Review of ‘The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History’ by Andrew F. Walls

Walls, Andrew F. 2002. The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission and Appropriation of Faith. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis.

The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History is a collection of essays, originally published independently, which Andrew F. Walls has organized into three parts. Part One consists of four studies of “recurrent themes of Christian history, and of Christian historiography, viewed intercontinentally.” Parts Two and Three consist of eleven studies of “the transmission and appropriation of the Christian faith” in “Africa” and “the modern missionary movement from the West,” respectively (p. ix). Because of the wide-ranging nature of the book’s interests, it is difficult to review it as a whole. So, instead, this review will focus on the themes in three chapters.

Chapter 1, “A History of the Expansion of Christianity Reconsidered,” reviews the contribution of Kenneth Scott Latourette’s magisterial, seven-volume history of missions of that title. Latourette famously described the history of Christianity’s expansion in “the spread of the influence of Jesus.” He went on to propose what Walls calls “a threefold means for measuring the influence of Christ” (p. 9).

Walls devotes the bulk of chapter 1 to outlining and giving theological depth to Latourette’s “threefold means.” He names them “The Church Test” (p. 10), “The Kingdom Test” (p. 13), and “The Gospel Test” (p. 18). “The first sign of the expansion of the influence of Christ is the presence of a community of people who willingly bear his name, an ‘Israel’ that maintains his worship. The other tests themselves presuppose this one…” (p. 10). The second test regards “the numbers and strength of new movements owing their origin to Jesus Christ,” which was Latourette’s means of testing “the depth of Christian expansion at any one time in any given area” (p. 14, emphasis in original). “Kingdom movements,” writes Walls, “call the church to repentance and to alertness to the presence of Christ within,” and are thus inclusive of “many movements of reformation, renewal, and revival” (p. 15). The third test pertains to “the effect of Christ on people and on cultures,” an effect that varies in different times and places because the “scope of the principalities and powers and their corrupting rule is immense” (pp. 18, 19). An obvious example of this is the difference between the guilt-innocence cultures and honor-shame cultures hear the gospel.

Chapter 3, “From Christendom to World Christianity,” highlights the serial nature of Christian expansion. In two paragraphs that repay careful attention, Walls writes:

…The Christian story is serial: its center moves from place to place. No one church or place or culture owns it. At different times, different peoples and places have become its heartlands, its chief representatives. Then the baton passes on to others. Christian progress is never final, never a set of gains to be plotted on the map. The rhetoric of some of our hymns, and many of our sermons, about the triumphant host streaming out to conquer the world is more Islamic than Christian [!]. Christian history reveals the faith often withering in its heartlands, in its centers of seeming strength and importance, to establish itself on or beyond its margins. It has vulnerability, a certain fragility, at its heart—the vulnerability of the cross, the fragility of the earthen vessel

In other words, cross-cultural diffusion has been necessary to Christianity. It has been its life’s blood, and without it the faith could not have survived. It does not, like so many of the religions of India, belong to a particular soil; nor does it, like Islam, produce a distinctive and immediately recognisable [sic] form of civilization. The missionary movement from the West, therefore, seen in the total history of Christianity, is one of a series of major cross-cultural diffusions…” (pp. 66–67).

To the extent that the book’s fifteen independent chapters have a unifying theme, this is it. Christianity expands on a serial basis through cross-cultural processes. One can never assume its triumph in history; one must always be incarnating the faith once delivered to new contexts.

Chapter 13, “The Multiple Conversions of Timothy Richard,” examines the missiological shifts made by Richard, a Welsh Baptist missionary to China, over the course of his tenure there in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Walls makes two points: First, these shifts took place in response to changing conditions in China. Walls writes:

[Richard’s] multiple conversions—from conventional [British] evangelism to methods that took China seriously, to famine relief work, to prophet of structural reform, to theologian or religions, to worker for peace and champion of the submerged tenth—mark stages that marked the wider movement in different parts of the world and at different periods (p. 258).

Richard,’ experience, in other words, was “paradigmatic…of the instincts of the missionary movement at work.” These instincts were additive rather than subtractive, however, “never abandoning its original position [of evangelism] but clearing space around it in response to developing perspectives” (p. 258). In other words, a mission that began with the goal of saving souls had to, in response to changing circumstances, take cognizance of the physical, social, and ideological elements impinged on would-be converts’ lived experience. Only in this way could the fullness of Christ’s kingdom be experienced.

The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History is a rich, suggestive work that needs to be read several times to fully digest its significance. This review has highlighted three chapters only because they identify themes that recur throughout the work: the measurement of Christian influence, the serial nature of Christian expansion, and the increasing scope of missionary concern.

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