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Review of Evelyne A. Reisacher, ed., Toward Respectful Understanding and Witness among Muslims: Essays in Honor of J. Dudley Woodberry

EVELYNE A. REISACHER, ed. Toward Respectful Understanding and Witness among Muslims: Essays in Honor of J. Dudley Woodberry. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2012. 325 pp. Paperback. $20.99.

J. Dudley Woodberry’s life has been focused on connecting the Messiah to the Muslim world. As a young man, this third-generation missionary had an interaction with Samuel Zwemer, the famous missionary and scholar of Islam, who challenged him to follow that same course (15, 19). After 11 years of ministry in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia, Woodberry’s family moved to the United States where eventually he took a position teaching at Fuller Theological Seminary, ultimately serving as dean of the School of World Mission (now School of Intercultural Studies) from 1992–1999 (20–21). Woodberry has influenced generations of students through his teaching and prolific writings.

Toward Respectful Understanding and Witness among Muslims: Essays in Honor of J. Dudley Woodberry is organized around three threads from his “academic and missional life as a professor of Islamic Studies”: encouraging friendly conversation, Christian scholarship, and Christian witness (7). This Festschrift, edited by Evelyne A. Reisacher, explores these themes by joining together fifteen distinguished Christian scholars of Islam and offering “a seldom-available synopsis of the theories of contemporary leading Christian academicians” geared “for people with research interests in Islam, for Bible school and seminary students, for church leaders, and for all those who want to be informed of the latest empirical research and theoretical perspectives affecting Muslim-Christian relations” (back cover). It is a tribute to the legacy of Woodberry: “a cutting edge researcher, who likes to keep the gospel at the center of his academic explorations” (8).

In the first section, Martin Accad’s “Christian Attitudes toward Islam and Muslims: A Kerygmatic Approach” and Jonathan Culver’s “The Ishmael Promises and Mission Motivation” made a significant impression on me as they outline productive approaches that encourage friendly conversation and interaction with Muslims. They invite the reader to consider engaging Muslims using rhetoric that best fits their path as well as to consider paths that may have formerly been deemed off-limits (seeing Ishmael as a potential connection point). Reisacher’s chapter on “Portraying Muslim Women” is also notable for the way that it challenges the reader to move beyond common stereotypes and unhelpful characterizations.

The following section included excellent studies by Dean Gilliland, “Folk Elements in Muslim Expressions of African Religion,” and Stephen Mutuku Sesi, “The Kaya ‘Shrine’ and the Mosque: Religious Bifurcation among Miji-Kenda Muslims in Kenya.” During his time in the Middle East, Woodberry encountered “local expressions of Islam and the varieties of popular Islam that would engage much of his future teaching” (19). I appreciated how this book includes chapters that follow Woodberry’s lead in dealing with the realities of folk Islam, poking into niches of culture and language that are often ignored. Gilliland, for example, looks briefly at how Islam impacts and is affected by traditional leadership structures (189). While I wish the topic was resolved and did not need further discussion, Rick Brown’s chapter “Who was ‘Allah’ before Islam? Evidence that the Term ‘Allah’ Originated with Jewish and Christian Arabs” approaches his subject matter from a different angle. He examines the history of this word in “inscriptions, historical documents, and Arabic translations of the Bible” to show that this “was the term used by pre-Islamic Jewish and Christian Arabs to refer to God” (163). While not all readers may believe his argument offers the final word on this subject, my hope is that the debate on the Christian use of the name Allah can finally be put to rest!

Any compilation like this can be uneven. I found Kenneth Cragg’s chapter “The Christian Scholar with Islam: ‘Go, Take, Learn’” to be the weakest of the book. While it contained some insights, its lack of structure and specificity left me disappointed. On the flip side, I found the book’s seventh chapter, by Joseph Cumming, on the doctrine of God and possible Christian parallels to be so specific, so nuanced, and so tied its historical situation that it was hard to imagine ways that this scholarly research could be of practical importance.

In the final section, I found Phil Parshall’s “Contextualization” and John Jay Travis’ “Reflections on Jesus Movements among Muslims with Special Reference to Movements within Asian Muslim Communities” to make excellent use of practical on-the-ground experience and research. Parshall uses stories and lists of observations to walk the reader through the ways their mission team actually contextualized. Travis unpacks research done in South Asia, telling actual conversion stories to help show how Muslims come to follow Christ in real life. Caleb Chul-Soo Kim’s “Afflictions of Jinn among the Swahili and an Appropriate Christian Approach” is well-researched and well-constructed, but I was disappointed and surprised to find that he had neglected to consider how a proper pneumatology (being filled with God’s good and Holy Spirit) could address the problem of spirit possession and influence. The final chapter, “Peacemaking as a Witness” by Christine Amal Mallouhi brings the book to an excellent conclusion. I found the section on powerlessness and vulnerability to be especially relevant to the ways Christians should approach Muslims today (268–9).

The book includes a biography of Woodberry that is inspiring, and Jared Holton’s bibliography of Woodberry’s collected works is imposing. Overall, I was impressed with the way this compilation let the work and witness of Woodberry shape the content. It honors Woodberry by following his example as he seeks to follow the example of Christ in walking with us in wisdom into the Islamic world. This is an important resource for the church because, as Shenk notes in the Forward, “at a time when books abound that nurture un-Christian thinking about Muslims, this book refreshingly encourages a spirit of Christlike engagement with Muslims” (1). That may be the most important thread to be found woven through this volume —the centrality of Jesus for respectful understanding and witness.

