Faculty Space

Posted July 1, 2015 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized

Sportsmen-parashutist soaring in sky

Faculty Space

Many of us have encountered the work of Henri Nouwen and Parker Palmer on the idea of teachers creating a free and hospitable space in which students can learn – not a literal space but a created pervading atmosphere. The concept deserves an extension into the culture of the faculty in a college or seminary. While teachers are each members of the wider community of the institution, which includes students and administrative staff, they also compose their particular sub-frame within that community which has its own rules and culture, is powerful in influencing its members and also in forming the wider community of the institution, for good or ill. So what sort of faculty space do we need?

Firstly, it will be a space of mutual acceptance and respect, not just as scholars but as believers. Whatever our differences of emphasis, desires, subject, abilities, weaknesses and sins, we have been welcomed by God in Christ and given a task to do together for his kingdom. It involves a joint and common calling.

Secondly, it will be a safe space leading to open-ness. Faculty members need the freedom to make mistakes within the safety of the group, to voice their intellectual views and even struggles on difficult issues which divide Christians, to disagree as to the outworking of the corporate vision, without penalty, but with an acknowledgement of accountability to the team.

Thirdly, it will be a spiritual space, including real diakonia, worship together, prayer for each other and the common task. Staff retreats, staff days, as well as weekly times together all help, but even more important is the intention to grow spiritually together, helping each other closer to Christ. This is often best realised in the wider group which includes the administrative staff.

Fourthly, it will be a space where love rules the relationships. There is bound to be tension at times within a faculty team and we are not required to agree with or even like each other all the time but, as many of us have experienced, the basic rules of Christian love – preferring the other, self-sacrifice, acts of love, make a vast contribution to peace and effectiveness.

Fifthly, it will be a sharp intellectual space where each member challenges and sparks the other into deeper and wider thought. Inter-disciplinary work is more and more necessary in our specialised faculty teams and, although friendly rivalry will always exist between Old and New Testament scholars, theologians and missiologists, a desire to learn from each other and study issues together is enriching,

Sixthly, often this develops into an enabling and prophetic space for the churches and society in which the college or seminary is placed. Churches struggle to cope with the stream of new ideas and attitudes occurring in society, from postmodernity to debate over the latest medical procedures, legal decisions or films. It is the faculty teams of the colleges and seminaries which are best placed to guide the churches’ thinking and speak into society on these issues – and should be encouraged to do so as a prophetic group together fulfilling their mission.

The faculty space of many seminaries and colleges often falls far short of the ideal but, if this is the sort of space you would like to work in as a teacher, it is worth expending energy and resolve to help create it in your college or seminary.

Preferring Paul to Jesus

Posted June 1, 2015 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized


Preferring Paul to Jesus

Only foolish people think only foolish people have heroes. We all look to role models for guidance and inspiration and this is certainly so for theological educators.

We may look for models in those who taught us, or those we have read about in history, but who in the bible are the most useful for us? The contention of this post is that, although Jesus is, of course, our great example and inspiration for the Christian life, the apostle Paul is of more use to us in our job.

At first sight, this may appear strange. Did not Jesus bring together a class of future leaders of the church, teaching and training them for a three year course? Can we not emulate his pattern? We can, very usefully, in certain ways. Of course, both Paul’s and Jesus’ examples need to be handled carefully because of the cultural distance, but there are good reasons for looking especially to Paul.

Firstly, Jesus trained the twelve to be his own disciples. We must never do that. We, like Paul must train our students to be the disciples of someone else. This is a trap people have fallen into in the past in church and college.

Secondly, Jesus was not touched by sin, failure or culpable weakness. Our own weaknesses, failures and sins are a part of teaching our students. They need to know from us how to get up again after failure; how to obtain forgiveness and carry on; how to be spiritually weak yet useful. We can see this in Paul (indeed, Paul used his sin and weaknesses in his teaching), but not in the perfection of Jesus. Again, we easily fall into the trap of presenting a wonderful, successful front to our students which is false to us and not helpful to them.

