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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

Theological Education in Africa: An Interview with David Tarus

Published Thursday, July 1, 2021 By David Tarus

We recently interviewed David Tarus, executive director of the Association for Christian Theological Education in Africa (ACTEA). Born and raised in Eldoret, western Kenya, Dr. Tarus earned his PhD in Christian theology from McMaster Divinity College in Canada. He also earned an MA in theology from Wheaton College Graduate School and a BTh from Scott Christian University in Kenya. He is the author of multiple articles and books, including A Different Way of Being: Toward a Reformed Theology of Ethnopolitical Cohesion for the Kenyan Context (Langham, 2019), Christian Responses to Terrorism: The Kenyan Experience (Wipf & Stock, 2017), and “Social Transformation in the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians” in the Africa Journal of Evangelical Theology. An ordained minister in the Africa Inland Church (AIC), he and his wife Jeane have two children, Berur (9) and Tala (5).

MR: Please tell us a little bit about ACTEA and why you are passionate about it.

DT: ACTEA is a project of the Association of Evangelicals in Africa (AEA) and a founding member of the International Council for Evangelical Theological Education (ICETE), a global partner within the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA). It was started in 1976 through the vision of the first general secretary of the AEA and the father of evangelicalism in Africa, Dr. Byang Kato. ACTEA’s central purpose is to assist theological schools throughout Africa in their quest for excellence and renewal, which it seeks to achieve in three primary ways: by promoting quality theological training through institutional reviews and academic recognition; by providing institutional support services and capacity-building forums for leaders and faculty of theological institutions; and by facilitating networking and cooperation among Africa’s theological institutions. ACTEA currently has sixty-seven institutions affiliated to it from eighteen African countries.

I am excited about what ACTEA does because I am excited about quality holistic theological education. I believe in Christian scholarship that is committed to knowledge (knowing), inner formation (being), and vocational competencies (doing). These models borrow from the classic tradition of orthodoxy (right faith), orthopraxis (right living), orthopathos (emotional experiences), and doxology (right worship). I think ACTEA does this very well by inspiring institutions to be holistic in their theological education, and I am happy to be part of this movement.

MR: Can you tell us about the state of Christian theological education in Africa?

DT: Professor Andrew Walls observes that “it is Africans and Asians and Latin Americans who will be the representative Christians, those who represent the Christian norm, the Christian mainstream, of the twenty-first and twenty-second centuries.”[1] If this is true, and I believe it is, then how will the African church represent the Christian faith to the world? What is the quality of that representation? Sadly, the church in Africa is not representing the Christian faith well. We have an influx of the prosperity gospel, and there is also a lot of nominalism, syncretism, and compromise of biblical faith. 

We need to train the untrained and provide them with the necessary resources to help nurture the church. In other words, we need to do more to scale up theological training in Africa, particularly for the 85 to 90 percent of church ministers who have little to no biblical or theological training. Congregations are being shepherded by untrained pastors. We recently held a theological consultation to talk about this huge need. The outcome of it was a theological compendium titled Scaling Up Theological Training in Africa.[2]

We have also seen some growing interest in nontraditional theological education. Nonformal, off-site, online/hybrid theological education is gaining traction in some regions, although most denominations still prefer to send their students to colleges offering residential training, even though their Bible schools have declining enrollments. Churches fear, sometimes legitimately, that these formats of learning are not rigorous enough and do not take spiritual or ministerial formation seriously. Thus institutions embracing these nontraditional models of learning ought to think about quality measures.

Despite the reluctance to embrace online education, some institutions now offer online education, but it is not easy because of erratic power supply, intermittent Internet, poor infrastructure, and lack of trained tutors. Some institutions have tried to address the problem of power supply by installing solar energy, but the Internet remains expensive in many countries in Africa. ACTEA recently launched accreditation standards for online programs as well as guidelines for conducting virtual hybrid site visits. This is a new frontier, and we are excited to be part of it.

Colleges have also realized that they need to train their students in important life skills.  They need to equip students in intercultural skills that include issues of community development, conflict transformation, public theology, and public service. We also need prophetic education. Students need to engage in critical areas facing African societies such as corruption, sexual depravity, creation care, peacemaking, urbanization, and interfaith relations.  However, not all schools have the capacity or the curriculum to train in these important areas.