Alan Howell

Missionary serving the Makua-Metto people

Montepuez, Mozambique

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Review of Craig Van Gelder and Dwight J. Zscheile, Participating in God’s Mission: A Theological Missiology for the Church in America

Craig Van Gelder and Dwight J. Zscheile. Participating in God’s Mission: A Theological Missiology for the Church in America. The Gospel and Our Culture Series. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018. 384 pp. Paperback. $35.00.

Craig Van Gelder has been a key contributor to the missional church conversation in North America over the past two decades. Stemming from his initial involvement in the seminal book, Missional Church,1 Van Gelder has dedicated his academic career to developing church leaders who can help churches participate in God’s mission in the American context. This new book, coauthored with his Luther Seminary colleague and protégé Dwight Zscheile brings together much of his work and thought.2

Their main thesis is clear: it is time for the American church to view its ecclesiological identity through a missiological lens. The Western world—once assumed to be Christian and, thus, the launching point of foreign missions—is now largely secular. The orienting question now is not, they contend, how the church should adapt to changing culture. Rather, it is how the church should bear witness to the gospel within the American context (5). It is this shift that moves the missional conversation from ecclesiology to theology. God is at work in the world in creative and redemptive ways, bringing the good news of the kingdom into the world. The church is called to participate with God in this redemptive movement. Led by the Spirit, the church seeks to join God in incarnating the gospel within its local context.

To begin this conversation, Van Gelder and Zscheile argue that America is experiencing a great “unraveling” in several cultural areas. Rapid and unsettling change is happening within population trends, demographic shifts, economic realities, family makeup, and church attendance (13–20). White Christian America is on the decline, according to the authors, while the majority church is now in the Global South (21–24). This has created great disruption for established churches in America, particularly those descending from European roots. These massive shifts call the church to live out of its missionary identity.

The authors deepen their analysis through a historical overview of the church in America over five periods: colonial experience, expanding frontier, the church in the city, suburban success, and late modern success strategies. They highlight key historical moments within American culture and trace the church’s development in response to these moments. They sketch “public missiologies,” or attempts of the church to missiologically engage its American context, and they demonstrate the various aspects of the gospel that these missiologies represent (63). These engagements, they argue, illustrate the church’s effective and ineffective attempts at contextualizing the gospel in America. The authors also outline the historical trajectory of theological leadership training and formation.

The book ends with an analysis of current contemporary culture followed by a theological reflection on the life and love of the Triune God. They emphasize themes flowing from the mission of God, such as the communion of God, resurrection hope, a community of promise, reconciliation, cruciform mission, and others that can be helpful frameworks for churches as they imagine their future of bearing witness to the gospel in the American context. The authors also offer some critique and guidance on church organization and leadership training for moving into the future.

This book delivers in many ways. The description of the unraveling in American culture is accurate and helpful. The authors note such disrupting cultural trends as technology, loss of community, and the feeling of insecurity. Church leaders feel the effects of these trends, but the authors articulate the deeper societal currents behind them that help the reader understand the disruption more fully. The historical overview of the church in America is the bulk of the book. Their synthesis of American history, church development, and missiological actions is excellent. Heirs of the Restoration tradition will see much that rings true in their description of the evolution of local church identities and various missiological engagements of the American church, as similar evolutions and engagements have happened in Stone-Campbell churches (e.g., from neighborhood churches to “attractional” churches, from evangelistic revivals to church growth methods). Finally, their contemporary critique and theological reflection offers faithful and responsible pathways into the future.

The authors emphasize that the American church does not need to do better or try harder (a theme found often in popular church literature). For decades churches have tried to organize programs better, staff smarter, and market more strategically. In contrast, the authors argue that a deep disruption has happened in our culture, and it is time to revisit our theological roots found within the missio Dei. It is this theological foundation that will help the church bear witness to the gospel in America.

I have a few quibbles with the book. I wish their theology sections (chs. 2 and 9) were more biblically robust. Most of the biblical discussion is taken from Acts and the Gospels. The authors could have bolstered their case if they would have incorporated Paul more in talking about the triune life of God.3 Their critiques are fair-handed throughout. The authors write from a mainline perspective, but they try hard to be equitable in their analysis of both mainline and evangelical churches. They deconstruct may of the American church’s ecclesiological assumptions, but this is done for a hopeful purpose: to live into God’s missional life and imagine a new future of bringing the gospel into the American context. For church leaders serious about joining God in his mission of bringing the gospel to the North American continent, this is a must-read.

Steve Cloer

Preaching Minister

Southside Church of Christ

Fort Worth, TX

1 Darrell Guder, ed. Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America, The Gospel and Our Culture Series (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998).

2 This book builds off of previous works of Van Gelder and Zscheile, including Craig Van Gelder, The Essence of the Church: A Community Created by the Spirit (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000); Craig Van Gelder, The Ministry of the Missional Church: A Community Led by the Spirit (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007); Craig Van Gelder and Dwight J. Zscheile, The Missional Church in Perspective: Mapping Trends and Shaping the Conversation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011).

3 The missional church conversation has been critiqued for leaving out Paul. For example, see James Thompson, The Church according to Paul: Rediscovering the Community Conformed to Christ (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2015), 14–20.

