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Fall 1994 · Vol. 23 No. 2 · pp. 107–11 

Connecting Mennonite Studies with the Christian Faith at Columbia

Gerald Janzen and David Giesbrecht

With each new generation, Mennonite Bible colleges must also accept the responsibility of reexamining the tenets of the Christian faith that have been so deeply cherished in the Anabaptist tradition. Modern institutions and technologies with their beguiling promises of “bigger, better, richer, faster” are exacting a huge price in the dislocation of long-held beliefs. Modernization confronts us with a restlessness and invasiveness that in Max Weber’s coinage is an “iron cage” around human life, with the power to smash traditional communities of faith (Guinness, 12).

“Christ is the foundation which anchors our understanding of the past, makes intelligible the perilous drama of the present, and animates our vision of the future.”

Given the ways in which religious beliefs and practices are often shaped by contemporary culture, how can Bible colleges retain integrity and authority? To provide credibility, Mennonite studies at the Bible college level must not only provide academic learning at the highest levels, but also integrate all learning with Christian faith. Therefore at Columbia Bible College,

The goal of Christian education . . . is growth towards spiritual maturity through worship, study, community life and service, (Schmidt, 11).

In its educational philosophy, Columbia sees itself as standing squarely in the Evangelical-Anabaptist tradition which it understands as nothing less than a commitment to a biblically based Christianity. The College avoids some of {108} the jargon of modern Anabaptist-Mennonite group language, yet loads this language with the ethos of an Anabaptist understanding of faith. Columbia’s statement of purpose speaks of “living according to the teachings of Jesus” and a “deep commitment to the final authority of scripture.” Indeed, the College is obligated by the policy of its governing body to “actively promote and teach a strong evangelical, Anabaptist (Mennonite) theology.” Fostering practical obedience to Christ in all areas of life then expresses the essence of Columbia’s purpose.

PURSUING BASIC EMPHASES

All courses in the curriculum are designed to offer practical usefulness in building the Kingdom of God. Thus for example, the course, “Anabaptist Theology and History” shows the origin and biblical basis of Anabaptism. From within its historical Reformation context, the relevance of the Anabaptist vision for contemporary faith is emphasized. The course, “Sermon on the Mount,” is taught with an Anabaptist-Mennonite bias, especially when considering implications for the present life of Christians and the church.

Ten years ago when Columbia developed a higher profile for missions, its president Roy Just emphatically insisted that a Mennonite school without an overt emphasis on missions represented an aberration of the Anabaptist vision. That understanding remains to this day and is implemented in specific ways. Notably, a Mission major has been added to the curriculum which focuses upon the Anabaptist understanding of Christian witness.

In addition to fostering an academic understanding of missions, Columbia endeavors to involve students in a practical expression of witness, modelling Han Denck’s provocative challenge,

No man can truly know Christ unless he follows Him in life. No man can follow Him unless he truly knows Him.

For this reason Columbia administers a Field Education program in which every student is expected to fulfill a Christian service assignment. Moreover, for those students in whom a more personalized call to mission has matured, the College offers a concentrated, cross-cultural Students-on-Service program. Such an undertaking may last anywhere from three months to a year. For many students, this experience has been life-shaping.

A THREE-WAY CONNECTION

Anabaptist-Mennonite studies as taught at the Bible college connect with Christian faith in three fundamental ways. At the very center, these {109} studies reaffirm the great Reformation truth that salvation for the human family is found in Christ alone. Such as assertion jars modern sensitivities. In our increasingly pluralistic North American culture, the inclination is nearly irresistible to extend some legitimacy to all religious expressions. Moreover, dramatic demographic changes are forcing us into some precarious philosophical reassessments. Not only are people of all faiths becoming our neighbors; non-Christian religious communities are beginning to occupy a very noticeable public presence and influence political decision-making. How then do we rationalize our belief that salvation is in Christ alone and yet live with each other’s deepest differences? That simple question, says Os Guinness, “has been transformed by modernity into the world’s most pressing issues” (Keidel, 3). The times make it imperative that we enter into this debate with great deliberation and disciplined sensitivity. However, to do so with credibility, Mennonite Bible colleges must encourage a deep love for Christ, attended by an obedient commitment to His rule. Christ must be courageously proclaimed as the foundation which anchors our understanding of the past, makes intelligible the perilous drama of the present, and animates our vision of the future.

