Combining empirical and theological perspectives

Written by webmeester on . Posted in Conferences

Being surprised by God conference

The conference is to bring together different methodologies.

We hope for contributions that combine empirical and theological approaches/perspectives, but systematic and historical papers will be permissible. We also invite papers that explicitly look at bridging the disciplinary divide across the three areas.


  • From systematic theology/ecclesiology:
    • How do we interpret the local congregation in its empirical reality from a theological perspective?
    • What forms of ecclesiology and which methods facilitate an approach to 21st century ways of being church/congregations and ecclesial communities in this way?
  • From congregational studies/ethnography:
    • What do we seek to know about local congregations, what are the characteristics of local congregations as faith communities, in comparison with other groups?
    • What sort of developments/changes are going on?
    • What is the future of the local congregations as perceived by differing branches of congregational studies?
    • What is the relation between theology and empirical research?
  • From practical theology/congregational development:
    • How might we develop theologically appropriate and constructive models for congregational development?
    • How might this area be developed further as a scholarly field?

The three days are not driven by disciplinary groups (systematics, etc.) but rather by a few invited keynotes on themes and then various papers on the research projects people have to discuss. There will have to be ample time for conversation; informal discussions, networking and social interaction and we try to build in some cultural/historical/informal social activities that involve the main body of people in attendance.


Written by Frederick on . Posted in Conferences

Living the Missional Calling
SAPMC Missional Conference
Helderberg  2009-11-10

Missional Presence
More and more, the desire grows in me simply to walk around, greet people, enter their homes, sit on their doorsteps, play ball, throw water, and be known as someone who wants to live with them. It is a privilege to have the time to practice this simple ministry of presence. Still, it is not as simple as it seems. My own desire to be useful, to do something significant, or to be part of some impressive project is so strong that soon my time is taken up by meetings, conferences, study groups, and workshops that prevent me from walking the streets. It is difficult not to have plans, not to organize people around an urgent cause, and not to feel that you are working directly for social progress. But I wonder more and more if the first thing shouldn’t be to know people by name, to eat and drink with them, to listen to their stories and tell your own, and to let them know with words, handshakes, and hugs that you do not simply like them, but truly love them.
–  Henri Nouwen


At the outset, I want to make a few remarks about culture.  Culture refers to a set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution, organization or group.
We all take part in, and are part of culture, and e.g. all churches are cultural institutions. They are governed by this shared sense of what it is all about.
It is often said that culture is like air to a human being, or water to a fish.  Fish are actually not aware that they are surrounded by water.  Water is just there, water is the way things are around here, it is accepted as an invisible part of life.  But take a fish out of water, place it in fresh air, bring it to other possibilities, and the cultural shock is very concretely and immediately there.
A plunge is to deliberately move from the context of your dominant culture to another culture.  It is like a human being plunging into water and moving around in water.  Suddenly everything changes.  Your weight change in the water, movement is different, you need to use your muscles differently, strengths on land, may become weaknesses in water, etc.
For churches to leave the safety of the religious culture they own, to leave their perceived moral high ground behind, to perhaps speak of the deepest experiences of their hearts in a different language, amongst people who do not see life in the same way, who do not value the same things we do, is very threatening.
Our culture is often blind to other possibilities, it is often a closed system where we cannot imagine other ways of being and doing, which make it very threatening for us to jump into the murky water of groups we do not feel comfortable with.


2.1 To re-connect with our context and with God’s actions

In the Reformed tradition, as is the case with many mainline churches (old or more traditional churches), reality is defined for us by our theological convictions.  We fit our theology likes glasses or lenses to our eyes and we see what our lenses permit us to bring into focus.
We are being taught that God speaks to us only through the Word, and specifically the Word as it is preached to us by well trained theologians or pastors.  In their sermons they (we, us) keep our understanding of the world, with its many cultural groupings (that is groups with a particular way of life, not only ethnic groups) intact.
That disconnects it with the world in which Father, Son and Holy Spirit are active agents, bringing healing and restoration to.  We can re-connect with God’s actions by dwelling, plunging in our world.
It reminds me of the inner-city congregation in Port Elizabeth which started to distribute Bibles to people form other nationalities living in the downtown area. They were welcomed by these people, friendships grew, the outsiders started to attend church services.  A complicated set of circumstances and leadership challenges grew out of this initiative, with conflict amongst members too, but the congregation feels alive, in tune with God’s mission, and energised in a way you could not imagine a short while ago.

2.2 To grow in our teachability

Within our boundaries we have our ways of describing our world and our set ideas about what is going on.
Once we move beyond our boundaries, once we plunge, we experience I different reality.  Suddenly our ideas become problematic – we realise that we do not understand, that we need to be taught how to minister in realities that are vastly different from our presuppositions.
When God sends us to another group, we better learn out of personal experience about that group, we need to connect with them in spaces in which we are not in control of the situation, in order for us to learn.
We often learn what the Gospel is all about.  We may enter a culture thinking we know what the Gospel can offer people.  But as we see, learn, and grow we often grow in our own understanding of the Gospel and about God’s agenda in the world.

2.3 To become aware of our own invisible walls, which keep people out

Your own culture is like air, or like water to a fish, it is not visible to you.  The walls, habits, customs, values, and rituals created by your culture are not visible to you, but it is real, it is there, and it is keeping others out.
A few examples:
• The role of silence in the church – for us silence may be holy, for people with small kids, or youngsters, the silence may be threatening;
• Assumptions about proper dressing, proper language, proper greeting; etc.

2.4 To form new community (the Gospel of Plunging)

If being missional is about forming new community, and welcoming the people to whom you are sent into community, and it is, then plunging is the way to go.  The desire behind plunging is to be taken up into new community.
2.5 To form a bridge community that will be able to guide our ministry forward

We do not know how to minster to those to whom we are being sent.  Therefore we need to learn together with them how to minister to them, and how to receive ministry from them.  By plunging into communities the invaluable bridge communities are formed that guide us forward.


3.1  The plot of the gospel

According to Luke 10 the peace of Jesus is extended by strangers entering a world, a city, a place, a house, where a harvest has been prepared in advance by the Father and the Holy Spirit. 
The plot of the Gospel is the Holy Community, the Holy Trinity, sending the Son as a stranger into the world to bring us into communion with God.  We partake in that mission when we are taken up into this ever expanding search of God to extend this communion.
To plunge is therefore at the heart of the Gospel.  When Jesus originally sent the first disciples into the world my forebears were living in Europe, far from God.  It was by plunging, and plunging, stretching over centuries, that new community was formed.
That dynamic repeats itself over and over as we take part in the dynamic crossing of boundaries wherever we are.

3.2 Taming the gospel?

We can tame the gospel by institutionalising it, by making it our way of caring for existing members.  It often happens in congregations.  We exchange the dynamic character of the gospel for the idol of mutual care for existing members.  Mutual, Christian care is part and parcel of the gospel.  But it is not the whole gospel.
The danger is that we may use the gospel to further the church’s institutional interests by changing it into a way of caring for one another.
It reminds me of our dog, a Belgian Shepherd, called Zoë.  She looks like a wolf – to some extend – but she is domesticated, tame.  We may domesticate the gospel, which turns the gospel into pseudo-good news to those fortunate enough to be included in or company.  By plunging we re-connect to the wild gospel, the gospel that never respects any border or boundary, but sweeps us into companionship with strangers, in order for us to meet God.