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Review of Monte Cox, Significant Others: Understanding Our Non-Christian Neighbors

Monte Cox. Significant Others: Understanding Our Non-Christian Neighbors. Abilene, TX: Leafwood, 2017. 192 pp. Paperback. $14.99.

I start with a few disclosures. Monte Cox, who is the Dean of the College of Bible and Ministry at Harding University, is on the shortlist of people who have positively impacted my life. Starting in the late 1980s, my wife and I were on a burgeoning mission team that Monte and Beth Cox inspired and mentored. My longer vocational journey also parallels his, from working in East Africa to collegiate teaching on the world’s religious traditions. In all this, he has remained a friend and exemplar.

In Significant Others, readers can now glean from Cox’s years of teaching and interacting with various religious communities. The book is written as a “primer for beginners” and directed primarily to North American Christians. While he aims to increase the religious literacy of American Christians, Cox is not interested in mere book knowledge. In the opening pages he states directly, “if . . . you have no intention of seeking friendship with [non-Christian] ‘others’ . . . you’ve wasted your hard-earned money on this book” (16). If he was reading that line for an audio book, those who know him might expect to hear his distinctively dry wit, but the statement is not merely tongue-in-cheek. Beyond issues of literacy, Significant Others is written to prepare Christians to love and “share their faith” with non-Christians (16). In other words, Cox writes as both teacher and missionary.


Significant Others consists primarily of introductory chapters on ten different religious or sociocultural communities (“Our Jewish Neighbors,” “Our Muslim Neighbors,” “Our Hindu Neighbors,” and continued in that form for Buddhist, Sikh, Baha’i, Jain, Native American, Chinese, and Shinto neighbors). Each chapter begins with brief anecdotes of practitioners in North American contexts and then follows a pattern of introducing the tradition’s origins, significant figures, basic beliefs and practices, and historical developments. Cox then provides his Christian readers with “points of contact” and “points of contrast” to help them process the information and prepare for informed interactions. Chapters conclude with discussion questions and a brief list of resources for further study.

All things considered, the book delivers on its promises and offers a valuable resource for classrooms, churches, and neighborly interactions. Cox acknowledges his choices and assumptions without getting lost in the theoretical weeds, and he successfully incorporates considerable amounts of information into chapters that are concise, accessible, and interesting. As a fellow teacher, I found myself dog-earing pages for their compelling anecdotes or pedagogical insights. I also appreciate his emphasis on attentiveness and respect and his insistence that Christians “are not interested in caricatures” (30). Evidence that he practices what he preaches in this regard is found in the references and endorsements of a number of his non-Christian friends and contacts.

The teacher in me also imagines ways to clarify or enhance various sections. For example, the chapter “Our Jewish Neighbors” would benefit from more attention to the differences between Rabbinic Judaism and Biblical Israelite religion since, as Cox notes in passing, this is a point of confusion to which Christians are “especially susceptible.”1 On Islam, Cox mentions the challenges of theocratic and theological intolerance in some Muslim countries, but he should also emphasize that most of the American Muslims he wishes his readers to befriend (as well as many non-American Muslims) are religiously inclusive and politically pluralist.2 It would also be helpful to contrast Islam’s more optimistic notions of lawful obedience with Christian notions of sin-nature, unmerited grace, and the sanctification of the Holy Spirit. On Buddhism, the attention given to themes of detachment needs to be supplemented by the central role that “engaged” compassion plays in many contemporary forms of Buddhism. Finally, while Cox’s chapter on Native Americans effectively represents “traditional religion” in North American contexts, I wish he had also drawn more on his own experiences to highlight the global significance of African spiritualities. After all, traditions such as Yoruba continue to have immense influence in the Americas and beyond, as chronicled by everyone from religion scholar Stephen Prothero to pop icon Beyoncé.3

These selective suggestions are offered in the spirit of dialogue more than critique. Anyone who teaches this material understands the challenge of sifting through the tsunami of data and knows that results are always partial and impressionistic. Given the book’s informed and nuanced chapters, my suggestions testify to Cox’s success at offering meaningful impressions that stir engaged reflections.


Moving from the book’s content to its structure invites different kinds of assessment, starting with an acknowledgement: Significant Others, and the classes Cox and I teach at our respective universities, employ a “world religions paradigm” that is contested and problematic.4 The paradigm consists of what is now a standard list of global religious traditions. Critics note, however, that the paradigm treats the religions as if they are bounded categories that can be neatly separated from each other and from other cultural and historical forces. This is a serious concern that demands attention, although scholars often divide over whether it renders the paradigm merely limited or altogether unsalvageable. Cox is aware of the issues but clearly still finds the paradigm and its categories useful. Even so, due to especially acute complexities, he does not try to extract a singular religion from wider cultural currents and identities in the chapters on Native Americans and Chinese, and he probably shouldn’t have tried for the somewhat unwieldy chapters on Shinto and Hinduism. Nevertheless, even when employing the standard categories, his emphasis on “neighbors” rather than “systems” treats the religions as the complex, amorphous, living realities they are.

