-by Mark Noll
Translating Christianity, Part 2
To be sure, Christianity in America grew from the stock of Christian Europe. But the special circumstances of American settlement--which mingled immigrants from many religious as well as ethnic regions and which was accompanied by a growing attachment to democratic liberalism--meant that Christianity in early America would also differ significantly from its shape in Europe. Thus, American dispositions were not theoretical but activist, not traditional but self-starting, not dependent on the state but voluntary, not institutional but individual. In Walls's terms, Christians in America came to be characterized by
vigorous expansionism; readiness of invention; a willingness to make the fullest use of contemporary technology; finance, organization, and business methods; a mental separation of the spiritual and the political realms combined with a conviction of the superlative excellence, if not the universal relevance, of the historic constitution and values of the nation; and an approach to theology, evangelism, and church life in terms of addressing problems and finding solutions.
With his willingness to see local culture as shaping much that American believers regard as unquestioned essentials of Christian faith, Walls is prepared to find fault. He thinks, for example, that Americans, and especially American missionaries, have been politically naïve. The naïveté lies in thinking that the American practice of separating church and state somehow represents the cessation of politics. By way of objection, Walls points out that most Americans embraced a separation of church and state from practical rather than theoretical reasons. There were simply too many different representatives of competing European churches to re-establish any one of them as the established religion. But when Americans treat their practical solution as a theological principle, "the effects," according to Walls,
have been paradoxical. American missions have tended to think of themselves as nonpolitical: how can it be otherwise if [as an assumption of American life] church and state live in different spheres? Non-Americans have seen continual political implications in their activities: how can it be otherwise if [as an assumption of life in most of the rest of the world] church and state inhabit the same sphere, or at least overlapping spheres?
Similarly, Walls thinks that the habit of perpetually writing new statements of faith for an ever-growing number of freshly minted institutions is as much a product of distinctly American circumstances as is American instincts on church and state. To Walls, as a non-American, it is evident that this practice of continual theological self-definition reflects "the characteristically American problem-solving approach at work," in which the common procedure is to "identify the problem [in this case doctrine], apply the right tools, and a solution will appear. Then move on to the next problem."
Equally characteristic of American habits of mind is the tendency to use such statements of faith as "tests for fellowship and a basis of separation." Walls is not surprised to see fragmentation by formula flourish in America, for "the principle of separation is the converse of the principle of free association." Nor is he shocked that the result of this process is "the atomization of the church." Indeed, that result is only what one might expect, once the distinctives of Christianity in America have been compared with what has usually not occurred in other Christian venues.
But Walls is not like other critics who simply bemoan the dismaying self-delusions of the American churches. It is a central plank of his whole platform that all vigorous forms of Christianity will be incarnated in their own cultures. Hence, the question for America (as for all other regions) is not if a cultural form of the faith develops, but whatkind of cultural Christianity emerges. Walls, despite his criticisms, is a critic with genuine sympathy. As he labors to explain at length in the rest of the book, the whole history of Christianity is a series of successive adaptations of the faith to local situations. If this adaptation has occurred in America, of course it yields skewings, distortions, and disfigurements of the faith, but it also yields a genuine incarnation.
"None of these marks," Walls reminds us, "and none of their effects, is nearly as important as the universal Christianity, the gospel of the risen Christ, to which historic American Christianity witnesses." In missiological terms, the only serious problem with American Christianity is forgetfulness. "There is nothing wrong with having local forms of Christianity--provided that we remember that they are local."
Walls's final judgment on American Christianity is much more admiring than critical. But admiration comes quite specifically from his perspective as a historian of Christian mission. In particular, he is much taken by the fact that, important as Americans have been for missionary work in the twentieth century, the really noteworthy fact about America in mission history is the conversion of Americans in the nineteenth century.
Walls does not provide extensive historical background for his assertion that "in no part of the world did that century see such a striking outcome [resulting from missionary activity] as in North America." But he is nonetheless on solid ground. At the time of the formation of the United States, and the continuation of Canada in loyalty to Great Britain, the state of Christianity in both countries resembled more the recent European picture of recession than the recent African picture of expansion. Not only were churches and denominations disrupted by the Revolutionary War, impoverished by economic dislocations, and suffering under the strains of uprooting (Canadian Loyalists), starting over again (United States patriots), or both (settlers moving west across the mountains in both Canada and the United States). Believers also were living in societies where non- or at best quasi-Christian values were increasing in cultural power. To be sure, memories from a Christian past were still strong. But the culture, guided by leaders wed to non-Christian versions of the Enlightenment, and imperiled by the barbarism of the frontier, was heading rapidly in a non-Christian direction.
