Category Archives: Intercultural Theology

Exorcising Feuerbach, Marx and Freud

Stefan Paas mentions a great example of how African Christians can have a very different perspective on reality compared to that of European Christians: “The German researcher Claudia Währisch-Oblau tells an interesting anecdote about a seminar with migrant pastors in Germany. They had asked for information about German culture, and especially what barriers there were to evangelism in that culture. Subsequently a professor was flown in, who with good German thoroughness taught the pastors for almost the whole day about the founders of modern European atheism: Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud. The researcher was somewhat taken aback to see how the migrant pastors processed this teaching. That very evening they had a two hour long prayer meeting, in which they loudly and fervently exorcised the spirits of Feuerbach, Marx and Freud, in the name of Jesus. Währisch-Oblau closes her story with the comments of the professor who had prepared the seminar. While the researcher was still disconcerted by the communication short circuit, ‘[he] asked himself out loud if a driving out of the spirit of religious critique was perhaps exactly what Germany needed.'”[1]

[1] Stefan Paas, Vreemdelingen en priesters: christelijke missie in een postchristelijke omgeving (Zoetermeer: Uitgeverij Boekencentrum, 2015), 105.

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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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The Sovereignty of God in Intercultural Perspective

In his excellent book, When Helping Hurts, Brian Fikkert relates the following story of how he came to a deeper and richer understand the sovereignty of God during a visit to a Kenyan slum. The story is a great illustration of the value of intercultural perspectives both for theology and Christians around the world as they seek to grow in their walk with God.

One Sunday I was walking with a staff member though one of Africa’s largest slums, the massive Kibera slum of Nairobi. The conditions were simply inhumane. People lived in shacks constructed out of cardboard boxes. Foul smells gushed out of open ditches carrying human and animal excrement. I had a hard time keeping my balance as I continually slipped on oozy brown substances that I hoped were mud but feared were something else. Children picked through garbage dumps looking for anything of value. As we walked deeper and deeper into the slum, my sense of despair increased. This place is completely God-forsaken, I thought to myself.

Then to my amazement, right there among the dung, I heard the sound of a familiar hymn. There must be Western missionaries conducting an open-air service in here, I thought to myself. As we turned the corner, my eyes landed on the shack from which the music bellowed. Every Sunday, thirty slum dwellers crammed into this ten-by-twenty foot “sanctuary” to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The church was made out of cardboard boxes that had been opened up and stapled to studs. It wasn’t pretty, but it was a church, a church made up of some of the poorest people on earth.

When we arrived at the church, I was immediately asked to preach the sermon. As a good Presbyterian, I quickly jotted down some notes about the sovereignty of God and was looking forward to teaching this congregation the historic doctrines of the Reformation. But before the sermon began, the service included a time of sharing and prayer. I listened as some of the poorest people on the planet cried out to God: “Jehovah Jireh, please heal my son, as he is going blind.” “Merciful Lord, please protect me when I go home today, for my husband always beats me.” “Sovereign King, please provide my children with enough food today, as they are hungry.”

As I listened to these people praying to be able to live another day, I thought about my ample salary, my life insurance policy, my health insurance policy, my two cars, my house, etc. I realized that I do not really trust in God’s sovereignty on a daily basis, as I have sufficient buffers in place to shield me from most economic shocks. I realized that when these folks pray the fourth petition of the Lord’s prayer-Give us this day our daily bread-their minds do not wander as much as mine so often does. I realized that while I have sufficient education and training to deliver a sermon on God’s sovereignty with no forewarning, these slum dwellers were trusting in God’s sovereignty just to get them through the day. And I realized that these people had a far deeper intimacy with God than I probably ever will have in my entire life.[1]

[1] Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor. . .and Yourself (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2009), 68-69.

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Karl Barth on Intercultural Theology

In a forthcoming article, “The Christus Victor Motif in Karl Barth and African Theology,” Benno van den Toren mentions an interesting passage from Barth’s later work on the value of intercultural theology. In a discussion of “The Lordless Powers” in lecture fragments on the Christian life, intended to become part of vol. IV, 4 of his Church Dogmatics, Barth writes:

“In this matter we have one of the not infrequent cases in which it has to be said that not all people, but some to whom a so‐called magical view of the world is now ascribed, have in fact, apart from occasional hocuspocus, seen more, seen more clearly, and come much closer to the reality in their thought and speech, than those of us who are happy possessors of a rational and scientific view of things, for whom the resultant clear (but perhaps not wholly clear) distinction between truth and illusion has become almost unconsciously the criterion of all that is possible and real….

“Might it be that our fellow Christians from the younger churches of Asia and Africa, who come with a fresher outlook in this regard, can help us here? We hope at least that they will not be too impressed by our view of the world and thus be afflicted by the eye disease from which we ourselves suffer in this matter.”[1]

[1] Karl Barth, The Christian Life: Church Dogmatics IV, 4 Lecture Fragments, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (London: T. & T. Clark, 2004), 216, 219.

