Babylonian Captivity revisited

Posted February 7, 2020 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized

Babylonian captivity revisited

Thirty years ago, Lesslie Newbigin described the relationship between theological education and higher education as the Babylonian captivity of the first by the second.

Since then, higher education has continued to change and has probably become the most globalised of all man’s activities. This has moved the goalposts and made an assessment of his interpretation urgent. Structures, attitudes, degrees, quality assurance, and how value is apportioned, are now all defined similarly in every country in the world. Theological Education at its higher levels just about everywhere fits within this global HE patterning for better or worse.

There is a contextualisation argument for this to be accepted as wise and useful. Even Jesus contextualised his educational methodology into that of the Rabbi for his time and place, since this was the dominant educational pattern for the society in which he taught. If the HE package is now the dominant educational pattern globally, maybe this is where we should be.

Yet, nowadays, just because of globalisation, there is surely no simple contextualisation left in the world. In theological education we now deal with a dual contextualisation, trying to be relevant and useful for the local situation and to be part of the connected global situation at the same time. It is not so much that we have ignored contextualisation but are dramatically prioritising global contextualisation over local contextualisation when they are in conflict.

What is more, contextualisation, locally or globally, is not a blank cheque, it contains a judgment on the context and even a denial of acceptance of parts of a context in the light of the Word of God and the intentions of the contextualisation.  Jesus was not content to simply contextualise either, but modified the Rabbi pattern to suit his agenda and objectives, in a number of important ways.

What are the consequences of our present Babylonian priority?

Firstly, we have not sufficiently remembered that theological education is to be done by the church for the church and is thus a faith and commitment-based enterprise.  The requirements of the secular university driven academy and the requirements of the Church of God are difficult to reconcile today, as a number of studies have shown, and this tension is rarely sufficiently acknowledged.

Secondly, we have often made the goal of theological education not so much the formation of the student as the conferring on them of status by degrees, so they will have influence in their society and ecclesiastical situation.

Thirdly, we have, in developing countries, generally imposed attitudes and ways of studying truth on our students because that is the way excellence, individual attainment, critical judgment, academic style, research quality and many other issues are defined globally. This, even though these are often alien to the culture and by no means simply the best way to use the mind in any culture.

Fourthly, we have devalued those students who cannot perform well within the patterns of global academia but have a fruitful ministry for God. Rarely are the academic high fliers in our systems the most used by God, rather the most humble and dedicated. This does not contradict the important need of the church for academic high fliers also.

What is the answer? If there is one, it is complicated! It does not mean a denial of either global or local contextualisation but a renewal of our fundamentals. It resides partly in the need for theological education to grow integrated students, alive to the need to be academic, spiritual and ministerial in equal importance as God has gifted them. It will be developed by emphasising, at the highest academic level, those degrees which are heavy on reflective practice for most, and confine the studying for Doctorates and Masters courses of a more purely theoretical nature to those students, immensely valuable but relatively few, who will teach and interact with society in a more dominantly academic way. It will mean listening to wise people in the church who are less concerned with status as with godliness and mission.

The Babylonian captivity did eventually end for Israel. Maybe theological education will one day return to its own land again and be at peace.



Living well in 2020

Posted December 31, 2019 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized

Living well in 2020

In the late autumn of 1871, Sir Marvin Sanders opened a burial site in Alexandria. This proved to be that of a minor lecturer in the Catechetical School of Alexandria, probably the earliest theological education enterprise in the history of the Church. Within the site were found a number of quite well-preserved papyri. These seem to have been written soon after the death of Pantaenus and during the subsequent principalship of Clement of Alexandria, so we can therefore date the documents not long after 190 AD.

One was especially interesting. It seems that this early teacher was concerned about the growing desire for success and influence in the church and tried to counter this trend with an emphasis on the supreme importance of living a good life for God.

Below is my rough translation of the document[1]. It seems to be a list of ten key aspirations and is entitled “Living Well”:

  1. Seek the presence of God always and in everything – in small matters of daily living, in study and teaching, in people, in beauty, in big issues of ministry.
  2. Constantly live in the grace and forgiveness of Christ and in conscious commitment to Him and His cause – to that end take communion/eucharist regularly to renew this in your heart.
  3. Live a full and happy life as a human being in God’s world – and thus fulfil God’s intention of renewing our humanity, while being wary of sin.
  4. In every circumstance, whenever possible, do the most loving thing for others – in leadership or ministry, in relationship, in family, in daily encounter with others.
  5. Fulfil your specific gifting and calling as best you can – in all stages of your life, from starting out in ministry to retirement, even if it means working harder than you wish.
  6. Write a journal daily – so you are able to reflect on the goodness of God, your own efforts to live well, and wrestle with ideas as they come into your life.
  7. Read quality – despite often tired or busy, read not just for relaxation but also books and articles that engage the mind and prompt careful thought.
  8. Take a walk or other exercise alone each day – for the body’s fitness, the mind’s time to think things through and for the spirit to give space to pray.
  9. Be humble enough not to pretend to be, or try to be, what you are not – apart from in exceptional circumstances, God’s strength is not given to allow you to be different from how he made you.
  10. Seek constantly to be at peace – a fruit of the Spirit and a product of constant vigilance, inside yourself and with others.