Thirdly, Paul was a product of some of the best academic training of the day and his teaching reflects that. He models to us the work of a teacher-minister with a background in the schools. OK, Jesus knew better, but we feel a kinship as Paul struggled to both use and be suspicious of his academic background.

Fourthly, Paul wrote widely on his concept of ministry. He uses pictures of clay vessels, models such as farmer, mother, father, and great declarations – such as the seminal statement in 1 Thessalonians 2, where he says that he did not only share the Word with them but his very life also. He develops an understanding of the gift and role of “teacher”.

Paul will never supplant Jesus in our hearts, in our desire for an example as to how to live to please God. We are not grateful to Paul for our glorious salvation.

But Paul is worth a good long look as the best role model for our job of being a theological educator.


Posted May 1, 2015 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized



When I was a student at college, I was a young man in love. I lost my heart to a beautiful woman, to theology and to the Lord and His cause. There had been pale reflections of those loves before but this was the time of full blossom, reality.

We have to guard against the hyper-rationalisation of theological education. It is not just about thinking. It is about feeling and committing as well, it is about love.

So where does love come into theological education? Speaking in more general terms, are not the three great loves of the theological teacher; people, subject and God?

If we do not love students, we should not be in the job. For sure, you can deliver information from the front, even make them think, but it is unlikely that the connection between you and the students will be made if you do not love, and it is that connection which promotes real learning.

If we do not love our subject, we are teaching in the wrong area. Theology, Bible, Church History, Mission and so on, need to be landscapes we enjoy wandering in, workshops we enjoy creating things in, areas we want to show to our students so they will love them too.

If we do not love the God we serve, what is the point of it all? Without this as the main reason for teaching, our job becomes a selfish exercise, or at least a bit of benevolence to poor empty students.

Now, of what use is this little meditation on love to a hard working theological educator?

  1. It asks the question as to whether, amid all the administration, marking of papers, faculty meetings and emails, we have lost our first love – the emotion and commitment to our students, our subject and our God.
  2. It helps us assess applications from those who wish to teach in our institutions. It suggests that we do not only ask what they know but also what they love.
  3. It guides our staff development programmes. They have to be targeted towards the restoring and developing of love as well as knowledge. Principals and academic deans have a responsibility in this area.
  4. It gives a new perspective on the concept of integration in theological education. We seek an emotional integration as well as a conceptual integration We each only have one heart. Our loves cannot be kept entirely separate. We love students for God’s sake, we love our subject because it is rich in God-issues, guides and prompts to discipleship. We love our students and our study as an outlet for our love to God.
  5. It helps to define our objectives – helping our students to love others, the truth and God with an un-divided heart.

So can we say with the Beatles “Love is all you need”? Not quite, but theological education would be a miserable calling without it.

Thought is conduct

Posted April 1, 2015 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized


Thought is conduct[1]

Theological educators tend towards living in a dichotomy between thought and conduct. As teachers and researchers we are skilled at categorisation. We like to do the thought and send our students out to do the conduct. We separate the academic from the practical, the head from the hands and locate our job in the first so they can do their job in the second.

Or we link the two together as cause and effect. If we are traditional evangelicals, we say “get the theology right and the conduct will follow” (though it often does not). Or, if we are more liberation theology inclined we say the opposite “Get the conduct right and the theology will follow”.

But we do not consider thinking as conduct itself and that is a pity. What would be the result of affirming that our thinking is a part of our conduct?

  1. We would consider bad thinking immoral. Careless thinking becomes as bad as careless living in other respects. To break the laws of right thought becomes as evil as breaking the laws of right living. Yet spinning politicians, disingenuous advertisers, careless preachers and sometimes theological educators are guilty of what we falsely assume is a “lesser crime”.
  2. We would want to think as enthusiastically, openly and passionately as we want to live – the complete opposite of how we “thinkers” are thought of in society and even the church today. Some teachers are passionate thinkers and the students know them.
  3. We would consider the way we think as much a part of our discipleship as the way we live in other ways. If how we act is a part of worship to God, so is how we think. It is also what we owe God.
  4. We would realise that, if it is right to live in such a way as to love and benefit others, so also this as an end and objective of our thought life. It does not mean that we only discuss “useful” theology, but it does mean that we have no mandate for an ivory tower mentality for our thought life. We must have an eye for the value to, and effect on, others as we do in other forms of conduct.