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The Ephesian Moment

Great stuff from Andrew Walls on ‘the Ephesian moment’ and its implications for the church today: “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.”[1]

“There are two dangers. One lies in the desire to protect our own version of the Christian faith, or even seek to establish it as the standard normative one. The other, and perhaps the more seductive in the present condition of Western Christianity, is the postmodern option: to decide that each of the expressions and versions is equally valid and authentic, and that we are therefore each at liberty to enjoy our own in isolation from all the others.”[2]

“The Ephesian metaphors of the temple and of the body show each of the culture-specific segments as necessary to the body but as incomplete in itself. Only in Christ does completion, fullness, dwell. And Christ’s completion, as we have seen, 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.”[3]

[1] Andrew F. Walls, The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission and Appropriation of Faith (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2004), 78.

[2] Ibid., 78–79.

[3] Ibid., 79.

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Christian, What Do You Believe? An African Creed

At the very end of Christianity Rediscovered, Vincent Donovan records the following creed, presumably an English translation: “We believe in the one High God, who out of love created the beautiful world and everything good in it. He created man and wanted man to be happy in the world. God loves the world and every nation and tribe on earth. We have known this High God in the darkness, and now we know him in the light. God promised in the book of his word, the bible, that he would save the world and all the nations and tribes.

“We believe that God, made good his promise by sending his son, Jesus Christ, a man in the flesh, a Jew by tribe, born poor in a little village, who left his home and was always on safari doing good, curing people by the power of God, teaching about God and man, showing that the meaning of religion is love. He was rejected by his people, tortured and nailed hands and feet to a cross and died. He lay buried in the grave, but the hyenas did not touch him, and on the third day, he rose from the grave. He ascended to the skies. He is the Lord.

“We believe that all our sins are forgiven through him. All who have faith in him must be sorry for their sins, be baptized in the Holy Spirit of God, live the rules of love and share the bread together in love, to announce the good news to others until Jesus comes again. We are waiting for him. He is alive. He lives. This we believe. Amen”[1]

[1] Vincent J. Donovan, Christianity Rediscovered: An Epistle from the Masai, 3rd ed (London: SMC Press, 2001), 163.

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What Is True Faith? A Masai Answer

Ever wondered how a Masai might answer Q & A 21 of the Heidelberg Catechism? Here is the wonderful answer that Vincent Donovan was blessed to hear: “I was sitting talking with a Masai elder about the agony of belief and unbelief. He used two languages to respond to me – his own and Kiswahili. He pointed out that the word my Masai catechist, Paul, and I had used to convey faith was not a very satisfactory word in their language. It meant literally ‘to agree to.’ I, myself, knew the word had that shortcoming. He said ‘to believe’ like that was similar to a white hunter shooting an animal with his gun from a great distance. Only his eyes and his fingers took part in the act. We should find another word. He said for a man really to believe is like a lion going after its prey. His nose and eyes and ears pick up the prey. His legs give him the speed to catch it. All the power of his body is involved in the terrible death leap and single blow to the neck with the front paws, the blow that actually kills. And as the animal goes down, the lion envelops it in his arms (Africans refer to the front legs of an animal as its arms) pulls it to himself, and makes it part of himself. This is the way a lion kills. This is the way a man believes. This is what faith is.

“I looked at the elder in silence and amazement. Faith understood like that would explain why, when my own was gone, I ached in every fiber of my being. But my wise old teacher was not finished yet.

“‘We did not search you out, Padri,’ he said to me. ‘We did not even want you to come to us. You searched us out. You followed us away from your house into the bush, into the plains, into the steppes where our cattle are, into the hills where we take our cattle for water, into our villages, into our homes. You told us of the High God, how we must search for him, even leave our land and our people to find him. But we have not done this. We have not left our land. We have not searched for him. He has searched for us. He has searched us out and found us. All the time we think we are the lion. In the end, the lion is God.’”[1]

[1] Vincent J. Donovan, Christianity Rediscovered: An Epistle from the Masai, 3rd ed (London: SMC Press, 2001), 51.

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Vincent Donovan on Intercultural Theology

Vincent Donovan highlights the important shift from missiology to intercultural theology in his preface to the second edition of Christianity Rediscovered: “Mission is not a one-way street moving away from the home church to the foreign mission field. The new, the young, and the particular churches of the Third World, spoken of by Vatican II, have something to say, in turn, to the church at large.”[1] Yet, in Donovan’s view, it is clear that missiology is not simply to be replaced by intercultural theology (as is the case in much liberal Protestant thought). On the contrary, “The premise of this book is that every theology or theory must be based on previous missionary experience, and that any theory or theology which is not based on previous experience is empty words, of use to no one.”[2]

Nevertheless, as a deeply contextual theologian, Donovan is cautious about the possibility of intercultural theological dialogue: “[My] experience, lived out in the lonely pastoral setting of the Masai steppes of East Africa, is far removed from the spreading urban-technological society in which we live. Can the experience of one world be of any value to the other? I do not know. I can only say that the cry of hopelessness I heard then in that desert setting is not much different from the cry I hear today in the wasteland of our cities.”[3]

[1] Vincent J. Donovan, Christianity Rediscovered: An Epistle from the Masai, 3rd ed (London: SMC Press, 2001), xvii.