Critics also complain that the world religions paradigm imposes Western Protestant structures on all religions. In other words, the paradigm acts like a Protestant cookie-cutter that characterizes and compares religions primarily based on essential beliefs, texts, and originating histories. Cox is more vulnerable on this point since the structure of his chapters is straight out of the paradigm’s playbook. An example of how this potentially affects content is seen in the chapter on Buddhism. Cox claims that a “proper introduction” to the religion begins with the story of the historical Buddha (including a nativity account) and the central teaching of the Four Noble Truths, all according to several key texts. Only then does the chapter explore Buddhist practices, as if they are derivative. The problem with this approach is that global Buddhisms are typically understood as prioritizing orthopraxis over orthodoxy. In other words, Cox could be charged with getting his presentation backwards, allowing a Protestant tail to wag a Buddhist dog. Even if this is a valid critique, however, it is not always clear what the alternatives are. Would changing the order of the chapter’s sections—putting the description of practices before the histories and creeds—make the presentation more accurate, or merely swap a chicken for an egg?5 Regardless, considering these issues helps us grapple with religious difference and imagine what makes various traditions tick.

The point here is that readers should consider what is gained and lost through Cox’s employment of the world religions paradigm. When all is considered, however, the best anyone can do is proceed with caution, always expecting the living realities to spill over the edges of the categories used. While some may find Cox camped too far in the interior of the paradigm, his nuanced and self-aware posture keeps the presentations flexible and effective.


Finally, I offer a few reflections on the book’s theology, as it appears especially in the opening and closing chapters. In the field of comparative religion, two basic assumptions are still common: Religions are best studied from a neutral and religiously detached point of view, and religions are perennially similar, like parallel paths on the same proverbial mountain. Significant Others rejects both of these assumptions. For the former, Cox’s confessional approach aligns with the increasingly common conviction among scholars that neutrality—a “view from nowhere”—is both undesirable and incoherent.6 For the latter, while acknowledging the appeal of perennialism, Cox asserts that religious diversity is more cacophony than symphony.7

From there, the specific implications of his theological framework surface, especially in his treatment of the categories of exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism. Cox identifies himself as an exclusivist, thus emphasizing at least two convictions: Salvific truth is only found in Christianity,8 and personal salvation requires people to hear and convert to that truth “before they die” (24). Fortunately, he doesn’t allow the discussion to get bogged down with predictable questions about exceptions to the rule (i.e., what about those who never hear?). Instead, Cox promotes a “messenger mentality” that trusts God to make ultimate judgment calls, expresses hope that God will be merciful to all, and yet remains committed to evangelize and even provide “dire warnings” to non-Christians who are at risk of “dying in their sins” (26–27).

For those drawn to this specific kind of exclusivism, Cox provides clarity and a humble, non-combative tone. Others will find it too restrictive. For example, while he rightly wants to keep the descriptions concise, his passing mention of Karl Rahner does not adequately represent the diverse forms of inclusivism associated with Christians such as C. S. Lewis, John Stott, N. T. Wright, Clark Pinnock, John Sanders, Mark Heim, and arguably even Billy Graham in his later years. Additionally, he does not mention the longstanding and diverse traditions of Christian universalism of people like Gregory of Nyssa, George MacDonald, Karl Barth (arguably), William Barclay, Desmond Tutu, Jürgen Moltmann, and evangelicals like Thomas Talbott and Robin Parry (a.k.a. Gregory MacDonald). Despite passing caveats, by ignoring or quickly dismissing these “wider” understandings of salvation, Cox leaves the impression that anything short of restrictive exclusivism inherently undermines the urgency of mission, takes a soft stance on sin, and/or requires liberal readings of Scripture. In fact, many of the wider options draw on exclusive truth claims as much as Cox does. Moreover, for one example, Parry’s “evangelical universalism” mixes an explicitly high Christology and high view of Scripture with robust doctrines of judgment and hell.9

Beyond issues of how wide or restrictive the paradigms should be, however, the bigger question concerns how Christian salvation should be understood in the first place. The exclusivism/inclusivism/pluralism template can create the impression that the Gospel is primarily concerned with the afterlife (i.e., whether individuals go to heaven when they die) and thus primarily directed toward efforts to move individuals from the “unsaved” category to the “saved.” As many theologians and biblical scholars insist, however, this is a seriously reductive understanding of the gospel. While it is certainly true that the justification of individual sinners is a significant component of the Christian message, when an individualistic saved/unsaved binary becomes the center around which all other convictions, activities, and motivations revolve, the gospel’s God-centered, cosmic vision is compromised. This also risks turning all dialogue into apologetics and all friendships into proselytizing projects. Cox is sensitive to these concerns, but his methodology and theology do not easily escape the risks.10

In the end, Cox’s presentation would benefit from more engagement with wider theological frameworks and their implications for understanding and interacting with global neighbors. Wherever one lands on such issues, however, Significant Others is a gift. It does a remarkable job of increasing our religious literacy, challenging us to love God by loving others, and providing mature guidance for how to do so in a Christ-honoring way. For this and much more, we can all be grateful to Monte.

I know I am.

John Barton

Director, Center for Faith and Learning

Professor of Religion

Pepperdine University

Malibu, California, USA

1 A visiting rabbi once told my class that Biblical Israelite religion and Rabbinic Judaism are “completely different religions,” adding that Judaism is younger than Christianity since Rabbinical traditions were formalized after 70 CE, nearly four decades after Pentecost. The rabbi’s rhetorical claims fostered a wonderful class discussion about the continuities and discontinuities between ancient Israel, the different branches of modern Judaism, and Christianity.

