COMMUNITY, CULTURE, AND THE QUEST FOR DISCOVERY
A Conversation with Robert W. Yarbrough
From lumberjack to professor may not be the most obvious career change, but for Robert W. Yarbrough, both represent hard labor. During his thirty-six years of teaching, Yarbrough, professor of New Testament at Covenant Theological Seminary in Missouri, has traveled the world teaching in theological schools from Sudan to Hong Kong. He is the author of four commentaries (on John, Romans, the Pastoral Epistles, and 1–3 John). His book Clash of Visions: Populism and Elitism in New Testament Theology (Mentor, 2019) explores contrasting approaches to biblical interpretation.
In a recent interview with Didaktikos editor Douglas Estes, Yarbrough reflected on his approach to teaching—particularly cultivating a sense of discovery and a spirit of community.
ESTES: What does teaching well mean to you?
YARBROUGH: First of all, when I think of teaching, I think of working hard. And when I was young, I had some memorable manual labor jobs. But I don’t think there’s any manual labor that leaves you more tired at the end of the day than teaching does, so that’s the first thing I think of. It’s a lot of expenditure of effort. As far as the teaching itself, I would say it involves, first, knowing your stuff. You need to be well grounded in what you’re talking about. And of course, none of us can know as much as the real experts in a field. So I can’t know as much as Phil Towner in the Pastoral Epistles, but I need to know well the limits of my knowledge, and know what I’m talking about to the extent that I talk about it.
Secondly, of course, we need to communicate it effectively. And by that I don’t just mean lectures. I mean, our syllabi, our assignments, our grading, the overall ethos of the class—that needs to be in line in order for students to feel like they can learn productively. That includes also textbook assignments, which can make or break a class. Thirdly, we need to promote a subject-oriented rapport with our students—so we’re not just flinging information out there, but developing an interaction individually with students pertaining to that subject, and hopefully also generating a buzz among students, so there’s a shared sense of quest in the classroom. And probably all instructors have had the experience—hopefully the first day or two of class—that a class gels. The group of people in that room, in that series of lectures, or in that course—they sort of develop a family identity. And that’s very important for good teaching to happen.
And then the last thing, I think, is creating the space for interpersonal exchange. So there’s the one-on-one exchange—not in public in the classroom—but you can’t become friends with every student, and every student doesn’t want to become your friend. I’m not really talking about becoming friends here. But lots of students interact with the information in a class, and it involves them existentially and personally. Sometimes they need to run things by us, whether by email or face-to-face, and you can be standoffish and make it clear to students that you’re not available to deal with their personal lives. And of course, we all have limits there. But I think in good teaching, students will feel that the professor cares for them individually. And they may well be drawn to come and to compare notes and seek counsel with respect to what the class is dealing with.
ESTES: Let’s dig into a couple of those things. Let me start with the first one: hard work. The stereotype of the professor is not one that suggests hard work. More often, the stereotypical professor is one who’s in an ivory tower thinking important thoughts, and who comes down from on high and talks for a while, and the students absorb it, and then returns to their special place. Why is teaching well hard work?
YARBROUGH: In Clarence Thomas’s autobiography, he talks about when he was six or seven, and he and his brother went from living with his mother and kind of living outside in nature, and they moved in with his grandfather.1 And when they walked into the grandfather’s house—he was an older man, and very strict—the first thing he said to these two boys was “The damn vacation is over.” And that’s kind of how I feel about teaching. I don’t mind what time people knock off work or how many hours they put in. But if it really is sort of an indolent, idle pursuit and they’re getting by with minimal efforts, hopefully we don’t hire those kinds of people, because they’re not really doing their job and they’re bad examples. I guess I bring to teaching what we all do, which is our life experience and character. And I grew up getting up early, and doing a lot of manual labor. And I spent five years logging before I really got into graduate studies. And even today, if I’m teaching an 8:30 class, I usually get up by four so I can get chores done, get to the seminary by six, and have about two-and-a-half hours to refresh what I’m going to be doing in that class and any other classes that day. And a lot of us publish; we’re kind of overcommitted there. I mean, you have to be reading, you have to be preparing for lectures, you have to be writing exams, you have to be overseeing your TA, you have committee meetings, you have student appointments, you probably have extracurricular involvements, you have a family. So that’s what I mean by working hard. Part of it’s just a function, I think, of discipleship, and rendering our lives—our whole lives—unto God. We need to be about the business of the kingdom of God. There’s not a lot of time for watching videos and playing around on the internet.