A useful set of aspirations for us all as we enter a new year. Why not make them your own?


[1] Schnickelgruber Alte Texte, Die Es Nie Gab, vol.14: 541, Berlin, 1896.

Forbid them not

Posted December 2, 2019 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized

Forbid them not

Children are a gift from God and they contribute so much to our lives. So why are our colleges and seminaries such child-free zones?

In keeping children away from the business end of theological education, we create an un-natural feeling in our colleges, make a true family atmosphere un-attainable and manufacture one more divorce from real life for our students. What are the main reasons for this?

The first is historical. Theological education today comes out of a long history of training “the men” for the ministry – and sometimes putting on occasional classes for “their wives” when they are not busy with the children. The Bible college movement broke this mould, following the Faith Missions of the 19th century which they served, and trained men and women equally, but they did not greatly consider the children, who often were sent away to school to give space for service.

The second is attitudinal. I can only quote the great theologian Abelard on sending his new-born child via Heloise, away to his sister “Who intent upon sacred and philosophical reflection could endure the squalling … and constant dirt of little children?” It is one or the other and he knows which he will choose.

The third is hermeneutical. We have so emphasised the “come apart for a while” sayings of Jesus that we have forgotten that, while he was teaching his disciples, he set a little child in their midst, and another time, when the disciples thought along the lines of Abelard, he rebuked them and invited the children to come to him.

No-one can deny that the thoughtless presence of children can harm the concentration required for theological education, but are there areas in which their presence gives more than it takes?

Worship times would be such occasions when the presence of children would be a lovely thing. Meal times would be much more fun, so also the coffee breaks. The residential areas of the campus would benefit from children and so we should build married flats – and run a creche. I have even experimented with prams in the lecture room, with some success, so we can give opportunity to their mothers to be in on the teaching. OK, they take their little one out if he starts to “squall” to use Abelard’s term, and rightly so. That happens also in sermons in church now and then. Children should never of course, enter the library with all the frowning notices requiring “silence”. But why not a children’s section as they have in municipal libraries? It’s just that we haven’t thought through much of this concept until now.

If we are teaching students to be missional, we should remember why Jesus told the disciples to “forbid them not”. It was “for such is the kingdom of heaven”. And if we are into teaching and learning we might just learn something from them.

Working with yourself

Posted October 31, 2019 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized

Working with yourself

When we first married, we had a very old Ford Anglia car. It would get us from A to B (eventually) but you had to understand it and work with it not against it, understanding its strengths and weaknesses. We loved her but she was particularly hard to start in the mornings, needed constant topping up with oil and had a tendency for the windscreen wipers to fail in the middle of a storm.

There are plenty of books about how to work sensibly with others but one of our central tasks as theological educators is to work sensibly with ourselves. Just as our car did the job so long as you treated it carefully, aware of what it could and could not do, so with us. Plenty of us are hard to start in the mornings, need constant topping up with coffee and can’t see very clearly in a storm of stress. We need to know ourselves, work with, not against, us as we are and then the job will get done as best we can. What does this mean?

  1. Understanding our weaknesses and strengths, a fair assessment of our ability or otherwise, with academics, people, planning, management, public speaking.
  2. Recognising our need for a team around us, because we know we will not have all the skills necessary to do the job alone. Building a team with those not like ourselves.
  3. Knowing our stress signals, which could be growing anger, pains in the head or elsewhere, you name it, you have them, they are the body saying slow down or trouble is coming.
  4. The ability to apologise and gain forgiveness – from others and ourselves since we will mess up. A loving relationship with others should ensure forgiveness from them and we need to show as much grace to ourselves as God does to us.
  5. Knowing our time cycles of ability and using them. Early morning or late at night are classic times when we work best or worst, but it is often more complicated than that, we just have to know, and adjust our schedules to work with the cycles.
  6. Understanding when and how best to build in “time out” in relaxation is essential, on our own and with those we love, remembering that we have other relationships than our relationship with theological education!
  7. Realising all these things shift upwards as we mature and downwards as we age. We do not paint the picture of our self-knowledge just once, but need to regularly re-paint it in certain areas as we change.