2 Recent Pew surveys show that most American Muslims believe that other religions can lead to eternal life and that the more devout Muslims are, the more progressive on religious and political issues. See and It is also significant that most of Islam’s major intellectual figures throughout the religion’s history have embraced some form of inclusivism. See Mohammad Hassan Khalil, ed., Between Heaven and Hell: Islam, Salvation, and the Fate of Others (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

3 Prothero considers Yoruba spirituality and its derivatives (i.e., Cuban Santeria, Haitian Vodun, Brazilian Candomble, Trinidad Shango, etc.) one of the most influential religious movements in the world. See God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run The World (New York: Harper One, 2010), 203–41. Beyoncé explores details of Ifa initiation practices in “Lemonade.” See Kamaria Roberts and Kenya Downs, “What Beyoncé teaches us about the African diaspora in ‘Lemonade,’ ” PBS New Hour,

4 See Suzanne Owen, “The World Religions Paradigm: Time for a Change,” Arts & Humanities in Higher Education 10, no. 3 (July 2013): 253–68; Tomoko Masuzawa, The Invention of the World Religions: or, How European Universalism was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).

5 In the more organic context of a classroom, I often try to introduce each tradition in a way that highlights its respective tendencies or emphases. For Judaism, I start by talking about family trees, stories, and struggles. For Islam, we begin by hearing Arabic recitation and looking closely at a few key texts from the Qur’an and hadiths. For Hinduism, we start by considering the sensual experience of sounds, smells, colors, and icons of divinity. For Buddhism, we contemplate posture, meditation, the rhythms of chant, the ironies of koan, and the desires for unfettered peace. I find that such introductions help students imagine the orientation of the traditions before diving into the details.

6 I am assuming here a difference between nonlocal neutrality and situated objectivity, the former being an incoherent abstraction, and the latter being an ethical and epistemological ideal. From this perspective, even God should not be understood as having a nonlocal view from nowhere, but rather a panlocal “view from everywhere.”

7 While Cox doesn’t offer many clues, one wonders how this might affect his political theology: Does the cacophony result in some version of Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations,” or Miroslav Volf’s more hopeful thesis that, despite irreconcilable differences, the world’s religions demonstrate overlapping resources that make peace and collaboration imaginable? For the latter, see Miroslav Volf, Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015).

8 Cox acknowledges that he perceives truth—sometimes, even “core truth”—in other religious settings (29–30, 220), but he does not consider such expressions of truth salvific.

9 The common assumption that universalism and doctrines of divine judgment are mutually exclusive shows a lack of understanding of universalism, at least in its Christian non-pluralist forms. See Gregory MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist, second ed. (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2012).

10 Cox acknowledges that the “full biblical sense” of salvation is more than forgiveness and eternal life for individuals (25), but this appears more as a side note than a guiding framework. In addition, he rightly insists that dialogue must be a two-way reciprocal process, but also insists that his conviction that non-Christians are “lost” does not “irreparably [taint]” all dialogue with a “hidden agenda.” I agree with this in principle. My only point here is that these are the risks of his theological posture and I am not sure that he persuasively avoids them. In this regard, Miroslav Volf offers a helpful discussion on a “common code of conduct” for religions with a missional impulse. The code is guided by the Golden Rule and seeks to ensure mutually respectful, non-coercive forms of witnessing. See Miroslav Volf, Allah: A Christian Response (New York: HarperOne, 2011), 209–13.

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Charles Kraft’s Communication Theory for Christian Witness [1983]

Kraft, Charles H. Communication Theory for Christian Witness. Rev. ed. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1991.

The book Communication Theory for Christian Witness by Charles Kraft is an intriguing work. It was originally published in 1983, which was an interesting time in the history of communication theory. The field of communication was struggling for an identity as a legitimate field of study and research in the academy. Many scholars complained that there was no unifying theory or research method for the discipline and the only subject matter was process and not content. The dominant conversations in the discipline of communication were often about the ways systems theory explained communication processes or the new emerging perspective of the cultural view of communication using interpretive methods.

Kraft’s book does not engage that struggle. Instead, he offers readers a valuable perspective for looking at the work of missionaries in communicating the message of God.

Kraft raises many important points that communication theorists were wrestling with from the 1960s to the 1980s, but he describes the effective uses of each element of communication he discusses. Rather than creating a work that reviews the contributions of communication theorists, this book is results oriented. It provides a very good introduction to the key processes of communication that are often described as the SMCR (Source-Message-Channel-Receiver) model.

Early social scientific research in communication often looked at effectiveness in each of the elements of the model. The dominant conversation in the discipline eventually turned to an interactive view of communication, assuming that for a message to be communication, it must have feedback. The cybernetic perspective led to more significant systems oriented research. By the time of Kraft’s book, the dominant view of communication was that communication is really a transactional process of multiple simultaneous verbal and nonverbal message exchanges between senders and receivers in some context. This is the view that Kraft keys in on as he applies the communication process to sharing God’s story and to communicating in culturally different contexts.

Kraft has great breadth and depth in his professional work. He joined the faculty at Fuller Theological Seminary in 1969 and holds the rank of Senior Professor of Anthropology and Intercultural Communication in the School of Intercultural Studies. He did his PhD work at Hartford Seminary Foundation. In addition to his academic work, Kraft served as a missionary in Nigeria. His teaching ranges from spiritual dynamics to anthropology and communication.

The book Communication Theory for Christian Witness fits in well with other concerns in missions. Missiological scholarship gives attention to critical missions topics such as translation of Scripture and other texts into local languages. Linguists know that good translation is not a mere change of words. Translation must account for meanings that relate closely to cultural meanings, beliefs, and spiritual values. From a communication perspective, words shape the perception one has of reality. Within a culture, words determine what topics are thought about, and they lead speakers to particular mindsets.

