Kevin G. Smith
Dr Reuben van Rensburg entitled his farewell address as the outgoing Principal of SATS, ‘An era ends, an era continues, and an era begins’. He argued that the core beliefs and values of SATS must remain static, while allowing the seminary to remain dynamic in responding to a world of changing ideologies and technologies. Reuben and I share the heartfelt conviction that God has set before us an open door (Rev. 3:8a). The question before us as we begin a new chapter in SATS’ story is, ‘What then shall we do?’ What must we do in order to walk through the open door that the Lord has set before us?
Affirming the Past
Jesus’s depiction of the church in Philadelphia is strangely appropriate for SATS: ‘I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name’ (Rev. 3:8b). SATS has been built on the faithful and sacrificial labour of a small team of ordinary men and women who had limited resources and little expertise. Ours is a story of God’s grace working through human weakness to accomplish kingdom goals. Our shared passion has been to honour the Word of the Lord and the name of the Lord.
We shall continue to treasure the faith and values of our founders. The DNA of SATS will not change one iota under the new leadership. Our mission remains to provide Bible-based, Christ-centred, Spirit-dependent online theological training to equip God’s people for faithful and fruitful service. We remain unwavering in our commitment to theology that is both God-glorifying (doxological) and mission-minded (missional). Words like ‘faithfulness’, ‘service’, and ‘quality’ will continue to dominate our internal dialogue. We shall continue to be relentless in our determination to discern what faithfulness to God’s call, excellence in service delivery, and quality in online theological education entails.
Embracing the Future
What then shall we do? Where do we go from here? While our vision and values remain unchanged, we must remain agile in adapting to our rapidly changing world. The most pressing area in which we need to grow and improve as a seminary lies in engaging culture. We excel at interpreting the Word, but less so at interpreting the world. We have been strong on matters of content, weaker on matters of context.
How can we ‘engage culture with gospel of Jesus Christ’? How do we approach ‘cultural engagement in our post-Enlightenment, postmodern, post-Christian and profoundly secular world’? Lesslie Newbigin’s question should be a major focus of our theology and theological education:
From whence comes the voice that can challenge this culture on its own terms, a voice that speaks its own language and yet confronts it with the authentic figure of the crucified and living Christ so that it is stopped in its tracks and turned back from the way of death?
The followers of Jesus Christ need to become much more culture savvy. They need help to understand ‘the gospel at the interface with the culture that defines so much of their lives’, because ‘the gospel calls us into vigorous cultural engagement.’ In the words of N. T. Wright, we must learn how to reappropriate the gospel ‘in the world of late modernity, postmodernity, post-colonialism, neo-imperialism,’ and so on.
To speak of a greater emphasis on contextualisation in an evangelical context is to court concerns that we shall become ‘liberal’ or ‘syncretistic’, twisting the Bible to fit the culture (2 Tim. 4:3–4). God forbid! This is not what we mean by contextualisation and cultural engagement. After earning his PhD in the United States, Samuel Kunhiyop returned to teach at a seminary in Jos, Nigeria. He gradually realised that he was providing answers to questions that were irrelevant to his Nigerian students. Kunhiyop reflects: ‘Having come to grips with this reality, I started to listen more carefully to the questions, seeking to find culturally relevant answers.’ Kunhiyop rightly asserts that ‘[e]very Christian theology … evolves from questions concerning how the Bible speaks to particular contexts.’ He contends that ‘African Christian theology … should take the African situation seriously while seeking to be true to the explicit teachings of Scripture.’ The goal is ‘articulate a theology that originates from an authentic search for the meaning of Scripture in order to apply it to African life today.’ This is the kind of contextualisation at which SATS aspires to excel, while confessing that we have been weak at interpreting cultures and contexts—a necessary precursor to faithful application of Scripture.
Lawrence Lasisi expressed the call to appropriate contextualisation in a way that resonates with our missional priorities:
Evangelicals must not allow their fear of syncretism to prevent them from contextualizing their faith to allow for meaningful local expression of it. However, such contextualization must be accompanied by a firm stand for the absolutes or cores of the gospel message. We need to be rigorous in guarding against any form of Christo-paganism, but there is nothing wrong theologically and missiologically with integrating culture and the gospel as long as the finality and supremacy of Jesus Christ alone as our Lord and Saviour is not sacrificed at the altar of multicultural and religious relativism.
What does this require of SATS? I will suggest four foci. Firstly, whereas both the post-modern world and the world of higher education embrace a hermeneutic of suspicion, we must inculcate in our students a hermeneutic of trust—confidence in the truth of God’s story and the power of the gospel to transform the world and contribute towards human flourishing. Secondly, in the words of Richard Mouw, the President of Fuller Theological Seminary (1993–2013), the goal of our education is ‘not simply to produce critical thinkers, but to equip persons who are faithful to the truth of the gospel.’ Thirdly, in our theological reflection, we need to cultivate almost as much passion for context and relevance as we have for Scripture and Christ. Fourthly, we need to conquer the giant of diversification by building a diverse team of Christ-centred scholars that both represents and understands the multiracial, multicultural, multigenerational church and world we serve.
We talk about growth in student numbers, but only in the context of maximising kingdom impact and ensuring financial sustainability. We never think or talk about being the ‘biggest’ or the ‘best’ seminary—such ambitions have no place in the kingdom of God.
Philip W. Eaton, Engaging the Culture, Changing the World: The Christian University in a Post-Modern World, Kindle Edition (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP, 2011), loc. 1243-1246.
Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1986), 9.
Eaton, Engaging the Culture, loc. 1255, 1338.
N. T. Wright, Paul: In Fresh Perspective (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press, 2005), 172.
Samuel W. Kunhiyop, African Christian Ethics, Electronic Edition (Bukuru, Nigeria: Hippo Books, 2008), 8–9.
Samuel W. Kunhiyop, African Christian Theology (Bukuru, Nigeria: Hippo Books, 2012), xiv.
Kunhiyop, xiii (italics added).
Lawrence Lasisi, ‘Syncretism’, in Africa Bible Commentary, ed. Tokunboh Adeyemo (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2006), 926.
Eaton, Engaging the Culture, chaps 14–15.
Richard Mouw, ‘Critical Thinking’, Mouw’s Musings: The President’s Blog (blog), 18 June 2007, https://www.netbloghost.com/critical-thinking.