe most teachers assume this, despite their claim to be teaching “how to think.”

Now, let’s get something straight. When you come to one of my classes, do NOT make the mistake of assuming that, if I am not going to tell you HOW to think, then I am going to tell you WHAT to think, as if I intend to spoon-feed you, or indoctrinate you, or dictate to you what you must believe. Just because I have no intent of telling you how to think, this does not mean that I will am intending to tell you what to think. It is naïve to think that these are the only two choices a teacher has. (This is an example of that pesky fallacy called the “false choice.”)

Sometimes a teacher who claims to be telling students how to think is actually doing no more than setting forth the main views on a particular subject, without personally advocating or defending one of those views. Thus the student is left to evaluate the possibilities and to make up his or her own mind as to which is the best alternative. In my judgment, it is extremely naïve to assume that such a method is equivalent to “teaching the student how to think.” I also think it is not fair to the students for a teacher to withhold from them the fruit of his or her own study of the issues.

So what IS the best way to teach? Here is my conclusion; this is how I do it: I will not tell you HOW to think, nor will I tell you WHAT to think. I follow this third option: in my courses I will attempt to explain the main issues and the main approaches to these issues. Then I will tell you, the student, WHAT I THINK is the best approach to any given issue. I will tell you what I think are the true or best answers to crucial questions about the Bible and about Bible doctrine (theology and ethics), and I will tell you WHY I think these are the best answers. You, the student, are under no obligation to agree with me. You do not have to accept my views, even to get a good grade in the course. You only have to understand what I am saying, and this is what examinations are intended to evaluate. (Your exam answers will assume the principle of FEPO: “For Exam Purposes Only.”) I do expect you to use your own reasoning powers to understand and evaluate what I say. The conclusions you come to are your own business.

For the purpose of my (non-apologetics) courses, I am assuming or presupposing the full inspiration and authority of the Bible. Some are critical of this, calling it “circular reasoning” or “begging the question.” This is not the case, however. When I assume in a doctrine course that the Bible is the authoritative Word of God, I am not blindly presupposing this, without considering the evidence both for and against it. Examining the evidence for this, however, is the business of apologetics and is covered in other courses. For the purposes of theology and ethics courses, we must begin where apologetics leaves off. Most of my courses thus assume that I have already judged that the evidence is sufficient to prove the divine inspiration of the Bible and thus the validity of the Biblical world view.

Having accepted the full inspiration and authority of the Bible, we must necessarily take an absolutist rather than a relativist approach to truth. For example, what the Bible says about the Holy Spirit, or about sexuality and marriage, is taken to be the final word on the subject and to be applicable to all people in all times. Thus every human being is under a moral obligation to accept what the Bible says as true and right on these (and all other) subjects.

If this view of the Bible is true, then it does not matter what YOU think, or what I think. What matters is what GOD thinks, as revealed to us in his inspired Word.

But even if we accept God’s Word as inspired and absolutely true, someone may still question whether it is possible for us finite mortals to objectively study the Bible and actually discern “what God thinks” about this or that subject. Is this possible? YES! Otherwise God has failed in his desire, purpose, and effort to communicate this (“what He thinks”) to us in his Word. If someone says we can never be sure that we know what the Bible “really says” about any given subject, this is not just a humble recognition of the limitations of finite human ability; it is actually an attack on God’s ability to communicate even with finite creatures.

The bottom line is that we should not be reluctant to come to firm convictions about the truth or falsehood of specific theological positions, or the ethical rightness or wrongness of specific kinds of human behavior. Nor should we be reluctant to confidently communicate these convictions to others. This is true not just of seminary teachers, but of preachers as well.

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