You have probably noticed that God has hardly been mentioned in this post yet. However, all this is spiritual work. Only true humility will put us in a position to be able to assess ourselves correctly. We need divine wisdom (and wise fellow Christians) to guide our minds as we try for an honest assessment of ourselves. And a true assessment of ourselves will surely lead us to the view that we cannot do the job unless we have the help of God. The end result of working with ourselves then, is a life of prayer.

And what an encouragement when the job is done through us and despite us because God chooses the weak to confound the strong. Now and then, in our little old rattily car, we would pass some nice flashy BMW or Jaguar beside the road broken down and going nowhere. And we would laugh.

A useful reference

Posted October 1, 2019 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized

Dear sir/madam,

Thank you for inviting me to provide a reference for this candidate for a lecturing post in your seminary.  To my mind, there are six fundamental requirements of such a person, which are the very things we hope and pray for in our students;

  1. Competent academics. Excellent in one subject and with a broad knowledge of the whole field of bible and theology.
  2. Real spirituality, committed, in a lively relationship with God leading to a solid moral, loving life.
  3. Ministerial skills. In the case of a theological educator this means good enthusiastic teaching ability.
  4. Integration of life. Their spirituality and academics inform each other, their ministry is shaped by both and, in turn shapes them.
  5. Conviction of call. To prepare men and women for a life of loving and serving God and others.
  6. Relational, community emphasis. People skills, ability to work in a team with a joint sense of calling.

This man certainly has the first five and probably, now with more experience, the sixth also.

You should also know that he possesses excellent biblical language skills. He has plenty of missionary experience and was a pastor for a short while. He writes well, deeply but with practical intent although occasionally it is hard to make out exactly what he is saying and I am not alone in this. Character wise, he is an un-usual mixture of extreme humility and strong assertion of what he thinks is right.

But here is the problem; he is not at all the usual sort of person we employ in theological education today. You ought to know that he is very passionate, over the top at times. He is often in controversy and his language is pretty strong. He did have a disagreement with a fellow worker which split the team a while back, and all signs are it was his fault (which he later realised). He is also a charismatic, and I know that your seminary does not have this as an emphasis. He speaks in tongues, encourages prophesy, practices divine healing and sees visions. A while back, he refused to cut his hair for a while, and then formally cut it – for a religious reason, he said. I was not on his team at the time but it would have been interesting to be led by a long-haired charismatic if only for a few weeks! One other thing, he is not a well man. I will leave him to tell you more about that but it has bothered him greatly in the past.

All this means that if you appoint him you will be taking a real risk. He is very special and any seminary or college which employs him would be greatly blessed but its principal would have a real roller-coaster ride! It’s up to you but personally, I would go for him.

Don’t you think theological education is increasingly bland these days?

Best wishes, Luke

(PS I was his doctor for many years)

A tale of two candidates

Posted August 29, 2019 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized

A tale of two candidates

I have been an examiner for a number of doctoral dissertations and the pattern is pretty standard:

The academic candidate presents an idea, a thesis, that they seek to prove. Your job is to test them as to whether they have employed strict logic throughout, fully understood and interacted with all the key literature on the subject and been respectful and fair to those with whom they disagree. In their original contribution to the area, they must have been careful and accurate in use of evidence after properly assessing its value, accepting its complexity and not claiming an inch more than they can beyond reasonable doubt.

It is also your job to question them closely as to weak points – where they don’t match up to these standards – and the candidate cannot change the subject or try to divert your question but answer fully and truthfully in a carefully nuanced way, not with soundbites or emotion.

I also read the papers, listen to the radio and watch the TV, as political candidates present themselves. Again, the pattern is pretty standard. The political candidate often conducts him or herself as follows:

They present an idea, but rarely seek to prove it. They give a few emotional soundbites, often ignore evidence which is out there and regularly are as economical with the truth as they can get away with. A trick they sometimes employ is to create “enemies” they can unfairly attack. Their sources are occasionally the most scurrilous newspapers or TV channels. Often, they push a small truth too far and deliberately ignore a competing big truth in the presentation of their idea. Sometimes, they appeal to the prejudices of their listeners not their thinking and so re-enforce those prejudices.

Questioning them effectively is not possible since they have been trained in how not to answer questions, but rather deflect them on to ground where they are more comfortable. Of course, there are honest political candidates seeking to be fair and right in their writing and speeches, but, even for them, the system seems to include these practices in their job description. Like you, I guess, I would love to get the worst offenders into a viva voce examination room in the university and question them under proper academic rules!

Now there are also real weaknesses in the academic system, it can become a game, even a support for wrong. Academics are as sinful as everyone else. As Anthony Beevor points out in his recent book on the second World war, at the January 1942 Wannsee conference in Germany called by Heydrich to plan the extermination of the Jews, “just over half of the participants had doctorates” (Beevor 2012, 294).

