Abstract

Established in 1970, China Evangelical Seminary (CES) has produced over 2,000 graduates, yet a thorough examination of its theological education model is conspicuously lacking. This article seeks to begin to fill this void by delving into CES’s educational philosophy and practices through the lens of cognitive science, utilizing John Vervaeke’s theory of knowledge, which outlines four ways of knowing. By showcasing the alignment between Vervaeke’s cognitive paradigm and CES’s vision of comprehensive theological education and ministerial development, the article illustrates how this framework offers an appropriate cognitive scientific mapping of categories and language to articulate the seminary’s mission that may be helpful for other theological educational institutions.

Introduction

Established in 1970, China Evangelical Seminary (CES) is committed to train laborers for the kingdom of God. (An alternate name of CES is China Evangelical Graduate School of Theology (CEGST).) CES has been registered with Taiwan’s Ministry of Education since 2020. It is located at 53 Chang-An Street, Bade District, Taoyuan City, Taiwan. The institution is broadly evangelical, non-denominational, and residential. It encompasses both formal and informal programs. It is primarily dedicated to serving Chinese churches and Chinese Christians globally, as the medium of instruction is Mandarin Chinese. Its overarching vision includes training workers for the Kingdom of God, fostering partnerships in the advancement of the gospel, and addressing contemporary societal issues. CES stands as a testament to an enduring mission of equipping individuals for impactful service within the evangelical tradition.

Rooted in a holistic understanding of Christian theology and ministry, CES emphasizes spiritual formation, academic excellence, and practical skills development among its students. Recognizing the challenges of contemporary theological education in preparing graduates for diverse ministry roles in a dynamic global context, CES’s goal is to produce pastors and missionaries capable of engaging the complexities of contemporary society by applying the teachings of Jesus Christ while remaining firmly anchored in biblical truth.

Despite steadfastly applying this paradigm for the past fifty years, CES lacks systematic analysis, reflection, and description of its educational practices. This gap may be attributed to the practical orientation of Taiwanese Christians who prioritize action over theoretical considerations and mental exercise.

One way to help prompt reflection on CES’s theological educational practice is the cognitive scientific theory of knowledge developed by John Vervaeke. Vervaeke is a Canadian scholar of cognitive science at the University of Toronto. He candidly acknowledges not identifying as a Christian due to an unfortunate experience with Christianity. However, in his “Awakening From The Meaning Crisis” podcast, Vervaeke references Christianity as he discusses topics ranging from ancient Greek philosophy to Buddhism to the practice of Tai-Chi Chuan. As a cognitive scientist, Vervaeke draws on many traditions to present a comprehensive model of knowing that transcends conventional distinctions between theory and practice, intellect and experience. Vervaeke’s framework recognizes the intricate nature of human cognition and underscores the significance of integrating diverse ways of knowing to achieve a holistic comprehension of reality. He defines knowing as propositional, procedural, perspectival, and participatory. To these ways of knowing he adds an understanding of knowledge as embedded, embodied, enacted, and extended. In his view, the absence of any one of these facets results in partial, reductionistic, and irrelevant knowledge.

Vervaeke provides a compelling way to understand how individuals acquire and apply knowledge. Thus, this article describes the alignment between Vervaeke’s Four Ways of Knowing and the theological educational paradigm at CES in order to reflect on CES’s practices. Of course, the article does not claim that CES consciously used Vervaeke’s framework to shape its practices, which have been ongoing for decades. Instead, it seeks to showcase how Vervaeke’s interconnected Four Ways of Knowing can help us to theorize about CES’s educational realities. Vervaeke’s theory of knowing offers the categories, conceptual entailments, and language needed to describe the current practices of CES. This essay aims to serve as a voice for critical dialogue among various theological educational models and institutions.

Propositional Knowing

Propositional knowing is knowledge that can be clearly expressed in language and symbolic systems. This type of knowledge is explicit and consciously accessible, making it teachable and shareable. It involves the use of facts or declarative statements. Propositional knowing is characterized by its domain specificity: different knowledge domains have specific propositions related to them. Propositional knowing has a logical structure and features clear statements with subjects and predicates that can be combined using logical operators. This fact facilitates clarity and precision in expressing propositional ideas. The logical structure of propositional knowing is closely tied to rational understanding. In this form of knowing, articulating hypotheses, theories, and empirical statements is essential. Propositional knowing is frequently subject to evaluation. It can be easily assessed for truth or falsity, coherence, and logical consistency.

