Theological Education in Africa, Asia, Latin America

Structured and intentional theological education in Africa and Asia arose out of the need for training local church leaders and the desire to equip the whole people of God in terms of their gifts and calling. It continues to be shaped by the particularity of Christian traditions, including different theologies of ministry and the value placed on ecumenical cooperation, local theologizing, and culturally appropriate patterns of leadership.

 It is likely that by 2000 there were more than 500 university departments, theological schools, Bible colleges and other institutions connected with Christian theological education in Asia, and a similar number in Africa. The World Christian Encyclopaedia records 35 university departments teaching theology and 11 theological education associations in Asia. In Africa there were 28 university departments teaching theology and 12 theological education associations. By 2000 there were some 25,000 Roman Catholic seminarians attending 335 seminaries in Asia, and some 20,000 seminarians attending 180 seminaries in Africa. There has been a dramatic increase in the demand for training in the last 50 years, and in the case of Roman Catholic seminarians the increase is over 8 fold since 1950.

 Theological schools in Alexandria in the second century and Nisibis in the sixth provide links to the early church. There were efforts to provide Catholic seminaries in the first centuries of Catholic missions in Asia, and but little formal Protestant provision for theological education in Asia and Africa before the 20th century. Reformed missionaries saw higher education as preparation for ministerial leadership. Faith missions often saw Bible schools as integral to evangelism and church growth. Papal Encyclicals including Maximum illud (1919) and Rerum ecclesiae (1926) directed a higher level of commitment to the development of indigenous clergy. In 1938 the International Missionary Council recognised the Protestant situation as urgent. World War II delayed action yet increased awareness of political independence movements and the need for action to provide proper institutions for the emerging churches.

The cost of providing a high standard of theological education made the pooling of resources essential. Union seminaries among Protestant churches helped ecumenical relationships among future generations, even whilst curricula followed Western ideals which were not always appropriate. Nevertheless attention to Hebrew and Greek took students beyond colonial languages and the mediating culture of their teachers. From the 1970s if not earlier, pastoral care and field education improved the relevance of ministerial training, but more fundamental issues of identity and formation in Asian and African societies took longer to be addressed. The study of world religions at length found its place

After 1958 the Theological Education Fund (from 1961 part of the WCC) made a strategic contribution to the development of key Protestant seminaries, faculty and libraries, including through capital grants, scholarships and the commissioning and translation of student texts. Its language of contextual theology is now widely accepted.

 Theological Education by Extension has been less dramatic in its impact than in Latin America, but is still valuable for its underlying theology, openness to new pedagogy, and geographical reach. It may receive new life through internet technologies, but so far has appeared more attractive for lay training than for ordained. Vatican II encouraged a radical inversion of the understanding of the church which gave some status to the local experience of what it was to be Christian, and broke down insularity between theological education providers.

 Seminaries and bible colleges have not been immune from war, disaster and political events, but sometimes the fellowship and theological clarity born in adversity has been hard to sustain in peace. The establishment of regional and confessional accreditation bodies has been important to the development of standards and good governance. Efforts have been made to restrict a brain drain to the West of students and graduate faculty seeking higher degrees. The nationality of teaching staff has moved decisively from expatriate to local, and international faculty are now more likely to be a matter of choice not necessity. Stable governance, reliable funding and support issues continue to be difficult. The fundamental task of developing the capacity of churches to be confident about their ability to discern the Word of God in their own situations remains.

John Roxborogh




Latin America