There is also a trend among established theological institutions to shift to university status. They are motivated by many factors like sustainability and pressure from governments to offer other programs. However, these institutions are faced daily with dangers of secularism, loss of evangelical distinctiveness, a revision of their mission and vision statements, and a decline in Bible-centered education. Such institutions must find creative ways of staying true to their evangelical distinctiveness, even as they offer other programs.

MR: What are the primary short- and long-term challenges you see in Christian theological education throughout Africa?

DT: The main challenge is the sustainability of theological schools. A paucity of funds translates into reduced salaries and maintenance cutbacks. The coronavirus pandemic has intensified this problem, as the words of a seminary president from Ethiopia shows:

If the situation continues like this, almost all of our income, which is derived from students’ tuition fees, will be stopped. Then, we will be unable to pay the salaries of our faculty and staff. We are not sure what we will do in this worst-case scenario. It would be a big blow to us, affecting whether we can continue as an institution.[3]

Sustainability could be addressed if churches, councils, and denominational leaders supported their schools more. In fact, some theological institutions in Africa operate without stakeholder support. Institutional heads are expected to deliver top-notch theological education despite the lack of support. Providentially, African institutions will have to cultivate homegrown solutions to their sustainability needs. Nevertheless, institutions will exhibit wisdom by building partnerships, without undue dependence, with their international partners.

Other issues need to be addressed as well, such as training top executives in leadership and management. Faculty members, who are not adequately prepared for the various administrative tasks that are sometimes placed on their shoulders, need further training. We also need to help schools with leadership transitions, curriculum development, and quality assurance.

MR: What misconceptions would you like to correct about theological education in Africa?

DT: The first misconception is that theological education in Africa must rely on Western support to survive. There is a lot of wealth in Africa. Schools must tap into Africa’s resources, even as they partner with others around the world. Another misconception is that theological education in Africa is not academic theology because of our emphasis on praxis. In The Future of Christianity, Alister McGrath laments Western society’s “disillusionment with academic theology” at the expense of practical concerns of everyday life.[4] The difference between Africa’s theological education and Western theological education is our undying emphasis on the practical needs of people. It is exceedingly rare that we engage in theological scholarship without praxis. There are a lot of good theological engagements going on in Africa, despite limited research funds and inadequate libraries.

MR: What dreams and hopes do you have for the short and the long term of theological education throughout Africa?

DT: My prayer is to see more renewed, quality theological institutions. The process of renewal happens in many ways. Of course, we help with quality measures. The more schools comply with ACTEA standards, the more they become better schools. But many schools cannot meet these standards because of poverty and other structural challenges. The future is in collaboration. I have often talked about generosity in theological education. For example, generosity of resources and faculty. Larger institutions might consider providing credit courses for a wider group of students than their own. Perhaps the smaller institution’s faculty could still cover grading/marking and organization, so the faculty of the larger institutions will not be overwhelmed.

Others might assist struggling institutions through the payment of subscription fees to access online materials, allowing free access to their online platforms, helping institutions with solar power installation, and so on. Experts could help by teaching online, reading dissertations, revising curriculums, or other documents. Theological libraries from privileged countries should find ways of assisting institutions in Africa—perhaps by giving them free access to electronic materials, academic journals, library software programs, or helping with training of librarians.

MR: Can you share an example or two (perhaps an anecdote, person, or an institution) as a brief sample of theological education in Africa?

DT: I will share the story of the Nigeria Baptist Theological Seminary (NBTS) in Ogbomoso, Nigeria, which started in 1898. NBTS is our model institution. It is an institution with a wealth of history but not without challenges—though they have addressed the challenges creatively. The success of the institution is attributed to many factors, but at the top is the able leadership of Rev. Prof. Emiola Nihinlola, who also serves as the ACTEA chair. He mentions that when he was chosen to lead the institution in 2013, he embarked on the assignment with two challenges in mind: “(1) How to integrate and balance spiritual, academic and ministerial formation; (2) How to function as a postgraduate institution (administration, finance, human resources, curriculum, student services).”[5] He was also concerned about faculty development, since most of the faculty members were going to retire within the next five years.

