by Jim Reapsome
Because of his extensive studies in missions, his many years of teaching, and his keen interest in current affairs in both missions and education, Wilbert Norton’s insights are pertinent to missionaries at all levels of action.
H.Wilbert Norton, executive director of the Committee to Assist Ministry Education Overseas (CAMEO), Wheaton, III., went to Belgian Congo (Zaire) in 1940 as an Evangelical Free Church missionary. He and his wife Colene returned for health reasons in 1949. Wilbert taught missions and church history at Trinity College and Seminary in Chicago from 1950 to 1964. He became dean in 1955 and president in 1957. He was appointed dean of the graduate school at Wheaton College in 1964.
When he retired in 1980, Wilbert began his second stint in Africa as principal of the seminary of the Evangelical Churches of West Africa at Jos, Nigeria, and helped in the transition to full Nigerian leadership. He returned to Wheaton last year to take up his duties at CAMEO, where this interview with the editor was held.
Because of his extensive studies in missions (A.B. and M.A. Wheaton, Th.M. Columbia Bible College, Th.D. Northern Baptist Seminary), his many years of teaching, and his keen interest in current affairs in both missions and education, Wilbert Norton’s insights are pertinent to missionaries at all levels of action.
Dr. Norton, you first went to Africa as a missionary in 1940. What was the missionary’s role then?
Norton: The church was embryonic in those days and missionaries were like spiritual obstetricians. They were more impressed with their own work than with the development of the church. They went out to start an indigenous church (the indigenous church was the in expression in those days), but they stayed on and the church never became indigenous. Just like today, there’s a lot of lip service given to church planting. They were thinking of the church in a nebulous way, but they did not have a strategy.
When did you begin to see a change toward more church oriented thinking?
Norton: During World War II. We had to tell the church leaders that the war was on and it was impossible to get any more money. They would now have to live on what the church provided.
What was the main roadblock in those days that kept the mission agencies from putting some confidence and trust in the churches?
Norton: Whenever the question of the indigenous church came up, the standard reply was, "Well, the church isn’t ready yet, it isn’t mature enough." However, the handwriting was on the wall. Mission leaders were anticipating changes, but they had no way of knowing how drastic they would be. When we came home on furlough in 1949, the theme song then in the Belgian Congo (Zaire), was that we had ten more years.
Did the worst fears of the missionaries materialize? That is, of those who said, "They’re not ready, they’re not mature enough."
Norton: It depends on who is evaluating the situation. For me, there was nothing to fear. We have not trusted the Holy Spirit to do his work in the life of the church. We say that we trust the Word of God for everything, but we don’t channel the dynamics of the Word in our lives. Unwittingly, too often missionaries have been in charge of the churches. Therefore, from this perspective, there were problems and there still are problems in some areas. On the other hand, I have seen some very blessed and dynamic results.
Is the last thing we’ve gotten around to giving the African churches an adequate graduate level theological education?
Norton: We’ve given them the slice of the meat that we have, but our diets are different. I don’t know if they’ve been able to digest what we’ve given them. We have provided excellent Western academic experiences for them.
By "Western" you mean we’ve brought them over here?
Norton: Yes. Of course, there is no Eastern theological teaching, so it has to be Western. I was greatly blessed by reading the report of the Third World Theologians Consultation in Korea in the summer of 1982. They said that Western theology is rationalistic. Our American theologians protest that, but it’s the truth. It isn’t that our theology is non-rational or irrational. But more than we realize, we’ve carried over the Greek categories and the Thomistic thrust.
If rational Western theology does not fit the African context, what would?
Norton: There is no other model. But the Holy Spirit is able to lead these people into understanding the Scripture in their situation, their context, and their lives. They need not follow the same model that we do in the West. All too often we feel that if they don’t dot their I’s and cross their t’s the way we do, their theology is not valid. We have to trust the Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of truth, to make truth significant to Africans.
How are the theologians in your seminary at Jos, Nigeria, trying to do what you just described?
Norton: They put a greater stress on biblical theology, hermeneutics, and exegesis, as being more important than systematic theology. These are Nigerians with earned doctorates. They have had theological training in Africa and graduate study in theology and biblical studies in the United States. Two of them have their earned doctorates from American universities, one in the administration of higher education and the other in social ethics. They set the curriculum. They are trying not to mimic any program in America. At the same time, they know that you can’t cross a river without some kind of bridge. They are identifying to a degree, but they are not using any American seminaries as a model. One of their features is their emphasis on cross-cultural communications, even among themselves because of tribal differences.
