The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith

Andrew F. Walls. The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1996. 266 pages. Paper. ISBN 1-57075-059-9

Now in its eighth printing, this collection of nineteen essays deserves the wide acclaim which it first received, including the 1997 Christianity Today Book Award. Dr. Walls writes with a rare combination of elegance, wit, clarity, precision, wide learning, and evident humility.

Those engaged in cross-cultural ministry will particularly appreciate Walls’ perspective, forged over many decades of service in Africa, even up to the present. He speaks with the insight of one who has himself struggled to communicate the faith to people with a vastly different history and culture. A Chinese pastor who studied under Walls said, “The most impressive thing about him is that his life is as significant as his teaching.”

As he learned from the experience of Christianity in Africa, Walls gained new insights into the way in which the Gospel had encountered the “primal religions of Europe” during the Dark ages. Likewise, the ancient texts of church history “which revealed those old human responses to the Christian faith” could “help to understand what was going on in Africa now.”

Organic Growth of Theology

In the process, he has made a discovery with profound implications: As the church expands its frontiers, new questions must be answered from the Scriptures. Each time the Word of God is mined for responses to a different culture, the Church develops a theology which is far richer than what it had inherited. Without contradiction or conflict, fresh dimensions expand the boundaries of our previous understanding of the Truth.

“The full-grown of humanity in Christ requires all the Christian generations, just as it embodies all the cultural variety that six continents can bring.” In other words, each new generation adds theological value to the understanding of the Gospel which it has received from the past.

Rich Treasure

These essays are divided into three parts: “The first… is a reflection on the nature of the Christian faith, seen from the perspective of its historical transmission. The second looks at that transmission process in relation to the special case of Africa, and considers the special place of Africa in Christian history. The third focuses on the missionary movement from the West as a model of what happens – to both partners in the process – as the transmission of faith takes place.”

More than once I remarked to myself, “This chapter alone is worth the price of the book!” Adding those up, I came to nine – almost half the total. In the rest of this review, I can only offer a few representative samplings.

1. The Transmission of the Christian Faith

Two Principles

“The Gospel as Prisoner and Liberator of Culture” opens with a striking parable about a “scholarly space visitor” who drops in on Christians in different ages and places. He discovers “an essential continuity in Christian: continuity of though about the final significance of Jesus, continuity of a certain consciousness about history, continuity in the use of the Scriptures, of bread and wine, of water. But he recognizes that these continuities are cloaked with such heavy veils belonging to their environment that Christians of different times and places must often be unrecognizable to others, or indeed even to themselves, as manifestations of a single phenomenon.”

In other words, there is the “indigenizing principle”: “We are conditioned by a particular time and place, by our family and group and society, by “culture.” This facts lead us to seek to “indigenize” the Gospel, and creates much variety among followers of Jesus.

On the other hand, the “pilgrim principle” forces us to recognize that we have no abiding city here, but are on a path that will put us “out of step “ with our society. As our minds are transformed by the universally-valid truths of the Bible, we shall escape from the futile ways of our forefathers and take our place as citizens of our heavenly country.

Meanwhile, all theology “is addressed to the setting in which it is produced,” and thus is “occasional and local in character.” “African theology…. Will act on an African agenda.” We might add, so will Chinese theology. What does the Bible say about ancestor worship, food offered to idols, the duties of submission to authority, our responsibility to the larger group – even the element of truth in the yin/yang dualism?

The Pattern of Christian Expansion

“Culture and Coherence in Christian History” traces the diffusion of the Gospel through six ages: Jewish; Hellenistic-Roman; Barbarian; Western Europe; Expanding Europe and Christian Recession (in Europe); and Cross –Cultural Transmission (our own era). We learn that each new culture to accept the faith adds a particular characteristic, such as the emphasis upon the individual in the time of the Reformation.

We find, also, that the “progress” of Christianity is “serial.” Unlike Islam, much of Buddhism, and Hinduism, the history of Christianity is one of accession, as new peoples come into the Church, accompanied by recession, as formerly ”Christian” lands become pagan or fall into the sphere of another faith, such as Islam in the early heartland of the Church.

The major feature of our age is “cross-cultural transplantation of Christianity to multitudes of people outside Europe.” The new “base” is located in the “Global South” – Asia, Africa, Latin America. The implications for the future of theology and of missions are numerous and weighty. New themes and questions will find their place in journals and textbooks, and new sending churches will seek to evangelize the old bastions of the faith, such as Europe and perhaps even North America.

