Evangelicals in Latin America have often been told that they have no tradition—that evangelicalism is a faith for missionaries and outsiders.”
That’s how Daniel Salinas, a historical theologian from Colombia, describes the challenge facing many churches in the countries of Central and South America.
Protestant faiths, including evangelicalism, were latecomers to the region compared to the Catholic Church, whose influence in Latin America extends back to the Spanish conquest in the 16th century. The Spanish government was able keep the borders of Latin America closed to other religious influences—such as the Protestant Reformation that swept Europe—until the mid-19th century, when colonial governments broke free of Spanish rule.
The result of that centuries-long deadlock has been an uneven playing ground for Protestant evangelical ministries—especially those focused on theological training. That concerns Salinas, a former youth minister born in Bogota, Colombia, who most recently has been working as an international coordinator of partnerships at United World Mission in North Carolina. There are trained theologians in the region writing in a Latin American context, but they are not widely known or studied.
“As far as I know, the history of Latin American theology is taught only by one seminary in Chile—not anywhere else in Latin America,” Salinas says. “Until our pastors are trained in this area, the evangelical church in Latin America will continue to function like a church without roots.”
Growing an Indigenous Perspective
After graduating from the University of Colombia in Bogata, Salinas began working in campus ministry, expecting to change careers a year or so later. Instead he was led to continue working in ministry, and he earned his Ph.D. in historical theology from Trinity International University. His work has taken him to Colombia, Uruguay, Bolivia, and Paraguay.
During his 30-plus years in ministry, Salinas became a passionate advocate for teaching the history of theology in a Latin American context. He wrote the history of theology text, Taking Up the Mantle: Latin American Evangelical Theology in the 20th Century, that was published recently in English. A Spanish edition is forthcoming. The subject is not widely taught, mostly due to the lack of Spanish-language resources.
When the door to non-Catholic religion opened up in the post-colonial era, some Christian intellectuals wanted to examine their faith through a Latin American lens, but they had to compete with imported theologies. “Missionaries came with theologies that did not encourage indigenous development,” Salinas explains. As a result, missionaries and their message tend to be viewed with suspicion.
“We’ve fielded many accusations that evangelical Protestants are instruments to subdue the masses, so that northern countries can do what they want here,” Salinas says. “We are a church that is detached from its history. But all the time, evangelical Christians have been thinking about how to apply the Bible and theology to Latin American contexts.”
When Salinas asks seminary students about the history of their church denominations, most of them don’t have any idea. “Some evangelical pastors are surprised to learn that there are Latin American theologians,” he says. “Most seminaries still teach theology with books translated from European or American scholars. It’s important to know how various denominations started and how they have changed and grown here. It’s essential to teach our own theologies.”
From Liberation to Prosperity
Two movements have dominated Latin American theology over the past 50 years—liberation theology and the prosperity gospel. Liberation theology developed in the Catholic Church during the 1960s in response to societal problems—military dictatorships, repression, corruption, and collusion between church and government. The main question driving liberation theology, Salinas says, was “How can we live and teach the gospel in the context of poverty and political repression?” The answer was found primarily in the exodus narrative and in the Gospels.
“In those days of the Cold War, with socialism against capitalism, the Catholic priests saw hunger and need among their people, and they saw a church that was allied with the political powers and not doing anything for their people,” he explains. “Liberation theology was a popular movement that reacted to this extreme situation, drawing from parts of the Bible that talk about God being a liberator and defender.”
Liberation theology “turned hermeneutics on its head,” Salinas says. “Traditionally, the approach to Scripture is to go to the Bible, find what it says, and apply it to reality. Instead, liberation theologians said, ‘The reality we live in gives us the questions, and we look for their answers in the Bible.’ ”
Although liberation theology never gained traction in the United States, the movement changed theology in Latin America forever. Evangelicals who disagreed with its methodology and teachings responded by starting groups like the Latin American Theological Fellowship.
Following on the heels of liberation theology, the prosperity gospel movement was primarily a reaction to extreme poverty. According to Salinas, more than 60 percent of the population lives in poverty in most countries of Latin America, and the disparity between classes is wide. “In an impoverished society, anyone who comes with promises of a better, wealthier life will have an appeal. These people wrap that message in the Bible and Christian language.”
Salinas believes the evangelical church can combat the false theology of the prosperity gospel most effectively by taking action to solve social problems. “The church has been doing social work since it was founded in Latin America, but the needs are so big that there’s more to do,” he says. “The church needs to be a positive influence—sharing the true gospel while working to help the poor, so that the false promises of the prosperity gospel won’t have the same appeal.”
Signs of Change
Amid the challenges, Salinas sees encouraging trends in the churches and seminaries he works with. “In some countries, evangelical Protestants are still a small population—less than 1 percent in Uruguay— but in other countries, their influence is growing,” he says. “After years of being told by missionaries to keep out of politics, people are starting to get involved. While there may be a few bad examples, I have seen good evangelicals doing political work in the different countries.”
Salinas is hopeful that younger generations will see more people living their faith in a variety of vocations. “Before, the idea was that only pastors and missionaries could be effective in the faith. If you were not working in full-time ministry, you were considered a second-class Christian,” he says.
Now, as the concept of missional living gains acceptance, Salinas wants to meet the need for more well-trained educators. He believes that knowledge about Latin America’s theological history will help its believers recognize the relevance of their faith today.
“More and more lay people are getting theological training. They want to grow in their faith and live as better Christians,” he says. “I see people who consider their profession as an opportunity for mission, and that’s a great thing.”