Character and Virtue in Theological Education (1)

Marvin Oxenham, Character and Virtue in Theological Education: An Academic Epistolary Novel (Carlisle: Langham, 2019)

“It is AD 2019, and theological education is suffering from Philistine domination. As we face the giants that occupy the land of contemporary education, we often feel outnumbered, forced into conformity and unable to fully deploy our own weapons. We struggle under the predominance of critical thinking, the supremacy of measurement paradigms, the captivity of secular accreditation, the pressures of efficiency, the prioritization of academics, the demands of professional competences and the strains of achievement and ranking. In all this, we strive to keep alive that which is at our heart: the holistic formation of kingdom humans. This book argues that it is time to arm our slings with the stones of virtue and character and reclaim portions of lost territory that are rightfully ours. It is time to revise our tactics and revisit our calling. It is time to inaugurate a new season of flourishing for the church and society as we recover the central place of character and virtue in global theological education.” (xv)

So begins Marvin Oxenham’s creative, scholarly and passionate argument for a reimagining and a restructuring of theological education. I’m going to engage with this book here in the next while.

Anyone who works in this area will recognise the reality of his opening words. There is a tension that we wrestle with in theological education. Let’s call that tension SIDE A and SIDE B.

SIDE A

Quality theological education is powerful and life-changing. In fact, I think there is little to rival it in terms of its capacity to enable profound personal change and spiritual growth. Again and again I have seen students’ lives transformed during their studies: in their love of God; in being captivated by the beauty and richness of Scripture and the story that it tells; in their ability to understand themselves and the world in which they live; in developing ability to think critically about church, ministry and mission – and therefore act to renew and develop praxis on the ground; and in being challenged personally in terms of character – to think, act and speak in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ in all of life. The real dynamic for such transformation comes as learning through teaching and personal study is integrated within a life of service in a local Christian community. Learning happens most powerfully in relationship with, and service of, others.

SIDE B

Refers more to Oxenham’s challenges. Very broadly speaking, third-level secular university education in the West has detached learning and knowledge from character and virtue. For many, the university has no place, and no right, to be telling students what to believe or how to act. They are treated like rational, individual consumers of information. While they are required to show that they know information (exams, qualifications) that knowledge has pretty well nothing to do with how they live their lives. For one to intrude on the other is, for many, a gross violation of personal freedom.  And so much third-level education is narrowed in the way Oxenham describes – the priority of academics, grades, mastery of information, the competition for results, education as a tool for economic advancement and employability.

Christian theological colleges offering university level qualifications live in this tension between SIDE A and SIDE B.

SIDE B skills are valuable for a lifetime: skills of study, researching information, excellence in writing, developing an ability to think clearly and express yourself; an ability to assess arguments and come to your own conclusions and so on. Especially in Christian ministry, knowing how to interpret and handle the Scriptures, while humbly being open to learn from theologians and biblical scholars, is an essential preventative against destructive or superficial teaching shaped more by someone’s prejudices and personality than by the Word of God.

But no Christian education worth its salt should allow SIDE B to overwhelm SIDE A.

Where I work (Irish Bible Institute) we constantly wrestle with the multiple challenges Oxenham describes, while striving to keep central the overall purpose of authentically Christian theological education which he so well summarises – ‘the holistic formation of kingdom humans’.

In our 2018 revalidation of undergraduate and postgraduate courses, we worked hard as a team to integrate ‘head’ (cognitive skills, knowledge) ‘heart’ (character, self-awareness) and ‘hands’ (practical skills, being a reflective practitioner) into every level of every module.

However, we are far from resolving this tension – it is an ongoing process within all Christian education. And this is why I have so enjoyed diving into Marvin Oxenham’s book. It is a cry from the heart for the restoration of character and virtue to the centre of the theological enterprise. Aristotle plays a central role as you might expect.

He makes his case through a series of fictional ‘letters’ between a Christian educator in the West and his friend and peer in the Majority World who is working to re-imagine and re-start a theological college in his context in which virtue and character are at the heart of the whole enterprise.

What would such a college look like? That will emerge as we engage with the book.

How Christian learning really works

I don’t often reblog material from other sites, but this is well worth it.

Reflections from friend and colleague Dr Graham Cheesman who blogs at Teaching Theology. Aways worth reading and this reflection captures how learning happens at multiple levels, with the relationship of student and teacher at its heart. We are not ‘brains on a stick’ – we think, experience and learn through cognitive (‘head’), affective (‘heart’, emotions, experience) and behavioural (‘hands’) domains.

