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Walking on holy ground

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A personal tour through the past 50 years of Mennonite Brethren seminary education, by president emeritus Elmer A. Martens

In the fall of 1955, I left Saskatchewan in a 1950 Ford to enroll in an upstart institution in Fresno, Cal.: the MB Biblical Seminary. I was a public school teacher and had made my decision to prepare for full-time Christian ministry reluctantly and only after meeting face-to-face with G. W. Peters, the new seminary’s academic dean. He assured me that I would not be getting the short end of the stick, as I feared. “Elmer,” he said, “God is no man’s debtor.” He was so right.

I was in the first class to enroll in the three-year bachelor of divinity program and classes were held that first year at Pacific Bible Institute, today Fresno Pacific University. My co-graduates in 1958 were David Block, David Plett, Nick Rempel and Jacob Froese, each of whom served as lifelong pastors, and John Klassen, as missionary to Brazil (now deceased).

There were 18 students that first year, among them three women, including my future wife Phyllis Hiebert. The student body 50 years later is no longer primarily male; 70 women were enrolled this past year – 40 percent of the student body. Nor are all students Mennonite Brethren as we were then; now 27 denominations are represented. In my opinion, both are good developments.

E.J. Peters, a potato grower in Shafter, Calif., was chair of the MBBS Board of Directors for its first 17 years. At one public gathering I heard him articulate the vision of the founders: “God will accomplish His program. He will use men and women to do it. The question is whether you will be one of those he uses.”

Thanks to the vision of such people a 53-acre cotton field in southeast Fresno was purchased. On it was a vintage 1916 “mansion” with a eucalyptus-lined driveway. B. J. Braun, pastor of Dinuba (Calif.) MB Church and noted conference leader, was the seminary’s first president. He lived with his family on the ground floor of the mansion during my second year. Aromas of Mrs. Braun’s cooking wafted upward to our classrooms, distracting us.

In a chapel address Braun once declared matter-of-factly, “On matters of the virgin birth, the deity of Christ, the substitutionary atonement, the second coming of Christ and the divine inspiration of the Bible I am not dogmatic.” With a characteristic smirk, he then raised his voice: “No, on these matters I am bull-dogmatic.”

During our student years my wife and I worked at P.A. Enns’s fruit packing shed. Enns was on the board of directors and a driving force in establishing the school. These pioneers wanted the Canadian constituency to be a supporting partner of the seminary so Enns repeatedly engaged me, a Canadian, in explaining the Canadian mentality and reluctance to join. Finally in 1975, during H. H. Dick’s tenure as president, binational support of the school was secured. Ironically, divestiture of the General Conference [U.S. and Canada] came some 25 years later and again the issue of the support base for the seminary bubbles beneath the surface.

In the beginning the curriculum had a theologically dispensational cast. That changed with the coming of J.B. Toews in 1964. He sought a mandate from the U.S. Conference to colour the seminary program Anabaptist and hired A. J. Klassen as academic dean to see to the implementation.

Intent on highlighting biblical theology, president Toews phoned, wrote and personally visited me, then a doctoral student at Claremont University Graduate school, and eventually persuaded me (for I had other aspirations) that it was God’s will that I join the faculty. I did and have remained with the school for more than 35 years. I was the first of several MBBS graduates to return to the institution to teach. A highlight of my early years on the seminary faculty was in 1969 when with great rejoicing we posed for pictures upon receiving accreditation.

In the early 1970s students from India enriched the community. One of these, R. S. Aseervadam, has just retired after a lifelong ministry to the India conference as pastor, teacher and head of the evangelism program. A considerable cadre of students in the mid and late 1980s came from Europe, among them Bernard Ott, now president of the European Mennonite Bible School at Bienenberg, Switzerland, and Alexander Neufeld, recently chair of the International Committee of Mennonite Brethren. African and Japanese students were fewer, but I believe MBBS is largely to be credited for bringing about global denominational cohesion. As I now visit and minister in these countries I marvel what God has brought to pass.

An increased emphasis on mission and evangelism at the school was another high point. Hans Kasdorf and conference evangelist Henry J. Schmidt joined the faculty and before long some 24 students were enrolled in a mission major. The Center for Training in Mission and Evangelism was established in 1985. Many of the current North American missionary force were trained at MBBS.

Times change. As president from 1977 to 1986 I proposed to the board that the seminary recruit students from the San Joaquin Valley. We were the only accredited seminary between Los Angeles and San Francisco. After deliberating, the board said no. Ours was to be a school supported by the MB constituency to provide ministers for the MBs. Thirteen years later the board mandated that new president Henry Schmidt reach into the valley. In the class I taught last fall there were Anglicans, Presbyterians, Baptists and Catholics. In the last decade the seminary has entered into formal agreements with the Episcopalians and the Presbyterians and is recognized as a training centre for their ministers.

With the coming of professors Al Dueck and Delores Friesen to strengthen the counselling dimension of pastoral training, a full-fledged counselling program with appropriate degrees was introduced. This high-bar program has attracted numerous students and has altered the overall direction of the school.

John E. Toews, the longest-serving dean (1980–1992), urged the faculty to publish. I took great pleasure as president to highlight books published by faculty. D. Edmond Hiebert, handicapped with deafness, was the most prolific. Among others who have assisted the church through their publications are David Ewert, Allen Guenther and Hans Kasdorf.

Over the past five decades faculty members have served MB and other churches with Bible conferences and seminars. In the last five years faculty have taught at institutions in Germany, Congo, Brazil, Colombia, Paraguay, Philippines, India and Japan. The mission dimension, a hallmark of the denomination, has also been the hallmark of its training institution. For that I, for one, am most grateful.

The campus structures too have changed. I chuckle as I recall builder A. N. Dick of Mountain Lake, Minn., with his house trailer on campus for six winters, joining us faculty and students for coffee breaks. Thanks to a gift by the H.K. Warkentin family, the prayer chapel, the Fresno campus jewel, was built in honour of missionary Herman Warkentin who died in India. Between 1977–1985 vice-president Henry Dueck oversaw major construction. Currently MBBS also has “campuses” in Langley, B.C. (as part of the ACTS consortium) and in Winnipeg, Man., on the Canadian Mennonite University campus.

I can testify that administrators often agonized before God concerning funds both for operating and capital expenses. At one point, an anonymous donor plugged a significant financial hole with a $5,000 gift. A Canadian donor jump-started the early 1980s building program with $100,000. I was thrilled and almost in disbelief when fund-drive coordinator Peter Funk burst into my office to announce that sufficient pledges and cash were on hand to dedicate the new structure debt free.

With such memories of answers to prayer, lively classroom discussions around the Word of God, faculty collegiality, intimate moments in student discernment meetings, and the awareness of some 1,200 alumni in the Lord’s service, I walk about the campus, resonating with a visitor who said to me one day, “I feel that here I am walking on holy ground.”

—Elmer Martens is president emeritus and professor emeritus of Old Testament at MB Biblical Seminary.

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