For the past three years as I have been finishing my Ph.D. Dissertation (I finally finished and defended on March 4th and am awaiting graduation next Saturday for anyone looking to give me a teaching Job), I have taught the introductory religion courses at Baylor University. Every Baylor student must take two religion courses: Introduction to the Christian Scriptures (Bible) and Introduction to the Christian Heritage (Church History/Theology).
Back when I was an undergraduate at Baylor, students were also required to take two religion courses, but they were two courses in Bible, one for introduction to the Old Testament and one for introduction to the New Testament.
So, which system is better? I will now make a case for the current system which includes a course in church history. I will also tell you why, even though I am a biblical scholar, I enjoy teaching Christian Heritage more than Christian Scriptures.
First, I will list the negatives of this new system, which I think are few. One, teaching the entire bible in a semester is impossible. Two, teaching church history in a semester is impossible. Ok, sure, more time would be better for both subjects, and really, teaching each in a semester turns out more like an outline. But, the question should not be how much time is necessary to cover a subject as fully as the professor would like. That question focuses on the needs of the professor. The question should be, what does the student need.
The answer, Baylor students are in dire need of a course in church history. Most Baylor students come into my Christian Scriptures course with at least a rudimentary, if not quite good understanding of the content of the Bible. Sure, there are several things that they can learn during the semester if they are willing, and much of the scholarly research into the scripture is completely new to them. They are, however, usually less concerned with learning the new stuff as they already think they have a grasp on the Bible. In general, even though most Baylor students would call themselves Christians, and have a decent understanding of the content of the Bible, they do not see the necessity of taking a college course in it, and thus they are less engaged in the subject.
The situation for Church History couldn't be more different. Students come into that class a blank slate. Baylor students, even the lifelong church-goers are almost completely ignorant of church history. This makes the class much more interesting and engaging. I am always shocked by the fact that they know so little, but that also makes the teaching that much more satisfying. It also makes for much livelier discussions. A student will say something like, "you mean Augustine really said that after the fall humans had no choice but to sin? You he didn't believe in free will?" Or, they might say, "Wesley organized his church into small groups of 10-12 members for holiness and accountability? I thought small group ministry was a recent phenomenon." Or again, I hear over and over, "Inerrancy is a recent term in Christian history? The Early church didn't have a doctrine of biblical inerrancy?"
I love being able to teach students things they didn't know, and also, to see their eyes light up when they learn something new that clarifies their view of Christianity.
So, I contend that, even though it is not ideal to teach the Bible in one semester, it is far more needed that Baylor students get at least an outline of church history. At Baylor, Scriptures is taught as a divine drama or story in six acts: Creation-Corruption-Covenant-Christ-Church-Consummation. Even though the New Testament does talk about the consummation in the book or Revelation and elsewhere, that consummation has not yet come. History is still awaiting the consummation. That means that the story that began in the Bible is not yet complete. Yet, many Christians today read this story and skip 2000 years of church history. To use an analogy that is close to my heart right now, that would be like watching season one of Lost and then skipping straight to the final few episodes of season 6. As anyone who watches Lost would tell you, one would be completely lost skipping that much of the series. Yet, this is exactly what one does if one reads the Bible and then tries to locate him or herself in the story of Christianity while skipping 2000 years of the story.