Graham Cheesman:

A letter to my students

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

What is the Bible?

Interested in a really useful resource for helping people understand the Bible?

Thanks G for pointing me to these guys at The Bible Project.  They are doing a very impressive job of producing short clever, animated videos on how the Bible, and each Bible book, fits together.

I remember many years ago Peter Cotterell at London Bible College saying that something understood profoundly can be explained simply. He’s right. And these guys have done that. The videos are easy to understand, but behind them is a ton of hard thinking, careful theological judgements, and creative communication.

Here’s a wee 5 min sample on The Image of God.

And what I really like is that it is all for free. A gift to the church.

How do you think of the Bible? What is it? And more specifically, how do you think the NT relates to the OT?

For me, it’s all about story. A story framework is the way to unlock ‘the drama of Scripture’. The Bible is a complex narrative with all sorts of sub-plots. But if you can get the overall plotline clear, the rest starts to fall into place.

It’s a great way to teach the Bible. It opens up the Scriptures and educates the church to understand their place in God’s story. It’s a wonderful way to preach too.

Once you start to see how the Bible functions in multi-layered biblical theological categories, there is no going back. It’s full of life and imagination. It’s how the Bible is given to us. It draws you in to the story. All sorts of doctrines come into sharper focus within the unfolding narrative of God’s redemptive engagement in the world, through his people.

It’s a journey that I have been on for years and I continue to love it.

Systematic theology has its place sure. But it doesn’t ‘fit the rhythm’ of the Bible. It too easily leads to abstraction and rationalism. Primacy of place has to go to biblical theology.

I’m thinking out loud here, this image might work, it may not.

Narrative could be seen as the skeleton giving shape and coherence to the overall body of Christian theology. Without it, you have a spineless blob. Maybe the best way to think of systematics is as theologians as experts in their distinct bits (systems) of the body.  But what is going to connect the parts, give them shape and coherence? You need narrative to do that.

This, I believe, is the way to do theology. I teach Christology and pneumatology, both through a narrative lens (the focus of both courses is primarily biblical) and it brings alive the thought world of the New Testament writers.

The NT as a whole, I think, is best understood as an exercise in ‘retrospective theology’. The writers are looking backwards – in light of the world-changing events of the life, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus and the sending of the Spirit – to (re)tell the old [OT] stories of God, sin, salvation, covenant, law, Israel, promise, land, Messiah, Spirit, and creation itself in a new way. These stories are not complete innovations. Not at all. They are continuations of the old stories, but radically reshaped in light of Jesus and the Spirit.

One of the best examples of how narrative theology can be compelling and attractive, as opposed to systematic categorisation of abstract doctrines is to compare a standard bullet-pointed evangelical statement of faith with this   wonderful, accessible and attractive narrative account of what Christians believe from my alma mater.

It’s also worth thinking about how narrative theology has a special capacity to unite evangelicals who share basic convictions about the truth of the story and the means by which it is told (the Bible).

Reformed theology at its best has a strong narrative structure around creation, redemption, consummation – all held together through the thread of covenant. But there are many who are not Reformed who share a deep conviction about the importance of narrative theology – take Methodist Ben Witherington and his 2 Vol magnum opus The Indelible Image for example. Anabaptists like Hauerwas are also great advocates of narrative theology.  [Hauerwas and Jones edited one of the best academic books around on the topic. It explores the use of narrative in a much more complex and broader scope than my narrow focus on biblical theology in this post].

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Escaping the babylonian captivity of theological education (1)

ibi_logo_400x400At Irish Bible Institute we are embarking on a year-long journey of ‘re-validation’ with our partner university. Happily, this means that the university has agreed to renew our partnership for years ahead.

But it is not just re-signing a bit of paper, the process involves (and requires) us to think afresh about what we are doing and why. This isn’t just ticking boxes – our partner is committed to educational innovation and creativity and is pushing us to think afresh from first principles as to what we are doing.

The thing is, most theological colleges have some form of assent to integrative learning. But it is a very different thing to get beyond ‘ink on paper’ to genuine transformative learning that shapes the whole person.

Some paradigms of theological education, historically particularly within universities, aren’t that interested in this sort of learning, particularly if that university is, or has ambitions to be, a prestigious academic institution that prizes a particular type of educational success . This is one reason the Bible College movement began in the UK and Ireland.

