Liberation theology is at issue in school’s year of evaluation.

President Carmelo Alvarez speaks almost proudly of 1981 as being “our year of evaluation.” At the invitation of the school’s board of directors, a seven-member team of theologians visited Latin America Biblical Seminary in San José, Costa Rica.

This commission, selected to represent a broad spectrum of national and theological backgrounds, launched a full inspection in a week’s time. They talked with three former presidents of the school, with faculty who have recently resigned, students, and current school administrators. They are studying the school’s curriculum and facilities.

Commission member Garth Rosell, academic dean of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, explained there is no accrediting agency in the Latin American world, such as the Association of Theological Schools. The seminary’s board of directors therefore “is very interested in input.”

Yet Rosell would be the first to admit the reasons for the study (the seminary avoids the term “investigation”) go far deeper. The school’s alleged overemphasis on so-called liberation theology has earned it sharp verbal attacks since the middle 1970s. Some observers, even former president Plutarco Bonilla (1975–78), question its academic credibility, as well as its educational slant. The school hit a financial crunch when many conservative churches withdrew their support.

When the commission releases its full report next month, the many nonbinding recommendations may appear uncomplimentary to the school. Commission head Cecilio Arrastía, a Hispanic programs official with the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., acknowledged “there are problems … theological problems.”

Still, even many of the most severe critics assert their concern is to help the school, not hurt it. Established in 1923 by Latin America Mission founders Harry and Susan Strachan under the motto “For Christ and Latin America,” the interdenominational seminary (in Spanish, “Seminario Biblico Latinoamerica,” or SBL) for years held the reputation as providing the finest theological education for Latin American evangelicals. The school took the lead in providing pastoral training, which was taught by Latin Americans, and relevant to the Latin church and culture.

But in its creditable efforts to relate theology to the troubled Latin American society, the seminary apparently upset a majority of its conservative, Protestant constituency. These grassroots evangelicals feel the seminary traded its historic emphasis on evangelism and building up the local church for a left-wing, political one.

The seminary is small by North American standards—presently there are about 80 students in on-campus bachelor’s and licentiate (master’s) programs in theology, and another 100 or so in the “theological education at a distance” program. Yet its actual, and potential, influence is strong. Students come from practically all Latin American countries. The growing Latin American Protestant church needs trained leaders, and there are not all that many schools to choose from. If Latin America’s evangelical churches can’t send pastoral candidates to SBL, where can they send them?

The Central American Mission’s seminary in Guatemala City is highly regarded, although some Latin theologians regard it as too conservative and dispensationalist. The U.S. Southern Baptists have seminaries in Cali, Colombia, and Buenos Aires, Argentina; the Evangelical Alliance Mission and the Evangelical Free Church of America jointly operate one in Maracay, Venezuela. If there is a criticism of these, it is that too few nationals serve on the respective faculties. The interdenominational ISEDET in Buenos Aires has top-flight academicians, but most Latin conservatives would feel uncomfortable there. One evangelical called it “the Union Seminary of Latin America.” Good Baptist, but Portuguese-language, seminaries in Brazil are also cited.

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But aside from these, many Latin evangelicals see only the separatist and conservative Bible institutes (many of these are tiny Pentecostal or fundamentalist schools) and liberal mainstream denominational schools. Theologian John Stam, who recently resigned from the SBL staff, sees a need for a good “third alternative,” somewhere between these conservative and liberal extremes. In his eyes, such a school would be “radical evangelical”—progressive in its approach to social issues, and evangelical in theology.

Whether SBL will assume a leading role remains a question mark. Conservative evangelicals right now are skeptical. (Latin Americans frequently use the term “evangelical” to describe any Protestant.) But many do feel something can be learned by studying events there, which highlight key trends in the developing Latin American theology. A central question is: Can the Latin church address crucial social issues—such as poverty and political unrest—and at the same time be biblically sound and evangelistically active?

Some missionaries and educators trace many of the school’s criticisms to North America evangelicals who do not really understand the Latin scene, and who air knee-jerk suspicions when something does not exactly fit their U.S.-formed concept of what a seminary should be and teach. Seminary officials frequently remind others that SBL is not a U.S.-owned or-operated school. It is owned and administered by an association of Latin American Christian leaders, and is responsible for its own financing and personnel.

Because many North Americans think the Latin America Mission in the U.S.A. somehow controls the seminary, LAM-USA officials have spent a lot of their time denying responsibility for what goes on there. While LAM-USA missionaries may serve on the school’s faculty, the seminary functions independently of the U.S.-based mission.

In 1971, the Latin America Mission was totally restructured and its many departments of ministry, including the seminary, became autonomous. Now, LAM-USA, LAM-Canada, and the seminary are among the some 25 separate entities that are members of the Community of Latin America Evangelical Ministries (CLAME).

