A fascinating evening with the book’s two authors
15 MAY 2014 View article
Re-Imagining the Seminary: International Conference on Theological Education Leadership 11–14 September 2013 Bucharest, Romania. View report
Child Theology in Africa: Exploring current themes and issues 11-15 November 2013, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
(This event has taken place)
Haddon Willmer, Keith J White
Entry Point Towards Child Theology with Matthew 16
South Woodford: WTL Publications 2013 pb 234pp £12.99
This is a journey in a book as two wise and experienced UK based theologians explore one of those light bulb moments that sometimes come to us. Thus Willmer and White spent twelve years reflecting in dialogue on what theology looks like if you put a child in the midst (cf Matthew 18.1-14). Although they are both part of the Child Theology Movement (https://childtheologymovement.org/) and have drawn on the encouragement and wisdom of that community of scholars, they make it clear that this book presents their own views.
The structure of the book involves seven chapters, each one taking a key word drawn from the story: child, kingdom, temptation, disciple, humility, reception, father, and then a conclusion. While not a traditional exegesis, the book enables one to explore the passage at depth from a range of perspectives and the detailed end notes for each chapter did not spoil the flow of the text but enabled me to see where there thinking had come from and potentially to follow up threads of interest. I also appreciated interchangeable pronouns for the child. Willmer has largely been an academic theologian and White runs (with his wife Ruth) a Christian residential community which was started by his family in 1899 and where over 1000 children have spent some or all of their childhood over the years (http://www.millgrove.org.uk/). I am not a completely unbiased reviewer having known Keith White for many years and having spent time at Mill Grove as part of my ordination training. What this does mean is that I am aware that this book is rooted in experience and practice and as such is an exercise in practical theology while also being well referenced, thoughtful and provocative.
One of their core premises is that our reception of the “vulnerable” Word of God “may be partial and distorting” and does not always find the “reception” it might hope for (p.21). This is an acknowledgement that the church needs to enter into critical dialogue with the word of God as the disciples did with Jesus and be willing to recognize where she has misheard the word and be willing to unclutter some of the “accrued baggage” brought to the hermeneutical endeavour (p.21-2).
My notes for this book review are littered with quotations that are emblematic of the perspicacity of the book although I would have appreciated more stories illustrating the points being made. So a sentence such as “They [the good] must venture the kind of action which imagines possibilities, discerns options and discovers identity. God’s calling of human being involves the whole person – or community – in an unfinished pilgrimage” (p.87) for me would be enriched by a practical example. As a theological educator I would also have appreciated some discussion questions at the end of each chapter as that would have facilitated students applying the learning.
A potential disappointment is that because of the perceived subject matter the book may have a niche following yet there are insights for all of us who seek to do theology or live their life as Christians. One example from the Kingdom chapter drawing on the story where the mother of James and John pushes their claim to honour (Matthew 20:20-28) discusses how ambition and anxiety can drive us to pursue the Kingdom in a way incompatible with how Jesus intended it to be. Thus “they expected, impatiently, a kingdom that would satisfy their dreams, rooted in personal and national self-interestedness” (p.62). The history of the church is littered with such examples.
This is a book with rich insight for those who work with children in a variety of sectors. Theologically inclined parents may also benefit from reading it and certainly the caution that even loving parents “nurture the child they envision rather than the child they have actually been given” (p22) is one which I have observed. For me this is a book where wisdom drips off the page and it pushes me to think and rethink various long-held beliefs and assumptions. While the book took over ten years to write it is one that probably takes more than one reading through to mine the riches within.
Revd Dr Sally Nash is Director of Midlands CYM, part of the Institute of Children Youth and Mission, and based at St John’s Theological College Nottingham, UK.
 I wrote this up as Lessons on love and family from Mill Grove for an ordinand and theological educator. Journal of Adult Theological Education 9.1/2, 2011.
Book Review – Amazon- By Helen Reid – 5 out of 5 stars
Child Theology isn’t only for Children, 15 May 2014
Book Review – Rev Beth Jackson, September 2014
After nearly 13 years of conversations, global consultations, and networking of scholars and practitioners, a new foundational text from Haddon Willmer and Keith White has been released that gives shape and momentum to the Child Theology Movement (CTM).
