Lessons on Teaching from Dr. Abner Chou: A Brief Interview

Dr. Abner Chou serves as Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies at The Master’s College in Southern California. He is the author of I Saw the Lord: A Biblical Theology of Vision (Wipf & Stock, forthcoming) and will contribute the Lamentations installment of the Evangelical Exegetical Commentary (Logos). I have known Abner for more than ten years now. Abner is actually younger than me and lived in my dorm when I was a young Resident Director. He has always been known for his sincerity, humility, diligence, and great intelligence. Though I never took a class from Abner, I heard the reverberations of his ministry from across campus as he began teaching in the Bible department when I was still working in Student Life. The students raved about his clarity, insight, and passion. They felt like the doors and windows of the Bible were being thrown open and they were understanding the Bible’s grand narrative like never before. Because of Abner’s powerful teaching and proven character, I wanted to know his answers to my three simple questions in this ongoing series on teaching.

What are your main pedagogical principles?

  1. The fundamental principle is that every class and every topic should unveil the glory of God in His person and plan that culminates with Christ. If I can really shepherd students toward seeing the “epicness” of a passage, principle, concept, book, etc., and also to be less self-focused when they read the Scripture, I have done my job.
  2. Every class session then has a specific purpose within that larger framework. I need to prepare, solidifying that particular purpose and teaching to accomplish that objective.
  3. In depth study is essential because, without a wealth of material that is accurate and well thought out, I not only will develop bored (and probably skeptical) students but I also will have been unfaithful. Along that line, making sure that the lecture follows a clear logical flow is a must.
  4. In depth meditation is essential because, without having the truth convicting and driving my affections, I will have a dull lecture and students can see that this is just information rather than compelling truth.
  5. Prayer throughout the preparation and teaching process is essential because, frankly, I am inadequate for the task and only God can give success.
  6. Follow the Pauline mantra that we’re not only giving the students the Word but also our lives (cf. 1 Thess 2:8). I need to demonstrate in word and deed that I care about and want to shepherd students in their academic inquiries and their broader questions of life, and to assist in their spiritual growth. Sometimes it’s while walking a student through a crisis that everything in the classroom comes together for him.
  7. Set the student in the larger context of the church and the plan of God. Part of the beauty of a college is that students in different vocations can be equipped to serve at many local churches in a variety of ways. We can strengthen the church thereby. Conversely, students must see that objective as part of the telos [the purpose or end] of the instruction we give. They need to be so enraptured by God, His plan, the gospel, and the church that they are determined to contribute in His eternal plan according to the ways He has prescribed.  This invites (for some) further academic study and for all, active work in the church.
  8. Having done all of this, pray for students, as Christ alone builds His church.

What are common weaknesses of young teachers?

I am still young and a young teacher so perhaps I am not the best to answer the question! Young teachers sometimes feel like they need to prove themselves or prove something (e.g., a certain novel idea they have). Hence, they tend to show that they are the hardest in the classroom or try to impress with their erudite complexity at the risk of actually being effective. Sometimes they can be quite aggressive in their writing or lecturing as well. That can lead them to never admit that they’re wrong or don’t know something. Students are more impressed with a professor’s integrity (and humility) when he cares enough about the truth to say he was wrong or says he doesn’t know and then is diligent to find the answer. Young teachers may also be quickly disoriented by a mix of opportunities when they haven’t yet figured out their own priorities. Speaking opportunities, publishing possibilities, research, preparation for classes, conferences, meeting with students, teaching, and dare I say, administrative issues, can easily flood a teacher. The question becomes, “What am I really supposed to do?” In immaturity, one may swing to one extreme or the other, but in the end, a teacher needs to be able to identify what God has called him to do and pick and choose the right mix of opportunities to be faithful to his calling. In this regard, contentment can be an issue with young teachers as they want more than perhaps the Lord has allowed them to have. They become so busy acquiring “more ______” instead of focusing on what they are supposed to be doing. This connects with the issue of patience. Sometimes we want it all without waiting and being refined by the Lord to be ready for what He has for us. To put all of the above differently, the mature teachers I admire know what they are supposed to do, why and how they are to go about this in every area of life, and serve the Lord in those ways without distraction and with integrity and humility. They do not invite fanfare but acknowledge the power of God through them for His glory.

How have you developed as a teacher over the years?

In addition to having more knowledge, understanding, and clarity in the material I teach as well as in its presentation, the Lord has used the years to shape the convictions that I have listed above. Those truths, maybe obvious to most, were not always so clear or convicting to me or perhaps I was just prone to distraction from what I knew to be true. I learned these lessons “stumbling around” my first years of teaching and am still shaping a better philosophy of education today as I continue to wrestle through those issues and more. Most poignantly, I have learned every year (verily, every class!) how useless I am apart from the grace of God. I often leave a class and think on how I wished the lecture was clearer, more engaging, more in depth, smoother, better organized, etc. At the same time, instead of total introspection, I turn to the Lord in prayer, remember Jesus Christ, and know He will complete His work. This foundation allows me to go forward for another day, another class/lecture. From this, I often find myself praying, “Use me at whatever cost, even myself,” and that is a good place to be (Luke 9:23). A potential weakness of young teachers is to be self-focused, but a mature teacher has put off the fear of man and put on the fear of his Lord and Savior. The latter truly grasps that while much of life is fleeting, faithfulness and obedience (even in small and unnoticed things) have eternal value (cf. 1 Cor 4:1-2). By God’s grace, I am growing in that direction.

Thank you, Abner, not mainly for sharing these principles but for living them. May your tribe increase!

1. Dr. Rob Plummer, Assoc. Prof. of NT Interpretation, Southern Seminary
2. Dr. Abner Chou, Asst. Prof. of Biblical Studies, The Master’s College

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