Independence from U.S.-based controls meant development of programs and ideals not always in line with those with which U.S. missioners feel comfortable. In the case of SBL, U.S. missioners became increasingly unhappy with the school’s drift toward liberation theology. The seminary rumbled through some troubled times in the middle 1970s, with ideological conflicts and numerous faculty changes.

Developments to Watch in Today’s Latin Church

Several trends characterize today’s church in Latin America, according to CLAME general secretary and CHRISTIANITY TODAY correspondent Paul Pretiz of San José, Costa Rica:

• Continued growth of the charismatic movement, which has brought new vitality to the Roman Catholic church, and a crop of first-time Bible readers. Catholic charismatics often meet in house prayer groups, and, while many are rejected by the Catholic hierarchy, prefer keeping their Catholic identity rather than forming a Protestant one.

• Sprouting of the small, grassroots worship communities, or base communities, among Catholics. There are 150,000 to 200,000 of these (an estimated 100,000 in Brazil) in Latin America. The groups have grown spontaneously, without a linking network, and generally are composed of the poor, who are reading the Bible and seeing its social implications.

• Consolidation by the Catholic hierarchy, boosted by recent visits to Brazil and Mexico by the conservative Pope John Paul II. They are seeking to reaffirm traditional doctrine and bring offshoot groups “back into the fold.”

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• New ecumenicity among Protestants. Certain key Latin evangelicals are establishing a continent-wide fraternal body, CONELA (Consultation of Evangelicals in Latin America). They see their group as the conservatives’ alternative to the fledgling Latin American Council of Churches (CLAI) with its World Council of Churches ties. This group formed out of a meeting of 40 Latin Americans attending the 1980 Consultation on World Evangelization in Thailand. Executive secretary Marcelino Ortiz cited CONELA goals, including a transdenominational meeting in early 1982, an information network, and pastors’ retreats.

• Development by local congregations of new worship models that are non-Western, and fitted to the Latin context. Experiments in evangelistic programs and theological education by extension also characterize many Protestant groups.

Concerns refocused when LAM-USA decided 18 months ago no longer to endorse the seminary publicly. LAM-USA board initiated a year-long study in February 1979 to determine what should be the mission’s continuing relationship with SBL.

In the report, issued a year later, LAM-USA noted its freedom to declare any of its theological or ideological differences of conviction or emphasis with the seminary. The mission also said it would continue sponsoring missionaries on the faculty. Finally, LAM-USA declared it “may also choose not to promote the SBL and to exercise its own criteria as it continues to engage in the communication of Latin American realities.”

The mission communicated this report to certain key supporters and, as it has worked out in practice, said LAM-USA spokesman John Rasmussen, “we are no longer endorsing the seminary.” The mission no longer endorses the SBL in its publications, or raises funds for the school.

Another recent development involves the Association of Costa Rican Bible Churches, which is composed mostly of congregations started by LAM missionaries. The association is starting its own Bible school in order to provide an alternative for the majority of the association’s 56 churches who do not support the seminary, said association administrator and LAM-USA missionary Bill Brown.

Also, the resignation of Professor Stam shocked many observers, because Stam had identified so closely with the seminary’s push for a theological slant that more closely identified with the Latin American context.

Stam, a professor at the school for 24 years, emphasized in an interview that his resignation was not meant as a statement against the seminary’s theological stance. Rather, he wanted to devote more time to grassroots pastoral work in Costa Rica and Nicaragua, as well as teach religion at the National University in Heredia, Costa Rica.

However, he did admit his resignation was intended as an “alarm clock” for those who would allow the seminary to drift farther from its evangelical moorings.

He also noted questions about lifestyle, such as standards now allowing students at the seminary to smoke, even though many conservative Latin churches would never accept a pastor who smoked and feel this would be the “kiss of death” to a student’s ministry. Stam’s resignation is one of at least five by faculty members who left during the past year for a variety of reasons.

Richard Foulkes, who heads the seminary’s department of Bible and Christian thought, and his wife, Irene, Greek professor and director of the theological education “at a distance” program, are the last LAM-USA missionaries on contract with the seminary. LAM-USA associate Thomas Hanks teaches Old Testament there apart from his duties with a student ministry, but without a contract. He resigned from the faculty six years ago in disgust over a cutback in Bible courses, but stayed on, while working to strengthen and add to those that are offered. Mennonites Laverne and Harriett Rusch-man are the only other North Americans on a full-time staff of 14.

