Story Magazine - Spring/Summer, 2009

An Education Grounded in the Word: Faculty Teach Biblical Message in Multiple Ways

by Natalie Gessert, M.Div. senior

Sometimes God can accomplish new and wonderful things using God's oldest material. Luther Seminary faculty take God's Word and help students apply it to their lives in meaningful ways every day. By the end of their seminary educations, students have not only learned about Scripture, but also how to interpret it and pass it on to others. The Word isn't just words, but a tool to change lives.

Changing message
The way the Bible is taught at Luther has evolved through the years. Professor Richard Nysse, who has
taught Old Testament for more than 30 years, said, "I used to teach history and methods that I deemed necessary to have at hand before one could begin to read the Bible. I thought that was what I was to do as a teacher."

Now students are encouraged to read Scripture from the start. "Notice what is in the text, notice what questions arise, notice the impact the text has," he said. Then the next questions emerge. What do I need to know? How might I learn the answers to my questions? With whom should I read the text? By integrating the wisdom of those who have read and studied the texts in the past with contemporary needs and readings, students learn that Scripture is meant for everyone. It has use in this very moment.

Start at the source
Much like learning their ABCs, students find their professors eager to teach the [Hebrew] Alef-Bet of Scripture, from Alpha to Omega. Master of Divinity students and those earning a degree in biblical studies often begin with a course in Greek or Hebrew.

Kathryn Schifferdecker, assistant professor of Old Testament, recalled how she first became interested in studying Hebrew. The first day she attended former professor Ellen Davis' Introduction to the Old Testament course at Yale Divinity School, Davis said, "I'll say this only one time: if you really want to study the Old Testament in depth, you need to know Hebrew." Davis went on to give the time and place of her Hebrew class, strongly encouraging students to attend. So Schifferdecker signed up, quickly realizing she had underestimated its difficulty. "But by then it was too late," said Schifferdecker. "I was hooked. That year began my lifelong love affair with the Hebrew language and, more significantly,
with the Old Testament itself."

Now Schifferdecker encourages students to use their ability to examine the text in its original language so they can read Scripture with new purpose.

"Mostly I want students to love Scripture, to understand it and use it as a resource for ministry and as a resource for building up the body of Christ."

Mark Throntveit, professor of Old Testament, teaches Hebrew and Old Testament courses. He said, "Most of
my teaching consists of reading the Bible in class (in Hebrew and Greek) and then discussing what it can and may mean; what it should, could or would mean--especially in light of our best attempts to discern what it did mean, and why we believe that to be the case. We always seek to figure out what particular question or situation is being answered or addressed by this text."

Bringing the words to life
Throntveit, who is known to strum his guitar while leading Hebrew students in a chorus of "I wish they all could be Qal imperfect verbs" to the tune of the Beach Boys' "California Girls," grabs the imagination of his students, inspiring them to use the language. Scripture brings up exciting questions about both the past and the present. Those questions are given greater depth when accompanied by language study.

New Testament Professor Craig Koester's classroom is often filled with the strains of "Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?" as performed by a room full of seminary students. The hymn recounts the crucifixion and death of Christ as told in the Gospel of John. Other days feature Koester recounting the lessons of the Bible with a voice packed with excitement and turned up to full volume. For Koester, this style of teaching is not "stage presence." He sees Scripture as a form of communication. Using music, photographs and artwork to frame the narrative while telling the story, Koester draws his students into a conversation with Scripture.

"When we read Scripture aloud, the text is no longer ink on a page but live communication: from biblical
writer to modern hearer," he said.

M.Div. Senior Jeni Grangaard reflects on the biblical education she's received as she sets her sights on international ministry and a future call.

"The Bible has been opened up for me and my eyes and heart as well. The faculty and courses at Luther
have given a sort of palpability to the living Word, bringing it to life," she said. "The biblical education I have received at Luther is a treasure unlike many others."

Grangaard recalled the specific lessons--and the professors who taught them--that turned into the power and purpose behind her preaching, teaching and care of others. Terence Fretheim, Elva B. Lovell Professor of Old Testament, taught her about God's deep love for creation and transformation of evil into good. Mary Hinkle Shore, associate professor of New Testament, made clear Paul's articulation of being made right with God and its implications for reconciliation and new life amidst brokenness and death. Koester expressed the depths and power of God's love to overcome hatred and life to overcome death.

Learning from the past
Mary Jane Haemig, associate professor of church history, makes dates and significant events about more than rote learning. Studying historical documents of the faith such as the "Small Catechism," she said, leads students further into Scripture itself.

"Luther intended his 'Small Catechism' to be an introduction to Scripture. The first three parts of the Catechism summarize what God expects from us (Ten Commandments), what God has done for us (Creed), and how we talk with God (Lord's Prayer). For Luther, learning the Catechism and studying the Bible were intertwined," said Haemig.

It was at Luther that doctoral student Joshua Miller learned that Jesus Christ was the center of Scripture. "He leaps off the page at us," he said. "I came to Luther from an environment where
the Bible was treated with great piety, but in which theories of the Bible's inspiration and inerrancy
were talked about more than the actual meaning of the text."

With the guidance of the faculty, Miller learned "to love the Bible . . . and to read the Old Testament for all it's worth as a story of God's gospel of grace and God's faithfulness to God's people."

Christian Scharen, associate professor of worship, uses stories from Scripture to clarify the importance of worship practices. He said that students easily remembered the story of Daniel and the lion's den from their childhoods. However, when Scharen asked, "How was Daniel trapped by the other jealous governors and vice-regents?" the students were stumped.

"Their eyes opened when we looked at how Daniel's practice of praying three times a day without fail gave his opponents the perfect chance to trap him," said Scharen. "We talked about how the exile shifted the faith practices of Israel and how daily prayer, facing Jerusalem, worked as a grounding
point and orientation for daily life then and can for us today."

Luther Seminary students see themselves in the characters of the Bible, learning from these characters' mistakes as well as their examples of unfailing commitment to God. M.Div. Middler Nathan Strong said, "Often it is the lessons that are learned or explored within Scripture that have a great influence upon the way in which I do ministry."

Delivering the message
The Bible is the living thread that draws seminary students from the classroom to their vocations. Students are prepared for delivering this message to those they serve.

"We start reading texts carefully so that we get a sense of how John tells the story of Jesus, how Paul develops an argument or how Revelation uses picture language," said Koester. "Then we shift so that students create things that point in the direction of parish ministry."

Congregations and communities may be reassured they are being sent leaders from Luther Seminary who both read the Bible with a careful eye and know these words are for all people in every time and circumstance.

M.Div. Middler Beau Nelson sums it up with a message Throntveit delivered to his class: "It's not so much what the Bible says, it is what the Bible does that's important."