As a way of taking up ministry, plunging is part of a way is understanding that is vastly different from the traditional way we do theology and practise ministry.
We are trained to work with a theory – application model.  You need to see the truth, you need to have a good theory about ministry, and then you apply it.  You have a vision of the “true”, ideal church, and then you do “true church” at ground level.
This type of approach goes back over centuries and is deeply rooted in Western thought.  It reminds me of the metaphor the Greek philosopher Plato, used in his Republic-dialogue, likening us to prisoners being chained in a cave.  Behind us people are carrying stuff around, and a big fire is burning in the mouth of the cave.  We see only shadows against the walls of the cave, and we take the shadows for reality.  We need to be released from our chains, we need to walk in the light to see the real truth, in order for us to apply truth, in this case in the governance of the city.
It is first about theoretical seeing, and then applying it.  This model is the death in the pot for missional ministry.  It is this model that isolates us from real, vibrating, pulsing life, and which isolates us from God in our midst.
Plunging is part of a model of doing ministry that we may call an emergent model.  In an emergent model, the rhythm is doing – reflecting – doing – reflecting.  It is dwelling in the world (plunging) and reflecting (dwelling in the Word).  It is about the Christian community seeking for God’s guidance by reflecting with the Word in one hand and the world (community) God is sending us to in the other hand, reflecting about our Christian identity and God’s preferred future for us.  And then to follow God into that unchartered future, while we keep on doing and reflecting.
In this model mistakes are important.  We need to give one another permission to take the risk of making mistakes.  By reflecting on our mistakes, we grow, and we learn.
Welcome to the dynamic, adventurous world of plunging!

The Missional Calling Took me on a Journey of Personal transformation

Written by Frederick on . Posted in Conferences

From the first moment we started our journey with the PMC, we new that to be missional, we needed a different paradigm. How big a paradigm shift this would be, is something that we just could not contemplate.

As country, church and congregation, we experienced very much of uncertainty and an immense quantity of stuck ness. From our side as congregation, we new that change were absolute necessary. In fact, since 1998, a very serious decision was made by the church counsel to enhance our focus on our calling as church.

Sad to say, with all our efforts, we just could not change the culture of the congregation from maintenance to mission. Strategic planning was the only way new. And then, in 2003, Coenie Burger introduce a few congregations in Gauteng to the PMC! For us, it was like a life-boat.

What we have experience over the last few years, amazed us all. In our understanding of God, our understanding about being a church and being a Christian, we are in a process of learning and adapting.

We thank God for our congregational calling, for our three missional patterns, for boundaries we have crossed, for adaptive changes we have made, and all the lessons we have learned.

Daar is geen vergelyking tussen waar ons was en waar ons vandag is nie. Op ’n geestelike onderskeidende vlak kon ons, tree vir tree, die reis van gestuurdheid aanpak. Aanvanklik dikwels getwyfel oor die uitkoms, en by tye gewonder of ons nie die reis vaarwel moet roep nie. Tog dank ons die Here vandag dat ons deel gebly het van die proses.

Tydens ons afgelope kerkraadsvergadering, is aan elkeen van die lede gevra om hul gewaarwording, ten opsigte van wat hulle in die gemeente ervaar, met mekaar te deel. Woorde soos – gestuurdheid, om ’n verskil te maak, om jou roeping te verstaan, gefokus te wees, in biddende afhanklikheid te leef, iets van die wil en hart van God te leef – is oor en oor gehoor.

As leierskap, is ons daadwerklik besig om die gemeente terug te gee in die hande van die lidmate. Ons is verstom oor die grense wat die gemeente oorsteek, die nuwe geloofsgemeenskappe wat gevorm word, en die hulp en hoop wat gebring word aan soveel verwondes in ons omgewing.

Wat ons nie lekker aan die begin verstaan het nie, begin ons stelselmatig te begryp nl. – dat God nog altyd aan ons alles gegee het wat ons as gemeente nodig gehad het om te wees en te doen waarvoor Hy ons geroep het.

What a journey!!

And it started in the late 90’s with, what I would call, a Holy Discontent. But then, in 2003, we were introduced to the Partnership for Missional Churches.

At that stage we did not know about:
1. Spiritual discernment
2. Dwelling in the Word
3. Missio Dei
4. Capacity building
5. Adaptive chance
6. Risk taking

In a certain sense this was new to us all. But, through the grace of God, we started our journey with South African Partnership of Missional Churches.

And now, after nearly 6 years, our growing into being missional, is gradually becoming visible in the community.

The one thing we know is – God is sending Constantiakruin to the wounded people, to form a new community with them, where we can help each other, and where we can bring new hope. On a physical, emotional, spiritual level.

And to enhance our congregational calling we, in a very serious manner, blow torch our 3 patterns.  And they are:

 The Biblical Formation into Discipleship
 Practices That Demonstrate God’s Intent for the World
 Dependence on the Holy Spirit

We focus on them, we stress them, emphasize them, and it is just amazing how, in doing this, a culture is being changed from maintenance to mission

What I have experienced the last few years in the congregation, is só unprecedented. If you would have asked me six years ago – where are you heading?  In no way would I have been able to share the outcome with you.

But it did not only change the congregation, in a very personal manner, it changed me.

The one verse that stuck in my mind is Philippians 2: 5 “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus –
 He who made himself nothing
 He who took the very nature of a slave
 He who humbled himself, and became obedient to death”

Over the last 5 years, I have sense this change:

 I have changed from a lone ranger into a team player
 I am much more relaxed about the processes in our congregation
 I really trust God with the way ahead, although I don’t know where we are heading
 I am much more relaxed with chaos.
 I know that living out our missional vocation will not please everyone – and I am OK with that.
 I am also OK with – taking risks
 For me, it is not any more about Constantiakruin and what we want to become, I understand that it is all about God, about God’s nature and character
 I haven’t got an issue about who is going to get the recognition or credit for work being done
 Deep inside I sense much more trust and tranquility and fulfillment
 Being part of this missional journey – energizes me, it keeps me young, and it helps me to focus.

Dear Pat,

In a special way we want to thank CII for allowing us to be part of the PMC. But then, in a special manner, we want to thank you for sharing your wisdom and knowledge and all your research results with us. Thank you for introducing us to “Dwell in the Word” and for helping us to grow into spiritual discernment. We owe you so much recognition and thanks for your outstanding work through all the years!

Beste Frederick,

As kerkraad staan ons verwonderd oor die werk van die Here in die gemeente. Ons kan nie genoeg dankie sê vir al die rolspelers wat betrokke was by die prosesse waarmee ons besig is nie. Daarom, vanuit die kerkraadsvergadering, besonderlik aan jou ’n woord van opregte dank en waardering vir al jou insette, tyd en opoffering, vir wat jy vir ons as gemeente, “cluster”, asook vir die SAVGG beteken.

Ons het eweneens groot waardering vir jou gesin, en hulle opoffering van die afgelope ses jaar.

Vriendelike groete,

Theo Marais
(nms Constantiakruin Kerkraad)

The unfolding story of the Missional calling in Southern Africa: Our journey thusfar …

Written by Frederick on . Posted in Conferences


The first two years were exciting, and for us as project leaders intimidating and daunting. We were all on a journey without knowing where it would lead us and whether it would work. Theo Marais will tell you that he realized we invited congregations on a journey that we had not been on – and quite frankly did not have the slightest idea what it was all about. You should ask him why he joined?

