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?


Posted December 1, 2014 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized

The mechanism


It has become a standard requirement of theology courses that they be concerned with the three great objectives for their students – academic formation, spiritual formation and ministerial formation. Additionally, we all seem to agree that “balance” between these is never enough but we must strive towards “integration”. The problem is that this concept of integration is now in danger of becoming one more phrase, one more aspiration meaning little.

If we were to ask whether our college is thinking about and practicing integration well, could we describe the markers against which we can compare ourselves, or the goals we can set ourselves? Below, I suggest five key areas of thinking and practice that I hope will be useful. These points came out of a recent masters seminar on theological education I conducted with three thoughtful students in Belfast and I am grateful for their stimulation.

  1. We need an integrating concept.

Different writers have tried to integrate the three objectives by taking one of them and making it the integrating factor, such as ministerial formation in some presentations of missional theological education. Others have complained that for too long, it has been academic formation and instead taken spiritual formation as the single key. It never seems to work to elevate one about the others. More usefully, it has been suggested that worship or the glory of God be the integrating concept. It can be argued that Bonhoeffer in his little book Life Together uses Christ himself.

  1. We need an understanding of how they fit together

Some have used a Venn diagram to illustrate how each relates to the other two separately and together. Some have talked about different lenses through which we view the material or tasks. Also usefully, some have taken the Trinitarian concept of perichoresis as a specific Christian ontology of unity in diversity. As in the persons of the Trinity, each of the three is bought to life by the others and when you encounter one you encounter the other two. That would have grand implications for lecturing, ministry placement and chapel.

  1. We need a Biblical and Theological basis

There are plenty of biblical resources to help us conceive of the way to integrate these aims. There is Paul’s pattern of moving from doctrine to practice based on the doctrine, Christ’s insistence that we will only know if we obey, the relationship of the Holy Spirit to understanding, and so we can go on. There are also plenty of theological resources – especially from pre-enlightenment days when it was un-natural (except in certain scholastic circles) to have dis-interested or godless theology. I still stand in awe of Calvin placing within his institutes a chapter on self-denial. If we teach the need for integration to ourselves and our students, we are just teaching the bible and good theology.

  1. We need to remember we are dealing with people

Integration is personal in that we are preparing/teaching, persons, singular individuals who do not exist in three parts. It is rightly now common to speak of holistic theological education because we know that the students have to be un-divided. We teach John Smith or Mary Jones who have heads, hearts and hands which need to work together. Just as importantly, if we want to have any chance of getting through to John or Mary, we need to exemplify the three united in our person, to be as their teacher, a devout-scholar-minister.

  1. We need practical ways of helping the integration

You probably do some of these already. Tools available are reflective practice journals, integrative seminars, integration essays at the end of a semester, mentoring, certificates or diploma supplements which do not just talk about academic achievement and so on. Perhaps above all, we can set out the goal of integration to our students at the beginning of their time with us and frequently throughout their course.

Every college or seminary is somewhere on the spectrum between fragmentation and integration. Maybe the five areas above – conceptual, structural, biblical, personal and practical – will help us place our institution on that spectrum and encourage us towards the task.

Out of this World

Posted November 1, 2014 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized


Out of this world

Christians, rather simplistically, are advised to be “in the world but not of the world”. Our classrooms are to be neither. I would like to propose the classroom as a sanctuary from the world.

Student and staff generally live lives patterned by stress. This varies between persons but few in this complex busy world are free from tensions. They may be tensions arising from relationships, money, lack of time, pressures put on the students, not least by our assessment systems. But when students gather in the classroom, they are in a refuge for a while where other things can occupy their churning minds. They have the chance of a significant thought life for a while.

Students and staff also generally live lives dominated by the mundane. There are buses to catch, dogs to walk, breakfast to make, the cash machine to visit, cheese to buy, clothes to wash, the car to take to the garage and birthday presents to buy. The classroom is a welcome escape from the ordinary, the mundane, into the realm of big ideas, great calls to arms, passionate truths.

In the classroom we also finally and gratefully have time to think about ourselves and God. Often even the church services we attend do not give us this space, let alone the everyday round of things to be done. Even our private devotional times are often a rush. But now, in the classroom, whether it be from a text, from a doctrine, from a piece of church history, we can contemplate ourselves and God in all seriousness and the slowness we need, with some guidance from one who has done this before.