ESTES: Speaking of hard work, I have to ask a question because I’m sure you are the only lumberjack I’ll ever interview: Was there any moment in your thirty-six years as a professor that connected the hard manual labor of logging with teaching?
YARBROUGH: Well, first, the ungodly hours—because a lot of times when you log, especially in the summer, you have to be out of the woods early. So you have to get up at maybe three o’clock in the morning to be out working by, say, five, and then out of the woods at twelve. And that reminds me of the teaching schedule. Sometimes you have to be up very early, and then you may be up very late. The other part that I relate to is the camaraderie. There’s a camaraderie of sacrifice among teachers who are doing their job well. We feed off each other’s energy, and we feed off each other’s exhaustion. We know that we’re all overtaxed. You could call it a fellowship of suffering—not masochism or victimology or a martyrdom complex, but we really are being asked to do more than we can do physically. But it gets done. And there’s a real joy in that, you know, if we survive it.
Related to that, a lot of our students have had dangerous or difficult or arduous chapters of their lives. At the start of a new class, I always ask students to fill out a three-by-five card to tell me about themselves. Have you been in the military? Have you been an athlete? What jobs have you had? And you find out that a lot of students have worked very hard. They’ve risked their lives, they’ve had injuries. And all these things bespeak a level of self-sacrifice and commitment, and if you can connect with that, and if you could connect the students with each other’s efforts, it can really increase the thickness of the pedagogy. We’re connected then as humans, and we understand each other better. And I think we have better eyes for the subject matter, because there is a lot of that in the Bible, of course. There are a lot of people who worked hard and took risks and worked long hours, and I think it makes us better students of Scripture, as well.
ESTES: Let me go back to one of the other things you mentioned—subject-oriented rapport. What makes that an important aspect of teaching?
YARBROUGH: What I’m talking about, most fundamentally, is a sense that the subjects and subpoints we’re looking at matter—not just to me as a professor, but they matter to you as a student. And we begin to see, mutually, why it matters that we get a handle on this and move ahead with our understanding and maybe our application of it. And this can be verbal aspect, or it can be the Synoptic problem—any aspect of teaching. You can approach it two ways. It’s kind of abstract, or academic, and I need to learn some facts, and then we move on to another set of facts that are equally pointless, from the student’s viewpoint. But that’s what the course consists of—just the material I need to go over, and then I’m validated at the end and go on with my life. But very little of what we teach in a theological curriculum is without some important implications for our lives or for ministry or for the scholarship that lies ahead of us. So I want to cultivate with students a sense of quest and help them to see what’s at stake here, to have a sense of drama and a sense of discovery. As you know, day by day we do our assignments. We’re making progress here, and this matters in the wider world. And it’s not just a matter of academic requirements.
ESTES: Let’s say somebody just finished their PhD and they happen to land one of those precious few tenure track jobs. What advice would you give a young professor today about teaching well?
YARBROUGH: Number one, I would say: stay out of politics. Not national or international politics, but every institution has its politics. Stay away from the gossip, from the backbiting, from concern with the institutional direction. Keep your head down and take care of your responsibilities and especially be of use to other people. On the faculty, on the staff, care for people around you; just be a good, helpful person to others. Secondly, I’d say the same thing about your students. Care for your students. When we come out of grad school, we can be fire-breathing when it comes to the strictness of our pedagogy and the precision of our understanding. That’s sort of a trope in higher education. But if we care for our students and listen to them and regard them as people, it can insulate them a little bit from our worst tendencies of expecting too much from them.
Then I would say, thirdly, don’t sacrifice your marriage, if you’re married, or parenthood, if you have kids. It’s hard not to, because the demands of putting lectures together when you first get out of grad school can be overwhelming. If your marriage and parenting have survived till then, maybe you’re on a good track, but sometimes, by the time you get out of grad school, things are in tatters. So hopefully your dean can help you, maybe colleagues can help you, but try to keep your family situation strong. And the last thing I would say is: stay physically fit—or get physically fit, and then figure out a way to stay there, because a lot of people sacrifice their health too early. When you get to the end of your life, your health goes at some point, but a lot of people become too idle too soon and then they pay the price in health, comfort, flourishing, and productivity later.
ESTES: You mentioned institutional politics. Can you say a bit more about the challenge that poses, especially for younger professors?
