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Western Assistance in Theological Training for Romanian Evangelicals Since 1989
Editor’s Note: The first part of this article was published in the previous issue of the East-West Church & Ministry Report 14 (Summer 2006), 1-3.
On 17 December 1989 I received a phone call from a friend in Timisoara, Romania. Innis panic, he uttered just a few words: “They are shooting here. Please pray for us.” It was the beginning of the revolution in Romania that the whole world watched on TV. After the fall of Communism, most Evangelicals in Romania believed that everything was going to change overnight. Thetis why the suggestion that Romania might need 20 years to understand democracy raised vehement objections. Yet, now, 16-plus years after the fact, Romania does not appear to be much closer to the goal. Conditioned by 45years of Communist propaganda, Romanians –Evangelicals included – appear to be virtually incapable of coping with the demands of modern, pluralist democracy. Maybe the proverbial “40 years in the desert” will be necessary before Romania will be able to return to normality.
For many years during the Communist era, radical Evangelical leaders had demanded greater liberties for their own communities. Yet, when freedom came after 1989, Evangelicals proved totally unprepared for it. And to this day Evangelical ventures into the media, education, and politics, are for the most part amateurish. Sometime before 1989, Baptist pastor Josef Tson published The True Faith, which contended that when freedom comes, Evangelicalism would compete freely with Orthodoxy and (obviously) would prevail. Many expected to see at least one million converts to Evangelical Christianity in a few years. Yet, in spite of the remarkable resurgence of interest in religion in post-Communist Romania, only relatively small number joined Evangelical ranks: about 145,000, or an increase of 38percent, between 1992 and 2002. (For more details, see www.oci.ro.) Pentecostals registered the largest growth, with an increase of closeto50 percent. Today they represent about one percent of the entire population, while other
Evangelicals amount to another one percent. And two percent is quite far from the overly optimistic expectations in 1989.
Ghosts of the Past
Soon after 1989, a Romanian author observed that although Communism was dead politically, the Communist mindset was alive and well in Romania: “Although we had killed the dictator, a little Ceausescu was still alive in every one of us.” After the fall of Communism, all churches suffered from an authoritarian style of leadership. Romanian Evangelicals, in addition, suffered from denominational fragmentation and a lack of clear vision for the future. This has made it impossible to have any significant impact on Romanian society as awhile.
Missionaries: A Hindrance and a Help
In 1995 Wheaton College, near Chicago, Illinois, launched an informal East European summer school (http://www.wheatongrad.com/?p=183). Through this program 20 Romanian and over 80 other East European Evangelical theologians and church leaders received the opportunity to engage in study and research for six weeks in the school’s libraries under the supervision of a Wheaton lecturer. In the summer of 1996 ten East European theologians and heads of theological schools gathered at Wheaton, including this author.
We all were grateful for the opportunity to have access to the rich theological resources we had at our disposal. Yet, a recurring theme of our conversations centered on discontentment with the way most Western missionary agencies handled their relationships with nationals in our part of the world after the fall of Communism. Issues prominent in our discussions included the following:
1. Many Western missions were building their own missionary empires as if no indigenous churches existed in former Communist countries.
2. Very few missionaries manifested cultural sensitivity.
3. Often, Western missionaries proved to be completely ignorant of Eastern Orthodoxy, often associating it with paganism.
4. Western missionaries, often seconded by nationals, resorted to blatant proselytism, using material and other incentives to attract people to Evangelicalism.
5. Missionaries tried more than once to impose on Romanians Western theological disputes that were irrelevant in the East European context.
6. Missionaries created dependence on the West in most of the ministries they initiated. This does not mean, however, that everything Western missionaries did in Romania was wrong. Just a few of their positive contributions may be noted.
1. Western missionaries helped alleviate the suffering of children in orphanages.
2. They offered Romanians good examples of social involvement in many areas of need.
3. Westerners provided expertise and financial support for local publishing initiatives.
4. Western churches provided financial support for local pastors and missionaries.
5. Western missionaries encouraged national Christians to take an active part in world missions.
6. Westerners supported the creation of Christian educational institutions.
7. Christians in the West contributed to the formation of a new generation of Evangelical theologians in Romania.
For these and many other such contributions, Christians in Eastern Europe are sincerely grateful to churches in the West. With the above description of the post-Communist Evangelical context in Romania, it will be easier to evaluate the impact of Western theological assistance.
