Essay / Education

The Bible in Socratic Instruction

This is a brief talk I gave last week during orientation for Torrey Academy, our high school program. It addresses, for one particular, local audience, an issue with broader application: how should Christian teachers handle the Bible in a course of instruction that is Socratic?

The goal of Torrey Academy’s instruction is to help equip “lifelong disciples, citizens, and scholars who pursue the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.” It’s always important to know the goal of your instruction. I take the phrase from I Timothy 1:5, where Paul says of his ministry, “the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.” Without keeping the goal of their instruction in mind, teachers are going to wander from their task, and students are going to wonder what is going on.

Torrey Academy is committed to the Bible: TA is a ministry of Biola University, whose foundation was the Bible Institute of Los Angeles; TA’s name comes from R.A. Torrey, Biola’s first academic dean and an internationally famous Bible teacher. We are Bible people here, and our goal is to educate lifelong disciples who are biblical in the way they pursue the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.

What I want to share with you right now is a peculiar thing that happens as Torrey Academy classes work toward their goal. TA sometimes works toward its biblical goal by asking students to hush up about the Bible for a little while; to press pause on citing scripture passages about the issues they’re discussing; to lay their hand over their mouth for a moment instead of rapidly saying the first Bible verse that comes to mind.

If you have been in any TA class, I’m sure you have experienced this. And if you’re new to TA, welcome, and I want to warn you in advance that this is what will happen. To reach our biblical goal, we frequently require that students hold off on appealing to the Bible in certain discussion situations.


The reason we take such a circuitous route to reach our biblical goal has to do with the pedagogy that Torrey Honors Institute and Torrey Academy share. Our pedagogy, or way of teaching, is Socratic (we ask questions), active (we make the students do most of the talking), and formative (rather than just informative). Socratic, Active, Formative. When it works, there’s nothing else like it. Students lean in, think hard, find their voices, and come alive. Oh, when it works, it really works! It takes time, but it works.

Nothing short-circuits that kind of pedagogy like a pat answer. Nothing swats down a good serve like swatting it down with a quick, cover-all Bible verse blurted out without a pause for reflection.

And it’s some of our sharpest, quickest-witted students who are the ones most likely to stop all conversation. I mean our Awana champion, scripture-loving, sword-drill-winning heroes of Bible knowledge. These are the quick-draws who shoot first, from the hip, boom boom boom. They sometimes hit the target, but more often they are spraying Bible bullets around without enough attention to the target. You know what I mean, the Ready, Fire, Aim! school of ballistics. That translates into the “Jesus is the answer, what was the question” school of unfruitful discussions.

And here’s what’s going on in those cases. We’re asking them to do something hard, that they haven’t done before, which is to read a book better, and discuss it more deeply, than they are used to, and to speak about it thoughtfully in front of other people. That’s a challenge. Well, I ask you, parents of teenagers, what will a young person do when faced with a scary challenge? They will revert to their known strengths. They will lean on something they already know they’re good at, which is pew pew pew, appealing to Scripture on the spot. (“I wanted to play tennis, but I guess I’ll just practice my serve, since I can’t get a volley going.”)

I could give a lot of examples, but I bet one or two will be enough to jog the memory of returning students.

Example one: The tutor asks, “What made Claudius decide to kill Hamlet Senior?” Without missing a beat, a student replies, “ALL HAVE SINNED AND FALL SHORT OF THE GLORY OF GOD, ROMANS 3.” Well, that’s not wrong. But it’s also not quite apt. It’s not going to increase our understanding of Hamlet. It leaves a lot of work still to be done on Shakespeare, which is what the question was getting at.

Example two: The tutor asks, “If there are errors of excess and defect on either side of a virtue, does the virtue lie exactly in the middle between them, or is it closer to one of the two sides?” Student response: “JESUS SAID, I AM THE WAY, THE TRUTH, AND THE LIFE.” Okay, that is a true sentence that doesn’t make sense as an answer to the question.

I trust you to bring to mind your own examples of the way a fast Bible answer can cut off a line of conversation.

When students do this, what they’re doing is using their old, proven skill in Bible recall, but rather than using it for its own sake or in an appropriate setting, they’re using it in self-defense, to make themselves feel that they already have mastery of the text in front of them. In doing so, they’re missing out on the chance to grow into adding a new skill.

