Five questions a teacher asks about Jesus
Mark Chater offers five questions which Jesus poses for teachers
I’m a teacher. I’ve stood in front of classes of children and adults, explaining theological ideas. I’ve watched how young or mature minds receive those ideas, and what they do with them. Sometimes I can hear the shift in their understanding, like hearing the neighbours next door moving their furniture about. That’s exciting. It’s left me with questions I want to put to my fellow teachers, to the churches, to their mission, to those who preach and teach, and those who train for ministry.
- We Christians say Jesus was a great teacher. But what do we mean by this? Churches spend an enormous amount of time thinking about education, but much less about the teacher who is the source of our knowledge. The Gospels give Jesus a mixed record: they sometimes show him making some pedagogical misjudgements: exaggerations, harsh judgements on those who cannot understand, willed opaqueness, backtrackings, confrontations. In the churches, preaching and exegesis tend to overlook those misjudgements. But a good teacher doesn’t blame their learners. So how should the church look at Jesus as a teacher? Jesus Christ, Learning Teacher is a teacher’s Christology, an educationalization of theology rather than a theology of education. It is a set of questions I want to put to theology, theologians, those in ministry, those who train ministers: are you really looking at the educational Christ? If Jesus was a good teacher, was he also a lifelong learner? What are the implications of this for theology and mission?
- Are we ready to accept that Jesus was fully of his time and culture? This after all is a vital component of his full humanity. Just as any culture produces blind spots, things its thinkers cannot see, so this must also be true of Jesus the teacher. And does accepting this diminish our love for him or weaken our faith in him as saviour? Can we move beyond the Platonic notion that Jesus was omniscient, and therefore incapable of learning? As a teacher, did he experience frustration, bewilderment, growth, as any teacher does? We can interpret his ‘How shall we picture the Kingdom?’ question (Mark 4:30) as a critical incident, a moment of pivotal self-reflection on his aims and methods as a teacher.
- What was going on in the mind of Jesus the teacher? As a teacher, I’m interested in his planning mind: what he wanted to achieve, how he viewed his learners, how he ‘scanned the room’, how he set about organising and presenting his ideas, how he addressed the obstacles to understanding. The Gospel evidence is very mixed: ‘They were amazed at his teaching’ (Luke 4:32), and yet ‘You will all lose faith in me this night’ (Matthew 26:31).
- If Jesus’s teaching was successful, why did it end in his violent death? Or if the cross was always inevitable as a once-and-for-all sacrifice for sin, what was the purpose of his teaching? Quite often, official theology has no good answers to this, no way of repairing the bifurcation between teacher and sacrifice. We need to rebalance the relationship between Jesus as teacher and Jesus as lamb of God. To begin doing this, we can generate new theological insights: his teaching as a form of sacrifice, his passion as a form of teaching.
- How can we build on the incomplete and tantalising Gospel picture of Jesus the teacher? We can develop and deploy a Christian pedagogical imagination, which brings new insights into interpreting the Gospels. In the book, I begin to do this by improvising on Gospel texts with some fictional narratives on Jesus as a teacher. This is followed by chapters developing the idea of a teaching and learning Trinity, giving a model of a learning economy for the church.
By engaging the Christian pedagogical imagination, the churches can re-engineer their theology and preaching, to take more notice of the educational Christ.
Jesus Christ, Learning Teacher is dedicated to the memory of John Hull, theologian and educator. John coined the phrase ‘educationalization of theology’ – a task he deemed essential for effective mission, and which I have attempted in this book, through biblical re-interpretation and theological reconstruction.
Dr Mark Chater is a former teacher, researcher, policy maker and Charity Director, writing on Christianity and education.