Imagine telling our friends in Taiwan who seek to emigrate to America that they should do so as intentional missionaries! Givers, rather than receivers, seeking sacrificial service, rather than security and success.

2. The Relevance of Africa

As someone with a special love for the Chinese, I was tempted to skip the middle section on African Christianity, but I’m glad I didn’t. I remembered that early in my missionary career someone from the Church Growth school advised reading widely in all areas of missiology, especially the history of the spread of the Gospel in cultures other than the one in which you live and work. Such exposure gives one a different perspective. You see, of course, the uniqueness of your situation, but you are also comforted and instructed by similarities among cultures and their response to God’s truth.

“The Evangelical Revival, the Missionary Movement, and Africa” asserts that, unlike Europe in the Middle Ages, almost all traditional African religions include belief in a god created the world. Walls argues strongly that the vernacular names for this supreme should be used by Christians – as indeed they almost always are.

That raises the question of whether Chinese should call God Shang Di or Shen. Though the current trend greatly favors the former, this writer holds serious reservations. I’m sure Walls would disagree with me.

About his other claim, however, there would be little debate: Christian missionaries must preach a message that equips local believers to do battle with evil spirits. Writing as he does from the “ecumenical” branch of the Protestantism, Walls laments the failure of “Western” Christianity to share with Africans the resources of all of the Bible.

Traditional Folk Religion

In “Primal Religious Traditions in Today’s World,” Walls examines the forces which have produced change in what he calls “primal religions” around the world, and the various ways in which such religions have responded.

“Primal religions today are not only adjusting; some have been revitalized. In part this results from the assertion of cultural identity and the regaining of cultural assurance on the part of non-Western peoples, with the rejection of European norms as the sole standard.” Still others have found new strength by being appropriated into a major religion. One wonders how much the acceptance by Rome of ancestor worship exemplifies this sort of attempt to co-opt traditional religion. The same question might be asked of some forms of Protestant healing and exorcism today.

3. The Missionary Movement

The Need for Missionary Scholars

“Structural Problems in Mission Studies” points out the critical role that the study of missions could have in understanding the past two hundred years as well as the present and near future. Alas, those equipped to engage in such research lack either the experience or the resources to do so. Even Evangelical seminaries have a hard time finding teachers of missions with actual field experience.

“The Nineteenth-Century Missionary as Scholar” reminds us that we stand on the shoulders of giants. Indeed, some of the greatest scholars of the past two hundred years were missionaries. Could we not pray for God to raise up another generation of faithful students of theology and culture to illuminate the past and guide us into the future?

By far the most challenging, even unsettling, essay was. “The American Dimension of the Missionary Movement.” It opens with a statement by a Japanese Christian who owed his conversion to American missionaries: “Americans are essentially children of this world; that they serve as teachers or religion… in an anomaly. Indeed, religion is the last thing average Americans can teach.”

Walls paraphrases this Japanese believer’s stark assessment: “The word American conveys, first of all immense energy, resourcefulness, and inventiveness – a habit of identifying problems and solving them – and as a result, first-rate technology. In the second place it reflects and intense attachment to a particular theory of government, one that does not grow naturally inmost of the world. Third, it stands for an uninhibited approach to money and a corresponding concern with size and scale. Fourth, it stands for…’materiality,’ a somewhat stunted appreciation of certain dimensions of life, notably those relating to the transcendent world.”

Ouch! As an American, I wince at this description, while admitting its accuracy. Although Walls, a Scot, is fair and kind in pointing out ways in which the peculiar characteristics of American Christianity have contributed to the expansion of the Gospel, he nevertheless reminds us that it is American Christianity - one particular brand and form of a faith with a long history and universal scope. He rightly calls us to remember that crucial fact, lest we think ours is the only way.

Would that I had space to share with you insights from the final two chapters, “Missionary Societies and the Fortunate Subversion of the Church,” and “The Old Age of the Missionary Movement.”

We should note that Walls writes from an Ecumenical and a European standpoint. Thus, he laments the “tired” condition of theology and missions in the West today. At some points I wished he had more awareness of the richness of both theology and missiology, not to mention missions, among Evangelicals, including those in America. Nevertheless, while disagreeing with some of his points, I find Walls to be stimulating and quite helpful.