Now when I describe it that way, I hope you can tell this is a defense mechanism that’s not limited to these young people. Don’t we all have this problem? Playing it safe by continuing to do the thing we’re good at instead of taking the risk and doing the hard thing? Don’t we all wish we had a place where it was safe and mandatory to risk growth?

Think of it this way: as biblical Christians, we are right about a lot of things. That is mainly an advantage: after all, what’s the alternative? Would you rather be right or wrong? If you’re wrong, change your mind and become right. I highly recommend being right; I do it all the time, or at least several times a day.

But there’s a disadvantage that rides along with being right: Being right can make you lazy about observing the details, feeling their importance, learning how to reach out for answers, shaking up the things you’re wrong about. Our greatest strength, the Bible, can turn into an educational weakness. The goal of TA’s instruction is biblical wisdom about all things; the path of our pedagogy is to make sure our students learn how to learn.

If you’re enrolling your student in this program, you and your church have probably input a lot of true answers into them over the years. Good. Thank you! They’ve got them. They’re in there. But a lot of young Christians have been told a lot of true answers for a long time, and a lot of them walk away from these answers or don’t know what to do with them in the first place. So just inputting more and more true answers isn’t the whole answer, especially as the students get older and older. Once we’ve done the truth-telling, then what? Torrey Academy’s pedagogy –Socratic, active, formative—is about moving to that next level.

I speak to you tonight as the content provider who gets to do the main hermeneutics lectures for TA, the lectures that all the students are required to listen to. I’m here because out of all the things that happen in a program like this, the part I care the most about is reading the Bible right. So now I want to explain how TA’s pedagogy not only keeps you from mis-using the Bible as a tool to swat down every other book, but how TA’s pedagogy directly improves your reading and understanding of the Bible.

Every time you swat down a question about things you don’t understand yet, and do so by using something you already understand, you’re training yourself not to come to terms with the book in front of you but to appeal to a book you’ve already read. Why this matters for Bible instruction is, when we take up a book of the Bible for TA discussion, we need to have learned the skill of actually reading and engaging the book in front of us. That way we don’t just encounter every book of the Bible as an occasion to re-deploy what we’ve already learned when we were younger. We encounter every book of the Bible as an occasion to read, note, mark, inwardly digest, and come to understand what it is actually saying.

Sparks can fly. Miracles can happen. The word can be heard and understood. That’s the payoff.

So when you hear something like, “you’re not allowed to use the Bible here,” I know it sounds abrupt, but please know it actually means something more like, “random quotes from Revelation don’t apply in all situations.” It means we’re learning to read, write, think, and speak, for the sake of understanding the word of God more completely, and all truth in light of it.

The goal of our instruction is to learn the word of God itself, and to grow in our understanding of how it relates to all truth.

That’s why we use so many questions in TA. Now I know that as parents of these students, you’ve got questions, too. Some of the standard questions parents will have early on will be:

-Why does my child leave class with more questions than answers, especially in the beginning?

-Why is so much class time spent in silence?

-Why doesn’t the tutor direct more of the conversation?

These are good questions. We’ve got answers, and they all come from the way the goal of our instruction harmonizes with the path of our pedagogy. The tension you’ll feel early on comes directly from the fact that Socratic education can be annoying. Very annoying. Remember, they killed Socrates in Athens! We’re using a pedagogy named for a practitioner who came to an untimely end precisely because of his pedagogy. (By the way, if the “Torrey” in our name should remind you of the Bible, the “Academy” in our name should remind you of Socrates’ most important pupil, Plato, who named his school the Academy.)

We do expect to be annoying but we don’t expect to be killed for it. We’ve got the advantage of a much better community of trust here, going in both directions. We trust you’re sending us students with a lot of exposure to truth, and you trust that we’re helping you launch them to the next level of truth-seeking. And unlike Socrates, we have the great advantage of being devoted to the revealed word of God in Holy Scripture.

On that foundation, we are playing the long game. Socratically, actively, formatively.

The Stoic philosopher Epictetus wrote, “If sheep want their shepherd to know they have been eating well, they do not vomit up the grass and show it to him. Instead, when they have internally digested the pasture, they go on to produce externally wool and milk. So do not display your ideas to everybody, but show what comes from their digestion.” In our context, dear sheep, we do not want you to vomit up the Bible you have read. We want you to learn with us how to digest it inwardly, and produce good things outwardly.

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