A selective defense of “introduction to Christian doctrine” online: Disputatious perspectives and propitiating pedagogy

A selective defense of “introduction to Christian doctrine” online: Disputatious perspectives and propitiating pedagogy

Knowlton, Dave S


Should Christian colleges advocate the study of theology online? Should Christian colleges offer introductory-level doctrine courses through the internet? The three of us have designed an online “Introduction to Christian Doctrine” course, and two of us regularly teach that course. We frequently encounter strong objections from both faculty members and students who question the appropriateness of online doctrine courses. As advocates of online doctrine courses, we wish to respond to some of the common objections that we’ve heard. Addressing the objections and offering responses are valuable because Christian educators should disseminate ideas about both the problems and possibilities of Distance Education (Lumsden, Ray, Lowe, and Newsome 1999a). Elsewhere, Knowlton (2000b) has addressed the compatibility between Christian education and online learning, in general; but we are the first to specifically examine the perceived contradictions between online learning and the Introduction to Christian Doctrine course.

The first two sections of this paper are designed to place arguments about the relative virtue of online learning in their proper context. In the first section of this paper, we provide an orientation to online learning by discussing the logistics and pedagogy of the online classroom. In the second section of this paper, we articulate the purposes of the “Introduction to Christian Doctrine” course.

Once the context for arguments about online doctrine courses is established, we summarize four common objections to the online Introduction to Christian Doctrine course, and we respond to each objection.


To place arguments about the virtue of online doctrine courses in context, we describe the logistics of online courses. We also offer an explanation of the pedagogy that drives an online course.

A. Online Logistics

In online courses, students and professors don’t convene face-toface. Instead, internet sites house the course syllabi, assignment descriptions, and written lectures. Using a password, students who are registered for the course can access these sites any time of the day or night. These documents are not linear and meant to be read from beginning to end. For example, embedded within the course syllabus, students find hyperlinks to more thorough details of an assignment. So, students might not read the syllabus from beginning to end; they might hyperlink back and forth between the syllabus and other documents to get a thorough understanding of the course.

Hyperlinks should be used within other course documents, as well. For example, in our doctrine course, students spend a week exploring the details of the gospels through written lectures, simulations, and tutorials that we’ve designed. From these documents, though, students can hyperlink to external websites (cf. www.carm.org/index/whatisthegospel.htm). Because of these links, students aren’t obligated to accept the professor’s views of the gospels, but they can find supplementary information about the gospels. Supplementary information allows students to more thoroughly investigate topics and concepts that interest them.

Online courses are not just high-tech correspondence courses where students work in isolation. The online classroom provides opportunities for students to interact with each other and with the professor through electronic communication tools. These interactions may be synchronous-real time-conversations among students who are simultaneously logged in to a chat room; but students can also interact asynchronously by leaving messages for each other via e-mail or electronic bulletin boards. These asynchronous communication tools allow conversations to be archived so students can review discussion content throughout a course.

B. Online Pedagogy

We don’t mean to imply that giving students access to course websites and electronic communication tools will automatically produce learning among students. The World Wide Web as a delivery system does not make online learning educationally sound; instead, the instructional strategies underlying online courses provide the opportunities for learning among students (Morrison and Guenther 2000). To ignore the pedagogical shift necessary in online courses is to devalue the potential for student learning.

What does this pedagogical shift entail? The pedagogy of the online classroom is derived from Constructivist principles of learning. Philosophically, Constructivism is based on the view that knowledge and truth do not exist beyond a student’s perception of that knowledge and truth (Duffy and Jonassen 1991). Therefore, knowledge is not something that students can receive from professors by simply memorizing and regurgitating a database of information (Jonassen 1991); knowledge must be constructed by individual students (Tam 2000). Each student must “create a personal view of the world” (Jonassen, Davidson, Collins, Campbell, and Haag 1995, 11).

Practically, students must actively interact with course content and with each other in order to construct knowledge. After all, if students aren’t interacting, they are jeopardizing their very existence in the cyber classroom. Only their active participation provides a signal that they are even a part of the course (Knowlton 2000a). In terms of interacting with the content, students must actively seek the information that they wish to find by exploring hyperlinks and engaging in independent research (Canada 2000). In terms of interacting with each other, students are responsible for sharing their opinions and perspectives about their searches, explorations, and research. Superficially, the opinions and perspectives will serve to create content for students’ consideration. More substantively, because of the pluralism inherent to any group of students (Speck 1998), various opinions and perspectives may come into conflict with a student’s personal views and perspectives, and that student must attempt to create continuity between his/her individual view and the collective perspective of the class. That is, students will consciously and proactively revise their own ideas in an effort to eliminate cognitive dissonance between what they believe and what others believe. Student interaction inspires a search for constructed truth.