It was Lesslie Newbigin who, paraphrasing Luther, talked about the Babylonian Captivity of much theological education. He meant by this the prioritization of a form of objective, scientific learning that imagines theology as an academic exercise of the detached neutral mind. It results in a programme where academic, cognitive success dominates all levels of the student experience – from advertising and recruitment of students, entry qualifications, the shape and structure of the classroom, the content of lectures (primarily information transfer), the setting of assessments, the criteria for grading, right through to qualifications, awards and prizes.

In other words, an Enlightenment paradigm of learning where theology is primarily the study of books and ideas, detached from personal faith, character transformation, practical skills for ministry, prayer, community and Christlikeness.

This is theology as mere acquisition of knowledge, the student as consumer of information, the teacher as expert distributor of information. It is non-relational and I would say, pretty well non-Christian in terms of an authentic preparation for forming people spiritually and preparing them for the demands and messiness of Christian ministry.

No wonder churches have long been sceptical of the value of going to study theology – whether at Bible College or university. No wonder, there is a lot of anti-intellectualism in the church if studying theology means that a student might be brilliant at writing a paper on Barth’s doctrine of election but have little humility and self-awareness or pastoral heart (nothing against Barth, but you get the point).

So, going back to first principles is a very good, and demanding and uncomfortable, thing to have to do. For, if you are like me, if we are allowed to, we tend to keep doing what we know, what we are comfortable with, what has worked in the past, without asking too many tough questions of ourselves and our organisations.

9781783689576To do this, we are working as a team together through Perry Shaw’s excellent and stimulating book Transforming Theological Education: a practical handbook for integrative learning

I’ve linked to Shaw on this blog before – see here, here and here for thoughts on integrative learning across cognitive (head), affective (heart)  and behavioural (hands) domains.

At the moment we are also doing a series of consultations with leaders, current and past students and others on some key initial questions. We need to answer these sorts of questions before we get into the nitty gritty of programme design and what modules we will offer and how they will be assessed etc.

Because it will the answers to these sorts of questions that will shape what we do. The biggest obstacle to change in any organisation I think is not being willing to ask and act on questions of purpose.

Shaw talks about the sorts of questions his Seminary worked through in their radical restructuring of their programmes. We are now doing the same:

I wonder what your answers to these questions might be?

What is the ideal church for our contemporary context in Ireland?

[assuming our continued purpose is to serve the Irish church it makes sense to think about what sort of churches are going to be best set to fulfil God’s missional mandate.]

What are the contextual challenges facing churches in Ireland?

  • Internal challenges?
  • External challenges?

What are the qualities and attitudes and skills of an ideal graduate in this context?

  • what sort of knowledge and thinking skills are needed for a faithful Christian to connect with the context and to continue to adapt and grow in a changing ministry environment?
  • what sort of character and attitude traits are required for Christian service in this context?
  • what sort of skills and abilities are needed so that the gospel can be incarnated in word and deed in the student and those he / she serves?

We are processing these questions and working towards the next steps

Your comments and thoughts are welcome to the mix

Musings on the value of (self) doubt 2

The previous post, prompted by the utterly uncompromising figure of John Mitchel, ended up musing on the value of (self) doubt.

Mitchel took his lack of self-doubt all the way to the sacrifice of, in effect, most of his family and his own (prematurely shortened) life.

By doubt I had in mind a ‘space’ in our convictions that gives room for alternative interpretations of reality; other points of view; corrective voices and / or critical self-reflection. Which leads to not taking yourself too seriously – which leads to self-depreciating humour.

Self doubt is a willingness to acknowledge that we might have it wrong; a self-awareness that all we know is finite, limited and culturally conditioned. That we have much to learn from others.

This is well captured in a famous series of pictures about The Illustrated Guide to a PhD by Matt Might who has kindly allowed their reproduction from his site here via creative commons).

Imagine a circle that contains all of human knowledge:

By the time you finish elementary school, you know a little:

By the time you finish high school, you know a bit more:

With a bachelor’s degree, you gain a specialty:

A master’s degree deepens that specialty:

Reading research papers takes you to the edge of human knowledge:

Once you’re at the boundary, you focus:

You push at the boundary for a few years:

Until one day, the boundary gives way:

And, that dent you’ve made is called a Ph.D.:

Of course, the world looks different to you now:

So, don’t forget the bigger picture:

Keep Pushing!