[2] Ibid., xx.

[3] Ibid.

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Augustine, Rosenstock-Huessy and Intercultural Theology

In a recent post Peter Leithart draws attention to Rosenstock-Huessy’s analysis of Augustine’s De Magistro. As Leithart writes, “One of the key moves in Augustine’s dialogue, Rosenstock-Huessy says, is the challenge it poses to dialogue itself, for Augustine insists that the true dialogue cannot be merely dual, but must include a third, the Divine Teacher, who takes dialogue out of our hands.”

Augustine’s move is similar to the idea of triangulation in intercultural theological dialogue: “What happens in such an intercultural theological conversation can be understood with Kevin Vanhoozer and with reference to the analytic philosopher Donald Davidson as a process of ‘triangulation’. An intercultural theological conversation is not just an exchange in which we pay attention to each other. This is a conversation that aims — in the language of cognitive psychology — at ‘joint attention’, joint attention to a third reality, to God in Christ as we have come to know Him in the canonical Scriptures. Intercultural theological dialogue is therefore in principle a trialogue, a three-way conversation between representatives of the global church in which the third or rather the first voice is the voice of God who Himself in the Scriptures and through the Holy Spirit addresses His church.”[1]

Intercultural theology could benefit from exploring the implications of Rosenstock-Huessy’s treatment of teaching as a paradigmatic social relationship. Perhaps a deeper understanding of this relationship can help to deal with the problem of Western dominance in theological conversation. Western theologians need to be prepared to become students in the conversation rather than always being teachers.

On the other hand, Rosenstock-Huessy’s treatment of the social construction of time in relation to teaching could be further enriched by a consideration of the social construction of space. To paraphrase Leithart’s summary, the problem is that we can’t examine space because our thinking about space involves being in a certain space. There is no way to step aside and examine space in an non-spatial way. Further, teaching requires space, and the teaching space is a particular kind of space. Teaching requires a coordination of the locations of students and teachers; they have to show up in the same space. But they don’t show up as “locals” but “travellers.” The teacher is always “more well-travelled,” if not in the actual journeys he’s made at least in his exposure to the material; the student is always “less well-travelled” because he has never been exposed to the material or because he has not been exposed to it so deeply as the teacher. (May I suggestively comment that “more” and “less well-travelled” are not physical but social facts?)

[1] Benno van den Toren, “Intercultural Theology as a Three-Way Conversation: Beyond the Western Dominance of Intercultural Theology,” Exchange 44 (2015): 141-2.

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Redemption: Cross-generational and Cross-cultural

Given that salvation is a historical process, Andrew Walls argues that Christians need to recapture the sense that the redemptive purpose of God is cross-generational. “It is not completed in one generation, only in the totality of the generations. It was not completed in the generation of the incarnate Lord nor in that of his apostles. We should be wary, then, of using some later epoch–the Protestant Reformation, for instance, or the evangelical revival–as the defining description of the process. The redemptive process will not even be complete in the last generation of all, taking that generation in and of itself.”[1]

Hebrews 11 makes it clear: “Neither Abraham nor any of the other heroes of faith has actually yet received what God promised them, because God  has decided on a better plan–not for them but for us. Abraham, the writer argues, and all the other Christian ancestors, will not be made perfect, that is, complete, until the Christians to whom the Letter to the Hebrews is addressed are gathered into their succession. Extending it further, Abraham is waiting for us so that he can enter into his inheritance. The full significance of the great archetype of saving faith will be clear only when all the faithful are gathered in.”[2]

Christians also need to recapture the sense that salvation is cross-cultural. “The Epistle to the Ephesians reflects two ethnic and cultural communities in the church. Each had its own converted lifestyle, one utterly Jewish and Torah based, the other reflecting the conditions of the Hellenistic world of the Eastern Mediterranean but in converted form. There must have been many abrasive patches in churches made up of both groups, but the epistle make sit clear that the two communities belong together. They are each building blocks in the construction of the new temple; both are organs equally necessary to the functioning of the body of which Christ is the head. Indeed, as the epistle proceeds, we find that neither group can on its own realize the full stature of that body. We all come together, the apostle assures us, to the full stature of Christ.”[3]

The message of Ephesians is just as relevant to the many cultural communities in the global church. “Each is to have, like Jew and Greek in the early church, its own converted lifestyle as the distinctive features of each culture are turned toward Christ. The representation of Christ by any one group can at best be only partial. At best it reflects the conversion of a small segment of reality and it needs to be complemented and perhaps corrected by others. The fullness of humanity lies in Christ; the aggregate of converted lifestyles points toward his full stature.”[4]

[1] Andrew F. Walls, “Globalization and the Study of Christian History,” in Globalizing Theology: Belief and Practice in an Era of World Christianity, ed. Craig Ott and Harold A. Netland (Nottingham: Apollos, 2007), 71.

[2] Ibid., 72.

[3] Ibid., 73.

[4] Ibid., 73-4.

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