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Richard Foulkes and Hanks, while they agree certain evangelical doctrines have been neglected at SBL, presently intend to stay at the seminary and see it through its crisis period. They praise the school’s efforts to relate to crucial social issues in Latin America. They would not agree with all the views of certain liberation theologians on the faculty, but affirm the professors are evangelicals.

One professor who left, Kenneth Mulholland, cautions North Americans against judging the school through their own filters. “This isn’t the old modernist controversy like we had in the U.S.,” he said.

Mulholland, who left SBL last August for Columbia (South Carolina) Graduate School of Bible and Missions, believes all staff members affirm “classical, evangelical theology,” and would not quarrel with such key doctrines as the Virgin Birth. In fact, SBL in 1974 approved a conservative faith statement, “Affirmation of Faith and Commitment,” for its faculty. But what sets certain Latin scholars apart from others, Mulholland says, is their areas of emphasis.

At the seminary right now, the main emphasis is social ethics, Mulholland believes. Problems come if an emphasis like this distorts biblical doctrines, such as the nature of man, he said.

Liberation theologians with a Marxist slant “view man as inherently good, and corrupted by social structures, while Christians view man as fallen, and with evil proceeding from the inside out. Structures only magnify that evil,” he noted.

He believes the seminary could “turn itself around” with renewed commitment to evangelism and the local church. “If those concerns came pressing in, with the school’s biblical evangelical heritage, it could regain the balance it has lost.”

Questions about SBL always gravitate back to the so-called liberation theology, since this is the subject on which many believe it has gone off the deep end.

Liberation theology works generally from identification with the poor, oppressed, and alleged victims of exploitative societies. Because the term means different things to different people, a better term is said to be “theologies of liberation.” Latin theologians often call it Latin American theology, calling it the first attempt since the early church to develop a systematic theology outside the European context.

Evangelicals rebut those liberation theologians who view Christ as a political messiah, and who use Marxist thought as the starting point for their ideology. Most cite as redeeming factors its emphasis on faith practice, and its push to better the plight of the poor.Protestant treatments of liberation theology are found in: J. Andrew Kirk’s Liberation Theology: An Evangelical View from the Third World (John Knox, 1980); Orlando Costas’s The Church and Its Mission: A Shattering Critique from Ihe Third World (Tyndale, 1975); Carl E. Annerding’s Evangelicals and Liberation (Baker, 1977); Robert McAfee Brown’s Theology in a New Key: Responding to Liberation Theologies (Westminster Press, 1978); chapters from Tensions in Contemporary Theology, edited by Stanley Gundry and Alan F. Johnson (Moody Press. 1979); and the W. Dayton Roberts article in ct. Oct. 19. 1979. “Where Has Liberation Theology Gone Wrong?”

Seminary professor Hanks, for instance, believes the emphasis on the poor is a key issue that North American evangelicals are ignoring. He says North Americans generally blame poverty on “underdevelopment,” or a person’s laziness or lack of education. However, he cites more than 120 biblical texts naming “oppression” as the cause of poverty. The church’s responsibility is locating those sources of oppression, and then denouncing them in the mode of the biblical prophets, he believes.

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The central complaint against SBL has been its alleged overemphasis on the left-wing political aspects of liberation theology, and a weak and flawed theological perspective on the subject.

George Taylor, who left the seminary last December to accept a teaching post at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary near Chicago, says the seminary is right in teaching liberation theology. Such teaching is needed in the Third World because of its “identification with the poor,” he said. However, Taylor, a Panamanian who taught for 18 years at the seminary and was its interim president in 1974–75, adds that “maybe I was not in agreement with its heavy emphasis on politics.” He believes poverty must be addressed in the political arena, as well as the theological, but that the seminary now gives greater emphasis to the political aspect.

Former seminary president Bonilla criticized the trends of the seminary more blatantly. Bonilla, a native of the Canary Islands who resigned last year from the faculty but is teaching a preaching course there without a contract, says the faculty and students are wrapped up in “political sloganism.” The theological course work has been diluted so much that the school lacks academic respectability, he asserts.

Bonilla adds: “It seems to me that justification by faith is no longer one of the main themes at the seminary. I’m not saying the faculty don’t believe it, but they take for granted the theology and ignore it. The courses in theology are very weak.”

Foulkes sees his continued role at the seminary as “keeping the biblical content high.” He laments the loss of Stam, a skilled New Testament theologian, but he is optimistic about the skills of new faculty members brought in to fill recent vacancies. He relies on Hanks to provide expertise in the Old Testament courses. Hanks complains of a “brain drain” of Latin American scholars; some of the most talented Latin theologians accept teaching posts in the States, such as Taylor, and Orlando Costas (whose resignation from the seminary in the middle 1970s over the liberal drift created tensions that some seminary sources say are still felt).

