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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.

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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.

Contextualisation; a little test

June 27, 2018

Contextualisation; a little test.

I wonder if it is widely known that the word contextualisation was first popularised not in mission studies but as a marker of good theological education.

Under the third mandate of the Theological Education Fund led by Shoki Coe from 1970 to 1977, contextualisation, a very new concept at the time, became the criteria for the fund’s financial support of colleges and seminaries especially in the developing world. The root of the issue for the TEF was ensuring that the college, seminary or training scheme is relevant to the context it is serving and not foreign in perpetuating external attitudes, is locally sustainable, and is not just answering problems and questions from outside the context.

I doubt if there is a college, or seminary today which does not aspire to being contextual. It has become such a widely used label that it has often come to mean very little. But what was its original use?

The Theological Education Fund proposed that there should be four levels of contextualisation in theological education: 1) theological – asking if theology is done as a task of relating the gospel to the context issues in ministry and culture; 2) structural – asking if the structure of a college or a programme conforms to social and economic patterns of context; 3) pedagogical – asking if the educational process is reflecting local patterns, is liberating or is reinforcing elitism in ministry and whether it bridges the gap between the academic and the practical; 4) missiological – asking if the college or programme focuses on the task of mission, including renewal and reform in the churches, and the issues of human development and justice in society (Lienemann-Perrin, 1980: Training for a Relevant Ministry; a Study of the Contribution of the Theological Education Fund, 175).

This taxonomy of contextual theological education is by no means perfect but it does provide us with a little test; How does our school measure up in these four categories? If we scored our college or seminary from one to ten in each of the categories, which would come out top and which bottom?

I suspect the answer would vary greatly depending on whether we took a geographical or historical viewpoint.

A local church will often advise its foreign missionaries to plant contextual churches that relate to the local culture but omit to notice that they back home were formed and continue to exist in the culture of a previous generation and so are not, as a church, contextual to their own contemporary culture.

In the same way, theological schools can live within the culture of the past in which they were formed and so not relate contextually to their own contemporary world or church. There are plenty of colleges which teach contextualisation enthusiastically to their students who are going “overseas” on mission but are not contextual themselves in the four categories of the TEF. They sometimes answer outdated questions, teach in outdated patterns, structure themselves in outdated unsustainable forms and relate to a previous culture’s and previous church’s needs.

Of course, there is more to good theological education than contextualisation but you cannot have good theological education without it.

Faculty development

June 1, 2018

Faculty development

Towards the end of an academic year, teaching staff are arranging with their principal or academic dean a time for their appraisal/encouragement interview. When it comes, the interview and the resultant development plan is usually far too narrow and often not based on good theological education theory.

Generally, faculty development is discussed mostly within the academic area of the job but this goes against what is surely incontrovertible; that the development we want to see in our students should be the development we strive for as a faculty member. Why it is called development when we talk about teachers and formation when we talk about students is a mystery but the greatest power to form students comes from teachers who are formed in the same way and act as living examples. My argument is simply that we should be linking more closely what we want for our students and what we want for our teachers.

Staff development therefore is all about progression in the four main areas we often talk about with our students regarding their formation; academics, spirituality/character formation, ministry, and contribution to the community (being a loving, peaceful, vital member of the team) – along with one life which integrates them all.

In our appraisals, the academic area is often well covered with discussion of student feedback, how they consider the teaching has gone that year, future academic plans, publications, personal, assessment of where they are and where they are going academically, conferences, sabbaticals and so on.

The spiritual/character side is rarely mentioned except encouraging teachers to attend chapel if necessary. It is not easy to talk to staff about their spiritual lives, but a pastorally caring leader will do so and gently encourage growth. Retreats, literature, prayer, spiritual disciplines can all be mentioned. Feeling inadequate, angers, anxieties and other problems can sometimes have spiritual roots and so can be helped by spiritual attitude changes.

Ministry wise, Professional development in the theory and practice of teaching and learning is important; the development of a sense of call to the ministry of teaching in theological education also. The teacher can also develop in how he or she sees their job as fundamentally ministry to the students and the church as a whole. James’ saying that not many of us should be teachers because we will be judged with greater strictness could also be discussed (James 3v1) and how that affects us, teaching in the presence of God.

And loving engagement with others in the community is surely important as an issue for the conversation. How does the teacher’s sense of calling match the sense of calling of the seminary or college? How has the teacher shown love and encouragement to other staff? How has the teacher contributed to the example the staff set the students, of working together in harmony for the kingdom?

It is not an easy task being a teacher in theological education and much of an appraisal interview should be encouraging and positive, full of thanks and appreciation. The necessary task of modelling the sort of formation we want for the students is an especially hard ask; but I do not see how we can ask for less.

Or talk about less in a realistic appraisal interview.


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