The role of behaviors accompanying words is also important in missions and communication scholarship. Nonverbal meanings in gesturing, eye behavior, and managing space and time all influence the understanding of cultural differences and effectiveness in missions. Missionaries must learn to adapt culturally and build relationships or suffer the consequences of lacking understanding of the local culture’s values, beliefs, and attitudes. These concerns continue to be central in communication theory.

Kraft’s book makes some very useful claims about the interrelations of God, people, and missions. In the first chapter he writes about intimacy and the relationship with God through prayer. God’s desire for relationship with humanity brings us to think about prayer as a communication tool for that relationship. In chapter 2, Kraft details his ideas about what God wants in communication with his human creation. In a number of ways and with great consistency, God reaches out to humans to invite relationship. The relational system God exemplifies in Scripture is one that assumes active communication for maintaining a healthy relationship.

In Chapter 3, Kraft identifies what he sees as myths of communication in the context of relationship with God and the process of missions. Research in the field of communication counters these myths and reveals the more accurate and complete ways to understand the communication process. For example, hearing a message is not the same as having good communication between parties. Also, to understand ideas completely, one needs redundancy. This is a practice of having multiple ways to confirm the meaning of an idea. Communication happens in many ways, so it would be insufficient to think there is only one right way. Some missions programs focus on preaching, but it is a mistake to think that hearing information presented publicly is sufficient for good and complete communication.

Central to communication is a message, but the carefully worded message you send may not have the desired effect because words are perceived differently by different people. Another common problem communicators experience is thinking that more is better. However, saying the same thing louder or more often does not make communication more effective. And, depending on divine intervention in the communication process to create meaning is no guarantee that a message will be effective. In addition to providing a message, God can also equip people to communicate it effectively.

Kraft next turns his attention to elements of the communication process as they relate to God and mission. In chapter 4, he provides some depth of thought about the person as a source of a message. It is tempting to think of communication simply as a message that a person sends. The problem with that, however, is that messages communicated by persons are never as simple as the words being shared. Our messages are always embedded in a context, the identity of a person sharing the message, and a relationship. The actual impact of a message is more likely to come from the message receiver applying knowledge acquired from the message sender, beliefs that result from observing the ongoing behavior of the sender, and the relational aspects of life in general that are consistent with the message.

The study of messages is as important a focus in the communication discipline today as it has been since the time of the ancient rhetoricians. Kraft highlights some enduring principles of message logics. For example, we cannot avoid communicating. Whether we speak or remain silent, we are always communicating. A second common principle from a systemic point of view is that we never send a single message. Because of the complexity of human communication, receivers will perceive more than one message in any communication event. A third principle is that once messages are sent, they cannot be unsent. There is a possibility of retrieving some messages that were never received, but this also means communication did not occur. A communication event must include all elements, including sender(s), messages, channels, and receiver(s).

In chapter 5, Kraft details the notions of message and technique, highlighting the importance of message types, audience issues, and messaging techniques. It is also important to know the purpose of a message so it can be designed appropriately. Kraft discusses the purposes for messages that have been part of the communication and rhetoric scholarship since Plato and Aristotle. A message can be ceremonial, informative, or persuasive, and a number of categories characterize each of these types of purpose. In mission environments, a message about religious topics can easily be perceived as persuasive when the intended purpose is really developing relationship. Audience issues, including size and context, also impact relational development. Communication events may occur in private, one-on-one conversation or messages sent out via mass media. The messenger must consider whether the communication context will achieve the intended purpose.

Contemporary research in communication gives significant attention to the messaging techniques of monologic or dialogic approaches. Kraft highlights the importance of these approaches in good communication events. People working in media missions can craft very good monologic messages if they do so very carefully for a well understood audience. Alternatively, for building relationships in a mission context, it is important to use dialogic processes. Dialogic communication is the authentic valuing of the other. It seeks to engage in communication that supports the interests of all parties. It invites a collaborative approach to understanding and working for common goals. Kraft goes further to suggest very appropriately that effective communication is “life involvement.” When people are involved in life activities together, they share understanding more completely than they can by sending each other messages about their experiences. From the communication perspective, this is a good way to describe the effective use of dialogue.

In chapter 6, Kraft gives attention to the receptor or receiver of messages. This is a view of communication that suggests that the receiver is part of a transactional process. This means the receiver is an active participant in the exchange of many messages in a communication event. A common assumption among people communicating is that senders and receivers in the exchange create and share meaning. Sometimes people assume that in their communication with others they have a high degree of shared meaning, but humans are too complex for this to occur without a great deal of communication effort. However, to reach higher degrees of shared understanding, communication participants typically rely on the interchange of many messages, some simultaneous and some not. Another important topic that Kraft addresses is the fact that communication participants have needs. In order for meaning to be created, participants naturally seek to increase awareness of the needs and desires of each party. Additionally, receivers of messages are part of groups who have typical collective responses, and they also have personal beliefs and values that will influence how messages are received.

One contemporary communication view is that meaning is co-constructed by participants in a communication event. This stretches what Kraft articulates in chapter 7 of his book about how meaning happens and is shared. Kraft talks about the fact that receptors do construct meanings, and he makes clear that some theories of communication focus on meanings being in people rather than in the symbols used for messages or in the external world. Co-constructing meanings is actually a negotiated event. Aspects of the negotiation are autonomic responses as humans naturally mirror the behavior of others when they are socially or physically attracted to each other. Resistance responses also occur in an autonomic way. Some of our responses are also intentional. Humans co-construct meanings by negotiating with each other in autonomic and intentional ways.

