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Philosophical Assumptions

As we implement a vision for Eastern Mennonite Seminary by shaping a curriculum of missional engagement, it is important to examine our assumptions about what it means “to know” God and how we become participants in God’s saving work in the world.

As a Mennonite seminary, we believe it is in following Jesus that we come to know God and God’s purposes for the world. The Anabaptists’ identity and vocation were rooted in Jesus Christ who continued to be alive for them through the biblical narratives, the regenerating Holy Spirit, and their personal and communal practices of faithful discipleship. Their awareness of God’s presence inspired them to critically examine the customs that had earlier formed them. Their fresh reading of the Scriptures enabled them, in their time (and place), to re-invigorate the Christian tradition. They provided radically new interpretations of biblical narratives and innovative communal practices. A renewed relationship with Jesus, immersion in scripture and a careful reading of their context equipped them to provide transformative leadership in their local communities—and to inspire a movement that profoundly impacted the broader society.

The times in which we live also cry out for a knowing that is holistic—that resists fragmentation and reduction into “silos” of specialized knowledge. Too often, our educational culture has contributed more to compartmentalization of knowledge than to its integration. Persons equipped for leadership in the church and the world must be formed in a “knowing” that is vibrantly dialectical—linking good theory and practice, action and reflection, core convictions and missional engagement in diverse community contexts.

Rarely do we adequately grasp that our assumptions about how we come to know have major curricular and behavioral implications. The manner in which we acquire, communicate and use knowledge is not morally neutral. The way in which we talk about God and live out our faith is directly related to the way in which we learned about God and about the meaning of faith. It is critical in shaping a curriculum that we name the assumptions that inform our educational work so that our coming to know God and the meaning of faith will be integrally related to the shape of our faith-filled living.

We live in a dynamic time, when assumptions about truth and how we come to know what is true are open for reevaluation. Some of the most fruitful philosophical endeavors to provide conceptual frameworks for understanding how we come to know, speak of knowledge that is perspectival and tradition-based. We come to understand what is true by looking through the “lens” of a particular tradition. We can make sense of knowledge when we view it within the narrative context of a story-formed community. A community who faithfully stewards a living tradition will engage in prophetic discernment about how to revitalize it in ways that are transformative in the local context.

This time (and place) call us to freely experiment in order to discern what knowledge is essential for missional effectiveness in the world. Within the frameworks provided by the meta-narrative of God’s saving acts and the gospel of Jesus Christ, we will practice the imaginative, communal art of constructing knowledge that is robust enough to invigorate the church. We will become adept in cross-disciplinary and collaborative research. We will encourage each other to discern in context how to integrate what we know with who we are.

Curriculum Framework

The Association of Theological Schools degree program standards require that students be educated in four arenas: 1) Religious Heritage, 2) Cultural Context, 3) Personal and Spiritual Formation, and 4) Capacity for Ministerial and Public Leadership.

In a fascinating way that seems to parallel these four arenas, a more recent Carnegie Foundation study on Clergy Education described what it found to be four signature pedagogies that shape teaching practices and pastoral imagination in seminaries: 1) interpretation, 2) formation, 3) contextualization and 4) performance (we will use this term interchangeably with practices).

The integration of these four content arenas and four pedagogies appears to be optimal for training leaders for the church. Assumptions about how we come “to know” what is true and good and how that relates to our missional identity and vocation as a seminary underlie these arenas and pedagogies. And it is within a framework that somewhat reconfigures them that we propose to redesign our seminary curriculum, using performance of ministerial and public leadership as the center of a missional vision that integrates formation, contextualization and interpretation. The integrating center of our curriculum is the arena in which we acknowledge God’s gracious initiative toward us embodied in Jesus Christ’s mission in the world. God’s initiative invites what we see as our integrative vision for missional engagement in the world—the performance of transformative leadership that integrates formation, contextualization and interpretation to partner with God’s saving work in the world. (See diagram)

Interpretation involves a reasoned, imaginative, tradition-based knowing that is constructed in community. As interpreters, we fully engage our minds in critical retrieval of the Religious Heritage that underlies our current faith and practice. Interpretation is a learned skill that we cultivate by thoughtfully examining the biblical narratives in conversation with our life narratives. We probe theoretical constructs and test their trustworthiness for making sense of our lives. We learn to articulate principles that help us discern how to interpret all manner of “texts”—personal, historical and contemporary. We do this discernment individually and communally, together constructing a convictional perspective that is tradition-based but missionally engaged with our time (and place). Some have called this work theologia —which is differentiated from “mere scholarly learning.” Theologia is about attending to our formation in godliness as we faithfully seek to know God in ways that are personal and wise, to articulate convictions we have come to embrace, and to participate in God’s saving work in the world.