Is there a theological undergirding to all this? Yes, in creation and redemption. Our minds were made as an integral part of us, to be used rightly as any other part, such as hands and eyes. And, for all the effects of sin, we please God, says Paul, by the renewing of our minds.

Teachers have to do a lot of thinking so, if thinking is conduct, it is a very large part of our conduct before God. Perhaps that is why James in his epistle says “Not many of you should presume to be teachers my brothers, because you know that we who teach with be judged more strictly”[2]

On the conduct of our minds.

[1] Clifford Geertz, quoted in Fred Inglis “Thoughts Unbecoming” Times Higher Education, No.2196, 26th March 2015, pp44-47, 47.

[2] James ch.3 v1.NIV.

Miserable Students?

Posted March 1, 2015 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized


Miserable Students?

In the early 19th century, a manuscript was discovered in the Hof-Bibliothek in Munich, probably written in the monastery of Benedictbeuern in the early 12th century. Here are two verses (1 and 3) of a poem from this text[1].

Let’s away with study,

Folly’s sweet.

Treasure all the pleasure

Of our Youth:

Time enough for age

To think on Truth.


So short a day,

And life so quickly hasting

And in study wasting

Youth that would be gay!


Let us as the gods do,

‘Tis the wiser part:

Leisure and love’s pleasure

Seek the young in heart

Follow the old fashion,

Down into the street!

Down among the maidens,

And the dancing feet!


So short a day,

And life so quickly hasting,

And in study wasting

Youth that would be gay!


I began a theology module taught last semester with a discussion of this poem.

So the question is, does study cut young people off from the joys of human life? Does our teaching make our students miserable? Would they far rather be down there with the dancing feet? I am convinced that we need a strong conviction that the opposite is true in the teaching of theology.

And we need to be able to pass that conviction on to our students if we are to succeed. Many of our students are young people not long out of school. Others are older, but, if they have come to college later, they are starting again in life in some way and the questions buzzing around in their heads are not always that different from those of the young person sitting next to them in class.

Our task is to help them all to live and love and have joy in God and life, including all the goodness of the world he has given us richly to enjoy – yes, even the dancing feet. Unlike most higher education subjects, theology and biblical studies are ideally placed to do this job. They are full of resources to help our students be happy and fulfilled Christian human beings.

It teaches them what real love is all about from the atonement. It instructs them in how a life can be centred gladly in a great cause in discipleship classes. It shows something of personhood and relationships in the study of the trinity. It gives a solid hope for the future in eschatology and a home and community in ecclesiology. It demonstrates what a real human being is like in Christology. It helps sort out all kind of issues with this world – even down to the sort of coffee we should drink – in the doctrine of creation. It shows how to live in peace. It builds models of friendship. Above all, it gives meaning and purpose to a human life in God himself and a glorious example of a life lived in complete dedication to God in the narrative of the life of Christ.

Our courses in theology could even be re-titled “The basis for living a fulfilled life as God intended”.

So don’t just let your students gaze out of the window at the dancing feet of others, let your theology teach them to dance.

[1] English translation Helen Waddell Mediaeval Latin Lyrics (London: Constable, 1909) p203.

Singing theology

Posted February 1, 2015 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized


Singing Theology

Karl Barth’s lectures on dogmatics given in Basle in 1946 used to begin with a psalm or a hymn. Mine last month in Belfast did not.  The reason is worth exploring.

Initially, the connection between hymn singing and teaching theology/biblical studies does not seem close. They are different activities. However, Barth was not alone in putting them in conjunction. Jesus, after the discourses in the upper room – the most theological teaching in the gospels – sang a psalm with his disciples at the end before they left.