So, all those years of hard work to produce a tiny pimple 🙂

I guess pimple creation is inspiring in its own way. But even in that act of creation, the bigger picture brings even the successful PhD candidate to a place of humility and self-awareness of his / her own narrow and tiny area of expertise.

Without that sort of self-doubt a student becomes unteachable because they know it all already.

A celebrity begins to believe his / her own publicity (not a pretty sight).

A politician boringly and predictably keeps banging the party drum. (When’s the last time in a political TV debate you heard someone pause, reflect and say ‘That’s a good point, I’ll have to think about that’?) The political party line is defended at the cost of any real learning and genuine debate. I guess that’s one reason for voter apathy – impervious ideologies are all just so predictable and self-interested.

And, as Michel Foucault would have said, ‘no doubt’ narratives can easily become tools of power and violence – be like me, believe what I believe or there will be negative consequences.

But, to return (finally!) to questions at the end of the last post, isn’t the Church a place where narratives of power and even violence have often been sanctified and blessed? Where there have been very negative consequences for those who have dared to doubt the party line?

I think any honest reading of history would have to admit ‘Yes – Christianity can and often has taken the form of a narrative of power, of control, of squashing dissent and silencing alternative voices.’

Most often this happened when the Church got mixed up with political power, status and money.  And that’s a pretty large chunk of church history.

So, some implications of these musings:

1. Self-doubt is not only useful, it is necessary for individual Christian growth and maturity

2. Self-doubt fosters characteristics of humility, co-operation and sober self-assessment. It is a pre-requisite for repentance, confession, learning and change.

3. St Paul was a classic ‘no doubter’ willing to use violence to eliminate those who transgressed his boundaries. Yet it was Paul who wrote these words. He knew too well the damage a lack of self-doubt could cause and the need for God’s grace to break human arrogance and self-sufficiency.

For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. Romans 12:3

4. We need, as Hauerwas likes to say, to speak the truth; to face our humanity and limitations honestly. And, as he would also say, we need to counter narratives of power, control and violence within the church with the upside down, weak and apparently foolish nature of the kingdom of God. (Well Jesus said that, Stan the man is just saying it again).

5. Prophets were often voices of doubt among the people of God. They were usually ignored, rejected, isolated and unpopular. Voices of doubt challenge the comfortable status quo that usually benefits the rich and powerful.  Luther was a voice of doubt that changed history. At the very least this should give us evangelicals, who by definition are passionate about gospel truth, pause to do some self-critical reflection when we are critiqued by alternative voices.

6. To value self-doubt is not to promote a lack of leadership or celebrate uncertainty as a goal in itself. I think this is where people like IKON over-react against what they perceive as neatly packaged impervious ideologies of traditional Christianity. I guess this is what they are getting at with their ironically titled  (anti-Alpha) ‘Omega course’ of how to ‘exit’ Christianity.

7. I guess this is why, at heart, I am a Christian first, secondly a Christian of evangelical convictions and lastly a Presbyterian. I find it hard to ‘get’ Christians who seem not to doubt their particular confessional distinctive – often in defensive and excluding ways – yet those distinctives are at best highly debated.

8. Self-doubt should foster a posture of listening and dialogue with the wider culture: combining a humble confidence in the gospel of God with appeal, reasoning, love and invitation: a distinct political community that is also willing to suffer persecution and weakness and rejection.

9. That willingness to suffer comes from having enough self-doubt to not want to be in power, to control the culture or believe that it is either possible or desirable to do so.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Cheesman on conflict

ConflictGraham Cheesman is a friend and colleague and blogs once a month or so at Teaching Theology.

His posts are always worth waiting for; seasoned with grace and wisdom. This one is especially good and offers a practical and challenging framework for facing conflict. Graham’s context is a theological college. but much applies to any Christian organisation or church.

Recall that the report on conflict within churches in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland concluded that ALL the cases reviewed were to do with relational breakdown, not one was about  differences of doctrine.

Put differently: in Christian ministry, having a common set of beliefs, a common task, being efficient and productive, reaching goals and targets, being successful in fundraising, growing the church or organisation – none of this, to paraphrase Paul in 1 Cor 13, is worth much more than a Ryan Air trumpeted celebration for landing on time if there are not loving relationships at the core of all the activity.

Those relationships are not secondary to the work, they are the authentication of the work for they show the presence of the Spirit whose fruit they are.

