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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Review of ‘Mission in the Early Church’ by Edward L. Smither


Mission-in-the-early-churchEdward L. Smither, Mission in the Early Church: Themes and Reflections (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2014).

The aim of Mission in the Early Church is “to begin a discussion about early Christian mission that will impact how we think about and approach mission today” (p. 1). Its author—Edward L. Smither associate professor of Intercultural Studies at Columbia International University in Columbia, South Carolina—pursues this aim by providing “an introductory reflection on some prominent marks of Christian mission in the early church” (p. 5), including suffering, evangelism, Bible translation, contextualization, word and deed, and the church. Smither’s treatment of these themes is brief, balanced, and readable.

Chapter 1, “Backgrounds,” summarizes “the origins and development of Christianity,” its “political and social contexts,” and “the currents of thought” it encountered during the period, A.D. 100–750. During this era, the church expanded westward through the Roman Empire as well as Eastward into Persia, Mesopotamia, and beyond. During the pre-Constantinian period, the “first Christians had expansionist tendencies without worldly power” (p. 16), as Smith quotes Dale T. Irvin and Scott W. Sunquist, experiencing repeated bouts of local persecution. “Constantine’s alleged conversion [in A.D. 312] certainly set into a motion a pattern in which kings converted and then directed or at least influenced their subjects to do the same” (p. 22). The entanglement of church and state in the West continued until the modern era. However, in the East, the church fell prey to the rising Islamic tide.” “Within a century of the death of Muhammad,” quoting Irvin and Sunquist again, “as many as half of the world’s Christians [who lived in the East] were under Muslim political rule” (p. 23). Throughout this period, Christians engaged “a variety of philosophies and religions” (p. 24), but especially Gnosticism, paganism, Zoroastrianism, Manicheanism, non-Christian monotheisms (i.e., Judaism and Islam), and numerous Christian heresies.

The title of chapter 2 reveals its topic: “Who Were the Missionaries?” Smither argues that there is evidence in this period for “official, full-time evangelists who proclaimed the gospel publicly in the early church” (p. 31). However, the majority of missionaries were “bivocational,” including “bishops, teachers, philosophers, and monks” (p. 32). Smither uses the word bivocational in an unusual way, here, it seems to me. While evangelism may not have been the first item in these groups’ job descriptions, all of them were connected to the church in some way, so they were not bivocational in the sense modern Christians use it, i.e., having an ecclesial as well as a “secular” job. (Even the philosophers Smither mentions, for example, are men like Justin Martyr and Origen, who ran catechetical schools.) The truly bivocational missionaries, in my opinion, are the “businessmen and merchants, colonists, and soldiers” who “played a significant role in early Christian mission” (p. 43). Smith quotes Adolph Harnack in this regard: “the great mission of Christianity was in reality accomplished by means of informal missionaries,” then comments, “it is not insignificant that the two largest communities in the early western church—Rome and Carthage—had undocumented origins” (p. 44).

Chapter 3, “Suffering,” that is not usually thought of in missiological terms by western Christians. Rather, we think of the suffering contemporary Christians endure in political terms, as a violation of their religious freedom rights. As Smither shows, however, “suffering [in the early church] did serve as a strategic means for the advancement of the gospel.” This happened because “the public context of persecution allowed Christians the opportunity to witness verbally about their faith and to clarify and defend the gospel.” Furthermore, given that the suffering was unjust, it “resulted in apologetics, written treatises that defended and articulated Christian belief.” A final effect of suffering was that it “invigorate[d] the church and its mission as martyrs were remembered on feast days, through sermons, sacred biographies (vitae) and even through the construction of churches” (p. 51).

Chapter 4, “Evangelism,” examines “how the early church approached evangelism” (p. 76). Although evangelism in the early church did not look like the altar call at a Billy Graham crusade, Smither contends that “early Christian mission was characterized by a great commitment to kerygmatic proclamation” (p. 89). Christians in this period were “integrated into the fabric of society” (p. 76), so evangelism took place among all classes. However, Smither pays special attention to the use of written testimonies (e.g., Augustine’s Confessions), and the church’s engagement with intellectuals, political leaders, and heretics.

The translation of Scripture is the focus of chapter 5. Following Lamin Sanneh, Smither refers to translation as “the vernacular principle,” i.e., “making Scripture available in the heart languages of the world’s cultures” (p. 92). He shows the vernacular principle at work in this period through the translation of the Bible into Syriac, Latin, Coptic, Gothic, Armenian, Georgian, and Ethiopic (Ge’ez). He concludes this section with a twofold irony related to Latin: “communities that translated Scripture into the local vernacular managed to avoid extinction, especially following the rise of Islam in the seventh century,” except in North Africa, which never translated Scripture into Punic and Berber, using Latin instead. This “helps explain why the church in North Africa went from being one of the fastest growing churches in the Roman period to virtually non-existent once the Arabs took control of the region.” Moreover, in the west, the Vulgate, which was commissioned to serve as “a vernacular translation” became “the standard Bible for the global church,” effectively stifl[ing] vernacular translation efforts until the fifteenth century” (p.107).

