The Missionary Movement In Christian HistoryThe Missionary Movement In Christian History
Andrew Walls
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Formerly a missionary to Sierra Leone, and Professor Emeritus of the Study of Christianity in the non-Western World at the University of Edinburgh, Andrew F. Walls is arguably, the foremost intellectual authority on Christian Missions today. In , Walls brings together lectures and articles, many for the first time, and makes them available to scholars, students, and laity interested in World Missions. While examining many of the most pressing issues in missions today such as, indigenous forms of Christianity, colonialism in Modern Africa, Walls also reveal the paradoxes of the Christian movement as a whole in discussing just how different specific form s of Christianity are from one another. Winner of the 1997 Christianity Today Book Award this book is a definitive work on the way Christianity has spread around the world, the forms it has taken, and the challenges that lie ahead. Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith is an excellent place to begin Missiological study, or to augment already existing research.

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From the introduction

This book is a collection of fragments, itself a selection from a larger collection of fragments. It therefore offers no systematic account of anything; and even as regards the topics it includes, it omits much that is crucial. Insofar as it has a single theme, it is to be heard in a symphonic combination of the three movements into which it is divided. The first of these 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.

Study agendas are usually a matter of personal or institutional biography, and this one is no exception. I arrived in West Africa in my thirtieth year, with an assignment to teach those in training for the ministry in Sierra Leone, and in particular to be responsible for teaching them church history. I had received, as I thought, a pretty good theological education; and my graduate work had been patristics at Oxford, under the venerable F.L. Cross. I was, as Paul put it, circumcised on the eighth day, of the tribe of Benjamin and the rest of it, and had sat at the feet of Gamaliel. And I shared the conventional wisdom of the 1950s about church history teaching; that church history was full of lessons to be imparted to the "younger churches" from the accumulated wisdom of the older ones.

I still remember the force with which one day the realization struck me that I, while happily pontificating on that patchwork quilt of diverse fragments that constitutes second-century Christian literature, was actually living in a second-century church. The life, worship and understanding of a community in its second century of Christian allegiance was going on all around me. Why did I not stop pontificating and observe what was going on? In this I had an advantage not open to all my expatriate colleagues; though a preacher of my church, I was a layman, and thus could fit unobtrusively into the local church structures, and frequently be unnoticed or forgotten. The experience changed this academic for life; instead of trying to extrapolate from that ancient corpus of literature and apply it, I began to understand the second-century material in the light of all the religious events going on around me.
A further revolution of outlook was at hand. It was obviously necessary to learn, and indeed to teach (so far as a curriculum basically made in Europe allowed), something of the history of Christianity in the area in which I now worked. It therefore seemed only right to devote some research time to the same topic. When I began, I intended this as no more than a polite nod to the local Christian community; as far as I was concerned, such research would be a sideline, indeed a hobby. Such things were hardly real in church history; real church history needed Greek and Latin. It was soon clear, however, that work on the African materials was not only "real" church history, but was going to be as demanding and laborious, and require as firm a grasp of techniques and sources as patristic studies. And there were fewer guidelines, fewer precedents, hardly any instruments of study, and no F.L. Cross to be my Gamaliel. It also involved addressing the forms of African religion and society, a study which I had hitherto found rather uninteresting, at least in terms of its literature. Why was I surprised? I had always recognized that the study of the literatures, history, and religion of the later Roman Empire was essential for patristic studies; I should not have expected that African church history would provide an easier ride.

Some years later, I found myself with new responsibilities in a different part of Africa. In a national university in newly independent Nigeria I was to arrange for a Department of Religion. As a national university, it was to provide for the study of all the religious traditions of Nigeria, and it would have Christians and Muslims on its staff. It developed programs in Christian and Muslim studies in parallel, each aiming at the heart of the respective traditions. All students were required to take courses in the primal religions of Africa. And all were required to undertake work in the phenomenology of religion in order to consider what constitutes religion and to examine basic forms and concepts such as prayer or sacrifice. As for research, the crying need seemed to be to be able to understand the local situation. Why were there 331 churches in a five-mile radius in one small town? How had these congregations come into being? What was the significance of the fact that in recounting the origins of any congregation in the area hardly anyone in that congregation ever mentioned a missionary?

By the time the Nigerian Civil War began, I was in my own country, once again teaching church history to students who were to be ministers. The traditional Scottish method of church history involved three years of teaching. The first year was for the early Church; the second, the Reformation; the third, Scotland--after all, what else is there? To have gone to such a post ten or twelve years earlier would have been a delight; now it was mortification.
Of course, I was welcome to teach an optional course on African church history (not that anyone would be likely to opt for it). But the worrying thing was the deforming nature of such a syllabus of church history. It obstructed students from ever learning what the church was, or where the church was. The abundant evidence was on every hand of the decline of Christianity in Britain; but how would these future ministers ever realize that the Christian faith was actually expanding in most of the rest of the world, that most Christians would soon be living in the southern continents? Above all, the syllabus kept them from understanding Scotland's place in the world church. Gradually I found myself drawn into a new discipline, to which Africa had induced faltering steps. From church history, Christian duty led to the history of religions.

