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In praise of weak students

May 1, 2019

In praise of weak students

Academically strong students are a delight. They bring out the best in us, we can interact with them at a deep level, they react quickly and efficiently to our advice and produce work of which not only they but their teachers also can be proud. An intellectual friendship develops not just between us and the strong student but between the scholars who delight us and that student. After all, we were probably an academically strong student ourselves years ago. Good students make good teachers, we say.

But there is a case for saying that weak students are not only equally important, but also make good teachers even better.

We work in the upside-down world of higher education where it is the academically strong who get the top grades, the prizes, the special applause at graduation. But, according to Paul in 1Corinthians chapter 1, it is the weak who should confound the strong, and in chapter 12, he shows that the weaker parts of the body are especially indispensable and are to be treated with special honour.

Wherein lies the value of a weaker student?

  1. In getting our priorities right. Even in an educational establishment, the value of a person is not to be defined by the processing power of their brain.
  2. In teaching us patience. OK, so we have to explain the best way to exhibit critical use of secondary sources more than once. But it is good for us. And in such circumstances, impatience is an educational crime.
  3. It is easier to add value from a lower base and often when a weaker student has someone to show interest in him or her, they can blossom with growing confidence.
  4. The academically weaker student often has compensations of strength in other important areas of formation, such as ministerial skill or spiritual development.
  5. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that students who do not do very well in academic studies at college are often used significantly for the kingdom and sometimes exceptional academic achievement at college does not transfer to usefulness in kingdom work.
  6. As Paul says, there is a certain choice on the part of God in this direction, in the words of the Authorised version, “that no flesh should glory in His presence”.

Of course, an academically strong student on fire for the Lord is a formidable Christian servant who can have wide and deep influence on others and the cause of Christ. But perhaps such a student prospers in kingdom work most when he or she considers themselves weak; when they have learnt the lesson God had to teach that great intellectual Paul to believe “when I am weak then I am strong”.

We are all in the business of ensuring “that no flesh should glory in His presence”.

A letter to my students

April 1, 2019

Dear students,

I know I moan at you now and then, get a bit exasperated when you do not perform to your potential and am sometimes tired at the end a day with you (though never tired of you). But you should know that, as well as the occasional headache, you give a lot to me.

I fulfil my calling through you and come alive in working with you, you modify my thinking in the act of learning together. I have known moments of joy with you in the classroom and the tutorial. You can and do set me an example in many ways by your lives. And you renew me as you require answers of me to clear fundamental questions after a lifetime of making things more and more complicated in my head.

But don’t expect too much from me. Someone recently described himself as a bundle of weaknesses held together by grace. There is a big truth in that. I will make mistakes and show weaknesses at times. You should not be surprised, and maybe you can be encouraged by that as much as by my strengths.

However, I am more to you than that. I have a large fund of knowledge to pass on, skills I can help you acquire in academics and ministry. You will be asked by the seminary or college to grow as an integrated person, formed academically, spiritually and ministerially and I can provide an example (very inadequate though that will be) of what it could look like in a life seeking to please and serve God.

And I am more than an “expert” who tells you how to pass exams. You see, I have sat where you sit, I have struggled with Greek, laughed in the common room, tried to play the guitar (and in my case, failed), fallen in love, struggled with prayer, worked on through years of ministry in different places, rejoiced and worried, been thankful. From all that, I can pass on wisdom learnt, good attitudes acquired, a knowledge of the love of God and care of God in my life over plenty of years.

Education is not a machine where you put the fee money in a slot at the top, press all the right buttons and eventually the diploma comes out of a slot at the bottom. It is fundamentally an encounter with people who, while flawed, are worth knowing. They may be dead hundreds of years but live on in the story of their life and in their works. Or they may be those you encounter in the classroom, tutorial and around the coffee machine at college.

Sometimes God comes to us through his Word, sometimes through his Spirit, sometimes through circumstances and sometimes through people., I started this little piece by saying that my calling is fulfilled in you. It would be the best fulfilment of my calling that God comes to you through me.

God bless,

Your teacher

Health and Safety at Work in Theological Education

March 1, 2019

The classroom is a dangerous place for a lecturer, intellectually and emotionally, especially if it is filled with active, thoughtful students. However, the following eight tried and tested rules, if carefully adhered to, should keep you relatively safe.

  1. Keep interaction to a minimum. Best of all, just talk your way through the whole lecture hour and leave no time for tricky questions.
  2. Keep well behind the lectern or at a desk placed a good distance from the students. Do not be tempted to wander out where the students are, leaving your notes behind. Never sit on the desk and talk to them. It is badlands out there.
  3. Use PowerPoint a great deal, preferably with lots of interesting images and videos. It takes the students’ attention off you. Try to get the students to form a relationship with the screen not with yourself.
  4. If challenged by a student, NEVER admit you could be wrong. Keep your perfect image safe, it will deter others from getting involved.
  5. Maintain the whole class time in the academic field only. You have read more books than them so you should be safe enough there. Don’t let the discussion stray into the spiritual life or into ministry practice, where you are more vulnerable.
  6. Be very wary about applying ideas into real life. What do you know of real life? You could get it wrong. Avoid.
  7. Never betray your own thoughts, experiences or feelings to students. Remember you are an academic policeman to them, not a friend. Friends are open and vulnerable; policeman are official and safe.
  8. Once the lecture time is over, get out of there as quickly and smoothly as you can. While you are on the platform, there is a safe distance between you and the students. At the back of the class, in the corridor, at coffee, you get too close for safety. Keep away. If you have to mix and talk, mix with fellow staff members, never students.

Follow these rules carefully and you should be safe in a dangerous environment. Above all, you will not be interesting, and interesting is the last thing a teacher needs to be if he or she is to remain safe at work in theological education.

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

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.

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