In those bleak settings, marvels occurred. In both the United States and Canada, earnest evangelists (led by Methodists and Baptists) labored tirelessly to win the lost. Equally earnest champions of Christian civilization (led by Presbyterians and Congregationalists) developed elaborate rationales to demonstrate the compatibility of traditional Christianity with North America's newfound democracy. After only a few decades, equally earnest labors in evangelism and Christianization would firm up the faith of a burgeoning Roman Catholic population. The result in the period of roughly 1780 to 1860 was a rapid spread of Christian profession and Christian institution-building unlike anything that had been seen since the monastic revivals of the Middle Ages and unlike anything the modern world has seen, with the exception of Christian expansion in Korea and certain parts of Africa.
As a historian of the church's world mission, Andrew Walls is impressed. In particular, he is especially taken with American success in exploiting the voluntary society (or parachurch agency) as a means of promoting mission at home and abroad. Protestant voluntary societies resembled Catholic precedents in the history of monasticism more than either Protestants or Catholics recognized at the time. They began with German Lutherans in the late seventeenth century and High Church Anglicans in the early eighteenth century. They were used with telling effect by John Wesley and other British awakeners. But they came into their own in America.
Walls devotes most of two other essays to the importance of the mission-generated voluntary societies that flourished in Britain and, even more, America. He calls them "one of God's theological jokes," since they developed with almost no forethought, they received almost no attention from church leaders and weighty theologians, and they worked their leaven for change in the church almost before they were recognized. Yet, from the voluntary societies organized for missionary service, Walls can trace matters of immense Christian significance: for example, the relativizing of denominational barriers by people who were actively cooperating to spread the gospel, a door for service and leadership opened wide to the laity (especially women), and the development of new worlds of knowledge and spiritual concern through the distribution of missionary periodicals.
Walls has much more to say about the critical role that voluntary societies played in the Christian history of the last centuries, most of which activity he thinks has benefited the church. But here it is enough to recognize that Walls's missiological analysis of Christianity in America undergirds his very positive assessment of American faith. In a word, without an American form of Christianity, warts and all, the world would never have known the blessings brought by voluntary mission societies.
I have given here only an introduction to the cascade of insight that Walls's mission-trained eye brings to the subject of America's Christian history. Even so, work on America in The Missionary Movement in Christian History is only a cameo. But crafted with eyes trained by the early Christian fathers and the Venerable Bede, hands apprenticed to the task in Sierra Leone, and a heart loyal to the Incarnation, the cameo that results is a thing of rare beauty.
3.What makes The Missionary Movement in Christian History more than just fascinating history is the way Walls moves from subjects like the spread of Christianity in modern Africa, or America as a missionary trophy, to insights about the nature of Christian faith itself. Here, however, it is necessary to be even more allusive than in summarizing Walls's writing on Africa and America, for the results of his missiological research are more profound than any quick summary can measure.
For a sample of how Walls weaves his magic, go with him in the thought experiment that opens the book. Imagine an alien savant, unbound by the puny human life span, who wants to study Christianity as a lived reality and who is able to visit planet Earth at widely spaced intervals. His first visit occurs in A.D. 37 at a gathering of believers in Jerusalem where the ways in which this church differs from a Jewish sect are hard to discern. The Christians are honoring the seventh day, they meet in the temple, their religious reading is from the Hebrew Scriptures, and they circumcise their sons. Only by unusual interpretations of parts of those Hebrew Scriptures, specifically by relating Jewish accounts of the Messiah, the Suffering Servant, and the Son of Man to Jesus of Nazareth, do these Jews show that they are, in fact, Christians.
Next the extraterrestial returns in the year 325 to the little town of Nicea in modern Turkey where a great gathering of Christian leaders is taking place. Jews and the marks of Judaism are nowhere to be seen. Rather, the believers come from throughout the Mediterranean world and beyond. And they are preoccupied with minute, but also obviously momentous, discussion about how to understand the life of Jesus in the thought forms of Hellenistic culture.
