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PROFILE/ANDREW WALLS AND THE TRANSFORMATION
Andrew F. Walls is one of the most important interpreters of Christianity
and its missionary role in our time. His understanding of the church’s transformation
from Christendom to world Christianity cuts across disciplines of history,
theology, mission studies, and biblical exegesis, and runs deep into the life
of the church. M. Noll offers the assessment that “no one has written with
greater wisdom about what it means for the Western Christian religion to
become the global Christian religion than A.F. Walls….” Presently two volumes,
both published by Orbis, collect some of his most important essays, The
Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of
Faith (1996) and The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History:
Studies in the Transmission and Appropriation of Faith (2002).
Due to the Depression and his father’s search for work, Walls was born a
Scot in “exile” in New Milton, England, in 1928. He attended Oxford, where
he received a BA (1948), a MA (1952), and a BLitt (1954). At Oxford, he was
a student of both theology and church history, and focused his graduate work
on Patristic studies, studying with F.L. Cross.
In 1952, Walls assumed the roles of the Secretary and Librarian of Tyndale
House located in Cambridge, a center of evangelical biblical scholarship associated
with the Inter-Varsity student movement. Such titles belied their administrative
responsibility, and this time proved instrumental in ensuring its continued
existence. During the Tyndale years, F.F. Bruce became a friend and provider
of counsel, a relationship that continued until the end of his life. Perhaps
most revealing, this period brought to the fore one of Walls’ chief characteristics,
that of encouraging the personal development and scholarship of others.
In 1957, Walls moved to Sierra Leone where he became a Lecturer in Theology
at Fourah Bay College, which at that time provided both a university education
and ministerial training. Then, in 1962 he became the head of the Department
of Religion at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Life in Africa is the background
for understanding Walls’ unique contributions to the church and academy. While
teaching church history to seminarians in Sierra Leone, he underwent a new
way of seeing, a “conversion” of sorts. “I still remember the force with
which one day the realization struck me that I, while happily pontificating
on the 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.... 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 light of all
the religious events going on around me” (Missionary Movement, xiii).
Joined to this was a new learning inquiry—the study of Christianity, religion,
and society in Africa—into the world around him. As a historian of Christianity,
Walls made clear that Africa’s marginalization was untenable. Practically
and conceptually, such a move raised broader questions about the western-centered
church history syllabus.
Returning to Scotland in 1966, Walls began a teaching post at the Univ.
of Aberdeen that would continue to 1985. At Aberdeen he taught in the divinity
school, and later, opened a university department of religion. In 1982, he
founded the Centre for the Study of Christianity in the Non-Western World
(CSCNWW). Beginning in 1986, Walls and the CSCNWW found a home at the University
of Edinburgh. The CSCNWW embodies Walls’ commitment to building an intercultural
learning community where matters of the global church are explored. Along
the full course of his academic career, Walls founded and edited a number
of journals and had leading roles in mission and research societies.
Following retirement from Edinburgh, Walls has held a number of distinguished
academic posts. From 1997 to 2001, he served as guest professor of Ecumenics
and Mission Research at Princeton Theological Seminary. In 2000, he was the
inaugural holder of the Monrad Family Visiting Chair of World Christianity
at Harvard University Divinity School. His teaching also continues at the
Akrofi-Christaller Memorial Centre in Akropong, Ghana, directed by K. Bediako.
A wide-ranging commitment to public life and the arts in Scotland was considerably
important for Walls, and in 1987 he was awarded the Order of the British Empire.
Subsequent to his latest “retirement,” he has maintained an apparently ceaseless
schedule of travel, lecturing, and consultations. In 2003, Walls celebrated
fifty years of marriage to Doreen and fifty years as a lay Methodist preacher.
Telling the Story of the Church
In Walls’ most recent collection of essays, The Cross-Cultural Process
in Christian History, as well as his other writings, a recurring story
is told of “the expansion of the Christian faith by its interaction with
different cultures and even languages” (9-10). This “interaction” is the
cross-cultural story of Christianity. As Walls develops the narrative, the
cross-cultural development of the church is connected to the incarnation,
a historical event leading to a historical process. Christ’s incarnation
is about cultural specificity, and ultimately, diffusion among cultures and
traditions; thus, the expansion of Christianity as a cross-cultural story.