The pedagogy of the online classroom requires professors to reconsider their own role. No longer is the professor the sole voice of authority; instead, professors serve as counselors, coaches, and facilitators who “frame” student interactions (Knowlton 2000a, 11). In the rhetoric of Constructivism, professors facilitate knowledge construction. In this capacity, professors must not only be comfortable with conflict, but also they must trigger it (Palloff and Pratt 1999).


In this section, we offer an explanation of the goals of a typical “Introduction to Christian Doctrine” (ICD) course. Though much literature about Christian education can guide our explanation of a doctrine course’s goals, little literature specifically dealing with the goals of ICD exists. Nevertheless, across the Christian academy, some goals seem standard for an ICD course. We focus here on the broad goals of ICD, as opposed to the functional goals that drive day-to-day instruction.

A. Supporting the Integration of Faith and Learning Across the Curriculum

For many Christian Colleges, the “Integration of Faith and Learning Across the Curriculum” (IFLAC) is central to institutional mission. Though the integration of faith and learning is discussed widely in Christian education literature (cf. Nelson 1987; Garber 1996; Holmes 1987; Gustafson, Karns, and Surdyk 2000; Knowlton 2000c), the IFLAC movement is not simply a contrived pedagogical movement perpetuated by the Christian academy to justify its own existence. Instead, IFLAC follows naturally from Christian beliefs: If God is the supreme Creator, then everything comes from God. All truth-in all disciplines-is God’s truth (Holmes 1987).

ICD should establish a foundation for understanding how Bible doctrine interweaves with other disciplines of study. For example, sociology, psychology, and education courses examine human behavior from a variety of perspectives. In the Christian college, though, students need to understand the relationship between these discipline-based perspectives and Christian perspectives of human behavior. Similarly, biology courses describe and explain life, but to consider biology from the Christian perspective, students need to understand God’s role in creating life.

B. Teaching the Content of God’s Truth

ICD should teach students the content of the Scriptures. Most basically, just from the perspective of the Great Commission, theology professors have a responsibility to teach students about the birth, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. More academically, though, as Downs (1994, 181) notes, a Christian education “shapes students to know [biblical] truth and to think with the truth, so that their behavior is shaped by the truth.”

This goal of teaching the content of Scripture is important for two reasons. First, students often come to a doctrine course with beliefs that emerged from a cultural-as opposed to a scriptural– theology. Their communities, families, and friends have shaped their theology. Often, emotion and a shallow knowledge of Scripture drive these cultural influences. Second, the content of ICD is usually a prerequisite for other theology courses. Topics introduced in ICD require a lifetime of study, so they obviously can’t be mastered in one semester. But, ICD can lay the foundation for future advanced study. As a result of ICD, students should be able to deal with more advanced theological issues that they will encounter in future courses. Oosterhuis (2000) implies that a substantive understanding of Christian doctrine develops not during one course, but throughout the Christian college experience. ICD should begin this developmental process.

To stand students in good academic stead, then, a doctrine course should focus on teaching the content of the Scripture. Only a focus on scriptural content will prepare students for future theological study. This preparation moves students away from cultural theology and teaches them biblical theology.

C. Creating Impetus for Personal Spiritual Growth

ICD doesn’t concern itself with only preparing students for future academic study. A doctrine course should transcend the finite goal of earthly education. ICD should equip students with the tools necessary for thinking about their own relationship to God. ICD should help students make connections among theology, their dayto-day lives, and their eternal lives. These connections will help students grow spiritually.

Christian educators suggest that human relationships inspire individual spiritual growth. Morr (2000), for example, notes that intimate and nurturing Christian friendships provide a manifestation of the type of relationship that we can share with God. More relevant, the professor-a mature Christian–can serve as a model for students who are less adept with living out the Christian faith. Indeed, Scarlotto and Kohm (1998) argue that students need models in Christian education, and those models can be provided by Christian professors. Similarly, Leyda and Lawson (2000) suggest a “coaching” analogy to demonstrate the ways professors can help students grow spiritually. Widely accepted is the view that ICD should enhance spiritual growth and professors who teach ICD should serve as a model of continual spiritual growth.


So far in this article, we have discussed the logistics and pedagogy necessary for an educationally-viable online course. Also, we’ve offered an overview of the typical goals of an “Introduction to Christian Doctrine” course. The purpose of these two previous sections has been to establish the context for arguments about the relative virtues of online ICD courses. Based on this context, the thoughtful Christian educator may have some questions-and indeed, concerns-about the feasibility of teaching ICD in an online environment. Our purpose in this section is to address some of these concerns.