YARBROUGH: There are some things that tempt new faculty to get involved. But I think new faculty today are more apt to look at the older generation and just marvel at how inept and out of touch they are, because things have moved so far so quickly in the last ten to fifteen years. When I was younger, we felt more of a part of the learning enterprise that we were brought up in, and we felt like we could take part in the banter right from the start. So I’m not sure there’s any net difference in the readiness.
I will say one thing I’ve learned from teaching at different institutions: I think it takes about five years, when you get to an institution, to understand what’s going on in that institution. And so I learned a long time ago basically to keep my mouth shut and listen and just get to know people and get to understand situations and dynamics. You can be tempted to think you have something really important to offer, but it’s probably not based on a very solid understanding of the dynamics of the place you’ve come to, which always have a deep and thick history. It takes a long time to get a feel for them.
ESTES: I can only relate to my circumstance, which is at a relatively young program. But even for us, we’ve been around the circle on several issues so many times, and sometimes people come in and say, “Oh, I have a new idea.” But we’ve already dealt with that issue. And I’m not saying their idea was a bad one, but there’s an institutional history that sometimes is easy, if you’re new, to discount or not think through very well.
YARBROUGH: Yes, and I think it’s the job of older faculty not to allow younger faculty to be muzzled. Because let’s just say they get shot down one time or two, or let’s just say they’re very humble and never want to say anything. They often do have something to offer. And if we see that somebody is underperforming when it comes to the input—such as what courses should they teach—that can be a political question, but it’s also a very important existential question for every faculty member. So we should encourage new faculty; we should treat them as equals with the older faculty and not allow seniority to silence them or victimize them.
ESTES: Let me switch gears and ask about ministry. You’ve been active in ministry apart from the academy. Can you give us a snapshot of that, and then talk about how your personal ministry has influenced your work as a professor?
YARBROUGH: Well, when you say “ministry,” that sounds kind of churchy, so I’ll start with a churchy response. Pretty much nonstop throughout my thirty-six years of teaching, I’ve also been involved in teaching and preaching in churches. And since that’s where so many of my students come from, and what so many of our programs serve, and where so many of our students are headed, I think that’s very beneficial. It helps me stay current with what’s going on in the churches. It’s also just my responsibility—not only as a Christian and a called and ordained minister, but as somebody who’s preparing students for such ministry—to be ongoingly involved in it myself, because it’s very humbling. It helps you speak with some up-to-dateness, when it comes to where students are going and what they’re preparing to do.
The other part of ministry that has actually been much larger for me is teaching overseas. I first went overseas in my fourth year of teaching, in 1989, but I’ve taught dozens of times in Sudan, Romania, Hungary, and South Africa, and I’ve taught significantly in Egypt, Hungary, Australia, Canada, and Hong Kong. I was on a Zoom call recently with Carl Ellis, who teaches at Reformed Theological Seminary. He’s an African American theologian, and he was talking about how people who are monocultural think they understand what the Bible says, but they really understand how their culture views what the Bible says. And, he says, to see what the Bible really says, you have to get out of your culture and try to explain it to people in another culture, who don’t share your cultural vantage points; then you’ll come closer to seeing and saying what the Bible says. And I’ve found that to be true and significant for my teaching, seeing how the Bible looks to people in Khartoum, Sudan, who are Muslim converts, or in the Cape Flats in South Africa, a very large ghetto of mixed-race people that was founded under apartheid. You know, it makes the Bible look a lot different than it does in a North American setting. That kind of critical distance can be helpful, and often their understanding is better. And it can loop around for me and help me and my students to get a better reading on the Bible. Those kinds of experiences are invaluable for my work as a professor.
ESTES: At one extreme, the average layperson, it seems, violates Ellis’s rule because they live and work in one culture and they interpret the Bible through a monocultural lens most of the time. At the other extreme, there are interpreters like yourself and Ellis who have significant experience with many other cultures. My question is for those in the middle—perhaps a new adjunct professor who knows intellectually that culture is a flashpoint for interpretation, but they’re kind of stuck in their culture due to an inability to travel. What can they do?