Theological Training in the West
The limited possibilities of local theological institutions made it impossible for Evangelical churches to meet the new challenges of freedom without sending some of their people to receive theological training in the West. After almost four years of distance learning, 20of the 42 Romanian students in the London Bible College program completed B.A. or M.A. degrees in England at this institution, now the London School of Theology (www.lst.ac.uk. For background see the first half of the article published in the East-West Church & Ministries Report 14 (Summer 2006), 1-3. They then returned to Romania to continue their ministries. Later, ten of the London graduates obtained Ph.D. degrees in various fields of biblical and theological studies. They returned home to teach theology in existing schools.
Unfortunately, for reasons that will be explained later, only four of the ten currently are teaching in Romania. The Langham Scholars Program (http://www.langhampartnership.org/), founded by Evangelical theologian John Stott, also played an important role in the formation of a new generation of Romanian Evangelical theologians. Out of the 12 Romanian Langham Scholars who studied in the West, six obtained doctorates in theology. However, once again, only two of these theologians are still involved in theological education in Romania.
The two British programs discussed above proved to be highly successful. Most of the Romanians involved were mature Christians who already had a proven ministry in their homeland. That may explain why they returned to Romania after receiving their degrees, in order to contribute to the formation of a new generation of leaders for the Evangelical churches in their homeland. The same happened with most Romanian Evangelicals who studied theology in the United Kingdom through other programs.
A very different project in this field was initiated, again, by Josef Tson. In the early1990s, about 100 Romanians, generally in their early 20s or younger, received scholarships to pursue undergraduate degrees in the U.S. at several Evangelical institutions. In spite of its commendable intentions, the purpose of this program, to train future Evangelical leaders for Romania, did not succeed. When these mostly immature Christians went to study in the richest country in the world, they were exposed to great temptations. It is not surprising that most of them found various reasons to stay in the West. Only a fraction of those who studied in the U.S. ever returned to Romania, and even fewer of them are really making an impact for
Christ in their homeland.
Finally, other Evangelicals studied theology in the U.S., with the initial intention of returning to Romania after receiving their degrees. To date, at least 16 of these have completed doctoral degrees. Unfortunately, only two of these are still teaching theology in Romania. Unattractive circumstances in some Romanian theological schools (yet to be described), the pastoral needs of Romanian churches in the West, or simply the more comfortable life in America, led most to stay in the West. In summary, approximately 40Romanian Evangelicals have received doctoral degrees in theology in the West since 1989, but only about 12 of them are still teaching theology in Romania today.
Formal Theological Education in Romania
To begin with, it is important to know that Romanian educational legislation does not allow non-denominational or interdenominational theological institutions. As a result, denominational schools represent the only official option available for Evangelicals in Romania.
The Baptist Seminary in Bucharest, now the Baptist Theological Institute (www.itb.ro), led by Dr. Vasile Talpos, received a new impetus after the fall of Communism. Of the new lecturers, some were trained at the London School of Theology, while others received their degrees at Regents Park College, Oxford. This accredited school, that trains about 50 students a year, traditionally cooperated with the whole spectrum of Baptist communities around the world. In spite of some progress in strengthening the academic life of the seminary, it continues to struggle with an insufficient number of qualified faculty, a poor theological library, and an unimaginative style of leadership. Nevertheless, it continues to be the main provider of pastors for Romanian Baptist churches.
The Baptist Theological Faculty at Bucharest University (http://www.unibuc.ro/en/fac_ftb_en), under Dean Dr. Otniel Bunaciu, is the only Baptist faculty in a state university in Europe. Launched in 1991, it instructs 220students seeking a B.A. degree, 30 students in an M.A. program, and 14 doctoral students.
In the early 1990s, Josef Tson returned to Romania from the United States and, together with Paul Negrut and a few others, decided to create a Baptist university in Oradea, Romania. The goal was to enroll about 1,000 students. Emmanuel Bible Institute, which opened in fall1990, focused primarily on pastoral training. During the first years, under the leadership of Tson, the faculty included highly respected lecturers including Radu Gheorghita, now at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Kansas City, Missouri, and Emil Bartos, now Assistant Professor at the Baptist Faculty in Bucharest University. Also, Western faculty teaching on a regular basis included Dr. John Wilkes in Old Testament from London School of Theology, and Dr. Robert Yarbrough in New Testament from Trinity University, Deerfield, Illinois.
