Tag Archives: Andrew Walls

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, http://www.firstthings.com/article/2000/03/andrew-f-wallsthe-missionary-movement-in-christian-history.

[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, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2007/february/34.87.html.

[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 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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A New Thing in the Global South

God delights in doing new things. In the words of Isaiah, “Remember not the former things, / nor consider the things of old. / Behold, I am doing a new thing; / now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? / I will make a way in the wilderness / and rivers in the desert.” (43:18-19 ESV)

According to Andrew Walls, a new thing is happening in the Global South: “Today, the signs suggest that what the Christianity of the twenty-first century will be like, in its theology, its worship, its effect on society, its penetration of new areas, whether geographically or culturally, will depend on what happens in Africa, in Latin America, and in some parts of Asia.”[1] In particular, he describes sub-Saharan Africa as “the most remarkable theatre of Christian accession in the modern world.”[2]

Are you watching closely?

[1] Andrew F. Walls, The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission and Appropriation of Faith (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2004), 32.

[2] Ibid., 45.

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In Seventeen Hundred and Ninety-Two…

Why is A.D. 1792 an important date in Christian history? Some might recognise it as the year that William Carey’s world changing Enquiry into the Obligation of Christians to Use Means for the Propagation of the Gospel among the Heathens was published. Andrew Walls notes another reason for its significance: “That same year saw the arrival in Sierra Leone of some 1,100 people of African birth or descent, bringing with them from North America their own churches and preachers, to form the first church in tropical Africa in modern times….The first church in tropical Africa in modern times was not a Western missionary creation, but an African one, an African creation marked by the experiences of America.”[1]

After A.D. 1792, West Africa would never be the same again.

[1] Andrew F. Walls, The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission and Appropriation of Faith (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2004), 28.

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On Teaching Christian History

Andrew Walls has some rather devastating criticisms of typical approaches to teaching Christian history. “A common church history syllabus begins with what is called the early church. In fact, it usually deals only with the part of the early church that lay within the Roman Empire. By missing the early church beyond the Roman Empire, the syllabus also misses Asia and Africa. It also loses the chance to compare the experience of Christians in the Persian Empire, who never had a Constantine, with the experience of Christians in the Roman Empire, who did. Students are led to identify the “Great Century of Missions” as the nineteenth, without noticing that there are other great centuries in the missionary history of the church or instituting any comparison between the nineteenth and the nineteenth and the ninth century.”[1]

These approaches are problematic because they leave Western students to assume that “Western Christianity is a normative form of the faith, seamlessly connected with the church fathers.” Unfortunately, “Even well-read scholarly Western theologians are sometimes surprised at the statement that Africa has nearly two thousand years of continuous Christian history, or that nearly fifteen hundred years of Asian church history took place before Western missionaries arrived, or that the first preaching of the gospel before the king of northern England was roughly contemporary with that before the emperor of China.”[2]

Such a parochial view of Christian history limits Western Christians in their ability to understand and participate in the global church today.

[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), 78-9.

[2] Ibid., 78.

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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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Modern Christianity and Africa

Andrew Walls on the importance of understanding African theology: “Where Africa is the focus of study in the secular academy today, there is widespread acknowledgement that, if one wants to study modern Africa, it is necessary to know something about Christianity. In the theological academy, however, there appears much less recognition that if one wishes to study modern Christianity it is necessary to know something about Africa.”[1]

[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), 78.

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