Isn’t it true, however, that if you don’t set up a good Western-type seminary in Nigeria, the students will go to the West?
Norton: Yes, for them it’s the degree. They will take anything; they are not perceptive in knowing what they need. There is a very unique academic cross-cultural dilemma that must be faced.
How are the two seminaries of the Evangelical Churches of West Africa in Nigeria solving this dilemma? Are they educating the students left over after the cream goes to the United States?
Norton: At our seminary in Jos we skim applicants two or three times. We have more than we can handle. If we were to accept all those who qualify academically, we could have 300 to 400 students, instead of 83.
What kind of degree do you give?
Norton: Ours is a baccalaureate degree. They don’t want to set up an advanced degree seminary without having the Bachelor of Arts program in religion or theology. At the moment, it’s a four-year university program. There is also a three-year program for those who don’t qualify. It isn’t that their intelligence is lacking, but in order to get a degree you must have all those West African examination credentials behind you, and some of them just don’t have them. After the first baccalaureate degrees have been issued, then provided all things are satisfactory in faculty and facilities, they would like to have a graduate program.
Where do most of your graduates go?
Norton: Some of them will be expected to go back to the churches they left when they came to seminary. They are not just kids out of high school.
What kinds of backgrounds do they have?
Norton: They come from all over Nigeria. Many of them are from the bush, I mean primitive. Some are second generation believers and some have fought their way through to faith and are standing alone. Some come out of Muslim homes.
How do you screen the applicants?
Norton: Those who pass the entrance examination are invited for a personal interview. Nigerians sit in judgment of Nigerians. They ask questions like, "Why do you want to come to seminary?" "Why did you leave your work?" "What are you going to do when you get out?" They pin them to the wall. It’s an inspiration to see what God is doing in the lives of these young people.
What about their intellectual capabilities and their academic needs and interests?
Norton: They have had no liberal arts background, but none of them are inferior intellectually. They are superb. We do have to take into consideration the kind of background they have had.
How do you compare the American students you have taught with your Nigerian students?
Norton: A lot depends on the individual student, of course. But those who have more recently become Christians are reaching out in all directions. In the States, we get into theological and doctrinal skirmishes that sap our academic and scholarly energies and dissipate our witnessing dynamics. Instead of speaking to universal issues, we’re speaking to whatever gives us our "distinctive," whereas the biblical distinctive is the witness of Jesus Christ. The Nigerians are more sensitive to that.
How do they maintain their zeal for witnessing after they get to seminary?
Norton: Part of it relates to the faculty and the philosophy of the school. The administration is dedicated to this. But let’s face it, seminaries in America are dedicated to competing with one another to see who can get the students and the money.
How do you assess theological education in Africa? Are we gaining momentum for quality theological education across Africa?
Norton: The answer is yes and no. The yes part is our sensitivity to the need. The no part is our isolationism, our independence, and our failure to know the realities of the church. As a result of these things, theological training in Africa is a disaster. You must think through the reasons for having a seminary. The reason I accepted the invitation from the Evangelical Churches of West Africa, is that they told me they had evaluated the situation and concluded that they needed a second seminary. The church was wrestling with the need.
Do your graduates have any problems fitting back into the local lifestyle after they get their degrees?
Norton: The culture demands that if you have a degree, you’ve got to show it in your lifestyle. If you have a Reverend in front of your name, and you don’t drive a Pugeot 504, who is going to respect you? I know a pastor who turned down a certain church because they wouldn’t give him a new refrigerator. We have to come down very hard on this kind of thing, because materialism is there.
Should we be upbeat about the growth of the church in Africa?
Norton: The church is growing. When it comes to evangelism, the church is on fire. The Spirit of God is doing something, but we would see even more if we would just allow the church to be the church.
Is there any role for the missionary in the future in Africa?
Norton: Yes. The leaders of the Evangelical Churches of West Africa say, "Look, we want you people." They are very positive in their appreciation, and they aren’t just being diplomatic. The growth of the church is so great, and there are so many expenses, that we in the West ought to be seconding people to the church. We ought to get some of our more successful pastors over there, so they can be exposed to what’s been happening. The opportunities are there, but it seems as though people in American churches are so busy with their local programs that they don’t have time to learn about these needs and opportunities.
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