After two years the anxiety was mounting for us as the management team – we could not see results. Pat Kiefert and Pat Taylor-Ellison came and did a presentation on hitting the wall, and that left us, as it felt at that stage, with a bloedneus.

And then an unexpected turnabout: It was a pastors’ meeting on the Friday in the Western Cape. The 30 plus of us were sharing our experiences and after we had finished going round the circle, I was about to ask the next question when Johan van der Merwe asked me: “And you Frederick, how do you feel?” Before I could gather my thoughts, I said: “Johan I have never been so unsure; I cannot sleep at night; I do not have any answers any more; I do not know if this is going to work.” He then replied: “Thank you, Frederick, this is the most helpful thing you have said on this journey.” And there, at that moment the real conversation started. A conversation of partners who did not know but who listened intently to each other – helping each other to discover how God is working in and through our vulnerability.

It was a turning point for me to realize that it is not you who take people on a journey, it is the Holy Spirit leading us when we dwell in the Word and listen to each other when we come together as a faith community.

Slowly the conversations started to turn, cluster after cluster we started to realize the transformation we were looking for was already happening to us, on condition that we were willing to allow the Holy Spirit to open our eyes when we dwell in the Word and in the world. I can still remember the feeling when I first realized that the work of the Holy Spirit is a reality in our present time and in every local setting. At first I did not trust myself to use Trinitarian language to describe it – and tried to explain it in terms of dynamics process – and then lose it. Later on I started using the language and, in that situation, expecting to experience God at work – it was there all the time.

After three years the missional culture started to settle amongst us and we were ready to start new clusters. Gordon invited people on the journey all the time and two new clusters were formed in the Western Cape and in Gauteng. Synods, like Highveld, started to show an interest. BM gave us a grant to print our material and translate Pat Kiefert’s book. The Faculty of Theology at Stellenbosch University came to us and with them we developed an MTh programme to build missional leadership capacity.


And then we hit the second wall! We could not build enough capacity at the management office to run the partnership effectively. Our money dwindled and we realized that we had to rethink our whole operation. Looking back, I think this was the point where the real incluturation happened. We made two decisions: we would only be able to survive if all of us were willing to serve as volunteers and secondly we needed to empower the regions to take control of their own affairs in the regions.

It was painful for us to end Gordon’s contract with the partnership. However, we had to down-size. In Africa, we realized, we have to learn how to build missional systems without money, and how to build networks of people who are willing to carry the vision not as an extra thing they are paid to do, but as part of what they are already doing. That was when we were forced to inculcate missional thinking and practices into our excising systems.

Concluding remarks:

Where are we now? 2009 is a year full of celebrations. We celebrate Calvin’s 500th birthday this year. At Stellenbosch we celebrate the 150th year of the Theology Seminary. These are such big events that our celebration of the five years of PMC in Southern Africa is almost insignificant. It should serve us a warning that what we do this week is within a much larger historical perspective. In the tradition of H Richard Niebuhr, I see my task as not to provide you with a historical overview of events in the formation,  founding and growth of the SAPMC, but to ask questions about God, and to be more specific about how God’s Reign breaks into historical events, into the everyday lives of ordinary people in Southern Africa. I do this with great humility. It is not our history, it is not our church, it is not our kingdom, it is God’s story, the Kingdom of God and, of course, God’s people.

The breaking in of the Reign of God

It is today 20 years ago, on the 9th of November 1989, that the Berlin wall fell. It is no coincidence that we gather on such an important historical day. We all know that it changed our lives in South Africa significantly. The unfolding of dramatic and fundamental events took place immediately before the breaking down of the Berlin wall, not only in Europe, but also in South Africa. The political climate in our country changed significantly and paved the way for FW de Klerk to unban the ANC and free political prisoners – including Nelson Mandela. The rest is history.
When the Reign of God breaks in it takes us on journeys that we cannot imagine. When the Kingdom of God is near, as Luke 10 teaches us, we can ignore it and in doing that, destroy ourselves, or be converted by the event. To be honest, how many of us would have received the peace from these 70 non-ordained strangers?
After much reflection, I think the best way to describe the unfolding story of SAPMC is as the journey of people who try to understand where and how God’s Reign is breaking into the world and how we are continuously converted or changed by this breaking in of God’s Reign.
I want to conclude with four conversions that came to my mind while reflecting on the unfolding story of SAPMC


1. Conversion from the church to God … who owns the harvest – the ecclesiastical conversion

The missional calling is not an ecclesiastical but a theological vision. It is about God, not about the church. It is not a survival of church growth package; it is about a re-discovering of God. According to Bosch: Mission is not the task of the church – it is an attribute of God. We have been converted from focusing on our own efforts to a focus on the Missional God who is not only present, but continuously breaking into our reality through the work of the Holy Spirit. This conversion has everything to do with the matter of agency; who is the agent at work and who is participating in that? Our conversion was a discovery that we do not have to bring the energy, it is not about our wisdom, it is not about us, it is about God, the primary agent, and we invited to participate in what God is undertaking.
The irony is that the harvest is plentiful. God’s harvest is plentiful, it might be that the harvest of the church is currently small, but if we keep on looking we will discover a harvest waiting for us to be harvested.

2. Conversion from ideas about God towards a journey with God. Where He intended to go – the theological conversion

This is not about understanding God; it is about journeying with God while practising spiritual disciplines. I remember so many theological discussions where we tried to understand, frantically defending our positions when our experience of what God is doing amongst us does not fit into the existing theological frames. And so it should be. We should continuously be converted from our fixed ideas about God – as if we can at all understand God – towards a new attitude of expecting to be surprised by God.
If this change of attitude does not happen, then we as the church, as theologians and ministers and leaders, will remain the stumbling-blocks that prevent our faith communities to participate in the coming of the Kingdom.

3. Conversion from power to vulnerability – like lambs among wolfs … the personal conversion

Mission was not a new concept to any of us. We all understood that the church should reach out across its boundaries, but it was most of the time a power movement from those who have, to those who do not have. The missional vision was submissive to that, and it challenged us to follow Jesus into His vulnerability – to empty ourselves from the power that we inherited as church when we plunge a community without power. (Phil 2:5) Then we are confronted by our unwillingness, or even worse, our inability to interact with people without our power position in the church. But it was in putting down the power tools of the church that new communities has emerges.

4. Conversion from extraordinary to the ordinary … eating and drinking that every day is provided for us: the conversion to public life

We stumbled across the habit of dwelling in the World it our effort to reflect on how God is present in our ordinary public lives. And what wonderful discoveries have we made? God was waiting for us everywhere, if we only had eyes to see and ears to listen. The irony, wonderful irony, is that the Holy Spirit is at work in the ordinary rhythms of every day. When we work, when we eat, “eating and drinking” that every day provides. The extraordinary is that the Missio Dei is present in the ordinary of the everyday public life of our communities. God is at work in the streets and shops, the offices and the construction sites waiting for us to participate in what God is already doing. There is no such thing as a spiritual live apart from our daily lives; the continuous incarnation of God is taking place in every town en city. There is no such thing as a ecclesial calling that is not send into the world.

During the conference you will hear story after story of our discovery of unexpected  in breaking of the Kingdom and the self conversions that we as congregations had to go through to participate in what God is doing.