This is why conflict is fundamentally a spiritual issue – for it revolves around issues like forgiveness, repentance, humility, showing grace, considering others better than ourselves, having the maturity to know ourselves with sober judgement, kindness, doing to others as you would have them do to you.

Over to Graham:

Dealing with differences

I doubt if it will come as a shock to anyone reading this that those working in our colleges do not always agree with each other and that tension sometimes occurs between staff.

People are complicated and every situation is different, but are there some basic rules that we can all follow to help us in such situations? Here are a few suggestions – OK, more than a few but life is more complicated than four simple rules:-

  1. If you are in leadership, do everything you can to lead within an open and trusting relationship with staff.
  2. If you are staff, recognise the complexity of the task of leading and recognise the authority of those who lead.
  3. Remember that the best decisions, especially in a time of conflict, are those taken together with as many people involved as possible, who then own the decision.
  4. Exhibit gentleness as a fundamental Christian virtue – both a beatitude and a fruit of the spirit – it must govern the way we speak to others and of others at all times.
  5. Acknowledge weakness and sin in all. We are not, any of us, wonderful people with perfect hearts who nonetheless occasionally make mistakes. We are all selfish, sinful, weak human beings and we therefore need to be humble with ourselves and forgiving of others.
  6. Say sorry when necessary. It is a sign of maturity and strength, not weakness. Everyone knows you are not perfect, so why pretend to be?
  7. Strive for consensus, but if that is not possible, look for compromise, except on those things that damage the fundamental mission of the college.   Even God compromised with his people in the Old Testament.
  8. Be there. Spend time in each other’s offices; of those we agree with, but especially of those we disagree with. Leadership especially needs to be constantly talking with all staff on their own territory.
  9. Always thank God that you are working together for him in such an influential job as theological education, training the future leaders of his church.
  10. Model for the students the attitudes and processes of good, loving, co-operative Christian service in a team. If you can’t do that, better stop teaching them scripture.
  11. Respect must always be offered and be seen to be offered to all by all. In some situations, trust breaks down, but basic respect must survive – to those above you, below you and alongside you, at all times.
  12. Attend to the issue of communication, especially from the decision makers to all affected; from one department to the other; to all, about everything possible, in every way.
  13. Consider whether the structure of the college and in particular its leadership and decision making structure, needs to be changed.
  14. If you are in leadership, never simply tell staff off for their attitudes but deal with the issues.
  15. Remember that your unity is based on a common experience of Christ. You are in the same family together whatever arguments may take place within that family.

There is nothing more difficult than leading in a time of conflict, or being authentically Christian in a time of conflict.   However, when those in an organisation come back to a position of serving together with joy after a difficult period, this is a wonderful gift of God.

How does spiritual change happen?

One of the bigger questions for any form of Christian ministry (preaching, teaching, youth ministry, children’s ministry, bible studies, church life in general, theological education etc) is this:

How does spiritual change happen?

My feeling (hey this is a blog post, not an academically researched article I can have feelings) is that there are all sorts of assumptions floating around this question and they are frequently found wanting. I wonder if you agree.

[And in case I get labelled as saying truth or doctrine does not matter, please note that is not what I’m saying. I happen to believe truth matters a lot – I love teaching theology after all. I am questioning how we ‘learn’ truth for spiritual transformation.]

Assumptions like:

“If people affirm Christian beliefs, that affirmation will result in a transformed life.”

In this case the person is happy to say, ‘Yes, I believe that’ when the Nicene Creed (or similar) is read. They may have no great intellectual objections to Christian faith and the existence of God, the incarnation, cross, resurrection and so on. They may happily attend church events and services for years. But apparent ‘mental assent’ to doctrines on its own is another lousy indicator of spiritual maturity, or even of spiritual life.

“If we can show the coherence, truthfulness, and reliability of the Christian Scriptures and Christian theology, people will see the truth and make the logical next step of faith and trust in God.”

Maybe and hopefully so, but this assumption dare I say is the favourite one of teachers, PhD students and the like. Simply explaining and ‘naming truth’ in a lecture, sermon or thesis does not on its own automatically guarantee spiritual transformation.

A close cousin of that last assumption is “If we teach it well, people will ‘get it’.

How many preachers & teachers would love this to be the case! For this model elevates their importance: in a hierarchy of learning they are at the top of the pyramid. Maybe long ago this was the case when ‘the minister’ (note the singular there – as if there was only one who ministered!) was one of the most educated and learned people in a community, but that ain’t true any more.