At CES, propositional knowing is addressed through the curriculum overseen by the academic office. This consists of rigorous training across two main divisions: Systematic and Biblical Theology and Pastoral and Practical Theology. Training occurs in classroom settings facilitated by faculty members and complemented by library resources. In a given semester, a full-time student at CES typically dedicates an average of 17 hours per week to study, with 16 units allocated to classroom-based propositional knowing. If we apply a standard 40-hour work week, we can see that these classroom hours constitute 40% of a student’s weekly seminary schedule. 35-40 courses are available each semester (2-3 hours per course). Most courses are required and core courses, while approximately 25% are electives. Electives expose students to sub-disciplines within propositional knowing. The relatively lengthy classroom hours, which differ from Western and adult education perspectives, can be attributed to Taiwan’s Confucian culture, which places greater emphasis on classroom instruction than on personal independent study. (Confucianism emphasizes the indispensable role of the teacher in students’ learning processes.) This culture is difficult to eradicate.

In the realm of theological studies, propositional knowing tends to be more abstract than concrete, yet contemporary students often exhibit a preference for concrete thinking. As an instructor of Old Testament courses at CES, my role involves equipping students with the capacity to grasp abstract theological ideas and to engage with profound concepts that extend beyond immediate sensory experiences. My emphasis lies in guiding students through theological concepts, ensuring not only a profound understanding but also reflection and concrete application.

Given that propositional knowing relies on interconnected concepts, yet students have a cognitive preference towards concrete and practical knowing, I often begin or conclude my Old Testament class sessions with real-life church and ministry questions that prompt discussion. For instance, when covering prophetic literature, before or after exploring passages depicting Old Testament prophets urging Israelites to repent from sins of idolatry and social injustice, I may begin with a case of a church member who underwent moral failure to stimulate students’ thinking. I then encourage students to contemplate the challenges associated with repentance and to consider how to cultivate a culture of repentance in their local churches.

Or, to give another example, to address the growing impact of artificial intelligence, I have added oral examinations to my syllabus to replace written exams or research papers. This approach evaluates students’ proficiency in internalizing and articulating theological truths and biblical themes verbally. The assessment criteria prioritize clarity and precision in theological expression, highlighting the importance of conscious and explicit communication of theological concepts. This intentional emphasis on precise communication underscores the seminary’s acknowledgement that effective communication is crucial for fulfilling pastoral and missionary roles.

Although propositional knowing is important, as the time and effort devoted to instilling it in students at CES demonstrates, Vervaeke maintains that the West’s prevailing intellectual climate, inherited from the Enlightenment, continues to place disproportionate emphasis on propositional knowing. This Western-influenced climate neglects the other three forms of knowing. Vervaeke argues that propositions should not be the exclusive criteria for determining genuine knowledge. While acknowledging that propositional knowing can overcome ignorance, Vervaeke asserts that it alone is insufficient to qualify as true knowing.

Given Taiwan culture’s emphasis on utility, effectiveness, and practical application of knowledge in the material world over abstract theoretical speculation, Vervaeke’s thought can align more closely with Taiwanese, Confucian theories of knowing.

Additionally, it must be admitted that CES’s Systematic and Church History department is deeply influenced by Western thought, while efforts are underway to overcome Western influence in Biblical Studies. The Western influence in the ST and CH department may be explained by my observations: (1) faculty members who have received education in the West; (2) lack of reflection regarding theories of knowing and knowledge, and (3) lack of engagement with non-Western literature. However, efforts have been made to address these three issues gradually.

Procedural Knowing

Vervaeke’s second category is procedural knowing. Procedural knowing is action-oriented. It involves the ability to execute tasks – such as biking, swimming, or playing the piano – without conscious awareness. Vervaeke underscores the connection between procedural knowing and practice because procedural knowing only develops through repetitive, real-world application. Proficiency in procedural knowing leads to automatic actions, where individuals can seamlessly perform tasks they have mastered through practice. This perspective aligns with CES’s commitment to practical theological education, to hands-on experience, skill development, and positive habituation.

Unlike propositional knowing, procedural understanding is not easily articulated verbally. Because it is rooted in muscle memory and cognitive routines, it is not easily explained. Rather, this knowing becomes apparent through actions and behaviors, through the performance of specific skills.