An emergent area of theology, the term, Child Theology, was first coined in 2001 after a global gathering of practitioners engaged with children at risk addressed the need for theological reflection in what is traditionally an activist field. Keith White spearheaded the movement and organised the first consultation around Child Theology in 2002 in Penang. In the intervening twelve years, there has been a series of fourteen consultations around the globe from Addis Ababa, Prague, Sao Paulo to Cape Town, Nepal, and South India.
The issue that the Child Theology Movement (CTM) has sought to address in the last decade is the role of the child in serious theological inquiry. Emerging from these conversations, networks and consultations has been the CTM central motif outlined carefully in this book of ‘no child related activity without theological reflection; no theology without the child in the midst.’ (Entry Point, 13)
In this new foundational text, Willmer and White focus on Matthew 18 as the central text which shapes and defines Child Theology. As the disciples were arguing over who was the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus takes the deliberate action of placing a child in the midst of them and instructs the disciples, ‘unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.’ (Matthew 18: 3-4) Child Theology uses this lens of ‘the child that Jesus placed in the midst’ as a pointer to the kingdom of God to find new insight into all aspects of theology. As Keith White highlights, ‘the outcomes will be fresh and more accurate readings of the Scriptures, a reformation of systematic theology with a child in the midst, new readings of the history of Church and theology, new understandings of Church and Mission, and new operative theology.’ (White, Introducing Child Theology, 9) Willmer and White seek to work towards these outcomes, in part, through the publishing of Entry Point. This book is the first example of an intentional, sustained effort to ‘do’ Child Theology.
Recognising that this is not an exegetical commentary on Matthew 18, Willmer and White nevertheless seek to examine some key theological concepts in relation to the child Jesus places in the midst. Through this hermeneutical lens of Matthew 18, Willmer and White explore the concepts of child, kingdom, temptation, disciple, humility, reception and Father seeking to offer new insights into how we understand God and His kingdom through the child. There is nothing extraordinary, exceptional, or particular about this child Jesus places in the midst. Indeed, on the contrary, it is recognised that we have much to learn about God’s kingdom from the least, the unexceptional, the ordinary and the mundane. White and Willmer suggest that the presence of this child is another way of inviting us into the way of the cross; the child is a call to discipleship. Conceptions of greatness are challenged, assumptions questioned, and responses examined.
White and Willmer acknowledge that their approach is a radical one, albeit offered humbly. Entry Point is an exciting addition to the corpus of literature that is building in Child Theology. Hopefully, this book will be just that, an ‘entry point’, into further exploration of the radical action of Jesus who put a child in the midst, demonstrating the upside-down, inside-out nature of the kingdom of God.
Willmer, H and White, K. Entry Point: Towards Child Theology with Matthew 18. London:
WTL Publications, 2013.
Book Review (Condensed version) By Dr Noel Beaumont Woodbridge
Entry Point: Towards Child Theology with Matthew 18.
Willmer and White’s book, Entry Point, presents ‘a sustained conversation on the text of Matthew 18:1-14’. It is a ground-breaking contribution to the field of Child Theology and I strongly recommend it as a valuable source in this field. The book is in the form of an academic essay, which offers readers ‘a stimulus to discussion, not as a teaching or a definitive analysis’. Its primary intention is not as a contribution towards systematic theology. Rather, it is a very practical book – ‘a kind of practical theology’. It focuses on ‘a mere ten verses of the Gospel of Matthew’. This narrow focus allows the authors to provide readers with an in-depth analysis of the key biblical themes from the passage relating to Child Theology, such as the child, the kingdom, temptation, the disciple, humility, reception and the Father, and a comprehensive application of these themes in everyday life. I am convinced that this book will serve as an excellent “entry point” to stimulate fruitful discussion on the topic, both within the Child Theology Movement and elsewhere, which will no doubt lead to even further developments in this important field of study and ministry.
Dr Noel Woodbridge DEd (UNISA), DTh (UNIZUL), Senior Academic, South African Theological Seminary, Rivonia, Johannesburg
Book Review (Full version) By Dr Noel Woodbridge DEd (UNISA), DTh (UNIZUL), Senior Academic, South African Theological Seminary, Rivonia, Johannesburg
Entry Point: Towards Child Theology with Matthew 18.
