Dr. J.H. (Hans) Kouwenberg ministers at Calvin Presbyterian Church, serves as the editor of Channels, and has been a member of the boards of governors of Knox College in Toronto, Presbyterian College in Montreal and the Vancouver School of Theology.
Since I graduated from seminary just over twenty-five years ago, a lot has changed. When I attended Knox College in Toronto, from 1970 to 1972, it was still savouring the last lingering light that Karl Barth had thrown upon theological study. W.W. Bryden's influence was still felt in his students, now teachers, including Stanley Glen, who had served as professor of New Testament and principal for many years, and Allan Farris, professor of church history and preacher par excellence. I seem to recall that there was still some real concern for a scriptural and confessional emphasis in our training and there was still some real passion about the dissemination of the gospel. Mission and evangelism still meant telling others about the good news of Jesus Christ and seeking to bring people into our Lord's Church.
Since then we have had a "moratorium on mission" in many mainline denominations; evangelism has kind of fallen by the way as an adjunct program (if we have time and can afford it); and, the whole context for thinking, learning and doing theology has changed. Now the emphasis in many mainline theological colleges seems to be on "contextualization." There is a heavy emphasis on interpreting the gospel in the light of the contextual and cultural realities which surround us on every side and which are an integral part of our very own lives. Further, theological faculties have become theologically eclectic and diverse. There are all kinds of ways of looking at things, depending upon whatever particular aspect of culture about which a given theologian might have a concern.
Of course, much of this is very good. We needed to become more aware about such things as the shared ministries women have had and ought to have with men and we needed to think and act about the better way of talking about each other that a concern for inclusive language has brought. My goodness, women weren't even allowed to stay in the theological residence or eat in the cafeteria — except with a special guest pass — when I went to seminary! We also needed to become more aware of the "liberation" theologies which the poor among us, in our hemisphere and in our very own communities, developed and shared with us in their accurate and exceedingly helpful contextual study of Scripture. We needed to be concerned about the many different kinds of marginalized people among us and we still need to work on what it means to have a more inclusive, but not unbiblical, theology. A concern for justice is as important as a concern for evangelism. But, surely, not more important.
It seems to me, in seeking to deal seriously with the many important contextual issues facing us today, theological colleges have lost many of their scriptural moorings and some of their spiritual soul. True, there is a great revival and renewal of spirituality in many seminaries today. New courses on this topic abound. But even this is often a mixed bag: courses on Native spirituality mingle with courses about the classic Christian spiritualities of earlier ages. Spirituality means many different things to many different people today and mainline seminaries do not worry too much about helping students discern the differences.
I have found that in trying to be faithful today, many theological colleges — such as the Vancouver School of Theology (VST) — are most concerned about monitoring such things as the cross-cultural, anti-Judaistic or feminist "dimensions" of their work, but they do not seem to be equally concerned about monitoring "the evangelical dimension" or for that matter, the classical expression of the Christian faith which they may or may not embody and teach. There is a tendency for seminaries to get caught up with the most current cultural concerns and to forget that there are other concerns, some of which do, in fact, affect how we look at any one of these cultural issues.
I am not looking for a return to some culturally unaware Christian fundamentalism or monolithic expression of historic, orthodox theology and faith. I realize that faculties need to be theologically diverse. But let them be truly diverse! I am only suggesting there be some more consideration given to honouring, and setting at the very centre of the curriculum, the very tool we once used to critique our critiques. Here is a question for our theological colleges: in seeking to be authentically contextual in our theological thinking, what weight should be given to the context or to the culture in which we find ourselves, or which we wish to address, and what weight should be given to the lifting up of the authority of the Holy Scriptures and the classical interpretation of those Scriptures which may seek to interpret that context and culture?
Adding at least one hearty, open, but clearly authentic, evangelical or classical Christian voice to theologically diverse faculties would be one way of accomplishing a more balanced approach to contextual study. I'm sure an evangelical voice would provide a greater emphasis on the need for more teaching about the Christian tradition, Christian apologetics, initiation into the Christian faith, and training in Christian discipleship, as well as an appropriate emphasis on the giftedness and ministry of the whole people of God. I'm sure "evangelism" and "mission" would be more a matter of mindset in that school than some token program. I'm sure an evangelical voice would create some new paradigms, or renew some old ones. I'm sure a more serious attempt to seek to redefine and articulate the gospel in ways that are faithful to our Christian tradition, as well as being contextually relevant to our increasingly pluralistic culture, would be helpful to us all.
Mainline seminaries, like VST, often make grand statements about the mission of our schools, which include statements about our "passionate commitment to Jesus Christ" but which, in reality and in effect, pay more attention to serving "a changing church in diverse cultures" that uphold the unchanging interpretation of the basics of the Christian gospel which successive ages have given us for our task of "biblical and theological integration." Mainline seminaries, in my experience have tended, in practice, to give more place to theologically liberal expressions of the Christian faith than to traditional interpretations and presentations. Can this not change? Ought it not change?
I admit it is tough for truly diverse theological conclusions and opinions to live and work together. But the truly diverse nature of our denomination demands that we serve this diversity with a more true version of such VST values as "integrity and excellence" and "compassion and equity" than has been the case to date.