And then we can bring back the world, but on better terms, on our terms. We can see it from the standpoint of the important, as God sees it and how we as children of God and serious human beings can see it, if only given the space and time to get our vision right. This will lead to a better engagement with the world – one born out of Christian seriousness rather than out of time pressures, one born out of the great issues of the faith rather than immersion in the ordinary.

Not an easy thing to teach like that, but maybe the most important thing we can do as teachers is shut the classroom door.

We need to talk………

Posted October 1, 2014 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized


We need to talk……

Faculty or staff meetings spend a lot of time talking, but rarely do they talk about what sort of spiritual life they aim for in the students.

In 1988, Kenneth Prior wrote an assessment instrument for colleges and seminaries to help them evaluate their engagement with the spiritual formation of their students.[1] At one point he asks “Is there a written or otherwise formally acknowledged definition of spiritual formation in your institution, is it functional and contemporaneous or does it need evaluation or revision?”

Since then, we have become less confident about our ability to produce such a definition. Some have expressed worries about too tight a definition which would lead students to be “moulded” into spiritual clones of their lecturers (or even of their lecturers when they were young a generation ago!). We are more aware now that each student has an individual journey closer to God. And we are rightly wary of a simplistic “graduate profile” of a mature Christian, designed to apply to all students.

However, the need for faculty to talk together about what they mean by spiritual formation is surely as vital as ever. This is especially so in these days of eclectic spirituality, where evangelicals especially are re-discovering the spirituality of past generations and of other traditions and using these to enrich their own pilgrimages.

The truth is, when we meet together as a faculty or staff we tend to talk about anything but what we aim for in this area, possibly out of personal anxiety that we are not all that spiritually formed ourselves. But to avoid good, deep discussion about one of our key objectives as theological educators must surely be damaging to our task together.

Can I therefore suggest that we do meet as faculty or staff with this clearly on the agenda – and here are a few guidelines for approaching it in a non-threatening way;

  1. We can explore the three tensions in this area of theological education which were set out in the Iona discussions; spirituality and academics; internal piety and external discipleship; individual and corporate spirituality.
  2. Or we can explore Henri Nouwen’s idea that spirituality really consists of relationships. In the great commandments “You shall love the lord your God with all your heart soul, mind and strength and your neighbour as yourself” he sees the three fundamental relationships- with God, with others and with ourselves. Do we add to these the relationship with the church and with creation?
  3. Or we can explore spirituality as the result of the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer. We can maybe start with the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians and go on to see what else Paul says such as in the great passages in Romans eight.

These are just three ways of creating an agenda, starting the discussion about what we mean when we tell the students that we want them to be formed spiritually. And is it worth the talking?

  1. It creates a clarity of purpose as a college or seminary in a key area of its work.
  2. It helps a greater unity among the staff in this task, avoiding conflicts and misunderstandings of each other.
  3. It enables us to feed off each other, in ideas, knowledge and experience to help us fulfil our callings.
  4. It provides an opportunity and incentive for us all to think about our own personal spiritual development and so grow in grace.

I hope by now you agree that we need to talk. So why not send this to your dean, principal or rector?


[1] Amirtham and Prior n.d.(1988) Resources for Spiritual Formation in Theological Education (Geneva: WCC ) 91-97.


Posted August 1, 2014 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized



One of the objectives in our teaching is clarity but how do we achieve it when we are teaching the Word of God?

Martin Luther has something to say about this. He talks of two types of clarity of the Word of God; claritas externa and claritas interna. Now Claritas externa says that everyone can understand the message of scripture, know the fundamental will of God and what is the good news. Claritas interna, however, is not achieved by human reason or strength but by the Holy Spirit in response to prayer and an obedient life.

On the face of it, this seems to exclude the hard work of scholarship but that would be to mis-represent Luther. He was strong on the necessity of education for faith, on the study of the original languages (the sheath of the sword of the Spirit) and on the need to be able to give a good account of your faith using rationality and disputation. The scientific study of theology is certainly Lutheran.