Hanks and Foulkes both agree the seminary should attune students to the political realities of Latin America. Hanks did note problems can result if impressionable students get a one-sided view in the process. He describes a hypothetical SBL student as one who may be a new Christian and “may have read the Book of John and not much else.” The student may attend one class under an outspoken liberation theologian at SBL, and also classes at the University of Costa Rica (as many SBL students do) under a Marxist professor. With no counterbalancing explanations, before long the student “doesn’t know where he’s at,” Hanks notes.

SBL president Alvarez, from Puerto Rico and the Disciples of Christ, says, “We want to help students understand what is going on in their own countries,” adding that the seminary can’t tell anyone what to believe.

Alvarez, 33, a doctoral candidate in church history who has done graduate study in the U.S., criticizes North American Christians as “playing the church business and not taking seriously what it means to proclaim the kingdom.”

People close to the seminary cite the election of a successor to Alvarez—whose three-year term expires in November—as crucial to the seminary’s future, and are hoping for a conservative evangelical. Former president Bonilla said he was asked to seek the post but turned it down because the seminary faculty “don’t show a willingness to change.”

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The seven-member commission’s report may provide direction to the seminary’s board. The team—not all members being conservative evangelicals by North American definition—has divided the work, each member focusing on a certain aspect of SBL. Besides Arrastia and Rosell, team members include Thomas Liggett, president of Christian Theological Seminary (Disciples of Christ) in Indianapolis; SBL alumni Julia Esquivel of Guatemala and Rodrigo Zapata of Ecuador (with HCJB in Quito); Aníbal Guzmán, a Bolivian Methodist; and Francis Ringer, of Lancaster (Pa.) Theological Seminary (United Church of Christ).

When the team reports back to the SBL board with its full report in late June, commission head Arrastia hopes the results will be given a good hearing. The idea was that the report be used for SBL’s long-range planning through the next 10 to 15 years.

Hanging in the balance, he says, is whether SBL “stays an evangelical seminary, or takes the full route of liberation theology.”

Guatemalan Pastors: Between A Rock And A Hard Place

The Guatemalan pastors interviewed by CHRISTIANITY TODAY asked that their names be withheld for their personal safety.

“We are trapped between right-wing and left-wing terrorists,” reported Guatemalan pastors recently. “Please ask Christians all over the world to pray for Guatemala, and for the believers here.”

Violence has stained this emerald green Central American republic many times in its 160-year history. But rarely did the violence become as savage and sustained as it has during the current right-left battle for domination. Up to 25 violent deaths are reported daily in the national press, and many citizens believe the toll may be greater.

Leaders of the Guatemalan evangelical church have tried to maintain a neutral position in the current political shooting match. But neither side seems content with the evangelicals’ neutrality.

“First the leftist guerrillas come and want us to give them food and information, or they ask to use our church buildings for political meetings,” said one pastor. “If we refuse, they accuse us of supporting the right-wing terrorists. Then the rightists come and ask us for information or want us to preach against the leftists. If we don’t cooperate with them, they accuse us of defending the leftist guerrillas.”

When a church leader does give in to the pressures, he is immediately marked by the other side for harassment, threatening letters and phone calls, or death. One informed source reported that three lay pastors were killed in Huehuetenango in late January. The same source also said that up to 10 local church leaders died violently during the first two months of 1981. Specific figures are hard to secure because some deaths have occurred in isolated indigenous areas, and local people are afraid to report the deaths because of possible reprisals.

A climate of violent revenge has moved into some sections of the country and is a factor in many killings. An assassin will eliminate a client’s personal enemy for as little as $50. Some pastors have received anonymous threatening letters, presumably from disgruntled church members, which alarm them and their families.

In other cases, right or left elements engage in “cleaning the record” operations. If any citizen has in the past belonged to or participated in political movements of either stripe, his adversaries may eliminate him for past actions, no matter what his current political attitude may be. Scores of Guatemalans have been shot in such “cleaning” operations. Church leaders who learn that their names are on a cleaning list will often leave the country hastily.

Rightist officials are attempting to bring evangelicals into government programs to reunite Guatemala’s people. There is, however, the fear that joining such a program may create a leftist backlash against the evangelical church.

Meanwhile, and in spite of the tension, churches are full. One pastor related, “We are seeing a harvest of conversions. The situation has awakened interest in the gospel, and people are coming to Christ.”

“Christ is the only solution for Guatemala,” he went on. “As people repent of their hate and fear, and are reconciled by the Lord, they become new creatures.”

Evangelist Luis Palau carried out a nationwide mass media crusade in Guatemala during April, using radio, television, newspapers, and thousands of specially prepared booklets.

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