Theological Education in the Changing Context of World Christianity-An Unfinished Agenda

By Werner, Dietrich | International Bulletin of Missionary Research, April 2011 | Go to article overview

Theological Education in the Changing Context of World Christianity-An Unfinished Agenda


Werner, Dietrich, International Bulletin of Missionary Research


The year 2010 saw the commemoration of 100 years of Christian mission since the World Missionary Conference held in Edinburgh in 1910, an event commonly regarded as key to the rise of the ecumenical movement in the twentieth century and even as an unparalleled turning point in the history of world Christianity. Edinburgh 2010 afforded an opportune moment to reflect on the dramatic changes in the landscape of world Christianity globally during the past century, changes of which no one could have dreamed in 1910. At the same time, the year 2010 provided an occasion to measure missionary accomplishments within the field of theological education against the dreams and aspirations enunciated during the original World Missionary Conference, and to assess the shape of the task that still lies before us. (1)

Early Beginnings in Edinburgh 1910

Two major commission reports from Edinburgh 1910 dealt with issues of education, namely, that of Commission III ("Education in Relation to the Christianisation of National Life') and that of Commission V ("The Preparation of Missionaries'). Despite the limitations engendered by the colonial worldview of the outgoing nineteenth century, both reports contain ideas that remain significant and surprisingly current. (2) Their relevance to theological education and missionary training can be summarized as follows:

* Edinburgh 1910 highlighted the strategic importance of theological education as an indispensable element of any Christian mission, both past and future. (3)

* Edinburgh 1910 attempted to develop a worldwide survey of the state of Christian education and theological education based on reports received from all regions, leading to Commission III's 455-page report. (4) Similar empirical research on recent developments in theological education would be welcome today.

* Edinburgh 1910 called for massive improvement in the quality of training for missionaries. Commission V proposed rigorous enhancement of academic standards and the incorporation of language studies, the history of religions, the sociology of mission territories, and general principles of missionary work, an early foretaste of the contextualization debate of the later 1960s.

* Intentionally moving beyond denominational lines in theological education, Edinburgh 1910 promoted the establishment of centralized mission colleges that would be jointly supported by various denominations and mission agencies, in contrast to existing regional denominational mission seminaries. Such central institutions for missionary preparation, (5) open to missionaries of all Christian denominations, were foreseen for places such as Shanghai, Madras, Calcutta, Beirut, and Cairo. Visionary and revolutionary in their understanding of Christian education and of theological education in particular, such ideas provided a preview of the concept of ecumenical theological education and ecumenical learning that would be developed decades later.

* Edinburgh 1910 favored a deliberate move toward vernacular theological and Christian education. (6)

The missionary movement had thus voiced its desire for sound Christian education and quality theological education involving missionary and ecumenical cooperation long before the established churches were ready to consider this paradigm change in their own ministerial formation programs. Steps to address the pressing need for ecumenical learning and interdenominational cooperation in theological education first gained support in the missionary context. Edinburgh 1910 bequeathed to the international movement an obligation to place theological education as a priority in any sober mission strategy. In the words of Commission III, "The most important of all ends which missionary education ought to set itself to serve, is that of training those who are to be the spiritual leaders and teachers of their own nation." (7)

Joint Action for Theological Education

Implementation of the vision of Edinburgh 1910 was severely delayed by the two world wars and by the new world order that unfolded in the process of decolonialization; but remarkably, passion for joint action in mission and theological education remained alive for decades, despite these setbacks. …

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