The Covenant


The Covenant

Learning contracts are becoming more important in higher education today.

This is partly driven by the current emphasis on the student learning rather than just the teacher teaching. Constructivism and reflective practice are concepts which require clearer definitions of the roles of the teacher and the learner. Such contracts can be individual, especially at postgraduate level, or for a class or cohort together. They are usually very practical and spell out what the student can expect from the teacher and what the teacher can expect from the student. They help to define the relationship between the two.

Are these useful in theological education? Of course. Clarity of the relationship and expectations between teacher and student is a good thing, whether written down in a course document, agreed in the first class together or put into a contract.

But is it a contract we want? A contract is fundamentally a business arrangement and surely we want more than that. And there are other problems. On the one hand they elevate the idea of the student as consumer, and the attendant growth of a sense of entitlement by the student. On the other hand, they emphasise the idea of the college/seminary as a business. Driven by forces within our contemporary societies, both of these are getting out of hand.

There is a more specifically Christian concept for this, the idea of covenant. Christians know about covenants; they are binding expressions of love. God had one with his Old Testament people and then a new one with us in Christ, renewed as we take bread and wine. Christian marriage is another expression of the same concept.

Covenant for the Christian then is the ultimate expression not of business, but love. Love, whether hesed or agape, is not primarily about emotions (although who has not become emotional at times about our teaching and those we teach?). It is about attitudes and deeds promised. We can see it as possessing three elements;

  1. A selfless preferring of the other, their happiness and development.
  2. The giving of yourself to the other in reality and open-ness.
  3. That these attitudes and actions do not depend on the attitudes and actions of the other, but are from grace.

It is the experience of teachers who see the relationship in this way that many students reciprocate with commitments of their own towards you. I don’t think we can put all this on paper into a learning contract, but we can see it as our fundamentally Christian way of relating to our students.

At the end of the day, theological education is not a business, it is an act of love.

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3 Comments on “The Covenant”

  1. Drew Gibson Says:

    You’ll not be surprised that I, as a card-carrying Presbyterian, have a place in my heart for ‘covenant’. I’m with you in all that you say. Can I suggest a further theological step. As you say, a covenant is an expression of grace, whether made between God and his people or between two people, but we can’t stop there. Movements of grace invite responses. What is offered is to be received and the recipient must, as part of that reception, act appropriately. So a covenant is a call to active, responsible living.

    In the unbalanced power dynamic between teacher and students, presumably the teacher is the primary covenant maker, who offers him/herself to the class and invites the class to respond. As a Practical Theologian, you’ve given me an idea for my first class next semester – a covenant making ceremony. I could prepare a list of covenant commitments that I will make to the class and lead them in a discussion of the commitments that I expect them to make to me. Could we have a mid-semester covenant renewal ceremony? What about an end of semester covenant celebration? These might reconfigure our understanding of assessment and feedback and of the students’ assessment of teachers.

    Hmmm. Maybe, maybe not. Any OT scholars out there?

  2. Perry Shaw Says:

    Thank you, Graham, for your usual careful theological thinking about theological education.
    Interestingly in a recent edition of the Journal of Management Education an article appeared (C.J. Fornaciari and K. and Lund Dean, “The 21st century syllabus: From pedagogy to andragogy”) which listed four approaches to syllabus:
    • Syllabus as contract: Often long, defensive and designed to close policy loopholes; the language is generally directive, defensive, and legalistic; creates defensive students; stifles effective learning and dishonors student differences.
    • Syllabus as power instrument: by following its policies and requirements, classroom events are controlled as closely as possible by the instructor; the message is: the teacher has made all the important decisions in this course, none of them are negotiable, and it’s the teacher who is the focus of the course.
    • Syllabus as communication or signaling device: the content and methodology is clearly defined; high expectations are place on students and instructor.
    • Syllabus as collaboration: the syllabus or parts of it are cocreated by the instructor and the students; the process motivates students and facilitates greater ownership of learning; for beginning students this can a confusing experience and not one they are prepared to handle.
    Even in secular higher education there is a shift away from contract to “covenantal” collaboration.

  3. Paul SANDERS Says:


    I meant to tell you how much I appreciated this piece (as your other blogs). It puts the teacher-learner-institution relationship back on the solid ground of theological truth. Which one would expect in theological institutions, but doesn’t always (often?) see.

    See you soon in Beirut ! Paul

    Paul Sanders 4, allée de l’Aire 44240 La Chapelle sur Erdre FRANCE


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