Addressing every potential concern would require a book-length manuscript; so, in the remainder of this paper, we offer an overview of four common objections to online ICD courses. After each overview, we defend the online ICD course as a feasible educational option. In short, we agree with Schieman, Taere, and McClaren (1992) that objections come from those who are new to online learning. They bring with them their own biases and assumptions that aren’t based in educational theory. Therefore, our responses depend heavily on Christian educational theory. Though we offer these objections linearly and discretely, readers should understand the considerable overlap among these objections and defenses.

A. Objection #1: Online Pedagogy Validates Humanism and PostModernism

1. Overview

This argument contends that Constructivist theories of education emerge from humanism and post-modernism. Nichols (1991) warns against embracing these modern ideologies. By offering biblical studies courses online (and thus embracing the pedagogy), Christian educators are-in effect-acknowledging the validity of fallible human beings’ constructions of reality and placing these human constructions on a level of equal importance with God’s created reality. When humanism becomes the basis of pedagogy, some Christian educators may feel that they have betrayed the defining element of a Christian college-the belief that all classroom activity should point toward God’s love, grace, and sacrifice.

2. Response

To some extent, the pedagogy of the online classroom did develop from humanism and post-modernism. But for Christian educators to reject humanist pedagogy without careful critical analysis of its educational strengths and weaknesses is an act of “academic bigotry” (Anthony 1991, 87). Christian educators have a large responsibility to consider the educational interest of students. The defining characteristic of a Christian college should be the quest for educational distinction (Holmes 1987). So, for Christian educators, relevant questions should not deal with concerns about the secular roots of Constructivism. Relevant questions should focus on whether or not Constructivism can promote learning among students.

B. Objection #2: Online Pedagogy Disregards Scriptural Truth

1. Overview

To ignore the absolute truth of the Scriptures is to undermine Christianity. How can a professor, on the one hand, claim that Christian truth is real and alive and relevant, but then, on the other hand, send students darting all over the internet to determine their own views of truth? To claim that the existence of God and the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ are constructions-as opposed to scriptural truth-is to leave Christian orthodoxy.

2. Response

Admittedly, some Constructivists and online learning theorists reject notions of absolute truth. They would argue that students are the only ones who can determine for themselves what is true. As Christians, though, we believe in an absolute truth, and we agree that to deny absolute truth is to deny essential tenants of Christianity (see John 14:6). But we also acknowledge that truth can only be subjectively known (see Isa 55:8).

We are not alone in our view. Numerous Christian educators seem to agree, and we are struck by the similarity between the language of Christian educators and the language of Constructivists. For example, Blevins (2000, 7) delineates numerous “ways of knowing” and argues that students come to understand Christian concepts in a variety of ways. Holmes (1987, 59) also supports the view that, while truth is absolute, students must engage in subjective processes that are inherently “exploratory” and “perspectival.” Drovdahl (1991, 9) suggests that a Christian education requires participation in “meaning-making.” Drovdahl makes it clear that he doesn’t limit the role of “meaning-making” to professors who deliver meaning to students. He points out that Christ regularly “facilitate[d] meaning-making” among students (p. 9), and he asserts that professors in Christian environments should follow Christ’s example. In short, a Christian educator must understand that-while God’s truth is infinite, perfect, and absolute-attempts by sinful humans to know biblical truth are finite, fallible, and subjective.

C. Objection #3: The Online Environment Hinders Personal Interaction Necessary for Spiritual Growth

1. Overview

Some who object to online ICD courses argue that the absence of face-to-face interaction destroys opportunities for professors to model spiritual growth. This objection further contends that face-toface interaction is needed to understand the incarnation of God. Students and professors must be joined in his name (see Matt 18:20). Tenelshof (2000, 118) seems to agree by noting that spiritual growth “requires fellowship with others in the Body of Christ.” One student addressed this issue on the end-of-a-semester evaluation:

The community in the [physical class]room is used by the Spirit… to build one another up in love. I will never take another online course for I feel like I have largely cut off the ministry of the Holy Spirit. (emphasis is student’s)

2. Response

This objection hinges on the acceptance of two premises. The first premise is that the medium through which a message is communicated makes the message less powerful. In other words, because online courses require computers as a delivery medium, the message is somehow diluted. We reject this premise. Any form of communication requires a medium to deliver the message. Are we going to dismiss all written correspondence delivered from a distance? Doing so would require us to dismiss books; doing so also would require us to dismiss letters, including the biblical letters of the NT. It just doesn’t seem reasonable to argue that a computer can hinder God’s ability to work in the hearts of those who desire to grow spiritually. In fact, some students find the asynchronous nature of online learning to be a benefit to their spiritual growth. One student wrote that the lack of face-to-face interaction gave her enough time to “pray for the Holy Spirit to help [her] understand the Scriptures.” This student commented that she “couldn’t do this in a [traditional] classroom” because she would be “limited on the time available to respond to questions.”