Furthermore, Anabaptist-Mennonite studies connect with Christian faith because they publicly affirm that the Bible, the primary document on which our faith rests, is relevant to the needs of contemporary society. Although the Bible may well lie at the foundation of Western culture, it has lost much of its once-preeminent stature. Scholars like Gordon Kaufman assure us that “The Bible no longer has unique authority for Western man. It has become a great but archaic monument in our midst” (Miller, 3). By sharp contrast, Bible colleges stand in the historic tradition that practices a vibrant biblicism. Bible colleges serve their students well when they foster a respect for the Bible and turn to it as the early Anabaptists did, “not to construct a system of theology, but to find solutions to their spiritual problems” (Toews, 368).

As Menno Simons and Martin Luther did in their day, Bible colleges today forcefully unleash the Scriptures on a culture which is largely ignorant of their content and indifferent to their power. Young adults are questioners and experimenters. In a fast-paced and ethically volatile world, they must be taught the profound relevance of a solid biblical foundation in formulating their belief structures and in processing personal decisions. The centrality of the Bible in the curriculum of the Bible college may well be the enduring energy that allows these institutions to survive. The late F. E. Gaebelein put it well: “To take as the center of the [Bible College] curriculum the one book to which alone the superlative ‘greatness’ {110} can be applied--this is neither narrow nor naive. It is just good judgement to center on the best” (Unger, 13).

THE CHURCH: VULNERABLE BUT VIABLE

The teaching of Mennonite studies also fundamentally touches upon Christian faith by holding in high esteem the cradle of Christian faith which is the church. Simply put, authentic Anabaptist studies cannot but foster a love for the church. In a personal plea, Menno Simons left us this piece of his heart: “For there is nothing on earth which my heart loves more than the church; and yet I must live to see this sad affliction upon her” (Menno Simons, 1055). It might be said that early Anabaptism represented a passionate defense of the church.

Many young people come to college with serious doubts and concerns about the viability of the church. They may have experienced troublesome disputes or been dismayed by the precipitous departure of a church leader who could not live up to unrealistic congregational expectations. They most certainly have become aware of unfaithful shepherds whose foibles have been magnified and endlessly rehearsed by media sensationalists. “The Tetzels of history and the Elmer Gantrys of fiction pale beside the real-life examples of evangelical and evangelistic worldliness in our time. In its sweatless, disincarnate, electronic form, modern evangelism has created the ultimate parody of the incarnation” (Guinness, 9). The questions to which young people want answers are these; is the church deserving of their undivided loyalty? How does it relate to the “real” issues of today?

Despite the church's apparent vulnerability, Bible colleges must affirm the validity of the church, a position to which Christ unequivocally committed himself when he stated, “I will build my church and the forces of darkness will not prevail against it" (Matt. 16:18). Bible colleges must nurture a strong recognition that the church is more than a social convenience. It continues to be the primary vehicle through which God chooses to build his kingdom and, hence is eminently deserving of trust. Mennonite studies must offer a milieu where students dare to envision a community of faith that lives up to the ideals of God.

Do Bible colleges have continuing legitimacy within the Mennonite constituency? The answer is clear if we look to our history for a response. “The Mennonite Bible schools, and especially the Bible colleges, have also been at the center of Canadian Mennonite self-definition. They have served as the primary repositories of the Anabaptist-Mennonite heritage and have maintained, taught and reinterpreted that heritage for each new generation. These schools have thus been important in shaping the Mennonite identity in Canada” (Sawatsky, 2). {111}

SOURCES CITED

  • Guinness, Os. “Mission in the Face of Modernity.” World Evangelization. November-December 1989/January 1990.
  • Keidel, Levi. “The Challenge of Religious Pluralism.” Missions and Church Leadership Colloquium. Columbia Bible College, May 31, 1989.
  • Menno Simons, The Complete Writings of Menno Simons. c 1496-1561. Trans. from the Dutch by L. Verduin. Ed. by J. C. Wenger. Scottdale, PA, Herald Press, 1956.
  • Miller, Steve. “Inerrancy and Authority.” Direction, June 1983, 3-9.
  • Sawatsky, Rodney J. Canadian Issues in Mennonite Theological Education. Consultation on Mennonite and Brethren in Christ Pastoral Training and Graduate Theological Education in Canada. Waterloo: Conrad Grebel College, May 24/25, 1985.
  • Schmidt, John. “Columbia Bible College Self-Evaluation”, Clearbrook: Columbia Bible College, September 1989.
  • Toews, J. A. A History of the Mennonite Brethren Church. Fresno: Board of Christian Literature. General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches, 1975.
  • Unger, Walter. “Bible Colleges not an Endangered Species.” Mennonite Brethren Herald, January 24, 1992, 13.
Gerald Janzen is an instructor, and David Giesbrecht is Librarian at Columbia Bible College, Clearbrook, B. C.

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