A missional calling will involve an explanation of our countercultural, faith-inspired living: “That [we] may declare the mighty acts which called [us] out of darkness into [God’s] marvelous light.” I Peter 2:9b

Formation involves a bodily, practical and spiritual way of knowing. Personal and Spiritual Formation takes place within a well-guided community of practice and reflection. By living in the “daily-ness” of eating, praying, dwelling in Scripture, worshiping, serving, and studying together, we are formed in personal and social holiness. Together, as cohorts of disciples who covenant to grow in Christ-likeness, we experience both the joys and hardships of “community shaped discipleship.” Through persistence and “not growing weary” we learn to embody the fruit of the Spirit and function responsibly in relationships. The spiritual life requires that we stand firm in the face of hardship—despite our culture’s frequent suggestion otherwise. In so doing, we acquire the personal agency to regulate ourselves and to manage conflict in transformational ways. We develop a habitus of faith, a rhythm and rule of life that guides the rhythms of a vibrant community of faith.

A missional calling will involve living as example, as a people of God: “Like living stones, [we let ourselves] be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood.” I Peter 2:5a

Contextualization involves an ethically mindful, intuitive, and actively experimental knowing. We learn to re-contextualize biblical texts within diverse Cultural Context s when we engage “the world as God’s classroom.” With mentored practice, we test the veracity of biblical truth both within and without the seminary walls—in rural, urban and international settings; and in traditional and emerging churches. When we actively experiment, we become confident, discerning practitioners who know firsthand the power of the Gospel to transform. We take “the school” closer to the local church and bring “the church” closer to “the school,” with non-traditional delivery modes that connect with dispersed congregations and communities that serve their neighborhoods. We learn as Christians how to be conscientious participants in society, engaging in creative efforts for change because we are Christian, demonstrating our difference from the world without withdrawing, and engaging the world without uncritically accommodating to its ways. We learn that the church’s responsibility within the world “is first and always to be the church,” a community of faith centered in the person and proclamation of Jesus Christ.

A missional calling involves living as enunciation, using understandable, contextualized language: We seek to “conduct [ourselves] honorably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign [us] as evildoers, they may see [our] honorable deeds and glorify God.” I Peter 2:12

Performance of Ministerial and Public Leadership means that we integrate, embody and express in practice the variety of ways we have come to know. We respond to God’s gracious initiative toward us in Jesus Christ by “going into all the world” with the good news. Missional engagement flows out of a core integrity that holds body, mind and spirit together in a unitary commitment to love God, self and neighbor. Transformational leaders who perform with integrity will integrate wise interpretation, contextual discernment and mature practice. Faithful performance is demonstrated when we engage the world as reflective practitioners who can integrate guiding principles with the daily shaping of our lives. Faithful performance is evident when we emerge as missional leaders who are deeply formed in wisdom, holy living and the ability to discern how to partner with God in diverse contexts. Faithful performance is when, as transformational leaders, we model what it means to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God in the church and the world.

A missional calling will involve engagement, living and witnessing righteously, justly and humbly in a world sometimes alien to the Gospel: “[We] are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that [we] may proclaim the mighty acts of [God] who called [us]…” I Peter 2:9a

Guiding Principles

Four overarching principles guide our educational processes and give shape to the outcomes we seek to encourage within the four “ministry tracks” of our curriculum. Students will be encouraged to take responsibility for their own learning, identify performance goals, seek constructive feedback, and grow competent in their chosen field of ministry in light of these guiding principles:

  1. We become wise as we faithfully interpret biblical texts in conversation with theological, historical, practical and “life” texts—within and on behalf of the church and the world.
  2. We mature as we covenant within communities of faith to be formed in Christ-likeness by engaging in personal and communal practices of prayer, discernment, worship and service.
  3. We grow as discerning communicators as we appropriately contextualize the Gospel, engaging persons of diverse cultures and faiths winsomely, and yet without uncritical accommodation.
  4. We practice ministerial and public leadership that is transformative when we integrate wise interpretation, mature practice, and discerning communication to engage God’s saving mission in the world, embodied in Jesus Christ.
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