Beyond the construction of meaning, Kraft provides an excellent view of how receptors of messages go through the perception process even to the point of including evaluation. People cannot help doing some degree of evaluation and determining tolerance for message characteristics that come from the message sender. Kraft also suggests that message receptors construct meanings that maintain equilibrium. His point is that message intentions may not agree with the receptor’s current belief system, the constructed meaning may have the effect of being an irritant to the receptor, or the perceived meaning may suggest needed change in a receptor that does not want change. In the context of sharing the Christian message with nonbelievers, the received meanings often disrupt receptor equilibrium. Therefore, a goal of the message sender in sharing the Christian story should be to become more receptor-oriented. Certainly, message senders should have clear and accurate message content to share, but predicting how the message recipients will construct meaning is more challenging and critically important for the communication event.

The simple form of a communication event looks like a source sending a single message through a channel to a receiver. A better view of a communication event would begin with a live action dialogue of at least a paragraph from a script of the particular interaction. Determining meaning essentially requires a dynamic interpretation of a sufficient number of statements and responses, in conjunction with nonverbal behaviors accompanying the interactions, the relational patterns expected between interactants, and the context of the communication event providing parameters for dictating meaning. The human experience of making meaning is not a simple event. It is a complex dynamic in which a particular meaning of an event can never be fully shared. The work of determining meaning is done by different people who will ultimately never share complete understanding due to the complexity of how humans interpret messages.

Kraft emphasizes the fact that the importance of a receiver orientation to meaning is often a threatening idea to a Christian communicator trying to share God’s story. Kraft suggests that those of us interested in sharing God’s story must understand at least the typical ways a receiver will construct meanings of communication events. After discussing the difficulty of constructing meaning in communication events, in chapter 8 Kraft suggests that this complexity does not prohibit humans from sharing a degree of meaning that enables people to act together and have a sense they understand one another.

Even though there are many ways in which meanings can be distorted or misconstructed, the human complexity also enables complex translations of differences and interpretations of intended meanings. The good news about communication is it is a patterned phenomenon of humans who have the ability to read texts and contexts and make reasonably accurate interpretations. Our practice of communicating will be to construct meanings in typical ways for typical scripts shared in typical ways in particular contexts. Those of us trying to share God’s story quickly realize it is important to get to know our audience and to study the ways they construct meanings for communication events in order to share with them in meaningful ways.

The ways people share their symbols and then construct meanings is a critical part of the process that Kraft attends to in chapter 9. He refers to the ways or channels as “vehicles” used for carrying our messages (109). He suggests that there are two primary types of vehicles, which are codes and media. These include various channels people use to communicate, including the spoken word, the written word, numbers, pictures and sight, sounds, movement, touch, rituals, use of time and space, and even smells. Any of these can contribute to shared understanding.

Among the vehicles for creating meaning, Kraft discusses the ways that people use codes to share God’s story. The typical church experience includes a message spoken in the language most attendees would understand, or at least a translated version of it. Church experiences often include music, which is a combination of codes. Sometimes outreach programs include food as a way to symbolize hospitality. Religious experiences are often sites of ritual coding, such as worship experiences that include rituals rich with deeply meaningful, coded messages.

Another potential “vehicle” or channel for creating meaning between people is the medium. Kraft prefers to think of the medium as either a “person” or “extended media” (117). The “person” oriented channel for creating meaning is about communication exchanges between people in a face to face, interpersonal manner. The notion of extended media refers to the use of technology where one person can communicate with many via technological channels. An important point about the “person” as the channel of a message is that persons are embedded and embodied parts of co-constructed meanings between people. This suggests that the people are integral parts of the meaning shared, not just the conduit. In this context, sharing God’s story is essentially a co-discovery of what God means between the parties in conversation.

For many people there is great difficulty in attempting to share God’s story in person. For this reason, and to reach many people simultaneously, some communicators choose to tell God’s story through mediated channels. When the context requires low tech options but receivers can read, a print version of a message can be effective, at least to begin. Mediated messages can be sent via radio, for example. In more complex technological environments, mediated messages can be sent via video technology. Good communication usually involves a personal dimension at some point, however.

In chapter 10, Kraft discusses the importance of context to the communication process. There are very few messages that are not dependent on context for meaning. The assumption in communication events is that the communication participants share a context and co-construct meaning through the sharing of codes within the context. Cultural differences between communicator and receiver make context a very important element of the process. Some cultures are typically higher in context while others are lower. In high-context cultures, meanings for messages are more embedded in the context, and verbal codes have less real meaning—other nonverbal codes plus different contextual dimensions are much more meaningful for communication. Therefore, words in a high-context culture do not carry as much meaning as do nonverbal cues or contextual variables such as historical meanings for a situation or the geographical location of the communication situation. A person from a high-context culture may tell a falsehood to save face in a situation because meanings are not in the words but in other contextual cues. The meaning in a situation for a person in a high-context culture may be understood from cues such as time of day, historical relationship between participants, age difference, or educational differences.

In low-context cultures, the context is less critical to the overall meaning of communication events. Verbal codes are more centrally meaningful, and there is less trust of nonverbal or context dimensions of the communication. In a low-context culture, one person may tell the other to not read too much into a situation. To the person in a low-context culture, words do matter for the meaning of messages.