Quite unexpectedly came an invitation to open a new department of religious studies in a university which already had a faculty of divinity. It was 1970, and a post-Christian generation of students was finding a new interest in religion. Some indeed were highly committed believers; others highly uncommitted, but intensely interested. This generation was not rebelling against the church, because it had never been a part of it. the uncommitted were interested in prayer, meditation, devotion; and they expected to learn about such things if they learned about Indian religion. For such people, prayer and devotion were things that Hindus did; they had never associated them with the grey old churches that some of their parents still attended. The graduate program offered another dimension; for the people in it, often Africans, or, if Westerners, people with long service in Africa or the Pacific, were concerned with the religions of Africa, or the interactions of those religions with the Christian faith, or the history and life of churches or movements shaped by those conditions.
My duty was not to be, not a church historian, but a historian of religions whose principal concern was Christianity. It was a salutary experience to try to teach about Christian faith and history under the same conditions as I or my colleagues would teach about Islamic or Buddhist faith and history. It occurred to me that no one--certainly no Muslim or Buddhist--would offer an introductory course in Islamic or Buddhist history in the way the average New Testament 101 course was offered. Surely traditional theological teaching was selling Christianity short? More and more I was forced to consider what held the incredible cultural diversity of historic Christianity together. What united observant Pharisaic Jews of the post-Pentecost period, Greek theologians at Nicea, wild Irish ascetic monks, zealous Victorian supporters of missions, and white-robed Nigerian congregations chanting in the streets about the power of the Spirit? For all these culturally diverse groups were historically and organically linked in the chain of the transmission of the gospel.

And in parallel with this went the study of primal religions--first of Africa, then of the Pacific and the Americas. All other considerations apart, the historical study of Christianity demanded it. throughout Christian history so far, the overwhelming majority of new Christians have come from the primal religions--far more than from Hinduism or Buddhism, incomparably more than from Islam.

Combining these areas of study brought another realization, matching the earlier realization that came in Sierra Leone about the patristic period. It was that texts still existed--many in Latin, others in Old North European languages--that reflected, directly or indirectly, the process of interaction between the Christian faith and the primal religions of Europe. What was the process by which my ancestors, and those of most Western Christians, came to appropriate the Gospel? What were the structures of the old primal religions of Europe, and how parallel were they to the primal religions of today? More importantly, was it possible to understand those old texts (including those of well-known, widely translated writers such as Bede or Gregory of Tours) better in the light of the encounters of religions presently visible in Africa? And might the same texts which revealed those old human responses to the Christian faith help to understand what was going on in Africa now? One way of finding out was to spend a little labour in the study of Old Norse. Another was to bring together a mixed group of Western and African scholars to read these texts together. It was a revelation to see how African Christians responded to these documents which reflected the origins of Western European Christianity, and the insights they brought to them.
I now work in a centre of graduate studies where everyone is concerned with some aspect of Christian history, life or thought in Africa, Asia, Latin or Caribbean America, or the Pacific. There are 40 to 50 people, belonging to 15 or 20 nationalities, most of them experienced in teaching or ministry. The palefaces are always a minority, and often there is hardly a native Scot to be seen. In such a group, everyone is a teacher and everyone a student. Such a group can help to uncover not only their own, but one another's Christian history; a history in which the missionary period is now only an episode. To be involved in such work is to be permitted to watch the Christian Gospel penetrating and interacting with the cultures of Africa, Asia and the Pacific in a way analogous to that by which in the patristic period where my studies began, it penetrated and interacted with the Greek.

The bewildering paradox at the heart of the Christian confession is not just the obvious one of the divine humanity; it is the twofold affirmation of the utter Jewishness of Jesus and the boundless universality of the Divine Son. The paradox is necessary to the business of making sense of the history of the Christian faith. On the one hand it is a seemingly infinite series of cultural specificities--each in principle as locally specific as that utterly Jewish Jesus. On the other hand, in a historical view, the different specificities belong together. They have a certain coherence and interdependence in the coherence and interdependence of total humanity in the One who made humanity his own.
It is in the moments of transition, the process of diffusion across cultural boundaries, the points at which cultural specificities change, that the distinctive nature of the Christian faith becomes manifest in its developing dialogue with culture. The process is clearly visible within the New Testament itself. The Synoptic Gospels, rooted as they are in the soil of Palestine, set forth the Good News of Jesus in terms of the themes he himself preached, the Kingdom of God and the work of the Son of Man. But how rarely the letters of Paul, addressed to the Hellenistic world of West Asia and Southern Europe, employ the term Kingdom of God; and they never once speak of the Son of Man. Such Palestinian titles had little immediacy in the world of the new Christians; they required footnotes. In order to explain in the Greek world who Christ is and what he did and does, a new conceptual vocabulary had to be constructed. Elements of vocabulary already existing in that world had to be commandeered and turned towards Christ. And once that happened, a host of questions arose that Palestinian Jews, even those who had had a Hellenistic education and were at home in the language, felt no need to raise. Christian preaching and Christian understanding moved beyond the category of the Messiah--which for many of the earliest believers must have seemed the heart of the Gospel--to embrace such categories as Logos and Pleroma to explain the significance of Jesus.

