Except for a few short intervals, I have been teaching senior adult Sunday school classes for almost 50 years. Most of the students in those classes have been long time Nazarenes. As I reflect on that experience, I have a number of perceptions. One of the most positive is that these folk, by and large, are very appreciative of the attempt to lead them into a deeper knowledge of the scripture. Only a relatively few have had the privilege of formal study in theology and bible and thus have not been exposed to modern methods of biblical study or perspectives that are essential to biblical study with integrity. This poses one important challenge to the teacher.

Many, if not most, such students have been accustomed to reading the scripture devotionally as if it had been written in the context of today’s culture and expressed in contemporary idiom. This way of reading certainly provides food for the soul and reflects the legitimate possibility of the bible becoming the word of God to me personally under the inspiration of the Spirit. However, it too often fails to take into account the fact that the biblical documents, in various ways, were originally written to speak to specific historical situations in the idiom of that particular context. Failing to take into account this character of scripture can lead to the belief that the text “means what it means to me.” By contrast, understood in its own historical context the text may be seeking to tell us A, B and C while we are making it tell us D, E and F.

The way that ancient text becomes contemporary and speaks to our 21st century setting is in terms of the theology that informs the passages in question. This approach enables the interpreter to avoid interpreting certain passages in a way that contradicts what John Wesley called “the whole tenor of scripture.” A good example of this is the way many have taken Paul’s words in 1 Cor. 13:34, “let the women keep silent in church,” to make him contradict one of his basic theological commitments, namely that in Christ there is neither “male nor female.” The authentic method of interpreting scripture, I have found, can run afoul of another problem that is psychological in nature. True learning often results in a bit of unlearning. If a person has held a certain understanding for many years, and is told that scripture cannot substantiate this belief but that actually scripture teaches differently, it can generate a strong negative reaction. This calls for a gentle approach when the teacher is dealing with such matters.

However, I have also learned that when the student has developed a deep level of confidence in the teacher, such reactions are quite infrequent. Fortunately, I have seldom encountered personally this type of response since most of my Sunday school teaching has been in a church in a university context.

While I have consistently used the Nazarene Sunday school literature—and sometimes written for it—my entire teaching career, I find that those units that engage large blocks of scripture such as entire “books” are the most valuable for student learning. One of the biggest hindrances to this structure is the sometimes-necessary fact of sporadic attendance. If a student is engaged on a regular basis, it becomes possible to give concentrated attention to biblical teaching and build on the continuity of the biblical material. The division of scripture into chapters and verses was not in the original text. This was a manmade device to enable us to easily find pertinent passages. Unfortunately, it can lead to thinking of the scripture as a collection of unrelated snippets of anecdotes. Actually what we find is that there is a continuity of thought in each document that is necessary to capture the writer’s thought. Only thus can we faithfully grasp the truth that the scripture is seeking to tell us.

One of the potentially confusing characteristics of our contemporary situation is the availability of numerous translations (or paraphrases) of scripture. The thinking student is faced with the question as to which one should be considered authoritative. Here is another case where the informed teacher can provide stabilizing guidance to her student. I have found that far too many think about the origin of the bible as if God dictated to writers in English. That is, they are not aware that originally the biblical texts were written in Hebrew and Greek (with some Aramaic). This means that for most of us to read it, a scholar in biblical languages must translate those ancient languages into our own. Of course, we could learn to read Hebrew and Greek but the weakness of the flesh being what it is, that is not likely. 

This raises a further problem for some who are aware that the scripture needs to be translated. There is not a one to one correlation between different languages. Not only are words and font different, but grammatical structures and thought patterns are different as well. This means that there is no such thing as a literal translation. All translations are interpretations and the theology of the interpreter unavoidably influences his or her translation. This is true of the King James Version of 1611 as well as all so-called modern translations. Thus, we cannot sanctify one translation.

This fact does not necessarily mean that the teacher must learn these languages. Fortunately for most of us, there are resources available to help us understand what is going on. The issue is that for those of us who teach in the Wesleyan context, we should seek to rely on those resources that are available in that context. This is precisely what the Nazarene Publishing House seeks to provide.

We are all learners and hence we, teachers and students alike, need to keep an open mind, an inquiring spirit and a committed heart to the emergence of truth of which we have not been aware before. Since the scripture is an inexhaustible well of truth that we shall never fully plumb, this will keep us at the task all our lives. I, myself, am learning more and more and never intend to atrophy, with God’s help.

H. Ray Dunning is Theologian in Residence at Trevecca Community Church of the Nazarene in Nashville, Tennessee and Professor Emeritus of Theology at Trevecca Nazarene University. He has authored and edited numerous books including Grace, Faith and Holiness and Abraham: The Tests of Faith.