Chapter 7, “Contextualization,” examines “how early Christian missionaries articulated the faith through commonly understood ideas, by engaging sacred space, and through visual and work culture,” though it also notes “how the church failed at points to be indigenous in its message and approach” (p. 111). I was especially intrigued by Smither’s discussion of “visual and material culture” (p. 117). Columba’s mission to the Picts took up and transformed Pictish art forms. I couldn’t help but wonder after reading this section whether Christian approaches to contextualization focus too much on ideas and too little on sights and sounds.

Among North American evangelicals, the holism-priorism debate continues to divide evangelical missiologists. Holism refers to whether the church’s mission includes both gospel proclamation and social action. Priorism refers to whether proclamation has priority over social action within the church’s mission. Chapter 8, “Word and Deed,” examines this question, showing that “good works accompanied proclamation in early Christian mission.” Good deeds included “care for the poor, hungry, imprisoned, enslaved, and marginalized,” but it also included “ministry to those in need of healing and freedom demonic possession” (p. 128). Smither concludes that “there was little debate in the church over the relationship between proclamation and social action” (p. 146). As a Pentecostal, this chapter was intriguing to me for two reasons: First, the holism-priorism debate is alive in my own denomination, the Assemblies of God. After reading this chapter, I am strengthened in my own opinion that asking, “Proclamation or social action?” is a false alternative. Why not both? Second, it was encouraging to read about the continuing ministries of healing and exorcism in the early church. One wonders why, given this history, cessationism ever got off the ground, theologically speaking.

The concluding chapter, “Church,” looks at “how the church embodied and embraced mission” (p. 149). Smither argues that “church was central to mission in the early Christian centuries—both before and after Constantine. Though mission strategies changed over time and church forms looked different, there was never a time when there was church-less Christianity. The most visible expression of Christian mission was the church and the most powerful means for it was the church” (p. 162, emphasis added). It is often said that contemporary people like Jesus but not the church. The sentiment is understandable—given how often churches don’t act in a Christ-like manner. It still is wrongheaded, however. Christianity is a community that results from and engages in the mission of Jesus Christ himself.

Smither concludes Mission in the Early Church with a sentence worth pondering: “It is good to reflect on the church’s memory of mission and consider how it might shape us today” (p. 166). Reading Smither’s book deepened my understanding of this period in church history, but it also forced me to think about the same topics in my own ministry. Am I a missionary? How do I suffer? Am I evangelizing people who need Christ’s good news? How do I help people understand the Bible? Am I speaking to the unconverted in a way they understand? Is my verbal witness accompanied by good works? How do I lead the world into the body of Christ and the body of Christ back into the world? For me, Smither’s was a thought-provoking study well worth reading a second time.

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Review of ‘The Next America’ by Paul Taylor and the Pew Research Center


Unknown Paul Taylor, The Next America: Boomers, Millennials, and the Looming Generational Showdown (New York: PublicAffairs, 2014). Hardcover / Kindle

The Next America is not a book about how to contextualize the gospel in contemporary America. At least, that was not Paul Taylor’s intention in writing it. And yet, as I read his fascinating new study, I couldn’t help but notice its missiological significance.

Drawing on reams of research by the Pew Research Center, which he serves as executive vice president, Taylor describes “the demographic, economic, social, cultural, and technological changes that are remaking not just our politics but our families, livelihoods, relationships, and identities. These shifts have left no realm of society untouched.” He goes on to summarize the effects of those changes this way: “As a people, we’re growing older, more unequal, more diverse, more mixed race, more digitally linked, more tolerant, less married, less fertile, less religious, less mobile, and less confident” (p. 6). Throughout the book, he focuses specifically on the generational differences between “boomers” (Americans born from 1946 to 1964) and “millennials” (Americans born after 1980), the former often being parents of the latter.

