Theological Education in Africa Today

Before coming to Westminster Theological Seminary where he is now pursuing further study, Iyorttyom Achincku served as Principal of the Reformed Theological College of Nigeria.

“The Church exists in our continent, she is growing and continues to exert great influence upon the life of our peoples. But it is a Church without a theology, without theologians, and without theological concern.”1

While the writer considers the last part of Professor John S. Mbiti’s comment as an overstatement of the true state of aHairs of the African Church, he is willing to admit that theological concern is the number one problem of our Church today. Today‘s cry for a distinctive African theology from all parts of Africa is in itself preponderant enough to refute Mbiti’s blanket assertion that the African Church is without “theological concern.” The African Church today is not faced with the problem of indifference to theological concerns. Rather she is faced with the problem of producing men who can handle these concerns biblically. Gensichen summarizes this problem in the following words:

In no other continent is there such a grave danger that the educational standards of pastors and theological students will fall hopelessly behind the rapid development of education as a whole. There is no other region where theological education is still so dependent on teachers from the West. and few where one still meets so many teachers of theology who are themselves inadequately trained for their work . . . the picture is alarming, since the means available for assistance are simply not equal to the magnitude of the problem.2

In this article the writer wants to describe generally (a) factors contributing to the magnitude of the problems of theological education in Africa, (b) efforts that are being made to remedy the situation, and (c) suggestions to solve the problem of theological education in Africa.


Missionaries – Missionaries have perhaps unconsciously contributed to the prevailing problem of theological education in Africa today. For over a century Christian missions have emphasized the spread of the gospel to the degree that the teaching aspect of the Great Commission was completely ignored. This complete emphasis on the spread of the gospel to the exclusion of theological education has resulted in a phenomenal church growth in the fifties and sixties.

This phenomenal growth created a greater need for pastoral care than missionaries and local evangelists were prepared to provide. Lack of pastoral care gave rise to many theological issues which have created about 4,000 sects and independent churches today.

It was not until the late fifties that missionaries began to open a few vernacular pastors’ schools. Since nationals were trained in their native languages there were no textbooks. Students were thus forced to rely on poorly translated notes. Most of these wooden translations did not communicate anything to the students. The formal educational standard required for this training was not only too low but also too poor. In most cases people admitted into these schools did not have a second grade education in their languages. Their training usually ran from six months to one year. After this short period of training they were ordained as pastors into their churches. No provision was made for these pastors to continue their theological education.

African Customs – Most African societies have respect for the older people. This respect for old age is not bad, but its effect on theological education has proved more disastrous than helpful. In the fifties, requirement for entrance into the theological school was old age rather than spiritual maturity and formal education. Maturity was measured in terms of the number of years a person had lived rather than in terms of spiritual gifts and pastoral ability. Thus many young people with spiritual gifts and ministerial ability were turned away.

As a result most of our present ministers are without real “training experience behind them to enable them to guide the younger educated men who are being produced in large numbers”3 both at the secondary school and university levels.4 So many people “have received higher education that the pastors seem quite inadequate.” Walter Cason succinctly puts it this way: “The pew is higher than the pulpit.”5

Wrong Philosophy of Education – Education, status, and money are “so integrally related that any programme appearing”6 to exclude status and money does not attract highly intelligent Africans. Since most of the pastors serving churches today are men with less than a fourth grade education, theological education is not considered sufficiently prestigious.

Closely related to the problem of prestige is the problem of salary. An African minister is on the lowest rung of the salary scale. This does more to discourage qualified young men than encourage them. For this reason most African students who pursue theological education would rather go to a secular university where they can earn a prestigious degree that will enable them to secure teaching positions in a university or college. For most young men in Africa today education is not an improvement of one’s gifts for a better service to the Lord.

Exclusion of Laymen from Seminary Education – Most theological colleges in Africa today are open only to those men who arc definitely going into the ministry. This policy mercilessly closes doors to those who might want to take only a few courses to improve themselves. The only solution to this problem is introduction of a massive Theological Education by Extension.

Teaching Staff – This contributes to the problem of theological education in two ways. (1) Teachers are not easy to find. (2) They are hard to keep. It takes a long time to get qualified teachers but it takes only a short time to lose them.

The majority of theological teachers in Africa do not stay at the task long enough to develop real competence in it . . . the hurricane passing through the theological staff makes continuity of work almost impossible.”7


The demand for theological education which began to make itself felt in the fifties has never been met. Inspite of the fact that 66 theological institutions are now offering theological education at all levels. the problem of theological education has escalated to a crisis point. This is due to the phenomenal church growth which still continues today.

