Theological Education in South East Asia, 1957-2002

By Yeow, Choo Lak | International Bulletin of Mission Research, January 2004 | Go to article overview

Theological Education in South East Asia, 1957-2002


Yeow, Choo Lak, International Bulletin of Mission Research


After World War II the economies of virtually all the nations in South East Asia were in shambles. Building up theological education in such dire times could not have been more difficult or more challenging. The first steps were taken at a conference on theological education held in Bandung, Indonesia, in February 1952. A follow-up conference in February/ March 1956 in Bangkok, Thailand, established an association of theological school principals, which in 1957 founded the Association of Theological Schools and Colleges in South East Asia. The association, originally comprising sixteen schools, was formed to establish standards for theological education in the region, to promote mutual understanding, and to advise and assist in the solving of problems in theological education, with special reference to the sociopolitical issues unique to doing theology in South East Asia.

Between 1957 and 1981 the association did all it could to encourage and assist member schools in building up their national faculty and library resources. A postcolonial South East Asia called for seminary teachers who not only were fully qualified educationally but also were in tune with the rapid sociopolitical changes taking place in the region, possessing a theological mind-set capable of understanding what was taking place around them culturally, politically, economically, socially, and religiously. Sufficient library resources were also needed for adequate research and to enable students to keep abreast of current scholarship.

Culturally, the region was beginning to embrace, and once again be proud of, the age-old cultures that had been put down by the former colonial masters. Politically, the challenge to prepare honest and efficient leaders was as difficult as it was urgent. Economically, the region needed to learn how to function more self-sufficiently and how to stimulate growth. Socially, almost every country in the region did its best to deal realistically and cohesively with its varieties of races and tribes. Religiously, interfaith dialogues were seen as a sure way to avoid religious blood-letting in the street. Doing theology in South East Asia had to account for all these Asian givens.

As the economy improved, so did the numerical growth of churches, so much so that almost all denominations began experiencing growth pains. Member schools realized that they must produce enough qualified graduates to meaningfully pastor congregations, some quite traditional, others experiencing charismatic renewal.

In the midst of all these exciting developments, attempts to engage more fully the supporting churches of the member schools often achieved only partial success. More would have to be done in this area.

ATESEA

In 1981 the group changed its name to the Association for Theological Education in South East Asia (ATESEA). This name change reflected our belief that the association should relate not only with our member schools but also with their supporting churches in order to bridge the gap that too often separated seminary and church. Furthermore, the need to make theological education available beyond the four walls of the seminary was keenly felt. Both concerns led our association to bring together three groups in the church that normally do not mingle much with each other: church leaders, social-action activists, and theological educators. Between 1983 and 1986 these leaders met in Theological Seminar Workshops, which considered issues such as doing theology with Asian resources, including folk stories, people's movements, and women's participation and leadership in Asian churches.

The association soon began to reap benefits from the labors of leaders who had sought to pay more attention to the so-called Critical Asian Principle, which "seeks to identify what is distinctively Asian and uses this distinctiveness as a critical principle of judgment on matters dealing with the life and mission of the Christian community, theology, and theological education in Asia. …

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