After an introductory chapter, successive chapters delve into the specifics of generation gaps (chs. 2–4), economic differences (ch. 5), immigration (ch. 6), racial identity (ch. 7), marriage (ch. 8), religion (ch. 9), use of technology (ch. 10), aging (chs. 11–12), and the effect of these changes on America’s social welfare programs (ch. 13). Rather than summarizing the content of these chapters, let me briefly highlight the kinds of questions missionally minded Christians might ask after reading this book:

  • Taylor writes, “Young and old in America are poles apart. Demographically, politically, economically, socially, and technologically, the generations are more different from each other now than at any time in living memory” (p. 29). That being the case, how can Christians show the gospel’s relevance to the hopes and fears of each generation without being captured by the prejudices and proclivities of any of them?
  • “Millennials and Xers [Americans born 1965–1980] are not only in far worse financial shape than Boomers and Silents [Americans born 1928–1945] now, they are also in worse shape than these older generations were back when they were the age Millennials and Xers are now” (p. 60). Moreover, “The young today are paying taxes to support a level of benefits [such as Social Security and Medicare] for the old that they themselves have no prospect of receiving when they become old” (p. 184). That being the case, how can Christians disciple believers, both young and old, to become better stewards of the financial resources God has given them as well as advocates of what Taylor calls “generational equity” (p. 184)?
  • “America is already one of the most racially and ethnically diverse nations in history, and the modern immigration wave is making our tapestry more intricate with each passing year” (p. 71). That being the case, how should Christians evangelize and disciple immigrant populations, welcome them into our churches, and utilize their networks in their lands of birth for missional ends?
  • “Our culture has traded the melting pot for the mosaic. We glory in our distinctive hues. In this new milieu, being mixed race—a stigma not just in our society but in most societies for most of human history—carries cultural cachet” (pp. 95–96). That being the case, how do Christians promote greater racial and ethnic diversity at all levels of their congregations? How do we overcome the de facto segregation so characteristic of American churches?
  • “Lots of particular marriages fail for lots of particular reasons. But nowadays it’s the institution itself that’s in big trouble. And the biggest problem isn’t that people who try marriage are failing at it. It’s that fewer are trying at all” (p. 107). That being the case, how should Christians minister to people among whom extramarital sex and cohabitation are routine, to parents who consider nonmarital childbirth nonproblematic (41 percent of all childbirths in America are now nonmarital), to older people who in increasing numbers divorce their spouses after decades of marriage, and to gay and lesbian persons who want their relationships recognized on par with traditional, opposite-sex marriages?
  • Quoting Mark Chaves, Taylor writes, “there is much continuity [in American religion], and there is some decline, but no traditional religious belief or practice as increased in recent decades” (p. 129). That being the case, how can Christians best serve the growing ranks of “religious nones,” people who, while not necessarily secular or atheist, are nonetheless not interested in institutional churches and traditional dogma?
  • Millennials’ “information ecosystem and social platforms are vastly different from those of her forebears. The ever-changing digital landscape is likely to keep those generation gaps quite wide for the foreseeable future. It may even change the very nature of what it means to be human and to grow old” (p. 156). That being the case, how do contemporary Christians make best use of digital technology? How do we leverage it for gospel ends, without becoming unwise users of it?
  • “Between now and midcentury, even absent any breakthroughs in life extension, the graying of the world’s population [because of both better healthcare and fewer births] will put enormous stress on economics, families, and governments in the US and around the world” (p. 167). That being the case, how should Christians think about aging, generational equity, the importance of having children, and other issues that, while not being explicitly missional issues, nonetheless have implicit consequences for Christian mission in the modern world?

I recognize that my missiological reading of The Next America may not appeal to all readers. For example, I doubt that atheists, agnostics, or adherents of non-Christian religions and worldviews will purchase this book because of the slant of my review. If so, that’s a shame, for this book provides important information about social changes in America that raise questions all Americans—religious or irreligious—will need to answer in the coming years. If I’ve highlighted this book’s relevance for Christians, it’s only because the trends Taylor analyzes have such clear missiological import.

I highly encourage Christian pastors, educators, and lay leaders to readers this book. I also encourage readers to bookmark both http://www.pewresearch.org and http://www.pewforum.org in their web browsers. These websites, among many sites maintained by the Pew Research Center, provide timely studies that are always worth reading.

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote yes in my Amazon.com review page.

 

 

 

 

Review of ‘A Missional Orthodoxy’ by Gary Tyra


Unknown Gary Tyra, A Missional Orthodoxy: Theology and Ministry in a Post-Christian Context (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2013). Paperback / Kindle 

According to research by The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in 2012, from 2007 to 2012, the percentage of Americans identifying themselves as Christians declined by 5 points, from 78 to 73. By contrast, the percentage of Americans identifying themselves as having no religious affiliation increased by 4.3 points, from 15.3 to 19.6. The so-called “nones” described their religious preference as atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular.” In contrast to “Christian” America, American “nones” are tend to be younger and more political liberal.