Willmer H and White KJ 2013. Entry Point: Towards Child Theology with Matthew 18. Mill Grove, Essex: WTL Publications.
1. Introduction to the authors
WTL Publications (2013) provide the following information about the authors of the book, Haddon Willmer and Keith White:
Haddon Willmer (Emeritus Professor of Theology at LeedsUniversity) grew up in Free Church evangelicalism and had a good liberal education in Brockenhurst and Cambridge, studying history and theology. He taught in the University of Leeds for 32 years and is Emeritus Professor of Theology. He is a jack of too many theological trades to be the master of any, working spasmodically on Barth and Bonhoeffer, politics and forgiveness, Bible and preaching, and mission in Leeds and wider afield. Since retiring, he has supervised thirteen doctoral students at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies. He is an active trustee of Pace (Parents against Child Sexual Exploitation) and of the Child Theology Movement. He is married to Hilary, a Christian social activist, and together they have three children, seven grand-daughters and one grandson.
Keith J White and his wife, Ruth, live at Mill Grove, a Christian residential community that has been caring for children and young people in the East End of London UK since 1899. He is an Associate Lecturer at SpurgeonsCollege, and a member of the faculty of the Asian Graduate School of Theology. As the founder and chair of the Child Theology Movement he has contributed to conferences and symposia around the world. Among the books he has written or edited are A Place for Us, Caring for Deprived Children, Re-Framing Children’s Services, Children and Social Exclusion, The Changing Face of Child Care, The Growth of Love, Reflections on Living with Children, Introducing Child Theology, and Childhoods in Cultural Contexts.
2 Summary of the book
The book is ‘the outcome of a sustained conversation on the text of Matthew 18:1-14’ (p. 1). The passage ‘provides the overall framework’ (p. 15) for the exploration Towards Child Theology with Matthew 18. Besides the Introduction and Conclusion, the book is divided into seven chapters. The content of these chapters can be summarised as follows:
“Jesus called a little child and had him stand among them …” (Matthew 18:2).
‘The “child in the midst” of this book is simply the child placed by Jesus and standing beside Jesus’ (p. 208).
“The disciples were discussing who was the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:1).
‘The disciples were talking about greatness in the KINGDOM of God. That kingdom was the great concern of Jesus, the perspective within which he lived all his life, the presence and promise he proclaimed’ (p. 15). ‘Jesus placed a child in the midst, as a substantial, revelatory clue to the kingdom of God … The child is needed by the disciples as a clue to the way by which they might enter the kingdom of God’ (p. 71). The ‘child as seen and placed by Jesus signs the kingdom of God, which is a powerful, historically and biblically rooted, but dangerously ambiguous, concept’ (p. 208).
“Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil” (Matthew 4:1).
‘Kingdom is always tempting because it stimulates ambitions and anxieties … Temptation means that people can miss the good and choose evil. Any encounter with the human project of kingdom puts people to the test’ (p. 15). ‘As the disciples brought Jesus back into fundamental temptation, the child strengthened him as an unspeaking witness against the false kingdom … What he found in the child was a way of signing the kingdom of God, of reaffirming his vision and commitment to its character, and of pressing the argument upon the disciples’ (p. 101).
“… unless you turn and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven …” (Matthew 18:3).
“He who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:38).
Jesus ‘called people to be his DISCIPLES, to be with him in the service of the kingdom of God in the terms in which he signed and proclaimed it … by placing a child in the midst of the disciples, Jesus was reiterating his demand that disciples deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him’ (p. 15-16). ‘He placed a child in the midst of the disciples, who were evading the cross by seeking greatness. By his or her mere presence, the child silently restates the call to discipleship … the invitation to “come and die”’ (p. 109).
“Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:4).