However, the academic enterprise as a desire to seek fairness and truth rather than simply advantage for self, to use the mind God gave us in a correct, careful and honest way, all this is a fairer reflection of the world as God wants it to be than much of the political debate of today.

Our job as theological educators? To teach to our students right, careful academic method in the study and presentation of ideas as a recognition that God is concerned about truth, fairness, justice, and a correct understanding of reality. And remind them that these can be the starting points for understanding grace.


Posted July 1, 2019 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized


The average lecture or tutorial is 50 minutes long. The average cup of espresso is one fluid ounce drawn in 30 to 40 seconds and, if you are an Italian, drunk in one second.

Yes, sorry, this is another post on the relationship between coffee and theology, I was just sitting drinking this good espresso with my books around me and thinking about what to write and out it came. But humour me, I am also trying to say something important here.

This comparison between a lecture and an espresso raises a number of questions. A cheeky first could be “which do you prefer?” The answer to which would, for many, depend on the quality of the lecture and the quality of the coffee.

A better question would be “How can we combine the two?” And I have done that many times in tutorials and supervisions to which my students down the years will testify. Hopefully, a number reading this will agree that they went away with a love of theology and coffee, hopefully in that order.

But the question I really want to ask is “Why is one so long and complicated and the other so short, simple and powerful?”

Of course, lectures and tutorials have to be long and reasonably complicated, but they also should each be regarded as a single powerful experience of the subject presented. It is not the main task of a lecturer to pass on a lot of facts or views, although these may be present. The task of the lecturer is to get the students to experience the subject, to see, with awe, it constructed in front of them, to catch the enjoyment and emotion of a love, to taste it, enjoy it and come away saying I need more of that.

Our first job is to make the students feel the one powerful, delightful thing of the subject itself.

Only someone who is in love with coffee can, in the end be trusted to make a wonderful espresso and one bad experience of a poor espresso could put off a person from bothering to order it again. Only someone in love with their subject should be entrusted to stand up in front of our students and give them a love of their own and a desire for more.

The ultimate judgment on an espresso’s quality is intensity, the simple power of one thing lovingly shared. Much of the contents of the feedback forms we ask students to fill out are irrelevant to good teaching, or at least do not adequately test it. Maybe a question on intensity of experience would go some way to solving the problem.

And, of course, another question on the quality of the coffee.


Posted May 30, 2019 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized


I should warn you from the beginning that this is a very opinionated post.

If you are in theological education, you probably love books but the truth is, we are using books the wrong way.

And we will have to continue to do so while we are operating as an academic enterprise within its rules and practices. We read to teach; we look for articles which push our subject onwards or in a different direction; we read quickly, photocopy the essentials and work on them; we want to write therefore we read deeply in a narrow field; we know and appreciate the recent over the old otherwise our bibliographies are criticised.  There is genuine advantage in all this – indeed it is important and we enjoy it but can’t we also use books properly and teach our students to do the same?

What would that mean?

Firstly, we should treat them as friends, following Erasmus’s famous claim about his library. We don’t have a thousand friends whom we meet occasionally, we have a few good friends we encounter often. So with books. Find a smaller number of good printed friends (of all genres) which are worthy of deep friendship and read them often. They will be a choice specific to you, which is always the case with friends.

Secondly, we should generally prefer the old to the new. As C.S. Lewis said, the old has been proved by many years of use. The biggest issues which do not change are, in the end, more important than those which just belong to today. Indeed, they will help us in today’s problems. The best books are well out of date and yet not.

Thirdly, we should prefer the small to the big. There are some big exceptions to this rule but by and large (OK!), the books which change the world and change people are not large and do not have two or three volumes, they are small or average, deeply fundamental, felt writings.

Fourthly, we should read for enjoyment. There is an intellectual enjoyment in a really good book. There is even with a few great books, a sense of encountering beauty. Some books you take into your hands, and your head and your heart are “strangely warmed”. Even difficult challenges we encounter in their pages have a disturbing joy at times.

Fifthly, we should read to enhance relationship. A book is the rich gift of the author to the world. Behind it is a life lived, struggles encountered, joys felt, service given. We read and grow to know and sometimes love the author (or subject of the book) – though he or she may have lived hundreds of years ago. The best ones enhance our relationship with the Lord.

What to do? You can simply catalogue your small number of books of joyful wonder into a special category in your mind or use a special shelf  alongside your hundreds of other useful books. What you must do is return to them often when the world is too much with you, or not with you enough. Let your heart grow lighter as you pick them up.

And may they help you to find a peace and joy in this world and with your God.

In praise of weak students

Posted May 1, 2019 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized

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

Posted April 1, 2019 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized

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

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