CES’s programs are designed to enhance the procedural knowing needed for effective ministry. CES seeks to prepare pastors and missionaries who can execute certain tasks associated with their callings automatically and gracefully, in ways that allow them to be effective in various ministry contexts. CES has observed that some graduates, after being in seminary setting for 2-3 years, have trouble in adjusting to local church life and ministry. They are more familiar with books than people. Since church ministry is a people-oriented endeavor, CES has built opportunities for procedural knowing into its curriculum.

The best example of procedural knowing at CES is sermon writing and delivery. In their hermeneutics and homiletics classes, students are taught to choose, read, and analyze a biblical text. They are also taught how to use tools like biblical commentaries and lexicons. In addition, they learn how to exegete their respective churches’ needs and issues. Faculty walk students through a step-by-step, circular writing process for each sermon. By repeating the actions necessary to compose a sermon in many different class exercises, students cultivate their sermon-writing “muscle memory.”

Because procedural knowing requires a repetitive feedback loop of active performance and refinement, CES requires not only one semester-long course on homiletics but also three other preaching laboratories scattered across other courses within students’ MDiv training. Moreover, each preaching lab focuses on a different genre of biblical text to ensure that the same procedural knowing is transferable to various kinds of biblical passages. Finally, the acquisition and practice of homiletical procedural knowing plays out in graduation sermons. Before students graduate, they must each preach at chapel to the whole community. Faculty members and fellow students give them feedback.

Chapel does more than allow students one final opportunity to express their procedural knowing of how to write and deliver a sermon. CES holds three chapels per week (Wednesdays-Fridays). Chapel thus occupies 7.5 hours of weekly seminary life. Apart from the preaching opportunity and the spiritual formation gained from weekly chapels, students take turns organizing the program. They may serve as worship leader, host and introduce an invited guest speaker, lead corporate prayer, or make announcements. Thus, chapel allows students to develop psychomotor familiarity with these elements of the standard worship service. Because many of CES’s students have little experience of church ministry before they enter the seminary, this opportunity for procedural knowing is key to their development. They learn by doing.

After sufficiently repetitive practice, when students enter their local churches, they are not awkward in fulfilling these duties. Instead, they are habituated by CES’s requirements to live out a procedural knowing of how to serve as a pastor, missionary, etc.

Perspectival Knowing

Perspectival knowing revolves around the understanding that knowledge is not objective but is shaped by the viewpoint from which it is considered. Perspectives are influenced by perceptual factors, including sensory perceptions, experiences, and individual subjectivity. Cultural and social influences play a significant role in shaping perspectives. As in the famous parable about the blindfolded men and the elephant, Vervaeke emphasizes the subjectivity inherent in the process of knowing, suggesting that everyone’s unique perspective contributes to their understanding of the world.

This form of knowing involves recognizing the multiplicity of perspectives that exist (epistemic pluralism). Different viewpoints offer distinct insights into reality, contributing to a more comprehensive understanding. Thus, Vervaeke encourages individuals to move beyond a singular, one-dimensional perspective and to recognize the interconnectedness of various viewpoints. This interconnectedness forms a network of understanding and allows for a richer comprehension of complex phenomena.

Cognitive flexibility is crucial for perspectival knowing. Individuals must be able to shift between or integrate different viewpoints. This dynamic approach acknowledges the ever-changing nature of knowledge and emphasizes the importance of ongoing learning. In essence, Vervaeke’s definition of perspectival knowing challenges the notion of a single, objective truth, common in the Enlightenment. It encourages a more nuanced and open-minded engagement with the complexities of the world. According to Vervaeke, in our pluralistic world, the more perspectives one can hold, the better.

Access to multiple perspectives would allow CES’s students to analyze and solve real-life problems by taking on different perspectives or roles, rather than being locked into one approach in thinking and doing Christian ministry. However, at CES, perspectival knowing is often overshadowed. Concern about promoting non-evangelical viewpoints, the relativism of non-Western thought, slipping into (ill-defined) heresies, and Taiwan’s relatively monolithic culture hampers CES from actively embracing perspectival knowing in its optimal sense.

Yet a proper understanding of epistemology acknowledges the necessity of discerning the subject-object relationship in the knowing process. The interaction between the knower (subject) and the known (object), like the Bible or God, should be maintained while their interaction can be explored from diverse viewpoints. Thus, affirming perspectival knowing does not negate the existence of objective truth.