The decline of Christian affiliation, the rise of religious non-affiliation, and the attendant shift in political values constitutes a missiological challenge for evangelical Christians. How do we evangelize and disciple in a culture that is increasingly post-Christian? Gary Tyra sets out to answer precisely that question in his new book, A Missional Orthodoxy: Theology and Ministry in a Post-Christian Context.

Tyra is associate professor of biblical and practical theology at Vanguard University in Costa Mesa, California, and an Assemblies of God minister. (Full disclosure: He is also a personal friend and an occasional contributor to Enrichment, a journal for AG ministers that I edit.) His previous books include The Holy Spirit in Mission, Christ’s Empowering Presence, and Defeating Pharisaism.

For Tyra, answering the missiological challenge of post-Christian America requires fidelity to two biblical imperatives: (1) “to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people” (Jude 3) and (2) to “become all things too people so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22). These imperatives are reflected in the words orthodoxy and missional in the book’s title.

Although a Pentecostal, Tyra argues that fidelity to these imperatives ought to characterize evangelical Christianity generally, not just Pentecostalism. He develops this argument in dialogue with the writings of liberal Protestant Marcus Born and emerging evangelical Brian McLaren. He surveys their proposals on eight theological topics—Bible, God, Jesus Christ, Holy Spirit, human beings, salvation, church, and eschatology—and concludes that they, in varying degrees, sacrifice the orthodox imperative to the missional imperative. In other words, so concerned are they to make Christianity relevant to a postmodern generation, that they—especially Borg–reformulate doctrines in ways that conflict with both the Bible and the Great Tradition of Nicene orthodoxy.

This doesn’t mean that Tyra is unsympathetic to their critiques, however. Indeed, Tyra concedes that they are correct in arguing that evangelical Christianity has sometimes sacrificed missional relevance to the demands of an arid orthodoxy. What makes Tyra’s missional orthodoxy such an attractive proposal is that it balances the imperatives of orthodoxy and mission in a way that steers between the Scylla of liberalism and Charybdis of fundamentalism.

Take, for example, the topic of Christology. Whereas liberalism tends to emphasize the humanity of Christ at the expense of (even in the rejection of) his divinity, fundamentalism tends to emphasize the divinity of Christ at the expense of his humanity. According to Tyra, missional orthodoxy exposes this as a false antithesis, for the Bible teaches and the Great Tradition codifies that Jesus is fully divine and fully human in one person.

Or take the topic of salvation. Whereas fundamentalism tends to emphasize the cross as the atoning sacrifice by which God forgives our sins, liberalism tends to emphasize the cross as a moral example of self-giving love. Again, this is a false antithesis, for the cross is both of these things. The implication of this is that Christian mission includes both evangelism and social action.

Though I have simplified Tyra’s well-thought-out argument on these two topics for illustrative purposes, I think Tyra is basically correct in identifying the false antitheses that so often plague discussions of Christian mission generally and post-Christian mission specifically. Missional orthodoxy has the capacity “to be faithful to both the biblical text and the missional task,” as Tyra puts it.

In a book of this size, covering as much theological ground as it does, it is inevitable that readers will disagree with this or that conclusion drawn by Tyra. Nonetheless, on the whole, the proposal is so well-grounded in the Bible that evangelicals of many stripes can unite under the banner of missional orthodoxy, which I take it was part of Tyra’s hope for the book.

I only wish that Tyra had dialogued with representatives of the other side of the spectrum than Borg and McLaren. If, as Tyra contends, liberalism and fundamentalism are equal but opposite errors, it would be helpful to line them up side by side for purposes of contrast and comparison. My guess is that Tyra didn’t do this because at nearly 400 pages, A Missional Orthodoxy is already a long book, and because he had previously criticized fundamentalism in Defeating Pharisaism.

(For members of my Assemblies of God tribe, I should note that what Tyra and I mean by the word fundamentalism is different from what the word fundamental means in our Statement of Fundamental Truths.)

I heartily recommend A Missional Orthodoxy to evangelical pastors—especially younger colleagues—who are struggling with the challenge of ministering within an increasingly post-Christian society. I think it would make an excellent textbook in an undergraduate Christian theology class. And while I would love to see it read by laypersons in Sunday school classes and small groups, my fear is that its length will be daunting for the average parishioner. Nevertheless, as Jesus said in an entirely different context, they who endure to the end will be saved. Or at least rendered more missionally orthodox.

P.S. If you found this review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

Chris Wright Lectures at AGTS


From my friend William Molenaar’s blog:

Recently, Dr. Christopher J. H. Wright gave the following series of lectures for the Spring Lectureship at the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary:

Dr. Wright also gave the following sermon at the Assemblies of God Headquarters chapel:

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