Biblical Studies Perspectives on Human Dignity

Written by Admin on . Posted in Conferences

28 / 10 / 2009

Waar: Hofmeyrsaal, Teologie Where: Hofmeyr lecture room

· 08:00 – 08:20 Registrasie in voorportaal / Registration in foyer

· 08:20 – 08:30 Verwelkoming / Word of welcome – Elna Mouton

· 08: 30 – 09:00 Humankind as being created in the “image of God“ in the Old Testament: Possible implications for the theological debate on human dignity – Hendrik Bosman

· 09:00 – 09:05 Reaksie / Response: A Daniels

· 09:05 – 09:30 Bespreking / Discussion

· 09:30 – 10:00 Resisting Dehumanization: The acts of relational care in Exodus 1 – 2 as Image of God’s liberating presence – Julie Claassens

· 10:00 – 10:05 Reaksie / Response: Jonathan Weor

· 10:05 – 10:30 Bespreking / Discussion

10:30 – 10:45 Verversings / Refreshments

· 10:45 – 11:15 Human dignity and the construction of identity in the Old Testament – Louis Jonker

· 11:15 – 11:20 Reaksie / Response: Biswick Nhhoma

· 11:20 – 11:45 Bespreking / Discussion

· 11:45 – 12:15 The dialectic of human dignity and human finitude: reflections on the anthropology of the Psalms and Wisdom Literature – Douglas Lawrie

· 12:15 – 12:20 Reaksie / Response – BC Park

· 12:20 – 12:45 Bespreking / Discussion

· 12:45 – 13:00 Paneel/Panel members: Ian Nell, Xolile Simon, Dirkie Smit, Robert Vosloo

· 13:00 – 14:00 Middagete / Lunch

· 14:00 – 14:30 On mapping human dignity in the New Testament: Concerns, conditions and concepts – Jeremy Punt

· 14:30 – 14:50 Bespreking / Discussion

· 14:50 – 15:20 The human right to defend your case in a public court: perspectives from 1 Cor 6: 1-11 – Lambert Jacobs

· 15:20 – 15:40 Bespreking / Discussion

15:40 – 16:00 Verversings / Refreshments

· 16:00 – 16:30 Human dignity according to the Gospel of Luke: thoughts on the “alien dignity” (dignitas alienda) of human beings – Johann Du Plessis

· 16:30 – 16:50 Bespreking / Discussion

· 16:50 – 17:20 God images and human dignity? Perspectives from two controversial New Testament texts (1 Cor 14:33-40 & Eph 5:21 – 6:9) – Elna Mouton

· 17:20 – 17:40 Bespreking / Discussion

· 17:40 – 18:00 Paneel/Panel members: Ian Nell, Xolile Simon, Dirkie Smit, Robert Vosloo




Calvin and the Unity of the Church

Written by webmeester on . Posted in Conferences

Relevance for the Reformed Churches in SA

Coenie Burger

I.  Introduction

Many people outside the church and even some church members may be surprised and puzzled by the title of this paper.  John Calvin’s name is not conventionally associated with the pursuit of church unity and values such as openness, mutuality, ecumenicity.

This is but another example of how this brilliant and deeply pious man is misunderstood not only by his enemies but even by some of his followers.  Calvin indeed had a deep and unwavering commitment to the unity of the church.

Karl Holl, the Lutheran theologian, generously admits that of all the Reformers Calvin had by far the strongest commitment to the unity of the church.  It was apparent right from the beginning that Calvin was intensely uneasy about the lack of unity in the church of his time. This applied in the first place to the churches of the Reformation, but – at least in the beginning – also to the relationship with Rome.  We tend to forget that Calvin was part of a second generation of Reformation leaders and that the break with Rome was already a done fact when Calvin started working in Geneva in 1536. Although Calvin often had to defend the break with Rome, one could at times sense an uneasiness and sadness about this division.

This sadness and inner struggle is evident in Calvin’s letter to Sadolet: “With whom the blame rests it is for thee, O Lord, to decide.  Always, both by word and deed, have I protested how eager I was for unity.  Mine, however, was a unity of the Church, which should begin with thee and end with thee.  For as oft as thou didst recommend to us peace and concord, thou, at the same time, didst show that thou wert the only bond for preserving it.” We also hear this pain in his last letter to Westpahl when he explains how the animosity between Luther and Zwingli caused young students like himself to veer away from the two great reformers and stop reading their books for a period of time. We hear this same unease when he admits in a letter to Archbishop Cranmer that he considers the division of the church as one of the greatest evil of their time and that he would be willing to cross ten seas if it could help mend this rift.

In is noteworthy that more and more Catholic theologians are expressing their appreciation for very strong catholic trends in Calvin’s theology and for his ecumenical spirit. They have noted significant parallels between Calvin’s ecclesiology and the ecclesiology of Vaticanum II.  Some have also expressed the hope that Calvin’s theology might provide a link with the growing group of Pentecostal Churches.

II.  A strange discrepancy

If we compare the present state of affairs in the Reformed Family of Churches with Calvin’s deep commitment to the unity of the church the situation is – to say the least – tragic and almost inexplicable.  The truth is that the Reformed and Presbyterian Churches are amongst the most divided confessional groups in the world.  This trend of secession started early on – and just continued through the centuries.  Lukas Vischer’s book The Reformed Family Worldwide tells the story of wonderful growth on the one hand, “where the number of Church members has doubled, tripled and in some place even quadrupled”, but also of a multiplicity of churches – 750 when last counted! – unable to maintain unity and communion in the face of new challenges. Renewal and new insights have almost invariably led to the formation of new churches – a sign of sectarianism.  It is as if the Reformed tradition could not develop bonds of unity strong enough to contain diversity and difference of opinion.  Vischer writes: “The reason for this (the divisions) is that neither in their understanding of the church nor in their spirituality or the structures they have developed are Reformed Churches equipped to locate their ongoing struggles over new insights within a broader unity” (1999:273)

In many ways this is also the story of the Reformed Family in South Africa. The Dutch Reformed Family of Churches, taken together, is one of the largest churches in the country.  But we have also seen several divisions – some due to minor theological reasons, some because of political considerations and others attributable to racial factors.  There have been efforts to reunite this family of churches, but there are many stumbling blocks in the way. Although the smaller Presbyterian and Congregational Churches have made some progress in forming united churches and reaching agreements about fundamental issues,  the wider process of bringing together all the Reformed and Presbyterian Churches in the country has not even started.

The current situation is embarrassing and shameful. During the past 40 years many of the previous racially divided churches went through unification processes – even some of the larger Pentecostal Churches! While the largest Reformed Church has remained divided.

We need to ask how this is possible – especially in the light of Calvin’s strong commitment to the unity of the church.  Does this have to do with an intrinsic weakness in the Reformed tradition?  Does it have to do with implicit dualities in Calvin’s own theology and ecclesiology?  Or does the reason lie elsewhere – in later developments?

In this paper I argue that the unification process in the DRC might have run a different course had we paid closer attention to Calvin’s theology and more specifically his convictions and views on the unity of the church.  Had the church done that, we might have been led to position ourselves differently on a number of crucial issues concerning unification. In the next paragraph I will refer to several aspects of Calvin’s thinking that I argue were not considered adequately in the positions that DR Church took over the years.  In paragraph four I go a step further and refer to two issues relating to our unification process where I think dualities in Calvin’s thinking may have complicated matters.

III.  Perspectives on the unity of the church from Calvin’s work

The unity of the church was undoubtedly one of the more central motives of Calvin’s theology and pastoral life.  In this paragraph we will look at different aspects of Calvin’s position on the unity of the church which were not adequately recognized in the discussions around the unification process in our own church the past 40 years.