And the process was hugely enriching; it proved to be a discovery of the Christ. As Paul and his fellow missionaries explain and translate the significance of the Christ in a world that is Gentile and Hellenistic, that significance is seen to be greater than anyone had realized before. It is as though Christ himself actually grows through the work of mission--and indeed, there is more than a hint of this in one New Testament image (Eph. 4:13). As he enters new areas of thought and life, he fills the picture (the Pleroma dwells in him). It is surely right to see the process as being repeated in subsequent transmission of the faith across cultural lines.
The cultural diversity of Christianity is widely acknowledged today and perhaps now needs little new defence. Perhaps we need, however, to remember that this diversity exists not only in a horizontal form across the contemporary scene, but also in a vertical form across history. Christianity is a generational process, an ongoing dialogue with culture. Just as diversity of Christian expression and its ultimate coherence combine in the contemporary scene, so they are across the generations. We belong to the ancestors--and to our grandchildren, and this is as true of the Church as a whole as of any local segment of it. The full-grown humanity of Christ requires all the Christian generations, just as it embodies all the cultural variety that six continents can bring. As the writer to the Hebrews puts it, Abraham and the patriarchs have even now not reached their goal. They are waiting for "us" (Heb. 11:39-40).

In the pages that follow it is urged that the divine saving activity can be understood in terms of translation. Divinity is translated into humanity, but into specific humanity, at home in specific segments of social reality. If the Incarnation of the Son represents a divine act of translation, it is a prelude to repeated acts of re-translation as Christ fills the Pleroma again--other aspects of social reality. And the proper response to such activity is conversion. Conversion is turning; and Christian conversion is turning towards Christ. This means that the process of conversion involves turning what is already there.

The second and third parts of the book are simply explorations of the same theme in specific territories. The exponential growth of the Christian faith in the African continent in the past century or so seems to me to raise the question whether this massive encounter with a new body of thought and network of relationships may not be as determinative of the future shape of Christianity as was the encounter with the Greek world.

The missionary movement from the West offers another way of approach. It seems a particularly valuable one since we seem to be reaching the end of this particular chapter, and it may be possible to look at it in better perspective than before. No informed historian today is going to confuse missionary history with the church history of Africa or Asia.
Missionaries had a double identity. They were representative Christians trying (and in the process demonstrating all the elements of human fallenness and all the limitations of human vision and foresight) to do Christian things, things that were specifically, characteristically Christian. They were seeking to share the knowledge of Christ; and more than any other group of Westerners in the period of Western expansion, they were trying to make Christian choices and live in a Christian way. But they were also representative Westerners, shaped by Western history and conditions and values, and Western social networks and intellectual discourse. Today, Christians are no longer necessarily representative Westerners, and Westerners are not necessarily representative Christians; and that makes the period of double identity the more interesting. In fact the missionary movement was crucial to the way the Western world learned of the non-Western, because the missionary movement had perforce to engage with the cultures of the rest of the world in a more fundamental way than any other part of Western society.

Studies arising directly out of the work of mission in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had an immense impact on Western learning, opening new fields of study, pioneering new methods and disciplines, and adding new dimensions to those that already existed. It was the leading edge of the West's intellectual meeting with the non-Western world. It started within the Western world; the missionary movement was itself part of the intellectual discourse of the West. There was no other way open; none of us can begin to take in new ideas except in terms of ideas we already have. It was the conviction that Christ belonged to all humanity, that motivated engagement with non-Western cultures at perhaps the most fundamental level Westerners attainted during the colonial period.

But what began as a specific act of translation became part of a discovery of Christ. Once again the attempt to transmit faith in Christ across linguistic and cultural frontiers revealed that Christ had meanings and significance never guessed before, and revealed another glimpse of the glory of the completed, redeemed humanity. But there was no escape from the labour of translation, with its complexities, its ambiguities, and in the last analysis, its impossibility. The cost in application and agony was incalculable. The fundamental missionary experience, by with the endeavour stands or falls, is to live on terms set by someone else. This is as true in the intellectual realm as anywhere.
Our own situation is quite different from that of an earlier time. The process of transmission no longer takes place necessarily from the Western intellectual discourse. It is multicultural in its personnel; it will be increasingly multicultural in expression and application. I do not claim to know where that may lead. But it is worth noticing from the story of the missionary movement how often early mission studies--while originating within and never independent of the Western intellectual tradition--frequently expanded, revised, contradicted and subverted that tradition. This took place because the practitioners were seeking--as they believed, trusted, prayed--to follow Christ where no one had been before. It is time to do it again. At a time when Christianity is itself increasingly marginal to Western intellectual discourse, that discourse needs to come to terms with Christianity as a non-Western religion.