We must accept a second premise to validate the objection that online courses interfere with personal interaction. This premise is that a sense of community cannot be established among students in an online classroom. It is perhaps difficult for some students to establish a sense of community through the internet, but, we have heard testimony from students who acknowledge a strong sense of community in online courses. For example, one ICD student noted that she would miss “most of all, the interaction with classmates.” This student acknowledged that this interaction among students had prepared her to participate in future dialogue about Scripture. Similarly, in reacting to Holmes’s (1987) view of community in the Christian college, one student in an online English composition course offered a more thorough explanation:

“Holmes [says that] a community [occurs] when other people are influencing you…. Holmes [writes that] a community. . . teaches us values and purpose in education. I feel that there is more of a sense of community in an online course than in a [face-to-face] course. In [one of my face-to-face courses], I have only spoken to five out of twenty classmates. Of the five that I have talked with, I don’t know one of their names…. I guess this [limited sense of community] is due to the time restrictions. Therefore, I believe that an online course tends to show more of a sense of community. In this course, we have discussions and reveal personal experiences that relate to the topics we are talking about. Every time that we have a discussion, different people give different views . . . Whether we agree or disagree with what [our classmates] have to say, our values will be shaped. In our community we [are] influenced by [each other’s] thoughts, and we use them . . ., no matter if we agree or disagree. I don’t know how others feel, but I have grown as a Christian as a result of this class.”

From this student’s testimony, we infer that a sense of community can be established in the online classroom. We also infer from the student’s words that community doesn’t just “happen” by virtue of students’ access to online learning. Instead, online professors must create a sense of community among students by encouraging students to “reveal personal experiences” and “give different views.” This student reiterates the need for a Constructivist pedagogy if students are to grow spiritually.

D. Objection #4: Online Pedagogy Limits Students’ Access to Foundational Knowledge

1. Overview

This objection contends that since a central goal of ICD is to teach students the content of God’s truth as revealed through the Scriptures, ICD must focus on getting across a foundational knowledge to students. Without a foundational knowledge, students will be prepared neither for future theology courses nor for understanding IFLAC. Most students never have pondered seriously the difficult issues of ICD and are not capable of the loftiness of knowledge construction. Asking students to search the internet for theological perspectives is a serious robbery of time in a course that must focus on the facts of the Scriptures. Students should come away from ICD with an orientation to evangelical theology. We can’t sacrifice getting across the content of the course by always spending the bulk of our time coaxing students to actively explore course content.

What’s more, this objection avows that when instructors act as facilitators, rather than theological experts, they further hinder students’ access to foundational knowledge. So, it shouldn’t be the responsibility of the professor to facilitate. The professor must inform students about scriptural truth. Students acknowledge the frustration of having to construct for themselves what is true:

I have found this course to be exceptionally difficult to deal with .. in [terms of] the questions that this course has caused me to ask myself …. When I find myself questioning faith I feel as if I am doing something wrong. All I can do is pray and ask for reassurance.

2. Response

The objection that online pedagogy robs students of foundational knowledge is based on a misunderstanding about the nature of Christian education. Secular educators are often guilty of equating “knowledge” with “understanding.” Christian educators, though, must ask themselves precisely what it means to “get the content across” to students. Are we simply satisfied with having students memorize a few facts-the facts that the professor thinks are important-so that they can recite prefabricated answers to difficult theological questions? As Wrobbel (1992, 147) notes, “pat answers… are a part of a comfortable, [but] unexamined, Christian Faith.” Coe (2000, 94) seems to agree and claims that merely increasing students’ knowledge without helping them internalize Christian substance is a “violent” act of “spiritual violation.” Smallbones (1990,107) offers a similar perspective:

Knowledge for the sake of knowledge should never be the aim of evangelical Christian education …. For me, it is not so important that my students remember the biblical facts… but that they come to know God and grow in their relationship to Him.