1. Calvin was passionate about the unity of the church and devoted much time and effort to this cause.  In his book Pia Conspiratio Lukas Vischer bemoans the Reformed tradition’s lack of concern about the divisions in the church. “It is ignored or brushed aside as though this were simply a regrettable but ultimately unimportant aspect” (Vischer 2000:5). This is certainly also true in our situation.

Calvin’s commitment to the cause of unity can be seen in his writings, but even more so in his ecumenical endeavors over the years.  He was continually involved in efforts to mediate discussions between church leaders and reconcile conflicting groups.

Jane Dempsey Douglass writes about him: “He had a broad and catholic understanding of the one Church of Jesus Christ, an outreaching pastoral relationship to churches all over Europe that encouraged greater unity amongst them, and a passionate concern to make the worldwide reign of Christ visible” (305).  She claims that his commitment to the unity of the church can be seen on at least six levels: 1) his catholic view of the church together with his belief that the true church can be found under many forms of church order; 2) his struggle against the idols; 3) his reaching out to churches of other traditions; 4) the multinational and multicultural character of the church in Geneva; 5) Calvin’s concern about and ministry to refugees and to the diaspora of Calvinist churches all over Europe; 6) his emphasis on the Christian life as stewardship, service to the neighbor, marked by obedience to God’s command for justice.” (306).

After his stay in Strasbourg Calvin spared no effort to keep in contact with the leaders of other Protestant groups.  He was in conversation with Bucer in Strasbourg, Bullinger in Zurich, several Anglicans, and most of the Lutheran leaders.  He also had contact with the Waldensians, the followers of the Czech Reformer Jan Hus and leaders of the churches in, amongst others, the Netherlands, France, Poland, Hungary and Scotland.

It is known that Calvin was very concerned about the split between Luther and Zwingli around the Lord’s Supper.  He really tried his utmost to reconcile the different groups and it is here that we arguably see Calvin’s commitment to Christian unity at its clearest.  Calvin’s position on the Lord’s Supper could be interpreted not as a third independent view born from disgruntlement with the views of Zwingli or Luther, but as a visionary and inspired effort towards consensus. His deepest motive was not to explain his own viewpoint, but to mend the rift between the Lutheran and Reformed wings of the Reformation.

His concern for the unity of the church was so profound that Calvin was prepared to sign the Lutheran Confessions of Faith if it could bring about unity between the two groups – this, despite him not being in full agreement with these confessions.  If more people had this attitude and were willing to follow Calvin’s example, unity could become a reality.

It is clear from Calvin’s writings that he recognized that the one church of Jesus Christ shared a common history and a common destiny.  Therefore, he commanded concern not only for the “inside” community but also for the “outside” community (Inst IV,1,19).  In his Corinthians commentary (on 1 Cor 14:36) he makes this point very clear.  He warns against haughtiness and self-complacency with our own customs and views.  We must always remember, he says, that we are not he only Christians in the world. The Gospel did not start with us! We are not the first Christians and hopefully not the last.  “This is a doctrine of general application: for no Church should be taken up with itself exclusively, to the neglect of others; but on the contrary, they ought all, in their turn, to hold out the right hand to one another, in the way of cherishing mutual fellowship, and accommodating themselves to each other, as far as a regard for harmony requires.”

2.  Calvin’s passion for the unity of the church was grounded in his theology.  Much has been written about Calvin’s theology and the absence of one central motive.  Without denying this one, could say that the concept of communio was at least one of the central themes of Calvin’s theology.  Calvin’s theology has various components, but the underlying vision is one of a new communion where God will be honored and humans respected and cared for.  Birmele (2009:2) argues that the idea of communio played a very important role in Calvin’s theology.  He sees this for example in the fact that Calvin from early on replaced the word congregatio as used by the CA by the word communio. The ultimate result of Christ’s work of salvation was the restoration of communion – between God and human beings, but also amongst the believers.

The theme of reconciliation is closely connected to the concept, communio. Opitz (2009:5) maintains that reconciliation played a central role in Calvin’s theology, specifically in his practical theology.  He argues that a large part of Calvin pastoral activity was centered on reconciliation, making peace, and building a just and caring community.  For Calvin this was what the Gospel of Jesus Christ was about.  This is confirmed by the reports we have of the conversations in the consistory.  Seemingly most of these conversations had to do with some or other form of reconciliation. This point is often missed by people faulting Calvin for legalism. He writes: “Das Consistorium stand im Dienst der Wiederherstellung der durch Fehltritte und Konflikte verletzten Gemeinschaft, es war die Instanz der Versöhnung “(Opitz 2009:5).

Against this background it is not difficult to understand why Calvin was deeply troubled by the divisions the church of Jesus Christ – local divisions in the congregation of Geneva, but in a way even more so by the disunity within the churches of the Reformation and even the break with Rome.  There is a close connection between these efforts towards reconciliation in the consistory and Calvin’s passion for the unity of the church.  It was directed at two manifestations of the same problem: resisting the reconciliatory work of the Jesus Christ through the Sprit and failing to understand and trust the power of the Gospel.

There is a further point in Calvin’s way of thinking about theology and doctrine that is very illuminating and helpful for processes of unification in the church. At times Calvin was willing to make a distinction between central matters of faith on which we cannot compromise and more peripheral issues where we can allow for difference of opinion.  In the Institutions he gave a relatively short list of doctrines that could not be tampered with: “God is one; Christ is God and the Son of God and; our salvation rests in God’s mercy” (Inst IV,1,12).  In his letter to Westphal the list is somewhat longer (see Hesselink 226 fn 20).  But in his Corinthians Commentary (on 1 Cor 3:11) the list is even shorter than the one in the Institutes.  He writes: “The fundamental doctrine which is nowise permissible to break, is that we cleave to Christ; for He is the only foundation of the church”.

If we are really serious about the unity of the church we need to talk about these longer and shorter lists.  In some Reformed Churches – also in our country – there are pastors and members for whom a unification process with for instance Anglicans and Methodists would be unthinkable because they would not be willing to sign our confessions of faith. If we start dreaming of a broader unity of reformed and Presbyterian churches in this country we will have to face the reality that the Presbyterian and the Congregation Churches are already part of a larger group of Protestant Churches discussing church unification (the Church Unification Commission) which includes the Anglicans and the Methodists. We will have to find structures that will allow for more diversity in one church.

3.  A deeper understanding of Calvin’s ecclesiology could also have helped us in the process of unification.

The DR Church’s efforts to move towards unification were hampered by what I believe to be a misunderstanding of two crucial issues relating to ecclesiology. The first problem was that many people did not have a clear understanding of the unique identity of the church.  They did not realize that the church is not ours to command, but that the church is a creation of God, belongs to its Lord Jesus Christ and that He and He alone has the final word in the Church.

It is in a way surprising to see how clear Calvin was on these issues. He had a much higher view of the church than most Calvinists today. Hesselink says correctly that Calvin at times sounds like a Roman Catholic.  He quotes Cyprian and calls the church the “mother of all the godly with which we must keep unity.”  Calvin had no doubts that we need the church for our salvation (Inst IV,1.4,8) and that there was no salvation outside the church.

For Calvin the church was definitely not a community formed by the faithful.  It was not a consequence of human initiative but of God’s election and calling. The church originated in the mind of God and was part of God’s plan of salvation. The church was the community of Christ, His body.  “This is the mark of the true church, by which it is to be distinguished from all other gatherings which falsely claim to speak in the name of God and presume to pass themselves off as churches: where the Lordship and Priesthood of Christ is earnestly recognized” (Comm on Jeremiah 33:17).

