A Mandate to Love the World: Not Too Light a Thing

It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth. Isaiah 49:6

At Fuller Seminary we celebrate our multinational identity and our global calling. Our longtime president David Allan Hubbard was fond of saying that you could get off a plane in any part of the world and not be far from a Fuller graduate serving the Kingdom. We have sixty or so nations represented in our student body, and our faculty are involved in educational projects around the world, including faith-based psychology in China, theological education in Mexico, theology and the arts in Italy, preaching conferences in various African countries, Jewish-Christian dialogue in Israel, the study of Islam in Lebanon—and more. Recently I met with eight students in an intensive Master of Arts in Global Leadership course on our Pasadena campus: they came from Indonesia, Greece, Canada, the Netherlands, Ghana, the U.S., and Jamaica.

Some time ago, I spoke to a gathering of people involved in theological education about the church’s global mission, and I illustrated my points with references to Fuller’s role as a multinational seminary. During the question-and-answer period, one man challenged my statements. The trustee of a seminary sponsored by a mainline denomination, he resented my implication that cultivating a global identity was necessary for theological education. “That may be good for Fuller,” he said, “but not for us. We supply people to pulpits in our denomination in our part of the country. We have no need for the international emphasis you are talking about!” Knowing the president and faculty members from his seminary, I was confident they would disagree with his understanding of their mission, and glad that expanding his vision would be an important task for them as theological educators!

The challenges diversity brings are many, but cultural variety is a gift of God. Though it highlights our differences, it also calls for that which binds us together, inviting us to love the world in all of its multiplicity. We must choose to learn from the global community rather than remove ourselves from it.

Our Incredible Diversity

Decades ago I was invited to lead a workshop at a large conference on urban ministry. In order to insure some uniformity in the format of the workshops, the conference planners asked each leader to choose a title that fit the following formula: “A _______ theological perspective on _______.” The first blank was meant to be filled in with a label that identified the leader’s theological perspective, the second was for singling out the specific area of urban life that would be discussed. I had no difficulty filling in the blanks: I wrote “Reformed” for my theological perspective and “politics” for my area of focus.

When I received the official program for the conference I was struck by the ways in which various workshop leaders identified their theological perspectives. Some had chosen, as I had, labels with long-term currency in theological discussion: “A Lutheran theological perspective on urban law,” “A Catholic theological perspective on urban education,” “A Mennonite theological perspective on urban community.” But others chose different sorts of labels: “A black theological perspective on urban family life,” “A feminist theological perspective on urban economics,” “An Asian-American theological perspective on urban church life.”

What took me by surprise in that theological discussion has become commonplace now: labels associated with “identity theologies”—such as ethnic, gender, and national identities—are now widely acknowledged to have theological relevance. People who claim these newer “identity” labels often mean to be protesting against a “North Atlantic” understanding of theology, where agendas are set in terms of the classical topics debated by and among the Orthodox, Catholic, and various Protestant traditions. Identity theologies insist that race, gender, class, and geography have important theological relevance. (For lack of a better term, I am going to refer to these “identity” factors as “cultural.”)

Peace-Be-Still-by-He-Qi-800x800-72dpiEmpowering Chinese Psychologists

Fuller’s School of Psychology is committed to empowering research by Chinese psychologists interested in religion. In the years since active relationship-building has taken place between Fuller and China, a generous Templeton grant has made possible the privilege of supporting Chinese psychologists in many ways. We have

  • provided 19 scholars with a two-week summer intensive in psychology of religion;
  • feted these scholars in a symposium and the opening ceremonies of the APA convention in San Diego, CA;
  • selected 12 scholars to write chapters on various aspects of psychology of religion;
  • distributed 2000 psychology and psychology of religion books to 15 universities;
  • translated 8 psychology of religion texts;
  • held two conferences on psychology of religion in China, with attendance of over 200 each, where more than 40 scholars presented.

Fuller has participated in training Chinese pastors and seminarians in basic skills in pastoral care, pastoring pastors, grief work, premarital counseling, conflict resolution, and communication skills, while books for Chinese seminaries have been provided, and ten of the 19 seminaries have been visited. Chinese seminarians have been supported for study at Fuller in the U.S., and over 35 Fuller students have participated in training sessions in China with three Fuller alumni working in China as a result.