Though perspectival knowing receives less emphasis overall at CES, CES does instill perspectival knowing in certain aspects of its practice. Most simply, in order to foster a diversity of perspectives, faculty members often rotate teaching assignments. This tradition ensures a multiplicity of viewpoints in delivering a specific course. The small group arrangement at CES undergoes yearly reshuffling of members, ensuring that students and faculty interact with different group members each year. This guides students’ interests towards people and their stories in preparation for ministry.

In my own classroom, I encourage students to work from their unique perspectives, shaped by their life experiences, when interpreting the Old Testament text. Further, I guide students to think theologically, to transcend their personal viewpoints to understand Scripture from God’s perspective. This approach involves seeking to put oneself in God’s position, exploring how God thinks, feels, and wills in different situations, considering that the authority of Scripture is rooted in God as the ultimate source of revelation.

The different classes required at CES help students to develop various lenses. Each class is a unique lens for understanding Christian faith. For instance, the discipline of Systematic Theology reads Scripture differently from the fields of Biblical Theology and Practical Theology. This discipline-specific, subjective orientation acknowledges the distinct contribution each field brings to the learning process. It can foster openness to diverse theological interpretations. That said, CES is yet to develop a course that would help students integrate these different perspectives into coherent whole.

Additionally, CES organizes weekly programs featuring alumni and non-alumni, pastors, missionaries, and representatives from various fields. CES invites these external speakers, young and old, local and international to share their ministry philosophies, visions, practices, and experiences. Speakers may talk about Bible translation, radio and media, campus ministry, publication, parachurch organizations, missions, prison ministry, halfway houses, grassroots ministry, and politics. This exposure aims to impart perspectival knowing to students by nudging them to engage in role-playing. As they listen to the different speakers, they may imagine themselves in different ministries.

One specific area in which CES could improve its practices of perspectival knowing is the arts. Currently CES does not dialogue with music, dance, or the visual arts in its theological educational framework. Perhaps a worship major and hiring of music faculty could enhance the seminary’s training and worship life.

Participatory Knowing

The final mode of knowing, participatory or embodied knowing, represents a holistic engagement of the entire person – mind, heart, soul, and strength – in the process of acquiring knowledge. According to Vervaeke, this form of knowing holds particular significance. It requires direct interaction with the world and the world’s affordances (Gibson, 1986). The term “affordances” refers to the potential uses that an object, environment, or situation provides to an individual, based on its perceived properties.

Participatory knowing relies on firsthand experience. In contrast to propositional knowing, which deals with consciously accessible knowledge, participatory knowing often remains implicit, residing in the ability to perform tasks without explicit awareness. In this way it is more similar to procedural knowing. At its core, participatory knowing is intricately linked to embodied experience. Vervaeke’s definition of participatory knowing recognizes how essential the body is to our understanding of the world and the self. Like procedural knowing, participatory knowing involves the development of skills, habits, and cognitive routines through repetitive practice. This knowledge is closely associated with context-dependent actions. Like perspectival knowing, participatory knowing appreciates the unique perspective each student brings to their interactions. It promotes a comprehensive understanding that integrates sensory, emotional, and intuitive elements. It considers artistic expressions and creative endeavors as essential components that allow individuals to engage with and express their comprehension of the world beyond language and logic. In my OT Historical Books class, I encourage students to submit a video recording of their own song composition and performance, reflecting on what they have learned, as alternative to a final research paper. A musical performance demands greater involvement of a student’s bodily senses compared to writing a research paper.

In essence, Vervaeke’s participatory knowing highlights the dynamic, embodied, and context-dependent nature of human cognition and knowledge. As a mode of embodied interaction with the world, participatory knowing extends beyond the intellectual, contributing to the shaping of the entire person.

CES develops participatory knowing in various ways. Residing in campus dormitories, CES students share living spaces and engage in communal daily life, including meal preparation, serving, and cleanup. These activities, though frowned upon by modern sensibilities, materially shape our students’ physical bodies to become bodies that serve. Though this residential experience can present social and relational challenges, it is valuable in shaping of the body for Jesus-like service and ministry. It fosters physical, psycho-emotional intelligence.