Our communion with Christ is also the ultimate foundation for the unity of the church. When we come to faith we are united to Christ and become part of his body. In the church we participate in one God and Christ.  “All the elect are so united in Christ that as they are dependent on one Head, they also grow together in one body, being joined and knit together as are the limbs of one body.  They are made truly one since they live together in one hope, faith and love and in the same Spirit of God”. How serious this unity of the body is and how vital this connection, is clear from the following extract: “For no hope of future inheritance remains to us unless we have been united with all other members under Christ, our Head (IV,1,2).

The second problem had to do with the unimaginative way the church order was used in the whole process.  Although we profess to be Reformed in our ecclesiology we tend to be very legalistic. We rely too much on a literal interpretation of the church order without adequate reference to theology, the Bible and the creativity of the Spirit.  The church order has acquired a life of its own and is often used as a rule book of what can and cannot be done.

This is a sad state of affairs. The idea of the church order was primarily to lead us towards embodiment of our faith. We must be willing to do and practice what we say we believe.  The church order was not intended to inhibit or smother renewal and faithful imagination.

There is a further point of Calvin’s ecclesiology that is noteworthy.  Calvin understood the need for diversity and a certain openness when it comes to customs and practices in the church.  We see that in the way he spoke about the different gifts in the one Body of Christ: through the difference of gifts God has intentionally made us dependent on one another.  But we see it even more clearly in his explanation of the so called adiaphora.  In Inst III,19,7 he writes: “regarding outward things that are of themselves indifferent we are not bound before God by any religious obligation preventing us from sometimes using them and other times not using them”.  It was very important to Calvin that we honor the freedom we receive from God and not become attached to man-made laws which the Word does not explicitly command.  This applied to certain customs around food and dress, but also to certain liturgical practices and the way churches organized their structures and ministries.

4. There is one specific aspect of Calvin’s ecclesiology that needs special attention.  That is his distinction between the visible and the invisible church.  In South Africa this distinction was not always properly understood and as a consequence it was often misused in the process. The argument was made was that the real unity of the church was given in Christ and part of the invisible church.  Because it was secure in Christ and already part of the invisible church, the imperative to embody it in the visible church lost its urgency.  It was seen as a nice to have not an essential part of the visible church.

This is certainly not what Calvin had in mind with the distinction.  In his early years Calvin admittedly had a strong emphasis on the reality of the invisible church. He got the distinction from Augustine and Luther and it was used initially as a consolation that there was indeed more to the church of Jesus Christ than what could be seen visibly in the Roman institute.  In later years, however, we see that he increasly focused on the visible church as the only church we know and see, with the notion of the invisible church pushed into the background. The way Book IV grew in the later editions of the Institutes is testimony to the fundamental role the visible church played in Calvin’s thinking and his pastoral activity.

This was also related to the vital movement in Calvin’s theology from faith to works, from justification to sanctification, from confession to embodiment, from election to life. If we say we believe in the Gospel, we must be willing to live it – by God’s grace. The same applies to the unity of the church: if we say we believe that the Church is one, we need to embody it in the real life of the visible church. Peter Opitz says that exactly this was the function of the church order: it had to guide the process from “Unsichtbarkeit zur Hörbarkeit und Sichtbarkeit der Kirche”.  Opitz sees this as a very central motive of Calvin’s whole theological exercise. God’s secret decision to reconcile us with himself in Christ and his election of the Church must ultimately be embodied in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper and the visible communion of the saints (Opitz: 2,5,10). It would therefore be a total misuse of Calvin’s theology and ecclesiology to stifle unification processes in the church with references to the distinction between the visible and invisible church.

5.  There is also much to learn from the way Calvin and the congregation in Geneva embraced foreigners and included them in their fold.  Before the Reformation Geneva was a relatively poor city.  Through the Reformation it became an international trading city.  It also became a safe harbor for refugees – mostly from France, but also from other countries all over Europe.  It is said that at times more than half of the congregation was made up of foreigners.

For Calvin it was not even a question that these foreigners were part of the congregation of Geneva.  In the church of Christ nationality or race does not make a difference.  In the first edition of the Institutes he wrote about the church: “We believe one, holy, catholic church, the sum total of the elect, chosen from people…in whatever country they live or under whatever nation they might be dispersed”.

This attitude is confirmed by very interesting and strong statements Calvin made elsewhere against discrimination of any kind.  He writes:” Now since Christ has shown in the parable of the Samaritan that the term neighbor included even the most remote person, we are not expected to limit the precept of love to those in close relationships.  …….”We ought to embrace the whole human race without exception in a single feeling of love; here there is no distinction between barbarian and Greek, worthy and unworthy, friend and enemy, since all should be contemplated in God and not in themselves.  When we turn aside from such contemplation, it is no wonder we become entangled in many errors.  Therefore, if we rightly direct our love, we must first turn our eyes not to man, the sight of whom would more often engender hate than love, but to God, who bids us extend to all men the love we bear to him, that this may be an unchanging principle: whatever the character of man, we must yet love him because we love God (Inst II,8,55).

Had we read Calvin more carefully, we might have saved ourselves and others much pain and disgrace.

IV.  Complications and open questions

There can be no doubt about Calvin’s commitment to the unity of the church – in theory but also in practice.  It would be totally unfair to blame the inability of the Reformed Churches to take the unity more seriously on Calvin.

There are however at least two dualities in Calvin’s thinking that might have contributed to the Reformed Tradition’s struggle to appreciate the importance of the unity of the church and give adequate expression to it.  The first problem had to do with the duality between truth and unity and the second with the duality between the local church and the broader or universal church.

1.  While most Reformed people will acknowledge the importance of both truth and unity, there is a tendency in Reformed circles to give a certain preference to truth. This tendency can be traced back to Calvin.  Lukas Vischer says that Calvin had a passion for clarity and clear lines of demarcation – especially in situations of conflict (Vischer 2000: 53).  This helpful trait sometimes got out of hand and made Calvin look merciless and “almost unbearably harsh” in his emphasis on truth.  We therefore find a strange contradiction in some of Calvin’s writings.  “The impassioned exhortations to communion and tolerance seem forgotten in the heat of controversy.” While there were mitigating conditions in Calvin’s case and he somehow succeeded in containing the duality, it had “disastrous consequences in the case of lesser minds than Calvin”.  “The result has not been only clarity, but dogmatism and, all too often, division.”  It saddens me to say that in our own process I have seen this more often than I expected or hoped.  This single-minded commitment to truth is an integral part of our tradition – but it may also be undermining unification in a major way.

Although he is willing to concede that this tendency is present in the work of Calvin, Vischer claims that it should be viewed in context: “the underlying intention in all of Calvin’s work is beyond doubt to point to the centre – God who comes to us in Jesus Christ.  This centre takes precedence over all borderlines and demarcations”.

2.  The second problem has to do with the Reformed tradition’s strong emphasis on the local congregation as a full and complete church. While the idea was that the presbyteries and synods would contain the independence of the local congregations, this has in effect proven difficult. In many reformed congregations we find that this strong emphasis on the autonomy of local congregations has bred a stubbornness and obstinacy which is strange to the Gospel.

