Almost five years ago, during an international gathering of evangelical leaders held in Bogotá (Colombia), a small group of men met to take a look at the theological situation in Latin America. They were impressed by the absence of an authentic Christian voice speaking to the issues raised by life in this part of the world and saw that, after four centuries of Roman Catholicism and one century of Protestantism, theology had not even begun paying to Latin America its debt of showing the relevance of the Word of God to practical life. They say that, as a result of this theological deficit, in countries where Christianity is regarded as the official religion, Christ remains silent in the face of the most acute human needs and problems, and the Church, for all its fantastic growth, is unable to cope with the ideologies of the day and open to every wind of doctrine.

That meeting proved to be the beginning of what may turn out to be the most significant theological development in Latin America for many years, namely, the formation of what now is known as the Latin American Theological Fraternity. To be sure, the last five years have also seen the rise of the (mostly Roman Catholic) “theology of liberation,” and this has become a live option not only among Roman Catholics but also among Protestants. Moreover, the general picture of the Church in Latin American countries continues to be largely that of “a church without theological reflection” (“Current Religious Thought,” Feb. 1, 1974). Even so, there are signs that under the name of the Fraternity an evangelical alternative is taking shape and beginning to make an impact on the Church.

The Fraternity has defined itself as “a fellowship of evangelical thinkers serving Christ and his Church, convinced of the value of theological reflection in relation to the life and mission of the Church.” Its international membership of about forty includes not only seminary and Bible school professors but also people drawn from a variety of fields, from education to natural science. About 90 per cent of the members are Latin American; the others are British or North American missionaries who have lived in Latin America for a number of years.

The first purpose of the Fraternity is “to foster reflection on the Gospel and its meaning for man and society in Latin America; to stimulate the development of evangelical theological thought that is true to the Word of God and that makes an effort to listen to the biblical message, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, in the concrete historical situation.” Accordingly, each member is required to submit at least one substantial paper per year in the field of his interest; to remain a member he must fulfill this requirement. Several of the papers have been printed in booklet form for wider distribution. One can hardly exaggerate the importance of this production of theological literature originally written in Spanish or Portuguese for a church whose reading for several centuries has been largely restricted to translations from English or German.

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Another purpose of the Fraternity is “to provide a platform for dialogue among thinkers who confess Jesus Christ as Lord and God and who are willing to think in the light of Scripture so as to build a bridge between the Gospel and Latin American culture.” The two consultations held so far by the international body as a whole (Cochabamba, 1970; Lima, 1972) set a high standard for the deliberations and showed that the search for a happy combination between faithfulness to the Gospel as revealed in Scripture and relevance to the historical situation was to receive a great deal of attention within the Fraternity. The regional conferences held in Mexico, Peru, and Brazil in 1971–72 provided unparalleled opportunity for people to come to grips with a number of critical issues facing the Church in Latin America. The Biblical Theology Commission and the Pastoral Ministry Commission met in San Jose (December, 1973) and the Life and Mission of the Church Commission met in Buenos Aires (March, 1974) to deal with “Biblical Concepts of Liberation,” “The Pastoral Ministry and Man in Latin America,” and “Man and the Structures in Latin America Today” respectively. A number of the papers will be revised on the basis of the discussions and then published in book form. The conferences sponsored by the Fraternity are thus proving an effective means of bringing into existence a body of literature urgently needed today.

One more purpose of the Fraternity is “to contribute to the life and mission of the Church of Christ, without pretending to speak in the name of the Church nor to be the theological voice of evangelicals in Latin America.” An aspect of the ethos of the Fraternity from its very inception has been an ecclesiological emphasis; theology has been conceived, not as an end in itself, but as a means to the end of building up the Church and helping it to discharge its mission. In this connection the study conferences for pastors, which are becoming a regular feature of the Fraternity’s work, may be the most adequate way in which the theological ferment spreads among those engaged in the pastoral ministry.

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In a massive survey of church growth in Latin America published at the end of the last decade the authors rejoiced that “North American and European theological emphases concerning secularised Christianity find little echo in Latin America, where the Evangelical Church is too busy fulfilling its mission to be troubled by these theological issues.” Paradoxically enough, such an evaluation was made at a time when the only theological project taking shape in the Protestant camp in Latin America was precisely one built on the premises of secularized Christianity, sponsored by Iglesia y Sociedad en América Latina (the Latin American branch of the Church and Society Department of the World Council of Churches).

For all their expert knowledge of church growth, these authors failed to see that evangelicals have been all too busy to be troubled, not only by “North American and European theological emphases concerning secularised Christianity,” but by any theological questions. Latin American evangelicals have therefore run the risk of reducing the mission of the Church to rote repetition of unassimilated doctrinal formulas coined in North America or Europe. Where theological questions related to the meaning of the Gospel and its relevance to secular society are regarded as an interesting pastime (at best) or an unnecessary distraction (at worst), the Christian mission easily degenerates into superficial activism.

This analysis goes a long way in explaining the situation of the Church and its mission in Latin America today. But it also throws into relief the strategic importance of the Latin American Theological Fraternity to the evangelical cause in this part of the world.

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