During the academic year 1993-1994, Paul Negrut and 16 other Romanians were studying at London School of Theology. Our hope was that, upon returning home, we would be able to build one of the strongest Evangelical schools in Europe. In 1994, some of us did return to Romania to teach at Emmanuel in Oradea, where Dr. Paul Negrut became principal. During the next two years, the academic standards of the institute attained a level unprecedented in Evangelical theological studies in Romania: Emmanuel hosted quality theological conferences, engaged in significant publishing, and prepared students for graduate study in prestigious schools in England and Scotland. The school began to attract stronger students and, for a few years, enjoyed an exceptional academic and spiritual reputation. Circumstances, however, began to change in
1996. At that time, Emmanuel already was oversized compared to both the needs and the financial resources of the Evangelical community in Romania. The leadership of the school, in its desperate search for funding, decided to designate the U.S. Southern Baptist Convention as its preferred partner.
This decision progressively affected the direction of the school. First, Dr. Josef Tson was asked to leave. Later, under duress, all the faculty with degrees from London School of Theology (with one exception, the principal himself) and Trinity University, Deerfield, Illinois, were forced to leave. As a result, classroom rigor and research gradually declined. The school, now Emmanuel University (www.emanuel.ro), presently has two faculties (theology and management) with over300 students. Academically, sad to say, it is only a shadow of what it had been in 1996.
The Pentecostal Seminary, now Pentecostal Theological Institute (www.itp.uv.ro), is the leading theological school of traditional Pentecostals in Romania. Presently, it has over150 students. After many struggles, the school, under the leadership of Dr. John Tipei, secured the number of qualified faculty necessary for accreditation. A number of Baptist and Adventist lecturers helped in this process. In addition, a number of lecturers from Pentecostal seminaries in the West now teach at the school on a regular basis.
The U.S.-based Assemblies of God established its own denomination in Romanian 1996, while continuing to cooperate with the traditional Pentecostal Union. This denomination founded its own theological school, the Biblical University in Romania(http://www.ubr.ro/), under the leadership of Rev. Ioan Ceuta. The school has not yet received official accreditation. Other Pentecostal theological schools in Romania include: a seminary in Arad, led by Rev. Rivis Tipei, president of the Pentecostal Union, which will soon be closed; Timisoara Bible School, functioning on the premises of Elim Pentecostal Church; Constanta Bible School % opened in1998 under leadership of Rev. Ghita Ritisan; and Eastern European Bible College in Oradea(http://www.cbee.ro).
These Pentecostal schools generally are struggling academically, primarily due to traditional Pentecostal distrust of theological studies. Thus, according to Rick Cunningham, head of the Eastern European Educational Office of the Assemblies of God, the school in Timisoara should be just a school of missions, rather than a theological institution. He also insists that it remain strictly a Pentecostal school, rather than following the more inclusive model established by Dr. Peter Kuzmic at Evangelical Faculty of Theology in Osijek, Croatia, with which the school is loosely associated.
Brethren churches – officially Christians According to the Gospel – do not ordain pastors. Nevertheless, in order to meet the need for trained lay ministers, the denomination created Timotheus Theological Institute(http://www.itt.ywam.ro/). With the assistance of Wiedenest Bible College in Germany(http://www.wiedenest.de/), this unaccredited program enrolls 25 students yearly. Another unaccredited, independent Brethren school, Brethren Center for Biblical Instruction was initiated in Iasi by missionary Karl Kosobuky, a graduate of Western Baptist Conservative Seminary in the U.S. It averages 50 students per year, mostly young people from Brethren churches in eastern Romania. Both Romanian and foreign faculty teach its four-year curriculum.
The most important problem confronting Evangelical theological education in Romania is its heavy dependence - financial and otherwise –on Western sponsors. These supporters from abroad often compel Romanian schools to follow a Western model for theological education. Western funders also stress theological agendas that have little relevance in the Romanian context. It is not surprising, then, that a genuinely Romanian Evangelical theology has yet to emerge.
The concluding portion of this article will be published in the next issue of the East-West Church &Ministry Report.
Danut Manastireanu, Director for Faith and Development for the Middle East and East European Region, World Vision International, lives in Iasi, Romania. He earned a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Brunel University (London School of Theology).