It would undoubtedly be unfair to blame all this on Calvin. Calvin did not have to establish (or manage) an elaborate system of Reformed Congregation in unity with one another.  As far as I know he was also not the inventor of the unhappy term “complete” church. But there are people who find justification for this kind of thinking in the way Calvin spoke about local congregations. For Calvin a local congregation was a true and full church if the two marks of the church could be distinguished clearly in its life and he had no hesitation in using the word ecclesia also to refer to individual churches. He also thought that local congregations should be free to develop their own standards, church order and liturgy.

Again: in Calvin’s case there always were a number of counterbalances. We see that, for instance, in the fact that Calvin was much more hesitant to use the term “body of Christ” for the local congregation. However, many of these subtleties were not recognised by his peers and followers and consequently his emphasis on the autonomy of the local church often resulted in endless conflict and ultimately divisions.

V.  Conclusion

With Lukas Vischer I have often wondered about the relationship between the Lord’s Supper and the unity of the Church. Could it be that our struggle to see and understand the vital importance of the unity of the church (let alone doing it) are somehow connected to the fact that we do not really believe in the power of the sacrament?  Is there perhaps a subtle connection between our preference for truth (over unity) and our preference for preaching (over the sacraments)?  Vischer was convinced that we have a problem on this level: “The Reformation Churches lack the fullness of a sign which, on their own affirmation, is one of the marks of the true church”. Ultimately, we may ask if this sad history of divisions and rifts could have been avoided if Calvin succeeded in convincing the Genevan Church to celebrate the Lord’s Supper weekly as he believed it should be done?


Bauswein, J-J. & Vischer, L. (1999). The Reformed Family Worldwide. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans

Beintker, M. (2009). Calvins theologisches Denken als ökumenische Herausforderung.  (unpublished article).

Birmele, A. (2009).  Calvins Kirchenverständnis und die heutigen ökumenischen Herausforderungen. (unpublished article).

Calvin, J. Institutes of the Christian Religion Vol I and II (ed McNiell, Battles), Philadelphia: The Westminster Press.

Calvin’s Commentaries. Wilmington: AP&A

Douglas, J.D. (2004).  Calvin in Ecumenical Context.  In McKim, The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin. Cambridge: CUP

Hesselink, I.J. (1997). Calvin’s First Catechism: A Commentary.  Louisville: WJKP

Hirzel, M.E. & Sallmann, M. (2009)  John Calvin’s Impact on Church and Society 1509-2009. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans

McKim, D.K. (2004).  The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin. Cambridge: CUP

McNiell, J.T. (1967).  The History and Character of Calvinism. London: Oxford University Press.

Opitz, P. (2009).  Calvins Begründung der kirchliche Ordnung als Herausfordering und Chance für die Kirchen der Gegenwart.  (unpublished article).

Plasger, G. (2008).  Johannes Calvins Theologie – Eine Einfürung. Göttingen: Vandernhoeck&Ruprecht

Selderhuis, H. (2009).  The Calvin Handbook. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans

Vischer, L.  (1999).  “The Church – Mother of the Believers”. In D Willis, Towards the Furture of Reformed Theology (pp. 262-282). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Vischer, L.  (2000).  Pia Conspiratio: Calvin on the Unity of Christ’s Church. Geneva: John Knox Centre.



Written by webmeester on . Posted in Conferences

My task is not to describe the contents of tradition, whether Reformed or more broadly Christian, but how we relate to or inhabit tradition.  To do so I want to begin by exploring two metaphors that may help us grasp how we do this and its relevance for thinking about theological education and formation.  The two metaphors are the river and the house.  But keep in mind that metaphors like analogies are never fully adequate; at some point they break down.  Their purpose is to prompt theological imagination and thus open up perspectives that might otherwise be lacking.

The River and the House

Rivers start their journey from a source that might be many kilometers from where we experience them and where they eventually find their way into a lake or the sea.  Rivers vary in size and significance, are fed by different tributaries and often flow, sometimes swiftly, sometimes slowly, through several countries towards their destination.  Many forms of life inhabit rivers drawing nourishment from the nutrients they carry.  They can, of course, also carry disease and other dangers.  Humans depend on rivers for water, for transport, for food, and over time some rivers become sacred, their waters renowned for healing properties.  There are several ways we can relate to a river.  We can stand on the bank and watch it pass by; we can fish in it for something to eat; we can paddle along the banks or boat down to the ocean; we can swim to the middle and tread water; we can float downstream, going with the flow; we can swim like salmon against the tide; and, of course, we can be harmed by pollutants or drown.  So it is with tradition which begins in the distant past but which we experience here and now.  We can observe it passing us by or dabble in it in the shallows; we can fish for nourishment in its waters, or tread water as if to preserve its present form; we can let it carry us along as we journey or we can struggle against it and even drown in the attempt, or we can be hurt and harmed by unhelpful even dangerous elements.  If a river stops flowing, it stagnates, and the life that inhabits its waters perishes. Likewise traditions die if they are not continually renewed from their source, flowing through the landscape, giving life to all that inhabit them, and when necessary changing course.

Tradition is also like a house in which you live.  The house can be venerable and grand, it can be modern and modest; it can be built of wood or brick or corrugated iron; it can be dull and somber in appearance or decorated and brightly painted.  A house can simply be a place where you eat and sleep, but it can also be a home in which you live, a habitat in which you feel comfortable and nurtured.  Homeless people long for homes in which they can find shelter from the winter storms and of which they can become proud inhabitants.  We all inhabit a tradition, and often more than one.  For some, like a house, it is one into which we have been born, for others it is one we have chosen for ourselves.   Sometimes traditions like houses do not become homes we inhabit, spaces in which we feel comfortable, places of nurture and meaning.  We simply pass through them, briefly stopping for a meal or a sleep, but always looking at other houses, glancing through their windows to see what is on their table, admiring their architecture, searching for something better than we have.  Some houses may hold bad memories we would prefer to forget.  But even when we do find a tradition we wish to inhabit, we are always seeking ways in which it can be improved, new rooms added, fresh paint applied to the walls.  To inhabit a tradition is to feel at home in it, to cherish it, to improve its quality, so that it becomes our natural habitat, a home in which to live, think and act in ways that are fulfilling.  

Theological education and formation are intended to train us for swimming in and navigating rivers in such a way that we are sustained by them rather than threatened, able to find the life-giving source from which they flow and understand the way they have eventually arrived where we are.  Theological education and formation are meant o help us inhabit houses so that they become our homes, to appreciate their foundations, to explore their rooms, to find hidden treasures in their attics, to appreciate their shape, form and colour, places where symbols surround us reminding us of who we are and music sounds good to the ear; places where we find community and where meals become holy banquets.  

Like rivers and houses, traditions are a complex.  This has to do not only with their variety, for within the Christian tradition there are many streams and tributaries, not just one river, or to use our other metaphor the Christian tradition is a mansion with many rooms.  The complexity is magnified by the fact that traditions like rivers are constantly flowing, on the move; they are like houses to which new rooms are always being added, new windows opened, fresh paint applied. That is why it is more correct to say that we inhabit traditions, rather than a tradition.   When it comes to tradition we are all hybrids.  This brings me to another metaphor we need to explore, one derived from biology.


