Topical Hazards

When I was back in school I enjoyed taking a systematic theology class. Through the years I have read a number of helpful systematic theology books. I know there is a place for discussing Bible teachings topically. But having said that, there is a real danger when Bible study, and for that matter sermons and classes, are limited to topical approaches.

The expository preaching class I took years ago at Harding University Graduate School of Religion was one of the highlights of my time there (there were many). I remember discovering for the first time the importance of approaching scripture as it was written. I vividly remember the time when I was sitting in that class back in 1981 and realized, “If God had wanted to give us a topical Bible, He could have (but He didn’t).”

In spite of the fact that He didn’t, some people approach their Bible study, even their teaching and preaching, as if God had given us a topical Bible. And so if they want to do in-depth study about, let’s say for example, baptism, healing, or prayer they just look up those topics and study the verses wherein the words appear with little thought of the context.

What results is we end up reading isolated verses about baptism without reading the broader context of the story of redemption God has given us. So, for example, baptism is isolated from the broader themes of faith and grace. We know what happens when we study baptism in isolation from the story of faith and grace, don’t we? And, as a second example, what happens when we pull out the topic of healing from the story? We isolate it from the bigger story which includes suffering, trials, perseverance, and death at every turn. Finally, consider the topic of prayer. Think of how much richer and fuller our understanding of prayer if we see prayer as a part of the overall story instead of just pulling out verses. What was the situation? What was being prayed for? How was the prayer answered? Did what resulted from the answered prayer have the intended consequence?

I have found the best way to study a topic is to read the Bible. That allows us to see whatever the topic of interest as a part of the bigger story of redemption that is the Bible (Similarly, the story of the disciples’ spiritual formation that I mentioned yesterday is best understood as you read through the entire gospel of Mark). So what’s your topic of interest? Worship? Gender roles? Justice? Poverty? Sexual ethics? Whatever it may be – may I suggest that actually reading through the Bible may be a much more effective way of discovering God’s will than resorting to a topical Bible.
And on a related note —

Skyline’s adult education curriculum was designed with special attention to the big picture of the Bible. I want to share just a few quotations from Walter Brueggemann’s book The Creative Word: Canon as a Model for Biblical Education that help explain why attention to the whole is essential in Christian education. I want to highly recommend this book to anyone who is taking on the challenge of putting together a church education program.

The discussion I propose is simply this: Attention to the process and shape of canon may tell us something about education in ancient Israel. In addition, it may provide clues for our own educational task. . . (page 4).

The three agents of instruction are identified as priest, wise, and prophet. The three shapes of knowledge are said to be Torah, counsel, and word. Each of these, I shall argue, has a special substance and a distinct mode in the life of Israel. And a faithful community must attend to all three, not selecting one to the neglect of the others, or subordinating one to make it conform to the others (page 8).

I propose that church education, both in its modes and its substance, has gone awry precisely because of the failure to hold these three parts of the canon, these three normative modes of disclosure, in balance and in tension (page 11).

Such education, such ministry rightly done is radically subversive. It evokes resistance and hostility. That should not surprise us. That indeed is the condition of church education. Any educator who hopes to avoid that abrasion by focusing on one aspect alone cannot claim to be facing the whole canon in all its richness (page 13).

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