CES’s pastoral small group system is another venue where our students engage each other bodily to cultivate participatory knowing. Members of each pastoral small group gather for lunch together at least once a week. During these lunches, group members take turns introducing themselves. They share about their childhood experiences, educational journeys, ministry callings, burdens, passions, and even romantic love stories. The time together concludes with prayers. Occasionally, the small group meetings are held off-campus, such as in a park, restaurant, or recreational sports center, along with associated activities, to encourage informal interactions among participants. This practice enhances student’s participatory knowing and communal life. Robust faculty participation allows these goals to be achieved for students.

In addition, CES has instituted a Field Education Ministry Formation System that requires students to participate in weekend field education ministry. These ministries may be in local churches or in parachurch organizations, such as missions agencies, translation centers, mercy ministries, etc. A student might teach a Sunday school for a couple of hours on a Sunday morning, for example. Students must have a minimum of three, up to a maximum of five, field education time periods. During summers, students engage in personal field education by participating in youth or children’s camps organized by local churches or parachurch organizations. These summer camps are often housed in a university dormitory for 4-5 days. Students serve as counselors, teachers, or small group leaders. This hands-on approach emphasizes the importance of embodied interaction, encouraging students to recognize the physical and emotional dimensions of true knowledge.

Another prerequisite for graduation from CES is evangelism. CES requires students to conduct outreach with at least thirty people over their time at the seminary. Students may self-organize evangelistic programs during special holidays such as Christmas and Easter so that they can conduct this work of evangelism and thereby, implicitly, accumulate procedural knowing.

The Student Council provides another platform for fostering participatory learning. Every academic year, students elect a new cohort of council members. The Student Council acts as a liaison between the student body and CES administrative and academic entities, offering students practical opportunities to enhance their leadership, communication, planning, and organizational abilities. It has been noted that student council members exhibit greater self-confidence and gain valuable experience in assuming leadership positions within the church.

Participatory knowing develops as students engage in the dynamic relationships allowed by residential life, pastoral small groups, student council, field ministries, and evangelism. Through participatory knowing, students learn to see the importance of understanding cultural, social, and ecclesial contexts for ministry. CES aims to prevent students from becoming too comfortable within the seminary and disconnected from the church or society by fostering participatory knowing. It recognizes that neglecting this aspect may lead to indifference towards the daily life and affairs of the church.

Some Final Remarks

This article diverges from the common methods of analyzing theological educational models, which are typically rooted in the philosophies proposed by John Dewey, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Paulo Freire, Parker J. Palmer, Benjamin Bloom, and others. Instead of the more familiar vocabulary of “holistic education,” “personal formation,” “social transformation,” or “formative and summative assessment,” this essay employs the epistemological paradigm of cognitive science. Vervaeke’s conceptual framework provides essential vocabulary to help describe CES’s theological educational system. Through this framework, we have seen both CES’s strengths and its opportunities for growth.

Following this unique analysis, we may ask: Has CES effectively trained wise pastors and missionaries? CES has yet to conduct an empirical study to address this crucial question. Even so, we can see broadly that, yes, CES’s training provides the foundations to help students grow into these four ways of knowing that equip them for ministry.

References

China Evangelical Seminary Website: https://wp.ces.org.tw/english/.

John Vervaeke’s YouTube: www.youtube.com/@johnvervaeke.

Gibson, James. “The Theory of Affordances.” In The Ecological Approach to Visual        Perception. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1986. 127-143.

Meyer, Christine, Jürgen Streeck, and J. Scott Jordan. Intercorporeality: Emerging Socialities      in Interaction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.

Vervaeke, John and Leonard Ferraro. “Relevance, Meaning, and the Cognitive Science of Wisdom.” In Michael Ferrari & Nic M. Weststrate, ed., The Scientific Study of Personal Wisdom. Springer, 2013. 21-51. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-007-7987-7_2

Vervaeke, John, T. P. Lillicrap, and B.A. Richards. “Relevance, Realization, and the         Emerging Framework in Cognitive Science.” Journal of Logic and Computation 22.1  (2012): 79-99. https://doi.org/10.1093/logcom/exp067

Wilson, Margaret. “Six Views of Embodied Cognition.” Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 9.4       (2002): 625-636.

Shirley S. Ho

Shirley S. Ho is an Associate Professor of Old Testament at China Evangelical Seminary. With a commitment to theological education since 2006, she has been a full-time faculty member at CES since 2013. Shirley holds a PhD in Theological Studies (Old Testament) from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS) in Illinois, U.S.A. She completed her studies in 2005. She is a Langham Scholar.