Online Theological Text Books

I’ve been thinking about online texts for theology for a number of years, I have a good idea of what I want to see happen, but I have no idea how to make it happen.

A bit of background: I’m a web developer by former trade and training, I have written Content Management Systems and even a Wiki engine, and have spent a lot of time thinking about how to put information onto the Internet. I have also taught basic theological courses (Moore College’s PTC) in India, and have a bit of an idea of the teaching needs there – although I am by no means an expert. My passion is to improve the teaching in the Developing World. Thus I am training at Moore College with the specific plan of becoming a lecturer.

The Vision

So, what do I want to see happen? A single site that integrates Biblical and Systematic theology and Biblical Studies in an interwoven web. This site would contain pages on:

Biblical Studies:

  • Each book of the Bible, with high level summary (Biblical Dictionary level). These are a home page for the pages below.
  • Each major theme in a specific book, tracing the theme through the book (as is common in Theological colleges, but not som much in commentaries). These link to the commentary pages of the specific passages involved.
  • Each chapter or pericope of each book, giving a commentray that is usable for a diploma-trained theologian (ie BST Commentaries). These link back to the theme pages that this chapter raises.
  • The difficult passages of a book, giving different perspectives from an evangelical point of view, and discussion of original language issues where appropriate (ie John 1:1 vs JW’s or the Unforgivable Sin etc). These will link to other exegetical and theological issue pages.

Biblical Theology:

  • Tracing themes of the Bible throughout Biblical History. These pages will link to the pages on the themes for each book, where such a page exists. This allows the reader to pursue a theme in more detail.

Systematic Theology:

  • Each major Systematic category as traditionally divided (not a major issue, see Advantages below). These are the home pages for the pages below.
  • Each topic of the category. An introduction and a collection of all the pertinent primary verses – linking to the commentary pages.
  • A discussion of the various ways – evangelical and non evangelical – of understanding what the verses mean. This includes pros and cons. Each of these can be a separate page if they are big enough. These will link to the theological and exegetical issues involved. The discussion can appropriately condemn false teaching, and represent the loving debates that exist within the evangelical family.

Advantages

Obviously, this vision is huge, and cannot happen overnight. However, it has some major advantages over other approaches, that can make this both very plausible, and very valuable for both the Developed and Developing Worlds.

Slow Growth: This is the greatest advantage. Pages will grow and develop as experts in the appropriate fields invest the time. The theology section can start with basic outlines of the major topics as found in a diploma level course (the existing PTC courses, Bruce Milne’s Know the Truth or Peter Jensen’s unpublished text are great examples). The Commentaries will develop in two streams – (1)  the “difficult passages” may be worked on as specific Theological pages require them to be and (2) as scholars develop a commentary or lecturers or even preachers  prepare a series, they can put up the bigger picture stuff that they develop.

Multiple Authorship: This is suggested by the slow growth. Individual people can contribute theological topics, or books of the Bible, or Biblical-Theological themes etc. This will not be a wiki per se, as only invited contributors will be allowed, and they will be encouraged to write whole pages / sections.

Attributed Authorship: Theological scholarship benefits from the reader knowing the qualifications of the author. It also benefits from single articles being written by the same person, and crafter to make an argument. So, unlike a Wiki envoronment, this system will strive to have each individual page written by a single contributor. That contributor will be acknowledged in the article, with a link to thier bio page. If additional information needs to be added by another contributor, then both will be attributed, and the original article will be available (like a wiki environment).

Trust: As a result of the attributed authorship, and support from trustworthy theological institutions, this site can be trusted as a source of high quality academic work that is faithful to the Bible, but sympathetic to different interpretations and debates within the community of Bible focussed scholars.

Electronic: The great advantage to the Developing World is that this is not on paper. Internet access is spreading rapidly, and much of the Church that has difficulties accessing printed books has no problems accessing web sites. The problem they have is the dearth of useful and trustworthy internet resources.

Non Linear: Another advantage is that the page are an interlinked web, rather than a linear book. This is particularly important for Systematic Theology. Many Systematic Theology texts are affected by the need to start somewhere. The choice of starting point effects the flow of the argument.  As in interwoven web, there is no starting point. The section on the Scriptures links to the section on the Spirit, which links to the section on the nature of God etc. The interrelations and interdependence of the doctrines are shown by the interconnections of the pages. Equally, the Systematic books are strengthened by their links to exegetical work. Effectively, the hermeneutic/systematic spiral is represented by the interlinking of the pages.

Normalisation: This is a database concept that means keeping information in one place, and linking to it heaps. Thus a page on the divinity of Jesus does not need to go into the exegesis of John 1:1, nor does one on Election need to contain the details of the debates about Romans 9-11. Instead, they link to the appropriate pages. This avoids Barth-style small-print exegesis, but also avoids the equal trap of not having exegetical support for the use of a passage.

Learning Paths: For education purposes, this system can support learning paths. These are a progression of pages that the student is guided through to teach them a single subject. At each page, the student can go off the reservation and read all the connected information that they are interested in, and the learning path is telling them where to go next once they have sated their curiosity.

I’m not the only one who thinks this is a good idea:

http://theologianswithoutborders.blogspot.com/2009/06/seth-godin-tells-teachers-quit.html

http://biblicalstudiesorguk.blogspot.com/

Technology

The best available technology for this hovers between the Wiki format and the older Content Management System format. Basically it is a large collection of web pages that are heavily interlinked and rarely edited once created. Changes will have to be preserved and kept available, so the wiki engine might be the better technology.

The authorship will have to be heavily controlled, and possibly all contributions should be prrofed and posted by a central editor/s. This will not be to ensure the theological quality (because the quality of the contributors ensures that) but the technical requirements, cross linking of topics etc. This will also preserve the link naming consistency as the page number increases (hopefully rapidly).

Making it a Reality

There are two ways of making this work. The first is the Wikipedia model – start small, allow contributions from multiple sources and slowly build up the quality of the content. There is a site that is doing this, called Theopedia.com. However, this method is unreliable, slow and results in inconsistent content. This is especially true for Theology, which is not a field for interested amateurs to be educating other interested amateurs.

The better method is to get scholars and experts to contribute in the fields of their expertise. If a single Theological Institution gets behind it, and encourages its staff to contribute on topics as they are able, I estimate that the site can be in a operative state in 5 years. If multiple institutions support it, then the time is slashed massively. This seems like a long time, but some paper commentaries and systematic theologies take as long, if not longer, to write.

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