The visitor is back in about three centuries, this time to the coast of Ireland. Here he encounters a crowd of monks. They are undergoing several kinds of privations, some self-inflicted, some arising from efforts to spread the message of Jesus to unappreciative listeners. Some of the monks have forsaken all fellowship with other humans and sit quietly in caves by the sea. The religious issue that consumes them is how to determine the exact date on which to celebrate Easter.
Now leap forward more than a millennium to 1840 and a great meeting of prosperous Londoners in Exeter Hall. They are convened to discuss how best to advance Christianity, along with commerce and civilization, in the continent of Africa. Their prosperity could not be in starker contrast to the poverty of the Irish monks, their lack of concern for anything Jewish as clear as at Nicea, their cen-trality in their society's power structure (which is at the pinnacle of all such powers in the world) as evident as was the marginality of the Christians of A.D. 37 in relationship to the might of Rome.
Finally, come with our alien to Lagos, Nigeria, in 1980. As Walls describes what the visitor sees,
a white-robed group is dancing and chanting through the streets on their way to their church. They are informing the world at large that they are Cherubim and Seraphim; they are inviting people to come and experience the power of God in their services. They claim that God has messages for particular individuals and that his power can be demonstrated in healing.
What such an extraterrestial visitor would note immediately is that Christianity does not possess a single, sharply defined cultural essence. Rather, it appears in different forms (sometimes, very different forms) in different centuries in different places. If the visitor had come to Nicea in 1840, there would have been virtually nothing Christian to see at all. If he had returned to London in 1980, there would have been much Christian architecture, but rituals of Christian practice far less expansive than on view in Nigeria.
Yet after a little more reflection, the visitor would have been able to say that, despite immense cultural disjunctions, certain continuities did, in fact, exist. The various Christian groups all spoke of "the final significance of Jesus." All of them possessed "a certain consciousness about history"; they looked backward in time to Jesus for the anchor of their existence and forward in time to what Jesus would yet accomplish. All continued to use the Scriptures, with those after the earliest meeting in Jerusalem studying writings directly about Jesus as well as the Hebrew Bible. Finally, all practiced rituals featuring the ceremonial eating of bread and wine and ceremonial washing with water.
After still more reflection, this time informed by historical consciousness, the visitor would have been led to a startling conclusion. Each of the new forms of the faith that he witnessed had resulted from a similar process. The first Christians were, in biblical language, adapting the old wineskin of Judaism to the new wine of Christianity. At Nicea, Jewish-Christian concepts were being translated into a Hellenistic idiom. In Ireland, a Hellenized faith was being rendered fit for a barbarian people who would soon carry the faith throughout all of northern Europe. In London, Victorian businessmen were outfitting a late manifestation of Northern European religion for export. And in Lagos, the Cherubim and Seraphim had begun to make something of the Englishmen's gift for themselves.
As a historian, what Walls wants us to see taking place in each instance is translation. One way of living out, or of speaking, the gospel, with all the cultural particularities that attend the use of specific languages, is being brought over into another way of living, another way of speaking, into all the cultural particulars that attend the use of the receptor language.
Armed with this insight, readers of the Bible find ordinary passages transmogrified into revelation of extraordinary power. Walls's favorite is Acts 11:19-20:
Now those who had been scattered by the persecution in connection with Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, telling the message only to Jews. Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus.
It is not Jesus the Christ (or Messiah) whom these unnamed Jewish Christians proclaim to the Greeks in Antioch, for that would be to ask non-Jews to take on the full load of Hebrew religion before they could understand the work of God. Rather, to Greeks who did not know the Hebrew Scriptures, the proclamation is of Jesus as Lord, the one from God who will rule over all nations and all other rulers. And so, in germ, lies hidden a sequential history that in mere centuries will take in Ireland and the rest of the barbaric North, and, a millennium or so later, will enfold to itself peoples of the Southern Hemisphere who knew neither Judaism nor Hellenism, and who could never be more than outsiders to Europe whether barbaric or industrial.