As told by Walls, the key development in the cross-cultural story is the
Gentile mission of the Antioch church, which pressed forward with the gospel
across cultural barriers, and the Jerusalem council in Acts 15, which ensured
the future of the church. As Walls recounts the gathering, “Finally, after
deep deliberation, the leaders of the Jerusalem community (swayed, in the
Acts account, not by Paul’s torrid eloquence but by the measured judgments
of the seniors who had known Paul the best, Peter and James the Just) accepted
the essentials of Paul’s argument. Though circumcised, Torah-keeping Jews
themselves, they recognized that Gentile believers in the Messiah could enter
Israel without becoming Jews. They were converts not proselytes” (“Old Athens
and New Jerusalem: Some Signposts for Christian Scholarship in the Early History
of Mission Studies,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research
21 [4, 1997] 147). From this, Walls concludes, “It is hardly possible to exaggerate
the importance of this early controversy and its outcome; it is a pivot on
which Christian history turns…” for it “built the principle of cultural diversity
into Christianity in perpetuity” (148).
This cross-cultural narrative situates contemporary developments in the
world church and mission. Walls reads Scripture in a way that helps us see
why Christianity is inherently polycentric, why Africa, Asia and Latin America
are important not just numerically for the church, but theologically. That
the church is a multitude, and perhaps never as much as today, is in Walls’
view a natural consequence of the story of the church in the book of Acts.
And because the people of God are not holders of a territorial faith, mobility
and mission becomes the church, its continual source of renewal. In summary,
there are good reasons why we might characterize Walls’ approach as narrative
theology or missiology.
Three Key Ideas
In Walls’ words, and arising from his experiences in Africa and Scotland,
Christianity is undergoing a gravitational shift from the western to the non-western
world. While an essayist, there is a continuity of ideas throughout his writing
intended to help us understand what is taking place in the global church.
Among them are three key ideas: Christianity as serial in development, conversion
as the turning what is there to Christ, and translation as the process of
The first key idea in Walls thought is that the spread of Christianity has
not been progressive, but serial in development. That is, Christian expansion
is not linear in movement, but rather a series of movements forward and backward,
of advancement and recession. Such continual shifting, in Walls view, is due
in large measure to its vulnerability manifest in the incarnation, cross,
and the earthen vessel. Historically and right before our eyes, the heartlands
of Christian witness shift, the margins become the new centers.
Conversion, the second key concept in Walls thought, is the appropriation
of Christ into thought, life, culture, and mind. Conversion is “turning” what
is already there to Christ, not adding something new to something old. New
life in Christ is not about cultural uniformity, which comes from proselytizing,
but always about fresh appropriations or translations of the Christian faith.
The distinction between the convert and proselyte, Walls proposes, is crucial,
as the latter simply and wrongly is forced to repeat a foreign cultural form
of belief and practice. This carries much importance for the practice of cross-cultural
Thus conversion leads to the embodiment of faith in diverse cultures, which
Walls argues in the third and perhaps most important key idea, is translation.
Theologically, God is a translator, centrally as Christ took on human form.
Translation is linguistic and cultural, and is always taking place. This notion
of translation, very different from “contextualization,” is much more enriching
for the wider church, yet also profoundly challenges existing paradigms of
By way of one consequence, Walls takes Christianity to be both a captive
to and liberator of cultures. Thus the translation of the gospel into a culture
never occurs without a critique of culture. Transmission is certainly not
an uncomplicated process, but ultimately Walls believes that translation produces
a dynamic of theological integrity.
Walls’ reading of Christianity operates on many levels, but it always comes
back the person and work of Jesus. “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” (Missionary Movement, xvi).
This experience of Christianity, at once local yet profoundly catholic,
continues as women and men follow Christ throughout the world. Such an ecclesiology
brings profound implications for theology.
The body of work that Walls has developed represents a journey of listening
and quest for understanding. He shows us many of the reasons why we live in
a moment for the church that is filled with immense opportunity for witness
Walls is known not only for his pioneering scholarship, but also his generosity
of spirit, time, and intellectual energy, especially with his students. One
would be remiss, however, not to mention his sense of humor, theatrical gifts,
and appreciation for literary works that range from Austen to Potter. But
it is Walls’ devotion to a larger story that shapes his person most profoundly.
As B. Stanley eloquently writes of Walls: “The scholar pilgrim will, one suspects,
never be content to hang up his staff. He has been a true Methodist itinerant,
an evangelist who has given his life to the challenge
of expounding to a frequently resistant and insular theological constituency
the full implications of the words of C. Wesley, ‘the arms of love that compass
me would all mankind embrace.” Countless Christians of many traditions and
all continents have much cause to be grateful to God for A.F. Walls” (“Profile:
Andrew Walls,” Epworth Review 28 [4, 2001] 25).
If as a seminarian you sense the need for an ecclesiology and missiology
able to operate with integrity and expectation in the 21st century, then the
work of A. Walls is an invaluable guide. If you are looking for a model of
a committed life, of scholarship in service of the church, then Walls is
an exemplar for roads we have yet to travel.
By Mark R. Gornik, Ph.D Candidate, Centre for the Study of Christianity
in the Non-Western World, New College, University of Edinburgh.