Coe (2000) and Smallbones (1990)-as well as many other Christian educators (cf. Richards 1994; Stickel 1994; Wrobbel 1992)– are alluding to the need for Christian education to involve critical thinking. Our assertion is that a college-level ICD course should not focus heavily on students’ acquisition of facts, but it should inspire students to think critically about the difficult issues presented in a doctrine course. Students in online ICD courses recognize the benefits of critical thinking:

[From this course], I have learned to not stop with the first thought that comes to mind when reading the Scriptures. [Critical thinking requires that I] reanalyze the old view that I have of the Scriptures and to try to expand on [my] thoughts. Also, . . . I never would have studied [topics like] salvation, election, [and] predestination in such detail if I had not taken this class. I was only using the shallow knowledge that I have been taught over the years in church and Sunday school, but with this class, I have been exposed to the heart of several subjects [from] different points of view. I have really had to rethink a lot of my viewpoints. God has blessed me with the enjoyment of rediscovering new and more meaningful translations of His Word.

Another student acknowledged the role of critical thinking and connected it with the asynchronous nature of online learning and with interaction among students:

I like the flexibility in study hours and the time available to really be able to critically think about a comment from a fellow student… It [gave me] time to organize [my] thoughts and think them through for logic.

Other students who addressed the critical thinking benefits of online ICD were less academic. That is, for some students, critical thinking in online courses leads to personal change:

I have always had some questions about the Bible and my faith in general, but I have never really given them much thought even when I attended church. I kind of let things roll along and [didn’t] worry too much …. I have not really thought much about my relationship with God …. This class has made me think about what truly matters …. I just need to take what [has been] laid in front of me and run with it.

Another student offered a similar perspective by saying that the online doctrine course created a “spiritual mirror.” In this mirror, the reflection was sometimes to the student’s “liking,” but at other times the spiritual mirror reflected “the wealth of work that needs to be done before [this student is] presentable to God.”

This shift from focusing on memorized answers to focusing on critical thinking does have implications for our pedagogy. In general, professors’ personal beliefs about theological issues become irrelevant-and perhaps even detrimental-to students’ abilities to think critically. Instead of sharing with students, for example, whether they subscribe to Calvinist or Arminianist views of election, professors should present both viewpoints equally and provide opportunities for students to analyze and evaluate each view. In fact, professors should emphasize the perspective that students most readily dismiss.

This perspective of the role of the professor is indicative of the literature about online learning and Constructivism; more importantly for Christian educators, it is indicative of perspectives from Christian education literature. For example, Davis (1993, 118) says that to “challenge” the “typically vague and childish faith” of Christian students is “part of the educational process.” Holmes (1987, 74) argues that “dialogue” leads to truth: “Yet college is a place to think, to raise questions and doubts and discuss them openly, and the Christian college must encourage students to do so.” Fortosis (1992, 91) suggests that professors in the Christian college should follow the lead of Jesus who asked students questions. Notably, these questions did not culminate in right and wrong answers. These questions were designed to “pierce the conscience and stir an awareness.”


In this paper, we have argued that the logistics and pedagogy of an online classroom are not the disputatious factor in teaching online doctrine. Instead, just the opposite is true. To maximize the potential for true spiritual growth and to promote opportunities for deeper understanding of ICD’s content, professors must view the pedagogy of the online classroom as propitiating. We would be remiss to not acknowledge limitations in our own arguments. For example, we recognize that some students are so well indoctrinated into the teacher-as-stimulus/student-as-response paradigm of education that they will become befuddled by the expectations of an online doctrine course. (The dropout rate of many online courses gives evidence of this befuddlement.) We also understand some of the barriers to facilitating-as opposed to simply lecturing and requiring students to absorb the substance of that lecture. One barrier to strong facilitation is the lack of institutional support designed to help faculty members expand their pedagogical toolbox. In many Christian colleges, academic administrators simply assume that subject-matter expertise-as evidenced by a graduate degree in theology-automatically translates into pedagogical expertise. This assumption is faulty, and professors tend to teach the way that they were taught; proselytizing dominates the ICD classroom.

In spite of these limitations, though, we view our perspective as a valuable contribution to the Christian education literature, but we don’t imply that our view should be the final word and the only one worthy of consideration. (In fact, the three of us disagree on some of these issues, and conversations that we’ve had about these issues have been lively.) Online learning will become a growing part of the Christian college (cf. Lumsden, Ray, Lowe, and Newsome 1999b), so we view continued dialogue about the subject of teaching doctrine online as critical to our future abilities to serve students and help them grow spiritually as a result of their college doctrine courses. We invite others to join the dialogue.

Copyright Trinity International University Spring 2002

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