‘Jesus placed a child in the midst to call his ambitious disciples to humility’ (p. 122). ‘That the child reiterates the call to discipleship can be seen in the meanings Jesus gives to the child placed in the midst. Denying self, radically symbolised by the cross, is a way of HUMILITY’ (p. 16). ‘The cross is inescapable in a faithful vision and following of Jesus. The significance of the child for disciples is that the call to humility and to become like the children is a restatement of the call to take up the cross and not an alternative way into the kingdom of God’ (p. 212).
“Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me” (Matthew 18:5, ESV ANGLICISED VERSION).
‘Fundamental to the story in Matthew 18 is the kingdom of God. What is it like and how is it to be entered? The child in the midst is given us the clue to answering these questions. There is no explicit mention of the kingdom of God in the words, “Whoever receives one such child in my name, receives me. And whoever receives me, receives him who sent me” (Mark 9:37; Luke 9:48)’ (p. 160). ‘Father and Son are not named in this saying. Jesus is the one who is sent, and the receiving occurs in the actual practice of mission’ (p. 162). ‘Jesus chose disciples so that he could send them out to proclaim the kingdom of God (Matthew chapter 10). In this mission reception has a crucial function’ (p. 165).
“See that you do not look down on one of these little ones …” (Matthew 18:10).
‘Matthew 18:10: “See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I tell you that in heaven their angels always behold the face of my Father who is in heaven.” Within the parameters set by these words we read the better-known, oft-quoted verse 6: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believes in me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea”’ (p. 178). ‘Jesus did not despise a child, a little one. To see a child as a sign of the way into the kingdom of God is the opposite of despising. The warning not to despise even one little one is implied by Jesus’ action of placing a child in the midst of the disciples’ (p. 179). ‘At the end of the story (Matthew 18:14) there is a repeat of verse 10, in different language: “It is not the will of my (your) Father that one of these little ones should perish.” The message of the gospel is that God seeks, recovers and receives even the lost and the enemy: God forgives rather than being bound to give people what they earn (deserve). So the kingdom of God is here, both as a little seed, and also as a vision of new creation’ (p. 214).
3. An evaluation of the book: Its strengths and weaknesses
First, this is a very practical book. The authors indicate that they have been led to write ‘a kind of practical theology. The chapter on reception is where this becomes plain in a down-to-earth everyday way. There is no mistaking the call to each of us to welcome or receive a child in the name of Jesus’ (p. 213).
Second, the book is in the form of an essay, which offers readers ‘a stimulus to discussion, not as a teaching or a definitive analysis’ (p. 213). The authors have not written ‘a confessional statement of what the Child Theology Movement stands for’. However, they have written ‘within the vision of what CTM is: a fellowship of thinking and active disciples exploring the gospel seed and sign of the child placed in the midst by Jesus’ (p. 214-215).
Third, the book focuses on ‘a mere ten verses of the Gospel of Matthew’ (p. 213). This narrow focus allows the authors to analyse the passage in more detail and to provide readers with a comprehensive application in everyday life, of the biblical principles relating to Child Theology in the passage, in particular, in the field of missions.
First, the book claims to be ‘an attempt to do Child Theology.’ However, the authors readily concede that ‘it is not definitive or intended to be so … And we fear that there will be those who will be disappointed because they were expecting a new section in what is understood to be systematic theology’ (p. 212). Furthermore, they openly admit that they are ‘not systematic theologians in any conventional sense’ and clearly state, ‘it is not our intention primarily to contribute another systematic essay’ (p. 212-213).
Second, the book lacks an in-depth exposition of Matthew 18:1-10, which includes a contextual analysis, verbal analysis, and literary analysis. Regarding its contextual analysis, the authors concede that ‘we did not attempt to expound it in this context’ (p. 213) and state that the book ‘can, and perhaps should, be read as an extension of the idea of receiving a child through going out to find and recover the sheep gone astray (Matthew 18:12-14)’ (p. 213).
Despite its shortcomings, Willmer and White’s book presents ‘a sustained conversation on the text of Matthew 18:1-14’ (p. 11). This book is a ground-breaking contribution to the field of Child Theology and I strongly recommend it as a valuable source on Child Theology. I am convinced that it will serve as an “entry point” to stimulate fruitful discussion on the topic, both within the Child Theology Movement and elsewhere, which will no doubt lead to even further developments in this important field of study and ministry.