Monthly Archives: February 2016

The Turner School of African Theology

Regarding the study of African theology, Walls points out that African experiences “have produced a greater degree of theological development than has often been recognized.”[1] In particular African theologians have explored the themes of conversion and Christian identity, developing their own creative methodological approaches for the African context. Two important examples include Cyril Okorocha’s The Meaning of Religious Conversion in Africa and Kwame Bediako’s Theology and Identity, both of which grew out of PhD dissertations under Andrew Walls at the University of Aberdeen. Studies like these are a valuable source for intercultural theology because they give African perspectives on the kind of methodological approaches that are most appropriate for the study of African theology and highlight important methodological considerations. Both theologians stress the need for an explicitly theological approach; Okorocha underlines the importance of empirical research while Bediako emphasizes the need for historical theological perspectives for studying African theology. Interestingly, both draw heavily on Harold Turner’s article, “The Way Forward in the Religious Study of African Primal Religions.”[2]

Harold Turner on Methodology

Turner’s phenomenological approach in this article raises a number of important points. The first is that “the nature of the field of study must provide the major control over the methods employed.”[3] Therefore the study of religion requires wide variety of methods, from the physiology of religion on the one hand to the theology of religion on the other. Second, Turner argues that the religious dimension or sphere requires distinctively religious disciplines in order to avoid reductionism.[4] Consequently he urges the use of phenomenology and the history of religions. Third, he suggests that “there is a dialectical interaction between the various methods as well as a hierarchical arrangement among them. Thus, physiology of religion might come towards the bottom of the hierarchy and the phenomenology and history of religions towards the top, with theology perhaps as the crowning study.”[5] His choice of metaphor, however, raises the question the question of whether theology is merely icing on a phenomenology cake. Turner is positive about the possibility for intercultural studies of religion. He argues that “There is nothing new in the endeavor to study a religious tradition set within a culture quite different from one’s own; it is going on all the time and all over the world” and states that “men resemble one another more than their cultures do.” Importantly, Turner defends the appropriateness of explicitly theological approaches to African reality, but calls for the use of “the specialist contributions of phenomenology and history of religions” in order to achieve “interpretive depth.”[6]

Okorocha’s Phenomenological Approach

Following Turner, Cyril Okorocha[7] argues that African scholars need to work on combining disciplines in the right hierarchical order in their study of African religious experiences. In particular he insists that “the religious is a sui generis sphere of the human life” and that “to fail to take seriously the religious itself is to fall into a dangerous reductionism.”[8] He agrees with Turner’s hierarchy of methods with theology as “the crowning study,” followed by phenomenology and the history of religions, and social anthropological approaches. In his work, Okorocha takes a phenomenological approach involving empirical research, aiming to describe African religious experiences of conversion as they are,[9] but insists that “the encounter between Igbo religion and Christianity in Igboland, and the attendant questions surrounding conversion and religious behaviour of Igbo converts centre around deep-seated theological issues, not merely socio-cultural ones.”[10] Furthermore, he writes that the results of his study not only call for African theological reflection, “which must at once be Christocentric, biblical, and contextual,” but also for intercultural theological dialogue, “drawing from the rich experience of the Church Universal and making its unique contribution to the ongoing life of the Church.”[11]

Bediako’s Historical-Theological Approach

Kwame Bediako also follows Turner’s methodological lead, though not without some criticism. He wonders whether Turner’s call for the use of phenomenology and history of religions “might not be seen as yet another instance of the use of structures of Western thought applied to African religion,”[12] but approvingly cites Turner’s defence of the appropriateness of an explicitly theological approach.[13] He ultimately argues that “the choice must lie with African Theology as to the descriptive categories and the criteria of judgment that it brings to bear upon African reality.”[14] In his own study, Bediako takes Turner’s claim that “the nature of the field of study must provide the major control over the methods employed” as his starting point.[15] Since African Christianity is part of a historical movement in which the gospel has been contextualized in different cultures, he argues that historical theology can help shed light on issues in contemporary African theology. In comparing historical and contemporary examples of contextualization it is possible to learn something about both Christian self-understanding as a whole and what is unique about African self-understandings in particular.[16] The central claim of his study is that “The phase of the Christian history which offers the most instructive parallels to the modern African context is the beginning of Hellenistic Christianity in the early Roman Empire.”[17] Bediako’s marriage of intercultural and historical theology is a bold move with important implications. If Tatian, Tertullian, Justin and Clement can shed light on African Christian identity, then perhaps Augustine can shed light on African understandings of sacrificial atonement metaphors. Issues that are important in Western theological debate surrounding the atonement, such as the notion of spiritualization, may not be so important to African theologians. Perhaps a typological understanding of sacrifice maps better with African discourse on Jesus’ sacrifice. Bediako thus emphasizes the need for a wide-angle theoretical lens when examining African theology.