As a historian, Walls also wants us to see that this process of translation has been not only an interesting feature in the history of Christianity, but almost certainly its crucial feature. Had Christianity remained Jewish, it may well have perished in the destruction of Jerusalem wrought by Titus in A.D. 70. Had Christianity remained Hellenistic, it may well have perished when the Islamic followers of Allah swept out of the Middle East in the seventh century. If it had remained the preserve of barbarian monks, it perhaps could not have adjusted to the European renaissance or the great prosperity that some of Europe came to enjoy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. If it had been solely a creature of expanding European civilization, it might have been conclusively put to rest by one of the towering intellects of the nineteenth century, Hegel or Marx or Nietzsche or Wagner or Freud--or perhaps bled to death at Ypres or the Somme. But in each instance--"just in time," Walls says--translation saved the day.
At this point, Andrew Walls the historian gives way to Andrew Walls the theologian. Might the reason translation is such an important fact in Christian history be that translation reflects something more than just human history? Walls provides his answer at several places. His main point is that translating the gospel message from one culture to another turns out to define the character of Christian faith itself, because that is how Christianity began. Hear one of the passages in which these connections are joined:
In the Incarnation, the Word becomes flesh, but not simply flesh; Christian faith is not about a theophany or an avatar, the appearance of divinity on the human scene. The Word was made human. To continue the linguistic analogy, Christ was not simply a loanword adopted into the vocabulary of humanity; he was fully translated, taken into the functional system of the language, into the fullest reaches of personality, experience, and social relationship. The proper human response to the divine act of translation is conversion: the opening up of the functioning system of personality, intellect, emotions, relationship to the new meaning, to the expression of Christ. Following on the original act of translation in Jesus of Nazareth are countless re-translations into the thought forms and cultures of the different societies into which Christ is brought as conversion takes place.
Going on now as historian and theologian together, Walls suggests that the peculiar problems and possibilities of translation explain also one additional reality of Christian faith as it is lived by every believer, but also as a grand movement through the centuries. That reality is the paradoxical combination of, in his terms, "indigenization" and "pilgrimage." The gospel comes to each person and to all peoples exactly where they are. You do not have to stop being an American, a Japanese, a German, or a Terra del Fuegian in order to become a Christian. In fact, you will find resources in Christianity for you and your specific cultural situation that those from far away never dreamed possible.
Yet, at the same time that the gospel dignifies individual cultures by entering into all of them so particularly, it also calls all believers together to a pilgrim journey. The gospel that legitimates the particular upholds the universal. The gospel that communicates dignity to each believer from whatever culture calls each Christian to join all others in praising the universal rule of God in Christ. Believers will (in fact, must) worship in different ways. But believers together worship the one God revealed in the Son who fills all things.
Andrew Walls's essays, though they display the fruits of a lifetime's diligent labor, reading, and reflection, remain provocative more than definitive. To make this concession, however, is only to say that they touch on fundamental reality à la Chekov rather than Tolstoy, like "Jesus, Joy of Man's Desiring" instead of the Saint Matthew Passion, like a sip of your favorite expensive beverage rather than a tub of pop at a picnic. The extraordinary learning behind this book is worn lightly. The author is modest, self-effacing, and reserved. Yet a last citation, this one from the chapter "Culture and Conversion in Christian History," not only features many of Andrew Walls's central themes, but also suggests something of the supernal light reflected in these marvelous essays:
The homing and the pilgrim principles are in tension. They are not in opposition, nor are they to be held in some kind of balance. We need not fear getting too much of one or the other, only too little. To understand their relationship we have only to recall that both are the direct result of that incarnational and translational process whereby God redeems us through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. It is his life which enters the life of each new community where he is received by faith, and which is to be realized through all the courses of that community's thoughts and traditions. . . . The Christians of all communities, with all their distinctive discipleships, are brought together "in Christ." If his likeness is to be formed in each community of Christians, some sort of family resemblance should be developing across them. All these cultures which they represent, all the nationalities belong alike to the fullness of Humanity described so graphically in the Epistle to the Ephesians. It is a delightful paradox that the more Christ is translated into the various thought forms and life systems which form our various national identities, the richer all of us will be in our common Christian identity. The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us-and we beheld his glory, full of grace and truth.
Mark Noll is McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College. His inaugural Kuyper Lecture, given at Calvin College in the fall of 1995 and cosponsored by the Center for Public Justice, has just been published as Adding Cross to Crown: The Political Significance of Christ's Passion (Baker Book House).
Copyright(c) 1996 by Christianity Today, Inc/BOOKS & CULTURE November/December 1996, Vol. 2, No. 6, Page 6