[And I wonder if the multidimensional ways that people actually learn in a globally interconnected world has de-centered the role of preachers and pastors to such a radical degree that many are profoundly disoriented – but that’s a post for another day.]

But if we pause to think about what spiritual transformation actually involves we would be much slower to jump to the assumption that ‘if we teach it well, they will get it’.

All of these assumptions, I suggest, are based on an epistemology that spiritual transformation comes via acquiring or assenting to knowledge. Knowledge is something that can be mastered and acquired. It is mediated by the expert (the pastor, the PhD student, the lecturer). It is passed downwards from expert to ‘lay’ person who receives it.

This has been called ‘mythical objectivism’ – the myth that objective truth is knowable, neat, tidy and can be acquired in a neutrally detached way by the knower.

There are at least three problems with this sort of assumption.

1. It doesn’t work  very well.

Studies have shown this sort of objective rationally detached learning to be a myth. The big problem is an overly simplistic assumption about HOW learning is ‘translated’ from the mind of the listener to their day to day lives. ‘Magically’, the learner, having acquired ‘knowledge’, then somehow assimilates that knowledge into her thoughts, feelings, actions, daily routines, decisions, and life with God.

But learning doesn’t happen this way. At the very least, for a message to be learned deeply and integrated into everyday life, it has to be worked out something like this:

Listen to the message ___ Understand it ___ Believe it ___ Remember it ___ Commit to it  ___ Act on it daily

Mythical objectivism begins with the listening and hopes the rest will somehow follow.

2. It distorts how we teach and expect learning to happen

The onus, in this model, is all on the teacher to teach well and the rest will follow. I’m all for excellent teaching, but this model is horribly hierarchical and narrow.

3. It is individualistic or non-relational

This is the point I really want to talk about. Even that learning process listed above still fails to integrate that learning works in relationship with others. Learning is a multi-way process between people. Christian learning is learning in relationship with other Christians within a community of faith. But even more than this – Christian learning flows out of relationship with the living God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Here  are some big sweeping assertions (BSAs) – remember it’s a blog post after all.

BSA 1: Much of western theology has been shaped by mythical objectivism. It has been far more concerned with defining right doctrine than focusing on how that doctrine acts to transform lives.

BSA 2: The (unbiblical) disjuncture between faith and works / justification and sanctification in much Protestant theology is an example. Soteriology has tended to trump the Christian life in a way that is out of line with the Bible’s more integrated understanding.

BSA 3: The (unbiblical) marginalisation of the Holy Spirit in much Protestant theology is another example

Some of these thoughts come from reading a fascinating book of a PhD thesis by Volker Rabens called The Holy Spirit and Ethics in Paul

Much Protestant theology has had a static and passive view of spiritual transformation. The Spirit is given to or infused in the believer at conversion. And after that, there is fuzziness on how exactly spiritual transformation takes place.

In contrast, Rabens (who did his doctorate under Prof Max Turner in London School of Theology) argues that spiritual transformation in Paul is much more dynamic and relational.

Transformation happens

“primarily through a deeper knowledge of, and an intimate relationship with, God, Jesus Christ and the community of faith that people are transformed and empowered by the Spirit for religious-ethical life.” (Rabens, 2010, p.21)

It is not the relationships themselves which transform, but it is the Father, Jesus, and the community which “give shape to these Spirit created relationships”

Being a Christian is to be brought by the Spirit into a new status and new spheres of relationships. It is the Spirit who transforms the believer as a result of a deeper encounter of God, Christ and fellow believers. This is well captured in 2 Corinthians 3:18

And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.

It is also the Spirit who empowers for spiritual transformation (Rom. 8:12-17).

This deeply relational model is a long way from the assumptions we started with  that tend to see ‘me’, ‘my knowledge’ and good teaching as the keys to spiritual transformation and which, to be blunt, marginalises the Spirit and the Christian life.

It also is true to who we are as people, created in the image of God and made for relationship with him and with each other.

None of this negates the importance of good doctrine or teaching. But it does put relationships at the heart of all spiritual transformation rather than ‘detached objective knowledge’. Relationship with the triune God; relationships with brothers and sisters in community.

A closing question: think of an experience that has been deeply transformative in your life … what happened? How did it work?

Comments, as ever, welcome.