Of the 384 million Africans in 1973, US million are professing Christians: The writer‘s findings show that there are now 57 theological colleges offering courses leading to Certificate and Diploma levels. Of these there is only one Seminary in Egypt that offers the B.D. degree program.*9 There are at present nine universities offering degree programs from the B.A. degree to the Ph.D. degree. Enrollment in Religious Studies in these nine universities stood at 688 students; while enrollment in the 57 theological colleges claimed only 1301 students in 1970.10

Theological Education by Extension which has been a huge success in Latin America is operating only in eight countries in Africa. There are 11 institutions which carry out theological education by extension at 60 centers with only 673 students.11


The writer’s survey reveals that theological education has not reached even a minimal level in Africa today. The writer therefore wants to offer a few suggestions here to help solve the problem. We have already surveyed factors that have contributed to the problem of theological education.

1. Most of the 57 theological colleges offer courses in foreign languages such as English and French. Because of the handicap, graduates of these colleges are not able to communicate to their local congregations. In training ministers some provision should be made to help students to think through theology in the language of their local congregations. “Theological training in Africa must include encounter with linguistic task” of the local congregation. 2. The growth of the church in Africa demands that theological education cease to be the luxury of a small group of pastors. “In Africa today theological education cannot afford to ignore the important role of the laity in the Church.” 3. Present theological college curricula tend to reflect the pattern of Western seminaries. The curriculum for an African seminary must be drawn in such a way that it reflects realistically the situation in which the Church exists and in which her witness to Christ is to be borne. African students should be encouraged to seek answers from the Scriptures to their problems. 4. Effort must be made to produce qualified theological teachers in Africa itself. This will necessitate a coming together of denominations with the same doctrinal standards for the purpose of establishing a graduate school of theology. There should be at least four theological colleges offering B.D. programs. 5. All the existing theological colleges should offer a continuing education program to upgrade the level of the present clergy without interrupting their ministry. 6. Every theological college should introduce theological education by extension. Both professors and students should be involved in teaching those who are enrolled in theological education by extension. 7. Overseas churches should be urged to support theological education financially. The need for theological education in Africa today calls for. something more than a mere cooperation from our overseas sister churches. It demands that our sister churches in the West consider this need as their need and not merely as an African problem (see I Cor. 12:12–20). The writer here wants to urge our overseas sister churches to view theological weakness of the African Church as the weakness of the entire body of Christ. It is only when we view this problem from the biblical concept of the church as one body of Christ that we can avoid the usual red tape that hampers our effort to support the theological education of our sister churches. It is good that we give attention to our denominational missionary programs, but it is equally important that we should support theological education of sister churches, especially those with the same doctrinal standards.

8. The writer wants to suggest that aid to theological institutions of African sister churches be channeled through inter-church committees rather than boards of foreign mission. Such a direct interrelationship will eliminate a duality which exists between missions and the established national churches. Such a duality creates a feeling of superiority in the missionaries and of inferiority in the established national churches. Consequently the superior party begins to feel that it is merely helping the other instead of feeling that it is supporting the same body of Christ in a different cultural milieu.


1. John Mbiti, “Some African concepts of Christology” Christ and the Younger Churches, Ed. Georg F. Vicedom, (S P C K London, 1972), p. 51.

2. H. W. Gensichen, “Theological Education in Africa,” International Review of Missions, vol. 52 (1963), p. 155. 3. Edward A. Shils, “The African Intellectuals” Christianity and African Education. Ed. R. P. Beaver (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Michigan: 1966), p. 125. 4. The writer is in no way negating the ministry of these older pastors. The point which the writer wants to make is that these ministers because of their inadequate training arc not able to contribute to theological education in Africa. Two things immediately result from this. (1) Africa will continue to depend on foreigner for theological education. (2) Since Africa has raised her standard of education these pastors are not able to communicate with the educated ones. 5. Walter J. Cason, “African Theological Education,” Christianity and African Education. Ed. R. P. Beaver, p. 141. 6. R. R. Covell, “The Third Stage in Africa and Asia,” All Extension Seminary Primer. Ed. Ralph R. Covell and Peter Wagner (William Carey Library, Calif. 1971) p. 119. 7. Walter J. Cason, p. 143.

8. “Supplement Report 3,” Christian Reformed 1974 Acts of Synod, pp. 204–205.

9. J. F. Hopewell, Theological Schools in Africa, Asia, The Caribbean., Latin America and The South Pacific. (Theological Education Fund, England), pp. 1–16.

*This figure does not include schools preparing pastors for just a short period of time for strictly speaking these are not permanent institutions. This number does not include theological colleges in white South which has 25 theological colleges and universities offering theological education at all degree levels.

10. J. F. Hopewell, pp. 1–16. 11. W. C. Weld, The World Directory of Theological Education by Extension (William Carey Library, Calif., 1973), pp. 165–300.