[1] Andrew F. Walls, The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission and Appropriation of Faith (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2004), 46.

[2] Harold W. Turner, “The Way Forward in the Religious Study of African Primal Religions,” Journal of Religion in Africa 12, no. 1 (1981): 1–15.

[3] Turner, “The Way Forward in the Religious Study of African Primal Religions,” 1.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 2.

[6] Ibid., 12.

[7] Cyril Okorocha is Bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Owerri, Nigeria.

[8] Cyril C. Okorọcha, The Meaning of Religious Conversion in Africa: The Case of the Igbo of Nigeria, Avebury Series in Philosophy (Aldershot: Avebury, 1987); Kwame Bediako, Theology and Identity: The Impact of Culture upon Christian Thought in the Second Century and in Modern Africa (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2011).

[9] Okorọcha, The Meaning of Religious Conversion in Africa, xi.

[10] Ibid., 35.

[11] Ibid., xii.

[12] Bediako, Theology and Identity, 11n16.

[13] Ibid., 11n18.

[14] Ibid., 5.

[15] Ibid., 6.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., 7.

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Harold Turner: The Kiwi Walls

Harold Turner has been described by Paul Windsor as the “Kiwi Newbigin,”[1] but he could also be described as the “Kiwi Walls.” He was born in New Zealand in 1911 and after completing his studies in 1939 he worked for 15 years as a Presbyterian minister there. He went on to work as a missionary scholar in Sierra Leone and Nigeria where he met and formed a close partnership with Andrew Walls that continued for the rest of his life. It was during his time in West Africa that wrote his PhD dissertation, History of an African Independent Church in 1967, which as Andrew Walls writes is “Still the fullest account we have of the history of any body of African Christians.”[2] He later moved to the U.K., where he developed a new department at the University of Leicester based on his phenomenological approach to studying religion and also founded the Centre for New Religious Movements in Selly Oak Colleges, Birmingham. During his time there he met Lesslie Newbigin, who asked him to read and comment on a draft of his well-known work The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. Towards the end of his life he moved back to New Zealand, where he formed the Gospel and Cultures Trust (later called DeepSight Trust) with similar goals to those of Newbigin’s Gospel and Our Culture Network. He passed away in 2002.[3]


[2] Walls, The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History, 118.

[3] J. M. Hitchen, “Harold W. Turner Remembered,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 26 (2002): 112–17.

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Andrew Walls on Intercultural Theology

The natural starting point for intercultural theological explorations of Western and African theology is the work of Andrew F. Walls. As Mark Noll writes, “no one has written with greater wisdom about what it means for the Western Christian religion to become the global Christian religion.”[1] In particular, Walls has played a pioneering role in the study of African Christianity. According to Lamin Sanneh, “He is one of the few scholars who saw that African Christianity was not just an exotic, curious phenomenon in an obscure part of the world, but that African Christianity might be the shape of things to come.”[2] Although he did most of his work before intercultural theology became “a thing,” he is in many ways an intercultural theologian par excellence. A lifetime of work on both the European and African continents has given him an unparalleled understanding of modern church history and contemporary Christianity in both contexts, and especially intercultural movements between the two. His life’s work has also deeply influenced his belief in the importance of intercultural theology and shaped his theoretical approach.

The first aspect of Walls’ approach is his biblical grounding of intercultural theology. In contrast to much of intercultural theology, which takes its starting point in recent trends in Western scholarship[3] or the growth of Christianity in the Global South,[4] Walls sees the grounds for intercultural theology as lying primarily in the Christian Scriptures. In his lecture on “The Ephesian Moment,” he explores the cross-generational and cross-cultural nature of redemption. Drawing on the Hebrews 1:1-2, he underlines the fragmentary nature of God’s self-revelation in history until, in the fullness of time, God revealed Himself fully in the person of His Son.[5] Yet Jesus’ incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension and outpouring of His Spirit on his disciples were not the end of the historical process of redemption.[6] The Old Testament heroes of faith in Hebrews 11 “did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.”[7] The author of Hebrews realised that their stories were incomplete without the stories of those who came after them, and the same is true today. The whole company of faith, spread out through time and space – terrible as an army with banners – is part of a single story awaiting its summation in Christ.[8]