I have sympathy for the insistence that theologians need to be conscious of the ways in which cultural context shapes their inquiries. Recent theological discussion has rightly devoted considerable attention to the relation of the gospel to diverse cultural situations. The term “contextualization,” like its close kin “indigenization,” is emphasized by thinkers who want to draw sympathetic attention to the different ways in which the Christian message is received, appropriated, and interpreted in a variety of cultural contexts. It is not uncommon for such thinkers to ask that we take an honest and critical look at the ways in which the transmission of the gospel to the non-Western world has been weighted down by association with colonialist programs, as well as with the values of a technocratic-scientific worldview.

Nor has this kind of emphasis been viewed as necessarily hostile to the core beliefs of traditional Christian communities. Indeed, contextualization issues have received much positive attention from thinkers who represent the more orthodox theological perspectives, especially Evangelicals and Roman Catholics. It is a good thing that Christian thinkers have become sensitive to such matters. Indeed, for many of us in the Christian world, our first awareness of contextualization themes was a liberating experience. These themes helped us to see clearly the danger of a cultural imperialism that sometimes disguises itself as a professed commitment to propagating “eternal truths.” The emphasis on contextualization has allowed us to appreciate the fact of cultural diversity, both within the Christian community and in the larger human community. It is a truth we will learn and relearn as Fuller Theological Seminary continues to internationalize.

The Gift of Diversity

As I continued to wrestle with the theological issues at stake in cultural diversity, I was helped by an observation made by nineteenth-century Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck on the subject of the image of God. Bavinck suggested that in addition to the ways in which each human individual is created in the image of God, there is also a “collective” possession of the divine image. The Lord distributes different aspects of the divine likeness to different cultural groups. Each group receives, as it were, a different assignment for developing some aspect of the image of God. Only in the heavenly gathering-in of the peoples of the earth, when many tribes and tongues and nations will be displayed in their “honor and glory” (Rev 21:26) in the New Jerusalem, will we see the many-splendored image of God in fullness.

On this view, the sinful experiment at the Tower of Babel led to a distortion of an original and good multiculturalism built into God’s design for the human race, and God found it necessary to respond to human sinfulness by instituting the kinds of remedial patterns of cultural diversity that were not in accordance with his original creating designs. Within the framework of that diversity resulting from the disobedience at Babel, God chose to accomplish his redemptive purposes by singling out a specific ethnic-cultural group, the Hebrew nation, as the special recipient of his covenant mercies.

This ethnocentric redemptive economy of the old covenant, however, was never viewed as the final arrangement. Isaiah makes this clear in many places. Here is one of my favorites, from Isaiah 25:6–7: “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of fat things. . . . And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations.” This ancient promise of redemption for all peoples was fulfilled in the redemptive ministry of Jesus Christ. At Pentecost the Holy Spirit revealed in a dramatic way a new Babel-reversing pattern of multiculturalism: “In our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power” (Acts 2:11). The post-Pentecost church is called to show forth a new kind of social reality, in which older ethnic identities are subordinated to the new cultural patterns that come with life in the Spirit. The Christian community in its present life and witness should point forward to the multiculturalism that will someday be ushered in with the fullness of the Reign of Lamb of God, who alone is “worthy . . . to take the scroll and open its seals, for [he was] slain, and by [his] blood [he has] ransomed men and women for God from every tribe and tongue and nation and [he has] made us.” We Christians know that here, too, is something that would never happen if we were left to rely on our own power: he has “made us a kingdom and priests unto our God” (Rev 5: 9–10). In a time, then, when “multiculturalism” is a divisive topic in North America, and where ethnic and tribal warfare is waged in many other parts of the world, we have a mandate to bear witness to the healing and transforming power of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

A Theology of Creation

On the other side is that which transcends and affirms diversity. In 1983 President Hubbard led a delegation through the newly opened doors of China. The leader of the Three-Self Church, Bishop Ting, was one of the persons they visited and who attended my own installation as president in 1993. He is someone I have learned from. In his writings he emphasizes the importance of the doctrine of creation. He has intended this emphasis as a corrective to some quite narrow thinking that has often influenced Christian attitudes toward creation. Two closely related errors have especially occupied his attention: the ways in which many Christians have forced a radical separation between creation and redemption, and a widespread tendency to see Christ’s redemptive work exclusively in terms of the salvation of individual sinners. These errors, he wisely observes, lead to a dividing up of the work of the members of the Trinity, so that, as Bishop Ting puts it in one of his essays, “God is the Lord of all creation, Christ is the Lord of Salvation,” with the result that “each minds his own store.”1 This way of dividing up the labor of the Godhead, Bishop Ting insists, has tragic implications for the life and ministry of the Christian community. Thus his continual emphasis on the cosmic mission of Jesus Christ.

These themes in Bishop Ting’s writings have relevance for the life and mission of the church in China. They also have something to say to North America. A limited understanding of Christ’s redemptive work has also been common in North American evangelicalism. There, too, it has been linked to a failure to appreciate the importance of the doctrine of creation. Bishop Ting has wisely made a more holistic understanding of creation an important topic in his writings. He has consistently called the church to see its mission in terms of the larger picture of God’s creating purposes. And he has been clear about the fact that this, in turn, must provide us with a larger picture of our mission as the Christian community. To fail to see these things is to operate with a diminished understanding of the very being and character of God. It is also to limit our grasp of the mission of Jesus.

Juan-Martinez-VP-for-Diversity-470x650-72dpiAn Experience of Amazing Contrasts

by Juan F. Martínez

A recent trip I took to China was an experience of amazing contrasts. We had the opportunity of serving pastors, meeting Christians in many different walks of life, interacting with university professors and students, and visiting churches. Early Sunday morning we took a two-hour bus ride to go to church in Mianzhu. We worshiped in a style that felt like the church I grew up in over forty years ago. After worship I faced the first dissonance of my time in China. We went to see the new building that is under construction for the church. It is a huge structure that will seat 1,600 people. The current building has a clear Chinese style. The new building looks like a Western cathedral. . . .

Read more about Martínez’s experience in China »

It is with this doctrine of creation in mind that it is appropriate for all of us to support—and even celebrate—Bishop Ting’s important call for a “theological reconstruction” project in the Chinese church. This project, as he puts it, will explore a theology “that is true to biblical teaching and relevant to present-day thinking in China.”2 Such a project is, rightly understood, a mandate for the church, because the Christian community, wherever it serves, must explore the riches of its unique cultural context. This can be done best, as Bishop Ting put it in his charge to the 1995 graduating class at the Nanjing seminary, when Christian leaders “go into the church to work [with] a holistic Christian view of God, Christology and worldview, and in appropriate situations, use language appropriate to that situation,” to proclaim a message that “is not merely one of personal blessing,” but which “includes the renewal of this world, bringing it into line with the beautiful plan of the God who created it through Christ.”3 That is an important message for present-day China. But it is an important message—one that will surely be spelled out differently for different cultural contexts—for the whole worldwide church of Jesus Christ. And we will see the profundity of this message most clearly if we pay attention to the important implications of the kind of faith that sees the cosmic mission of Jesus Christ in the framework of a rich doctrine of creation.

To Love the World

It became clear to me in the 60s that the civil struggle could not be engaged in adequately without also paying careful attention to the spiritual and theological dimensions of the racial crisis across the world. Our task as Christians was complicated by the fact that in paying attention to the issues of racism, the world was not only looking at the American struggle, it was also focusing, for example, on the apartheid system in South Africa. And in many minds the racial segregation in South Africa was intimately linked to Christianity.

The South African situation, then, loomed large for many of us. One particular discussion of apartheid in the 1970s stands out for me as an important spiritual experience. I was at Calvin College at the time and we were hosting a conference of educators from various Reformed institutions of higher education from around the world, including both black and white delegates from South Africa. A decision had been made to devote one evening of the conference to a debate about apartheid. The Gezon Auditorium was full that evening, and the discussion was very heated. At one point, late in the proceedings, the president of a white South African university was trying to defend his school’s racial policies. He told us that he hoped that apartheid would soon come to an end, but in the meantime his university was going along with the racial practices of the larger society. It was difficult to convince the majority of the white Dutch Reformed constituency that change must take place, he said. And then he added, with obvious pain in his voice, “We cannot get too far ahead of our people.”

At this point a black South African theologian stood up. Addressing the white leader by his first name he said, “You keep talking about your people. You have to educate your people. You cannot get too far ahead of your people. Well, I want to say as a black African that I too love my people. But I also have to say this: as difficult as it would be, I would forsake my people in order to be obedient to the gospel of Jesus Christ. And that is because belonging to Jesus is more important to me than my racial identity. So I want to ask you, my friend: Are you willing to forsake your people if the gospel demands it of you?” Sadly, the white leader never directly answered his question.

It was an important moment in my spiritual and theological journey. The black African’s testimony brought home in a powerful way the demands of the gospel with regard to issues of racial, cultural, and national identity. If I genuinely believe what I am saying when I confess that I am not my own but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ, then this has profound meaning for my understanding of who I am and what God calls me to do, namely, to love the world, the cosmos.

Portrait of Fuller Seminary faculty member Erin Dufault-HunterTales of Faithfulness and Hardship

by Erin Dufault-Hunter

I suspect I will spend years mulling over my experience during a recent trip to China. One of the most poignant moments in China came during a break from meetings in Hangzhou. I walked intimately and slowly along the river with a seminary professor. Eventually I asked how she became a Christian. Like so many others we asked, she replied, “Through my family.” Guessing her age to be about my own, I then asked her how her family had survived as Christians during “difficult times” (e.g., the Communist takeover, especially the Cultural Revolution). She told me a tale of faithfulness and hardship. . . .

Read more of this Chinese professor’s tale »

A Mandate

A sensitivity to the multicultural realities of the Body of Christ ought to have a clear impact on the way we conduct our primary academic activities: teaching, learning, and research. A biblically shaped perspective on these matters will necessarily run counter to many prevailing views about, and strategies for cultivating, multicultural diversity in academic life. In seminary education we can display a different kind of diversity by exploring, with all of the intellectual resources, sensitivities, and insights that are available to us, the complexities of the Kingdom realities that are the real context in which we conduct our academic business.

The mandate to do this is clearly stated in the text from Isaiah 49, verse 6: “It is too light a thing,” simply to conduct business as usual, says the Lord to the people of Israel as they return from their time of exile. You need to do more, he says, than merely to maintain the status quo. “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

“It is too light a thing.” This is an important word for Fuller Theological Seminary today. Indeed it is a word that the Lord has spoken many times to this school. “It is too light a thing for you only to train theologians, preachers, international workers, and psychologists. I want you to show my glory by being an excellent center for the study of the full range of theological, cultural, and psychological realities.” “It is too light a thing,” said the Lord to Fuller Theological Seminary in the beginning of the twenty-first century—“for you to concentrate almost exclusively on educating students for the manifold ministries of the church; I want you to show my glory by also showing hospitality to students and faculty from around the world.” And at this time in history, when the human race is experiencing new tribalisms, and new programs in ethnic cleansing, and the threat of new genocidal campaigns—and in an academic environment where the confusion of Babel often seems so much more powerful than the harmonies of Pentecost—we must hear his word anew: “It is too light a thing for you to go about business as usual. I have raised you up to demonstrate how an academic community can honor the multicultural, multiracial, multinational designs of my creating and redeeming purposes.” Perhaps this is how we best serve the cause of the Lamb who is in the process of gathering “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Rev 7:9).

1. Bishop K. H. Ting, “Creation and Redemption,” in God Is Love: Collected Writings of Bishop K. H. Ting (Colorado Springs: Cook Communications Ministries International, 2004), 31.
2. Bishop Ting, “Epilogue” to God Is Love, 621.
3. Bishop Ting, “Creation and Redemption,” in God Is Love, 34–35.

This article was published in Theology, News & Notes, Fall 2011, “Where In the World Are We? Reflections on Fuller’s Expanding Global Reach.”