But there is more to theology for Luther than external understanding based on rationality. We are not just dealing with ancient documents like any others, nor are we un-involved scholars, the essential thing is for you personally to hear the Word of God clearly. Luther’s famous triad of what makes a theologian is Oratio (prayer), Meditatio (meditation on scripture) and tentatio (temptation – working obedience out in the struggles of life).

So what about our classrooms? A large proportion of theological education today is integrated in some way with national and international higher education which still tends to operate within the enlightenment paradigm. As Wolterstorff describes this in his article “The Travail of Theology in the Modern Academy”, it includes seeing all learning as generic rather than particular in that one does not study as a woman or man, African or Westerner, Muslim or Christian, but as a rational human being with unbiased critical judgment.

Luther would have loved the hard, rational, careful scholarly work done in this way but he would have added “Come Holy Spirit” and told us that the conditions for Him to come to us are faith, obedience, prayer and the open-ness to be personally changed. At one point, he advised those who were to become theologians to “Kneel down in private and pray seriously and with humility to God that he may give you by his beloved son his Holy Spirit who may enlighten you, lead you and give you sense.”

Our job as teachers is to see that the rational task of higher education today results, by hard careful scholarly work, in a claritas externa of scripture and theology by the students – and tested, if necessary by examination open to all. We must also help our students to a claritas interna by the help of the Holy Spirit, available to those who have faith, struggle in prayer and commit to work out their discovered truth in their obedient lives.

Anything else is to be less than biblical in studying the bible and less than theological in studying the great theologians such as Martin Luther.

The Return of the Lecture

Posted July 1, 2014 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized


The return of the lecture

Of course, it has not gone away. It is still the most used of all teaching methodologies in higher education and theological education. Teachers in these situations even tend to be called lecturers. It is financially important. If one lecturer teaches thirty students, the college collects thirty sets of fees and only has to pay out one salary.

However, most of us know that the lecture has got a bad name. Important studies such as that of Bligh in 2002[1] find it to be as effective in transmitting information, but less effective than any other form of teaching in just about every other area of teaching and learning. Internet based delivery of courses (MOOCs aside) seems to show the lecture to be irrelevant and current areas of educational theory such as constructivism and reflective practice which discuss how students learn, structure and use their learning, generally do not rate the lecture very highly.

Those who defend the lecture (apart from accountants) often talk about how it enables the lecturer’s enthusiasm for the subject to be conveyed to the students and how the lecturer can control the level and content to make it most suitable for the students. These are important positives, but the greatest justification for the lecture is usually missed.

The lecture creates the community of learning.

Week by week (or intensively over maybe ten days), the students and the teacher live together in the same room and spend time learning together. The best classes I have ever taught have been when that sense of community has been created. When we say that it “worked”, this is usually what we mean. But what sort of community? It is a community that is led by the teacher, but can we picture its nature? Once we ask this question, we have a number of surprising pictures available to us.

What about a TV series? These are community activities. They are what is happening with a group of people in some sort of community relationship. They suck you in, they make you look forward to “participation” again next week at the same time, they have drama and emotion.

Or a party? We go there with friends to enjoy ourselves, we talk and learn a lot from each other. We also get to make new friends as friends introduce their friends to us. Those new friends can sometimes then become friends and companions for life. I got to know Martin Luther, Karl Barth, Gustavo Guttierez and Henri Nouwen that way.

Or perhaps a corporate work space? No-one is simply a passive observer here, but a needed part of the community effort. People come together to make things happen, projects are progressed, people change and grow in interaction with others.

Or a form of church? We come together each accepting the other, each bringing a gift, where there is a person with a special gift of teaching but above all where learning is facilitated by the Spirit and the presence of God – where two or three are gathered in his name in community.

So, the use of the concept of the lecture as community not only breaks open the understanding of a good lecture by offering us new parallels, it gives us space to describe it (at least in theological education) in Christian terms and a Christian ontology.

The interesting thing about this perspective is that it seems to demand what good teachers and thoughtful students have always wanted from lectures – a real relationship between teacher and student, and student and student; interaction and activity together; question answering, problem solving and application; humour, the enjoyment of life together and truth mediated through genuine personality.

The first and greatest task of the lecturer is not to convey information, it is to create the community of the classroom.


[1] Bligh, D, “What’s the Good of Lectures?” (Intellect, Exeter: 2002).


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