Turning to Ephesians, Walls further explores the church’s temporal and spatial dimensions.[9] The remarkable growth of Christianity among the Gentiles in the ancient Mediterranean raised serious questions for the early church. Would the Gentile movement to Christ result in a church characterised by separate meal tables divided along ethnic and cultural lines? The answer in Ephesians is a resounding no. The metaphor of building a temple in Ephesians 2 and the beautiful trinitarian expression that accompanies it implies the construction of a unity of human diversity in Christ, a house for God, through the work of the Holy Spirit. In Ephesians 4 the metaphor dramatically shifts to the building up of a body, which is to grow “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”[10] Paradoxically the coming together of human diversity in Christ results in common faith and understanding which grows the church in maturity and stature. Ultimately, as Walls writes,

Christ’s completion…comes from all humanity, from the translation of the life of Jesus into the lifeways of all the world’s cultures and subcultures through history. None of us can reach Christ’s completeness on our own. We need each other’s vision to correct, enlarge, and focus our own; only together are we complete in Christ.[11]

Walls’ biblical grounding of intercultural theology reveals three further aspects of his theoretical approach.

The second aspect of Walls’ approach is his Christocentric focus. Christian salvation depends on the historical person and work of Christ.[12] Thus, the central focus of theology is: “understanding who Christ is and why he is so called.”[13] The primary concern for the early church how to articulate who Jesus was and what he meant to Greek-speaking Gentiles. Talking about Jesus using the Jewish title ‘Messiah’ was problematic because Gentiles were unfamiliar with the term, so they translated it into the Greek title ‘kyrios’, which meant “Lord.” The translation was a key move and not without risks, yet rather than distorting the early church’s understanding of Jesus it was enriching, with important implications for both Christology and Trinitarian theology.[14] Not only was he the Messiah, with all the rich meaning that term carried, “Crossing a cultural frontier led to a creative movement in theology by which we discovered that Christ was the eternally begotten Son.”[15]

Closely connected with Wall’s Christocentric focus is his emphasis on catholicity. As Walls states, “The church must be diverse because humanity is diverse; it must be one because Christ is one.”[16]God reveals Himself to a diverse company of faith that is being built together into a temple where God dwells, into a body that demonstrates Jesus’ life to the watching world. “The Ephesian moment – the social coming together of people of two cultures to experience Christ—was quite brief….But in our own day the Ephesian moment has come again, and come in a richer mode than has ever happened since the first century.”[17]Only together can we grow in our unity of faith and understanding of who Jesus is. Only together can we hope to attain to “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”

The fourth aspect of Walls’ approach is his eschatological vision. God has already revealed Himself fully in the person of His Son, but the fullness of God’s self-revelation in Jesus has not yet attained its summation. Similarly the Holy Spirit has already brought the church into being, but the body of Christ has not yet reached its full stature. As Walls asserts, “The work of salvation is a historical process that stretches out to the end of the age.”[18] The end of the age “is not a sudden act of divine despair that abandons the process on earth as useless….Equally, the end of the age is not…a sort of evolution in which the heavenly kingdom grows naturally out of a set of conditions achieved on Earth.”[19] There is no room for either end times despair or chronological snobbery in intercultural theology. The Ephesian moment is a foretaste of the great multitude that no one can number in Revelation 7, the fullness of Jesus’ humanity in all its diverse cultural forms.

[1] Mark A. Noll, “Andrew F. Walls: The Missionary Movement in Christian History (1996),” First Things, March 2000, accessed 8 December 2015,

[2] As quoted in Tim Stafford, “Ahead of His Time: Andrew Walls May Be the Most Important Person You Don’t Know,” Christianity Today 51, no. 2 (February 8, 2007): 87,

[3] See Volker Küster, “Toward an Intercultural Theology: Paradigm Shifts in Missiology, Ecumenics, and Comparative Religion,” in Theology and the Religions: A Dialogue, ed. Viggo Mortensen (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2003), 171–84 and “The Project of an Intercultural Theology,” Svensk Missionstidskrift 93, no. 3 (January 1, 2005): 417–32; and especially Werner Ustorf, “The Cultural Origins of ‘Intercultural Theology,’” Mission Studies 25, no. 2 (January 1, 2008): 229–51.

[4] See Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011) and The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

[5] Although Walls does not explore it here, the emphasis on the spoken nature of revelation in the introduction of the Letter to the Hebrews has a lot of potential for intercultural theology.

[6] Andrew F. Walls, The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission and Appropriation of Faith (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2004), 72.

[7] Hebrews 11:39-40 ESV.

[8] Walls, The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History, 73.

[9] Ibid., 74.

[10] Ephesians 4:13 ESV.

[11] Walls, The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History, 78.

[12] Ibid., 72.

[13] Walls, The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History.

[14] Ibid., 79–80; for more on translation as a key theme in contextualization, see Lamin O. Sanneh, Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture, 2nd ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2009).

[15] Walls, The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History, 80.

[16] Ibid., 77.

[17] Ibid., 78.

[18] Ibid., 73.

[19] Walls, The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History.

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