Our lack of connection between the two, hymn-singing and teaching theology, is due to a certain recent movement of each away from the other. Theology has become more and more an academic exercise and, to the extent that it conforms to the objectivity of enlightenment university academia, struggles to find a place for sung belief. Hymn-singing has become less of a rehearsing of the great theological themes and, as Ward says, more of a transactional event between the singer and God. Thus these two activities have drifted apart.

However, there is no good reason why they should inhabit separate boxes. Sometimes we talk in self-satisfied tones of moving from the chapel to the lecture theatre and back but that un-necessarily separates the two activities. Integration is not furthered by having separate rooms for worship and theology. Anselm’s useful definition of theology that it is “faith seeking understanding” seems to me as not any more useful than to see theology as “worship seeking understanding”.

And now to the practical bit! What if the teacher doesn’t have a musical voice? What if the students are reluctant? I guess if you decide not to sing a worship hymn as a part of your theologising with your students, you have the right. But then you will have to find another way of impressing on them (and reminding you of) the intimate connection between theology/biblical studies and worship, or you do them a dis-service.

Perhaps it would just be simpler to sing.


Posted January 1, 2015 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized



There is one characteristic of Christ-likeness that is shared by both the beatitudes and the fruit of the Spirit. This is gentleness and it is my contention that it is central to our teaching.

In the Greek, “gentleness” the noun is praotes and the adjective “gentle” is praus. The authorised version in English translates these without exception as meekness and meek but more modern translations, drawing on contemporary usage, tend to translate them as gentleness and gentle, but occasionally, in certain contexts, meekness and meek.

Barclay points out that the words were used to refer to a wild animal such as a horse that has been tamed. So they do not refer to an absence of strength but a presence of self-control, specifically not to hurt. Jesus was called praus.

This blog has often been interested in the characteristics of the relationship between teachers and students in theological education. Gentleness/meekness seems to be a central element in that; in what way?

Humble gentleness

We can, with care, say that the English word meekness is often used with reference to an internal disposition of the heart, whereas gentleness is often used of a way of interacting with others. This is akin to humility, a quietness of soul that does not push itself forward or consider itself too highly. It is based on knowingly being a recipient of grace. Such a disposition of meekness opens the door for relationships with all. It issues then in gentle dealings. It does not strive, cause difficulty or hurt others. It is in the business of calculating carefully what our words and actions will do to others. It is open to learn from all, including students. It will ask “What right do we have to any other attitude?”

Protective gentleness

We tend to under-estimate the vulnerability of our students (and sometimes of our fellow staff). They need to know that they will be protected by us; that we will, like Christ, not break the bruised reed, even if they have done the bruising themselves. Sometimes, especially in certain cultures, we need to preserve the sense of self-worth and “face” of the students in class. Student open-ness within the teaching process only comes if we are trusted to be gentle if they are wrong, say silly things, or mess up. Gentleness creates safety which promotes learning.

Boundaried gentleness

Gentleness is never without limits. If it means that we do not hurt or create difficulties for another person, we have to add “unless absolutely necessary”. Gentleness, for instance, cannot extend to over-generous marking, which is a form of bearing false witness. Although gentleness will always be as merciful as possible, it also has to maintain discipline and do what is just. In Jesus’ case, it did not stop him becoming angry occasionally or speaking in frustration to his disciples.

Pastoral gentleness

One of our tasks is to challenge students to think hard thoughts that are sometimes painful, that damage pre-conceptions. This is all part of theological education, especially when we receive students from churches that are simplistic and shallow in their thinking and theology. At such points, our duty to challenge has to be accompanied with pastoral gentleness, caring for and preserving their faith, their dedication to Christ and respect for scripture, while helping them to think deeply. You betray your trust if you simply enjoy disturbing students without also gently caring for them.

Jesus once said (Matt. 11.29) “learn from me for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls”

Would it not be wonderful that those who learn from us would find rest for their souls because of our gentleness?


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