YARBROUGH: Of course, it’s going to vary with the personality, in the situation of a theoretical professor. But I think there’s a real advantage here to the professors we’re talking about, whether adjunct or career. And that is, in our teaching about religion and the Bible, we’re talking about something that’s centered in another place and time that happened in other languages. So if our scholarship is sound, it should already be having an ongoing effect on us of decentering our cultural certainties and helping us to see the world from the standpoint of another community—who had a great advantage, in that God sent prophets, and God was incarnate, and God raised up apostles in those times we study. Various ancient communities gave us various transcripts of God’s interactions with people in other places and times that many of us regard as normative for our places and times. And we have the call and the privilege of becoming students of that lore, and then our call is to pass along that lore into our cultural settings, with the same confirming but also destabilizing power that we have encountered through our own studies. So hopefully, what Carl Ellis advises—get out of our culture—that happens through solid scholarship.
You can be a mercenary scholar and just be trying to confirm your own prejudices from grad school on. But the best case scenario is: you learn Greek, you learn Hebrew, you learn Second Temple Jewish history, you become part of discussions in the patristics, you realize how weird and different the world was there—and they got a lot of things right. And you realize our world is screwed up at this or that point. We shouldn’t use our certainties to inflict ourselves on these artifacts of the past. We should make adjustments and be willing to adjust our convictions and behaviors. And that’s what I think good teaching of theology and Bible and church history can do. You don’t have to go to another country to see the foreignness of your convictions to the realities with which the Bible confronts us. And so in Bible schools, Christian colleges, and seminaries, hopefully there are a lot of people that God is using as teachers to help dynamite the bogus cultural certainties of students so that they see what God has revealed to us in a different light—and that calls students into question and helps them to have a better conception of themselves and their settings.
ESTES: Culture is such a powerful force. It’s such a major aspect of interpretation, so it’s always good to talk about that.
YARBROUGH: Can I just add one thing here? Because this is a slight point from Ellis that I would adjust. He said we’re all culturally determined, and I would say we’re all culturally conditioned. If we’re determined to absolutize our culture, then we may doom ourselves to be culturally determined. But if we have the humility—before God and before things we can see in the world around us—if we have the humility to change, yes, culture is very powerful, but we can adjust for it. And so culture conditions us, but we’re not doomed to fall in line with whatever it dictates to us.
ESTES: Could we say then that one of the most important things we want students to do is to move from being culturally determined to culturally conditioned and understanding the differences there?
YARBROUGH: I would agree—and I would want to stress the need not to demonize your culture, because you can’t get out of it. On the other hand, to put it at a primitive level, we have to teach students to dissociate their belief—or, if we’re talking about the Bible, to dissociate what the Bible says from what you think it says. You have to be willing to bracket what you think it says and be continually willing to allow new information to interrogate you and, maybe, adjust what you thought it was saying.
ESTES: And in a way, that’s what makes teaching well so hard, because it is a constant struggle with the students to help them see and move in that direction.
ESTES: Like chopping down trees?
YARBROUGH: Yes—and we want to plant new ones at the same time. And sometimes we’re not chopping them down, we’re just pruning them.
ESTES: We’ll have to work on that metaphor. So, given the challenges of higher education today, how do you think professors should fit personal ministry into their teaching duties?
YARBROUGH: I think first we have to be realistic about our limitations. There are lots of heroes in academia, and we all wish we could be like so and so—fill in the celebrity of the decade in Old Testament studies or New Testament studies or Christian education. But probably, we’re not superstars, so we don’t want to kill ourselves by allowing ourselves to be drawn into unattainable goals for ourselves. I’ve already mentioned what I think should be bedrock commitments: if we have a marriage, our spouse and our kids. We have to be very careful that our personal lives maintain an integrity and that our teaching duties don’t totally swallow us up. We have to recognize the complexity of your questions: our teaching duties involve institutional demands; they involve guild demands; they involve the demands of individual classrooms and then the students in those classrooms.
So I think probably the one word here is “balance,” or realism about your potential. And remember that avocations can fuel your vocation. You’ve got to have some joy. You’ve got to have some things that can help you forget about what you do for a living. And if you have balance between your personal ministry and your teaching duties, you just have to guard each one against the other and hopefully integrate the two in some ways—and maybe you’ll survive as a full person.
ESTES: Earlier you alluded to the changes in teaching in the academy over the last ten or fifteen years, and that leads me to the next question: What is the most important thing that theology faculty need to pay attention to now and in the near future?