He started working on his vision, and he discovered he would achieve more by collaborating with others. He invited ScholarLeaders International to help through their Vital Sustainability Initiative (VSI). Through this initiative, the institutional vision was renewed and clarified, institutional sustainability through strategic actions was implemented, and the institution engaged in a rigorous process of development of academic and administrative competence. They now have a vibrant campus and well-resourced faculty.

With a lot of praise, they recently commissioned a 104,000-watt solar energy power off-grid system, and 47.4 percent of the budget was raised locally. This project provides regular power supply for research, teaching, and the learning processes of staff and students of the seminary, and it is already contributing substantial cost savings to the institution. In addition to the solar power project, NBTS has been engaged in other projects like enhancement of ICT infrastructure, development of faculty, extension of the library, and establishment of an intercultural research center. Their academic programs have also undergone rigorous review, and NBTS is now a renewed institution.

MR: You have worked with many educators and institutions around the world and throughout Africa. What do you envision and hope to see African leaders contribute to global theological conversations?

DT: African leaders and theologians have a lot to contribute to the world. Unfortunately, sometimes they are not given a chance or are not taken seriously. Forty-five years ago, Professor John Mbiti from Kenya penned the following words:

We have eaten theology with you; we have drunk theology with you; we have dreamed theology with you. But it has been all one-sided; it has all been, in a sense, your theology. . . . We know you theologically. The question is, “Do you know us theologically?” . . . You have become a major subconscious part of our theologizing, and we are privileged to be so involved in you through the fellowship we share in Christ. When will you make us part of your subconscious process of theologizing?[6]

Have things changed? Is the world listening to African theologians and leaders? If the world listened, then it could gain a lot from African Christianity. Take, for example, the robust theological engagements coming from African women theologians—particularly the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians, a pan-African, multireligious, and multiracial society of women started in 1989 in West Africa. They have published hundreds of books in various areas, and they have held several workshops and academic conferences. But unfortunately, African women theologians must always reinforce their presence in the world for their authority to be heard.

The same can be said of African theology in general. The contributions of African theologians to global theology are still not taken seriously. This is something Western institutions need to do. They should make sure their students are familiar with other ways of theologizing. I would encourage Western institutions to invite African theologians to teach at their institutions, albeit on a short-term basis. The words of Andrew Walls need to be heard: “If you want to know something about Christianity, you must know something about Africa.”[7]

MR: How would you request and encourage us to pray at this time?

DT: Pray for wisdom, understanding, and clarity in leading ACTEA and serving Africa’s theological institutions in this season of immense challenges. Pray for ACTEA institutions amid the pandemic. Africa’s theological institutions are really struggling.

Pray for our ongoing annual fee relief campaign to help ACTEA institutions by forgiving their annual fee requirement. We have so far raised 45 percent of the costs required. The fees will go toward ACTEA’s day-to-day operations, including capacity-building programs for institutions. By not paying their membership dues to ACTEA, these institutions will have extra funds for other urgent needs like salaries, student aid, medical insurance, improvement of information and communications technology, and so on.

Pray for ACTEA’s office project. We recently purchased office space at the newly built AEA Plaza in Nairobi. The purchase is complete, and the space is ready for fit-out, and we are trusting God for funds for this project.  For further information on AEA and ACTEA, visit their websites: aeafrica.org and acteaweb.org.

  • David Tarus

1. Andrew F. Walls, “Christian Scholarship in Africa in the Twenty-First Century,” Transformation 19:4 (October 2002).
2. John Jusu, “Purpose and Design of the Consultation,” Scaling Up Theological Training in Africa, Association of Evangelicals in Africa, December 7, 2020, https://aeafrica.org/scaling-up-theological-training-in-africa-2/.
3. Dr. Bruk Ayele Asale, President, Mekane Yesus Seminary, Ethiopia, email to David Tarus.
4. Alister E. McGrath, The Future of Christianity (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2002), 120ff.
5. From the NBTS Experience document shared at a meeting Dr. Tarus attended in Nigeria.
6. John Mbiti, “Theological Impotence and the Universality of the Church,” in Gerald H. Anderson and Thomas F. Stransky, eds., Mission Trends No. 3: Third World Theologies (New York: Paulist, 1976), 16–17.
7. “Of Ivory Towers and Ashrams: Some Reflections on Theological Scholarship in Africa,” Journal of African Christian Thought 3, no. 1 (June 1, 2000): 1.
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