While some of us may inhabit the Reformed or Anglican traditions, and others Catholic, Methodist or Pentecostal, complex as these are in themselves, we also inhabit other discernible traditions, continually crossing over from one to others.  We inhabit several traditions at the same time, for example, African, Christian, and Modernity, or more specifically Sotho, Lutheran, and the secular academy, and we do so, as I say, all at the same time.  We might even claim to be, as some do, Christian-Buddhists, and there are those like myself who label themselves as Christian humanists to distinguish ourselves from fundamentalists and secularists!  Why, even this theological faculty, so deeply rooted in the Reformed tradition has now positioned itself more broadly as ecumenical, thus encompassing other traditions.  Some would see this hybridity as a weakness, preferring to shut doors and windows to prevent change.  But we should salute it as a strength, in fact, a necessity even if it seems a little risky at times.

Hybridity describes what happens in botanical nurseries (an appropriate metaphor for the Kweekskool!) through the nurturing of new types of plants, Such genetic modification sometimes happens naturally as plants change character in order to respond to changing conditions, but more often today it is brought about by grafting a new cultivar onto an old stock.  Cattle and sheep farmers know the importance of broadening the gene pool, for there are dangers when there is too much inbreeding.  These earthy analogies indicate the important role of diversity in the development of traditions.  Of course, I would not want to push the analogies too far, for hybrid roses evidently lose their smell and cannot reproduce!

Nonetheless, the whole history of art and science supports this hybridity hypothesis, for it is only when an art tradition encounters another one that is different from it (like Picasso discovering West African masks) that something fresh and creative emerges, and it is only when something challenges an accepted scientific hypothesis that a paradigm shift occurs revising the entrenched view or radically changing it.  It is no different with theology, liturgy or spirituality.  A specific tradition, let us say the Reformed, cannot thrive on its own, turned in on itself.  It needs to open the windows of the house to let fresh air blow through the rooms.  It needs to be exposed to, interact with, and learn from others in creative ways if it is to be vibrant and alive.  Theological educators are in the business of genetic modification and encouraging hybridity, of ensuring that there is creative mix breeding, the blossoming of new cultivars.  But, of course, this does raise the problem of identity, for when is a new rose no longer a rose, when is the Reformed tradition no longer Reformed?  How do we retain our identity in a world of complexity and hybridity?


Despite the fact that traditions change over time and in different contexts, each tradition has its own discernable character.  Traditions have their specific DNAs.  Human’s and dolphins might share 97% of the same DNA, but it is the remaining 3% that gives them their specific identity.  This is recognizable when we observe their patterns of behaviour, reproduction and general appearance.  So it is that while Christians of different traditions may share a very large percentage of the Christian gene pool, and invariably benefit from interacting with each other, they still have distinguishing features which give those who inhabit them a specific identity. 

Nothing I have said thus far should be understood, then, as a denial of the importance and significance of specific traditions in which we may have been nurtured, or are presently being formed. The fact that we are increasingly and rightly engaged in theological education and formation in an ecumenical way, and therefore learning from and imbibing elements from different traditions does not mean that we should not be well grounded in our own specific traditions. You cannot swim in all rivers or live in several houses at the same time.  In order to do theology or worship you inevitably adopt a certain approach or style and locate yourself somewhere in Christian tradition.  Many theologians and pastors today, including myself, have benefited greatly from a range of traditions within the ecumenical family, but remain Reformed in orientation.

Tradition is not only the foundation on which we build, it also provides resources for doing so and thereby sustains us going forward.  Those who imagine or think it possible to do theology without being rooted in a tradition or traditions, soon discover that there is nothing to sustain them, no way of tapping into those resources that are essential for life.  For the nutrients that make it possible for us to live today and sustain us are embedded deeply in the soil which has given us birth.  

Traditions provide a habitat that sustains us in the same way as a house becomes a home within a family is nurtured.  Through symbols and scriptures they remind us of things we may have forgotten.  That is why it is important not to reject or jettison parts of the tradition that in the present may not seem of much value, but which at another time and place may be exactly the resource we need to meet fresh challenges.  So it is not a question so much of us sustaining traditions, but allowing traditions to sustain us.  The biblical critique of traditionalism which we find, for example, in Jesus’ teaching, is not a rejection of tradition, but rather the drawing on the resources of tradition in order to challenge a false mutation, to remain authentically rooted in tradition.

Traditions remain authentic when those who inhabit them remain in critical conversation with the past – above all, for Christians, in conversation with Scripture — and engage in debate with each other and their critics about the meaning of the tradition for the present.  Traditions remain authentic only when contested from within and challenged from without.  That might sometimes mean swimming against the stream.  An uncontested tradition is one that is in danger of petrifying, of becoming in-authentic.  When the guardians of a tradition shut the windows of the house in order to protect its authenticity from the prevailing winds, they may also shut out the breath of the Spirit who gives new life and keeps them authentic.  For that reason critics along with those perceived to be heretics at this moment in time are often God’s way of challenging those who claim to be the guardians of true faith and knowledge.

Our task as theologians and especially as theological educators is to draw deeply from the well-springs of Christian tradition in ways that result in authentic and therefore sustainable expressions and embodiments of Christian faith and life.  For just as traditions can and do sustain us, we also have the responsibility to ensure that they remain authentic and resourceful.  That is why we must speak also of the critical retrieval of trajectories within a tradition that relate meaningfully to the context in which we now live.  In so far as traditions have to be continually re-invented, we have to retrieve trajectories which speak to us today without denying other trajectories that spoke yesterday and might well speak again with new authority and urgency in the future.  The guardians of tradition and its radical prophets need each other even if they frequently engage in theological fisticuffs. Theological educators, whether in the academy or within the church more broadly, are the agents of tradition, conserving, critiquing, and retrieving at the same time within a given historical context.


To truly inhabit a tradition is not to live in that tradition as it flowered, flourished or decayed elsewhere, but to live in that tradition as it takes form and becomes embodied here and now. We do not live in first century Palestine, sixteenth century Geneva, or seventeenth century London or wherever our denominational traditions first took shape.  We live in the twenty-first century, and most of us live in South Africa and for that reason we have to take seriously the way in which the traditions we inhabit have come to inhabit this context that is ours.

During the past fifty years several theological and related spiritual and liturgical traditions have emerged within our historical context which, taken together, represent an emerging South Africa tradition that is important for us and the task of theological education within our context today. Let me remind you of some of the traditions we inhabit: African and Black theologies, Confessional theologies as represented by the “Message to the People of South Africa” and the Belhar Confession, liberation theologies as articulated in the “Kairos Document,” feminist/womanist theologies as expressed in the writings of the Circle of African Women’s theologians, and so forth.  

These traditions certainly embody elements of traditions inherited from elsewhere (such as Anglican, Catholic and Protestant), but they have developed uniquely within and because of our own context.  Within this development many traditions, both cultural and social, both theological and ecclesial, have been critically brought together to form a whole which is both diverse and yet recognizably South African.  And those of us who do theology today in South Africa need to do theology in dialogue with this tradition that we inhabit within the broader framework of our denominational and Christian identities.  For we inhabit all these traditions at the same time.

Our task now is to work out of these diverse traditions as we face the new challenges of our time both in South Africa and Africa, both in this context and globally.  These challenges vary from the obvious challenges of social development through to the challenges of science, technology and the environment.  And it is in response to these challenges that theology must enter the future, drawing deeply on our traditions whether inherited from elsewhere or developed right here, to help us respond.  This should mark the way in which we engage in theological education, it should be reflected in our curriculum, and it should become both a habitat inhabited by aspiring theologians, ministers and priests, and a habit that becomes part of the way in which we not only do theology and but embody the Christian faith.