YARBROUGH: I don’t have a standard critique or piece of advice, as though I see a deficiency and we all need to rise to meet it. But I think I would answer along two lines. First, I keep reading. Even today, I was reading about the relative loneliness in Generation Z, ages eighteen to twenty-five. But this is also true of millennials—that when it comes to connecting with people, the digital revolution has helped a lot, but it has also killed a lot. And it’s even more acute now with the pandemic. So I would say we need to do all we can to promote things that strengthen personhood and interpersonal connection. That would include prayer, but also time expenditure on our part—reaching out to students, extending practical hospitality to them, affirming them in their humanity and their need for each other, as well as their need for what you could call authority figures like their professors. If we can create microclimates of koinonia in the educational process, it could be like an oasis. For a lot of my students, the greatest thing that happens to them in seminary is they find friends. They find people of like mind, and they never really had that at the college level, or the family level, or even the church level. We desperately need that sense of community for good learning to happen and for motivation to rise to their full potential.
The other aspect of this, we could say in older terms, is perhaps more objective, and that is: faculty need to balance the demands of the guild and of the wider society, on the one hand, and the demands of faith. There’s a lot of pressure to think a certain way politically, professionally, even down to some of the questions of our disciplines. Depending on who’s famous at the time, people say, “Well, this is what everybody should think about Paul”—or about hermeneutics, or about an ethical issue. But we need to remember that in Christianity, there’s a fides quae. There’s a content of Christian faith that has been passed down, a historic understanding of God, humanity, sin, and so forth. And we always need to be grounding ourselves deeper in that fides quae, and that continually needs to be there to offer pushback toward the ephemeral demands of the guild or society that says “You can’t think that.” For example, “You can’t think that there’s man and woman; there’s just humanity. And that gender thing, that’s just culturally determined; that’s just thrust on us.” Well, is that really true? You know, there’s a fides quae that says in creation forward we do have a certain identity that’s tied, under almost all circumstances, to our birth sexuality. And we need to read the Bible with that default certainty in mind if we want to read it as Christians. So there’s a lot that pushes on us to adjust or compromise our Christian convictions to be recognized as scholars by the world. And if we’re not careful, we’ll be teaching things that are half a bubble off plumb in the name of Christ, because we’ve caved to the guild or to the society in a premature way.
ESTES: Given your publishing record, why is it important for younger scholars to publish?
YARBROUGH: It’s important for them to stay sharp, so they’ll retain or expand the accomplishments and skills they gained in grad school. If you stop writing, it probably means you’ve quit reading and you’re not thinking as deeply as you need to. So to stay sharp, publish. Secondly, you owe it to the guild, you owe it to whatever the audience of your publication would be, whether it’s popular or scholarly. You know, we’re all part of a wider society. And if our calling in that society is to be a scholar, then we should benefit others with our scholarship. We only live a few decades, and this is our chance to retain and refine knowledge for the greater human good. Also, it’s important to publish because good books are needed. Good articles are needed to offset all the bad or harmful ones that are out there. If you think about writing book reviews and articles, those things often build into larger compositions. So if we’re just thinking, “Well, I’m just going to write one magnum opus”—usually nobody writes a magnum opus, unless they write lots of other smaller pieces. And you do that by just chronically writing.
And then, from a Christian standpoint, writing is often the way that various ones of us fulfill the Great Commission in our personal situation. When Jesus said “Go and make disciples,” the stereotype would be to go and become a Navigator, or go and become a pastor, or go and become a missionary. Lots of us are not called into vocational church work, but we can all ply the tools, the calling, the labors of scholarship in ways that help the discipleship aims of other people, as well as fulfill our own discipleship calling. And writing is a primary way of doing that.
ESTES: Is there anything else you would like to say to theological faculty reading this interview?
YARBROUGH: Well, I would just like to express my admiration for the learning that I see in the world of fellowships like IBR, or ETS, or SBL, or AAR, or the Tyndale Fellowship. Whether I agree with the scholarship is not the point. One thing that I think is different about education today from thirty or forty years ago is that there is just a much wider array of scholars in a lot more nations with a lot more knowledge of a lot more different fields. And so that, to me, is part of the joy of teaching, as we get to participate in this discussion that becomes richer and richer all the time. And it becomes more and more important all the time, because people look to this discussion for guidance with all kinds of questions from outside the academic sphere. So it’s just a privilege to be a part of the discussion. And I have great admiration for my colleagues who have spent their lives studying things that, until I read an aspect of their work, I didn’t even know existed.
This interview was first published in Didaktikos: Journal of Theological Education. Faculty can receive a free subscription by signing up here: