Owning our traditions and picking up the baton

 

President Wilson Chow, President Carver Yu, President Stephen Lee, Board members, faculty, staff, students, alumni, distinguished guests, and brothers and sisters joining through livestream — greetings! It is by God’s bountiful grace that I am appointed the 5th President of China Graduation School of Theology (CGST). Yet I also feel the weight that comes with the appointment. Our previous Presidents have all been exemplary leaders, demonstrating the humility of Moses the Man of God, the zealousness of Elijah the prophet, the diligence of Ezra the scribe, and the dedication of Paul the apostle. Who am I that I may continue in their footsteps? In fear and trembling, I must rely on God and look up to His guidance as I embark on this new journey.

The three President Emeriti who just laid their hands on me were my teachers at CGST. I studied Old Testament Exegesis with President Chow, Dogmatic Theology with President Yu, and Old Testament Theology and the Psalms with President Lee. Although I did not have the privilege to study under our late Honorary President Rev Dr Philip Teng, I was nourished by his sermons when I went to the North Point Alliance Church years ago. I am the first CGST alumnus to become the School’s President. A graduate in year 2005, of the 28th graduating class, I did not witness the beginning years of CGST. Yet, as the newly-appointed President, it is incumbent upon me to be versed in the traditions of this community. So I must first understand what these traditions are. From my experience studying and teaching here, together with reviewing the history of the School, let me attempt to articulate the traditions of CGST.

Traditions of CGST

In the 1960s, four Chinese Christian scholars studying at Westminster Theological Seminary in the USA received a common vision from God to evangelize China and transform Chinese culture with Christian principles. These scholars, namely, Jonathan Chao (趙天恩), Che-Bin Tan (陳濟民), Samuel Kau (高集樂), and Wilson Chow (周永健), agreed that establishing a graduate level theological institution in China was the way to realize this vision, and the name “China Graduate School of Theology” was conceived. Gradually, their vision gained support and turned into a movement. Several years later, their vision materialized into a reality: China Graduate School of Theology was established in Hong Kong. Theological Education by Extension (TEE) courses were first offered, followed by the launching of graduate school programs in 1975. In the past 46 years, many more programs and ministries have been introduced, such as research centers, academic lectures, Theological Training of Christian Workers Among the Working Class, Certificate for Homemakers, counseling programs, Master of Theology, Doctor of Philosophy, Word of Life Bible study, and the Doctor of Ministry program commencing this academic year. These programs and ministries are the fruits of the original vision. CGST is not simply a collection of several academic programs but a theological movement initiated by Chinese Christians aiming to serve China. Several characteristics and traditions arose from this history of the movement.

China: Responding to God’s call

The first word of the school’s name is “China”. This word affirms our vision to serve our country. In the 1970s, our campus was established in Hong Kong for three reasons: 1) the city offers an ideal environment for advanced level education and research; 2) Hong Kong is a Chinese society deeply shaped by Chinese culture; 3) geographically it is at the border of mainland China. From another perspective, putting “China” into the name of the School expressed our willingness to respond to God’s call. God’s call is always concrete and particular. When God called the four Chinese seminary students, they resolved to serve China; when God established CGST in Hong Kong, we became a seminary of this city. “Rooted in Hong Kong, Committed to China” is part of our Mission Statement. We are bound by this mission to serve this city on the one hand, and reach out to mainland and overseas Chinese on the other hand. With more and more Putonghua-speaking faculty joining us in recent years, our vision to serve Chinese in the whole world is being realized further. In recent years, globalization has brought quick changes worldwide. While geopolitics may intensify conflicts among regions, the internet brings people together. CGST must navigate these changes to continue serving the Chinese church worldwide.

Academic: Embracing the Context

“Graduate School” in our name reveals another characteristic of CGST: we celebrate academic excellence. CGST’s vision was conceived in the 1960s, an era in which most Chinese Christians and pastors did not pay much attention to careful biblical exegesis or theology. But as education levels of the general population rise, there is a need for the academic standards of theological training to catch up. Furthermore, dialogue between Christianity and Chinese culture should be informed by academic research. Right from the beginning, CGST has been conducting advanced level theological training and academic research in response to the needs of the times. Our emphasis on academic excellence stems from our desire to embrace the demands of the times and environment we live in. In fact, pursuing academic excellence is only one of the many ways CGST addresses the needs of our context. Our ministries such as research centers, Theological Education by Extension, Word of Life, counseling program, marketplace theology, public lectures and publications that respond to social issues, and our recent new curriculum that trains “reflective collaborators” are our attempts to address the needs of the changing context.

For a long time, our MDiv program has aimed to train “scholar pastors,” and CGST has given an impression of being very “academic.” Although we changed our focus to training “reflective collaborators” four years ago, we did not give up academic rigor. Yet how being “academic” is expressed has changed according to the changing contexts. Academic excellence promotes correct interpretations of Scripture and proper understanding of society so that Christians can make greater impacts in the world. Moreover, academic research is predicated upon facts and information that truthfully describe the real world. Our emphasis on academic strength compels us to seek truth in this “post-truth” age where people increasingly view truth as relative. Therefore, our strife for academic excellence is not an end in itself, nor should we build an ivory tower out of academic pursuits. Our goal is to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ, a gospel that enters and transforms the world. Dear students, studying at CGST can be academically challenging. Yet you do not work hard in order to please your teachers, to get good grades, or to have something to boast in front of others. Achieving academic excellence allows us to better practice the truth and to serve our Lord.

Cross-Denominational: Disencumbering the Gospel

CGST is cross-denominational. Our founders established CGST as a cross-denominational seminary for two reasons. First, to ensure that contextual theologies can be developed freely with the least influence from particular traditions. Second, to ascertain that exchange and collaboration with other seminaries and institutions can be done freely, both locally and overseas. Being cross-denominational accentuates our belief that the gospel must enter the world as it is, and that theology should be developed in an environment that allows for free dialogue and creativity. However, freedom is not borderless or chaos. It affirms that God’s revelation and the Bible is the sole foundation upon which theology is freely constructed. Our emphasis on both academic rigor and academic freedom means that we should respect and listen to all traditions and voices, to critically evaluate the different claims, and to creatively construct theology so as to give us directions on how to engage the world.

The characteristic of being cross-denominational not only allows us to collaborate with Christians from many traditions, but also encourages us to carry out dialogue among different bodies of knowledge. “Collaboration” and “integration”, two important notions of our new curriculum, are the outflows of this tradition. The CGST community consists of a mix of Christians from different traditions, backgrounds, and identities. So I would like to encourage our students to not react too quickly by defending your own views or make rash judgments when you encounter classmates who come from very different traditions, or stumble upon theologies that appear strange to you. Why not broaden your horizon before jumping to conclusions? Our cross-denominational nature, moreover, reminds us that CGST is merely a small part of God’s mission on earth. We ought to develop a kingdom perspective, recognize God’s particular gifts and tasks for CGST and serve Him in humility. In our history, there have been ministries started by CGST and later separated from us. Some faculty and staff have also left us to join other institutions. We should rejoice that these ministries and Kingdom workers continue to serve our Lord after leaving CGST. In Christ, we are all collaborators.

Picking up the baton

To summarize, the three traditions of CGST are “responding to God’s call”, “embracing the context”, and “disencumbering the gospel.” Focusing on China, pursuing academic rigor, and remaining non-denominational will continue to be our characteristics. Dear teachers and students, we should pass on these excellent traditions. These traditions are also good reminders for individual Christians. I encourage every Christian to discern your particular calling from God, to understand your context, and to reflect on the meaning of the gospel for you.

In the past half-century, thanks to my predecessors, CGST has grown into a vibrant theological community with many ministries and academic programs. Now God calls me to lead this community. I feel that I am standing on the shoulders of giants, having a good view of the landscape. Compared with our previous Presidents, I am merely an ordinary person standing on their shoulders. On good days, standing high allows us good views. But on stormy days, standing high exposes us to the harsh elements that may cause us to stumble. Habakkuk’s words “the Lord enables me to tread on the heights” (Hab 3:19) encourage me to rely on God, my rock.

Yet one never walks alone in the CGST community. We enjoy hiking on the beautiful country trails of Hong Kong, and we always go in groups. My appointment as the new President is not a matter for an individual person. It is God, at this moment, who assigns me to take up one of the roles among many in this community of over 40 years. God does not call individuals, but whole communities. Therefore, I do not tread alone on the heights, but am weathering the elements with my companions. Who are they? Dear teachers, staff, students, alumni, board members…you are all my companions. I am reminded of the penguins in Antarctica. When they brave the long, dark winter, they must huddle together in the blizzards, relying on the body heat of one another to stay warm, so that the harsh winter can be endured until dawn comes.

When I was studying at CGST for my MDiv, an experience at a retreat camp taught me much about responding to God’s calling. One evening, my teacher Dr Peter Chang led us in a spiritual exercise called “quiet walk.” He explained that we students would walk slowly in a line, leaving some space in between each person. We should meditate quietly while we walked. He said he would lead the group, and asked for a volunteer to bring up the rear to make sure that everyone was safe. At that time, I was young and thought of myself as a competent hiker. So I volunteered. He thanked me and continued: “I will lead you into the cemetery nearby. Be careful. It is very dark there.” I exclaimed, “Oh! If I had known that we’d be walking in the cemetery, I might not have volunteered!” Perhaps moved by the Spirit, I blurted out immediately, “but this is just like responding to God’s calling!”

Yes, God’s calling is like this. God’s call to Abraham shows us that it is only after a person has shown willingness to follow God that He reveals the next step to him/her. When our heavenly Father called me into ministry years ago, I promised Him that I would go anywhere He tells me to. Today I must honor my promise. He asks me to lead CGST, a community in this city at this moment in time. May His will be done. I don’t know if He will lead me into a cemetery. But the Bible tells me this: If I indeed will walk into a cemetery, and even end up in a grave, Jesus will be there waiting for me. Jesus always leads me in front, and protects me from behind. He will eventually lead me out of darkness into wonderful light. Then why should I fear the dark?

(Full transcript of Presidential Inauguration Address)

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