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Give my head peace

February 1, 2019

Give my head peace

Dear prospective students,

Thank you for your enquiry about possibly becoming a student at Corpus Christi Seminary this next academic year. Maybe I can help you in your decision by saying a little as to what we are all about.

There is an expression in Northern Ireland – “give my head peace”. We do not intend to do that. We have no intention to disturb your faith but we have every intention to disturb your brain.

Our lecturers are nice people but they are not just cuddly teddy bears. If you state a view, they will (gently, for sure) ask you why you hold it. If you take one side in a controversy, they will ask you whether you have considered the arguments for the other side. If you describe an experience, they will thank you and thank God and then show you how to interrogate that experience from the scriptures as to meaning. If you assert a particular way of life, they will suggest you look at Christians from another culture to see how they read scripture on that issue. They will not just build a magnificent edifice of historical or denominational theological truth in front of your eyes, they will also show you the cracks in the building (It is a universal truth; all old theological buildings have cracks.)

And they will not just teach you truth. They will ask you to consider the implications of truth and ask you to ask yourself why you have not applied it to the way you live. They will not just exegete a passage as if it were dead text, they will ask whether it has come alive in your brain and heart and life. They will not give you career guidance so much as ask what you are going to do with your life for God.

Why? Because we live in an age of secular dominance of the media, of shallow Christian ideas and books which can mess you up, of people on wrong paths believing wrong things, of a mission field which is a pretty muddy field, not easy to play on. If you want to live well in today’s world and serve God truly, this is no time for peaceful heads.

Of course, there will be joyful times, delightful community, peaceful hearts, the strengthening of our belief in, and commitment to, the gospel and the Word. But these will not be bought by the bad coin of unthinking, un-applied faith. That is not our job.

Knowing this, I hope you can be happy here as a student. If not, I am sure you will be able to find another theological education institution which will give you an easier ride.

Your sincerely,

the principal

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Happy new year?

January 1, 2019

 

Happy New Year?

What would make 2019 a happy year for you?

Happiness has recently become a concept to be studied and there are shelves of books on the subject in our bookstores. Few would deny that human happiness depends, after our basic needs are met, on our relationships, our health (mental and physical) and our sense of significance.

For Christians, these are all trumped by our relationship with God and his gifts of grace, so much so that preachers often distinguish between Christian joy and human happiness – although those who have been through times of human unhappiness know it is a complicated relationship.

But will you be happy in your job as a theological educator in 2019? This is how I see it;

I have often spoken in this blog on theological education as ministry, the ministry of teaching. All ministry looks two ways. It looks to God as the one who calls us into ministry in order to please Him, and it looks to the people we minister to, in order to bless them. Happiness in theological education then is to work with a sense of fulfilling your calling on the one hand and knowing you are blessing and developing your students on the other.

If you cannot fulfil your calling or bless your students, I do not see how you can be happy. If you can know you are working out your calling and blessing your students, then I do not see how you cannot be happy in teaching. This must surely be true even if there is unhappiness elsewhere in your life, or even in your college or seminary with problems, tensions and worries which sometimes come in the best of institutions. How often many of us have experienced the classroom or the supervision, where we feel fulfilled and useful, as a happy oasis in difficult times.

Leaders of theological education institutions have a complicated and difficult job to do but no aspect of their job is more important than ensuring that their teachers are able to fulfil their own personal calling as Christian teachers and able to help their students to develop in their faith, their understanding and their usefulness. We will not have happy staff in 2019 without that

I hope all my readers have a very happy new year.

The forgotten tool of memory

December 1, 2018

The forgotten tool of memory

Memorising chunks of text has a bad press in theological education. It is seen as the lowest form of learning, learning by “rote”, in an era that (rightly) emphasises critical judgment. This is unfair and causes us to miss a very valuable tool for our task.

Memorising a key text does not mean we do not exercise critical judgement, it just gives us anytime access to the material we are able to work with. It also embeds text in our very psyche which becomes a part of us. I was blessed to have been in a school which required us to learn “by heart” speeches from Shakespeare, poems from Wordsworth, Browning and Keats which I can reproduce today and are now part of my intellectual furniture.

Admittedly, for Christians, this has been an area of abuse in the past with so called “proof texts”, usually not more than a verse, or even “promise boxes” which isolate statements from their context. But few of us would disagree with our students learning by heart significantly long key passages of scripture. Exegesis is important and to have the key passage always in our mind’s eye is a great advantage to good exegesis. Furthermore, it allows the scripture to become a part of us and makes it available in times when we need comfort, re-assurance and challenge. Who does not know by heart Psalm 23, or parts of Philippians 2, or Romans 5 or John 3? We worked with the text so much in college that I even have forever in my head the Greek text of parts of John 1.

And the blessing is not confined to scripture, it carries over to key theological texts. Every Christian should know the Apostles Creed. Presbyterians may well know the shorter catechism. No student of mine would do well in an exam question on the Person of Christ who did not know the key statements of the definition of Chalcedon. Our students need to also be able to quote accurately, from memory, key statements from a number of contemporary theologians so they are available for argumentation.

The problem is that we agree with all this but do not incorporate it into the deliberate teaching and learning of our colleges and seminaries. What is wrong with setting an assignment such as “memorise Ephesians chapter 2 by next week” or a psalm, or a key passage from Augustine’s De Trinitate, or the opening section of Luther on the Freedom of a Christian, or key passages from the Lausanne Covenant? Or the Nicene creed? (OK, make your own list if you do not like mine.) In so doing, we are putting up the pictures in the room of their mind, nailing them to the walls of their brain as things they can stand in front of, gaze at any time in their future lives, and love.

These will form for them a foundation for life, a basis for ministry and, one day when their short-term memory is less certain, they will grow larger and more luminous and help to govern their last days.

Answering an ancient question

November 2, 2018

Answering an ancient question

Thomas of Kempen, in about 1410, asked the following question in book one of his classic work The Imitation of Christ;

“Of what use is it to discourse learnedly on the Trinity if you lack humility and so displease the Trinity?”

It would take a book to give an adequate answer but let me make a brief attempt at an outline, as a theological educator.

  1. There seems to be a questionable assumption embedded in the question. Theology does not ultimately need to have a “use”. True, there is too much theology which is not useful, and it is our job to being out the usefulness of theology to our students, but one can study to learn the truth about God and his ways without any direct application to life and ministry, just that it is worthy, right and good to know. I hope Thomas was not questioning that.
  2. There is a fundamental link between our studies and ourselves. A Kempis was speaking against mediaeval scholastic theology but we have our own version today; theology as a dis-interested science that can be done by someone trained in study but not in a lively relationship with God. But godliness is the only adequate foundation for God talk. One answer to the question is “no use to us in our desire to please God which is a greater desire than to know more”.
  3. The question also suggests a lack of usefulness to our students. To teach theology or biblical studies without a humble heart harms our students because they have an example to follow as they go out into ministry and do the same. Students leaving college or seminary proud of their intellectual achievements rather than humble is a failure of theological education. It is a scary thought, but we can set people up for displeasing God in ministry by the way we teach.
  4. There is great use in discoursing learnedly about the trinity if your heart if right. Schleiermacher was wrong to put it as a postscript to his systematic theology, Barth was right to start with it. It is at the base of so much, of our redemption, our mission, our prayer life, the way we do church, as numerous post-Barth studies have shown.
  5. Pride is one of the occupational hazards of the biblical or theological studies lecturer which we need to continually address in ourselves. Knowledge can easily be seen as conferring status, in church or college, before students. Here, it is put starkly. You can actually displease God by speaking truly about God with pride in your intellectual power and knowledge.

For some years now, I have used this question, asked six hundred years ago, to begin lectures on theology with my students. Ultimately it puts theological studies in the context of our spiritual life, which is where it should be.

Arguing with your students

October 2, 2018

Arguing with your students

“Critical reasoning is to be demonstrated”. We see this phrase in our assessment criteria and it is a favourite of our external examiners. Generally, the level of critical reasoning required increases as the student proceeds through their studies so we are expected to teach it.

“Critical” does not imply negativity. It is all about academic engagement and judgment. It includes the right use of evidence, the construction of a logical argument which holds water, the discussion of relative values of different points of view, the clear expression of careful judgment and sometimes the balancing of probabilities, amongst other skills. Why should we be so concerned about this?

  1. Fundamentally, it is all about the rules of using your mind correctly, of thinking in the right way on issues. For the Christian, it is especially important because we wish to love the Lord our God with all our mind, which surely means using it properly.
  2. More than ever before, we are in an era of fake news, un-true truth, the slipperiness of those who wish to avoid critically correct scrutiny in argument, deliberate bias in the use of evidence and the appeal to fuzzy (or discriminatory) emotions as a way to bypass reason. This is made worse by social media which lends itself to un-filtered lies. Our students need the tools to deal with this.
  3. Students come to us like most people, not well understanding or applying the basic principles of critical reasoning. Probably our simply declaratory teaching in church does not help.
  4. It is important for our service. As Elton Trueblood once said “There are many duties of the missionary but the first one is to think”.

How then should we teach this required and fundamental skill? We can show our students essays, books and articles which are built on this. However, nothing is nearly effective as an argument with a teacher committed to critical reasoning. This can occur in many forms in the classrooms, seminars and tutorials.

For instance, we can take an unpopular position, argue for it and make the semi-shocked student come back to us on it. We can accept an answer from a student and then lead them forward “up the garden path” into the un-palatable consequences of their expressed position. We can challenge them with the arguments for one of the disputed Christian positions which they have probably never heard in power before (such as on baptism). We can present an argument or exegesis from a scholar winsomely enough for them to agree and then unpick it and re-form it in a better way. There are many other ways to force a student to engage in this way with issues and so learn the skill. And, of course, all this is to be taught within the context of our basic task to declare and defend the fundamentals of the faith.

And we must do this with the right style and attitudes, for we are teaching this also; politely and gently, as befits a humble scholar. Precision in the gentle questioning, the rapier in the velvet glove, is more effective than bombastic declarations that they are wrong and you are right.

It is easy to be afraid of such a classroom activity, we are more exposed than when we simply declare truth from a dominant position, we can ignore the fact our ideas could also need adjustment and we can learn from our students. There is nothing wrong with a bit of blood on the floor, even if occasionally it is ours.

And anyway, arguing with your students is fun.

The job unfinished

August 29, 2018

The job unfinished

This simple post is about praying for our students.

Why? There are four main reasons why it is part of our job;

  1. Teaching is ministry according to the New Testament and prayer for those to whom you minister is a part of all ministries in God’s church.
  2. There are clear examples in Paul, who often mentioned his passionate prayer for those he taught, and Christ himself such as in John 17 and when he said to Peter “I have prayed for you”.
  3. It is a marker of humility, which teachers need especially. If we think we can do the job ourselves we will not pray. If we know we cannot, we will pray.
  4. It helps to create the right relationship between you and your students. You pray for those you love and wish God to bless.

For What? Here are a few suggestions;

  1. The first answer to this is simple, we pray that the objectives of theological education will be achieved in our students. We want them to grow and be formed academically, ministerially, in their character and in their spiritual lives – and not these separately but that each student be formed into an integrated devout scholar servant for God.
  2. We pray also for the conditions which will make this achievable, the right attitudes to these things, the right relationships between teacher and students and a prospering thoughtful college.
  3. We pray for special needs we know of in individual students, a relationship gone wrong, a sickness, a fear of not keeping up, financial problems.
  4. Above all we ask for the presence and work of God in the classroom, in all our activities with the students and in our preparation.

How? This is up to you;

When we are engaged in teaching one to one, such as in postgraduate supervision, for instance, it is easy to imagine and configure. It will probably form part of our preparation for a supervision occasion and at other times depending on need.

When we are teaching a larger class, we will be praying that we will achieve what we should in the teaching of that class and that it will go well and usefully interactively but I don’t think that should absolve us from mentioning the students by name before God. We will have a class list, hopefully with photos, and this can form a basis for briefly holding each up before God, maybe a number of our students each week.

It is just one of those very few rules which have no exceptions; If you teach someone, you also pray for them, otherwise the job is unfinished. As I said at the beginning, it is really quite simple.

Polygamy and theological education

August 1, 2018

Polygamy and theological education

I am pretty sure you have not read anything with this title before, so it requires some justification.

There are two main lines of attitude to polygamy in mission studies. The older missionary practice is to refuse baptism and the lord’s supper to those in Africa with more than one wife, viewing polygamy as a form of adultery. A newer line is to see polygamy as something deeply rooted in a particular cultural view of marriage (such as in Walter Trobisch’s My wife made me a polygamist) and see it as something which can be dealt with not as an issue of repentance but as a slow process of societal and personal change, not a barrier to conversion and acceptance.

Charles Kraft, who worked among the Higi people in West Africa notes that only polygamists are accepted as mature men in that tribe and so should even be considered for church eldership. The apostle Paul seems to suggest otherwise in his situation, saying that elders should be the husband of one wife, but this assumes polygamy was tolerated by Paul in the church but not the eldership. Indeed, God tolerated it for a long time in his people in Old Testament times and someone like David who was a man after God’s own heart was a polygamist.

I am not advocating polygamy or practicing polygamists entering seminary (see below). And I understand that this post significantly simplifies a complex biblical and ecclesiastical issue for our African brothers and sisters. We should note that those mentioned above would see God’s great purpose as one man one wife. But Kraft (and seemingly scripture) see it as an intermediate issue – something to be worked on and put right over time but not something that will interfere with acceptance.

And theological education? How much do students need to be like us and have taken the same sort of life decisions before we accept them? Do we have a genuinely diverse student body? Are we willing to believe in intermediate issues to be dealt with after acceptance?

Our statements of faith tend to be quite basic and fundamental, many people not at all like us could sign them without reservations. But there is another factor present in acceptance; the sociological, cultural and ecclesiological patterns of thought and action superimposed on our basic beliefs that define our community as much as the doctrine. These are the factors which tend to produce a remarkably homogenous student body, who mostly dress the same, think the same, act the same, have the same lifestyle, are often from the same socioeconomic group and come from the same sort of churches.

I do understand that those training for leadership in God’s church need higher and more precise standards than others – as Paul’s distinction on polygamy would suggest – but there are many intermediate issues that we have wrongly elevated to acceptance issues. They would include all secondary issues of doctrine, some lifestyles, some attitudes and some practices; those things (and people) Paul would be happy to lump into the category “let each be fully persuaded in his own mind” and “accept one another as Christ has accepted you” (Romans 14 &15) – at least until people see clearer.

Homogenous student bodies make for an easier teaching job but come with a less exciting classroom.


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