In chapters 11 and 12, the focus is on how a communicator can effectively use the process of communication and determine what communicating for life change entails. The book takes an interesting perspective in detailing the critical elements of the process. The communication process of sources sending messages through channels to receivers was a topic most discussed in the 1960s and 1970s. However, the elements are as relevant today as ever. The application of the elements today, however, is seen in discussions of context such as interpersonal relationships, organizations, or cross-cultural communication.

Communication Theory for Christian Witness provides a helpful model to approach telling God’s story in places where that story is not known. Kraft makes the valuable contribution of providing an overall view of the communication process that deals with contemporary issues using a communication theory developed in the mid-twentieth century. Kraft does not go into great detail regarding the various communication theories or provide in-depth research and explanation of the theoretical issues, so it is quite accessible and practical for those who study missions.

The theory Kraft utilizes was built on a 1970s interconnected systems perspective of communication assuming interactants are part of a whole. A more contemporary perspective suggests that communication systems emerge from disconnected social acts, not as part of a whole interconnected system. These acts take on meaning in context, creating a coherent exchange between interactants.

Contemporary communication theory develops around the need to explain particular relational, social, or mediated exchange phenomena. Rather than advancing an overarching theory of the communication process as Kraft did, theorists today work in contexts that are specific to a type of communication phenomena and with a particular communication-related theoretical perspective.

Communication Theory for Christian Witness does not take into account many contemporary communication issues as the ideas Kraft assumes are limited to the 70s communication model. Research today would address the missions context in more specific and detailed ways. For example, research interested in articulating a communication theory for the missions context today may benefit from including theoretical constructs and perspectives such as social change, social construction, intercultural competence, post-colonialism, face-negotiation, and dialogic ethics. These are the beginning places for theory development in the missions context.

Garry Bailey is Associate Professor of Conflict Resolution at Abilene Christian University (Abilene, Texas).

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Paul G. Hiebert’s Anthropological Insights for Missionaries [1985]—Thirty-Three Years Later

Hiebert, Paul G. Anthropological Insights for Missionaries. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1985. 316 pp.

For Paul G. Hiebert, missions and anthropology were always meant to be in partnership even though, as he noted in 1978, they more often resembled “half-brothers—sharing, in part, a common parentage, raised in the same setting, quarrelling over the space and arguing the same issues.”1 Having earned a PhD in anthropology from the University of Minnesota, the unfolding of Hiebert’s missionary calling led him to become “arguably the world’s leading missiological anthropologist,”2 with his lifetime spent trying to appropriately bring together anthropology, missions, and theology. In this article, we will trace the development of Hiebert’s anthropological missiology and consider the continued impact his most popular book, Anthropological Insights for Missionaries has within missiology today.

Born in India in 1932 to missionary parents, Hiebert assumed his own life would be spent in full-time overseas service; however, a different path unfolded for him. Though his wife’s health and traveling restrictions prevented him and his wife from returning to the field after their initial six-year term (in which he completed his PhD fieldwork while working with the Mennonite Brethren Mission Board), Hiebert’s calling to missions never waned, even though he often questioned his path. He completed teaching stints in several universities (e.g., Kansas State University, Mennonite Brethren Seminary, University of Washington) before he joined the School of World Mission at Fuller Theological Seminary in 1977. It was here, as he wed anthropology with missiological practice, that he confessed it as a “return to mission, as I understood it.”3 Hiebert began writing for a missiological audience on topics from conversion to contextualization. In 1990, he joined Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, leading its Intercultural Studies PhD program to national prominence. He remained there until his death in March 2007, at the age of 74.

Hiebert was convinced that missionaries needed training in three areas: (1) Scripture, (2) ministry skills, and (3) anthropology.4 He recognized that the post-colonial world called for missionaries who were post-colonial. For too long, he bemoaned, well-meaning missionaries brought a foreign gospel that was linked with “Western power and technology” and “therefore unacceptable, to many people.”5 He tackled this “Western” gospel problem by arguing for the autonomy of local churches and Christians (e.g., the fourth self); championing contextualization practices that he believed would lead the Church toward a global, meta-theology; and promoting a critical-realist epistemology.6 Placing himself in line with Harvey Conn, Charles Kraft, and others, Hiebert took up the task of “carry[ing] out the trialogue between philosophical, historical, and empirical approaches to the study of both Scripture and humanity.”7 Between 2002 and 2006, this idea was solidified into what would become known as missional theology, a “third way of ‘doing theology’”8 that took seriously Scriptural teaching, historical application, and local human realities.

Hiebert’s life-long pursuit of this trialogue produced a marked practicality in all of his writings about contextualization, global theologizing, and missionary work. He wanted missionaries exposed to and equipped with anthropological principles that would help them navigate cultural differences and build up truly indigenous and locally-empowered churches. So when he sat down to write Anthropological Insights for Missionaries, his goal was “to provide young missionaries with some basic tools for understanding other cultures and for understanding themselves as they enter these cultures.”9 Using his own experiences in India, Hiebert’s book contained a mix of theory, case-studies, exercises, and application that made it useful for his intended “young missionary” audience as well as those who had been engaged with missions for some time.

Hiebert organized his book into four main themes, with each section building on the last. In the first section, he establishes the theological assumptions of his position and then argued for the use of anthropology and other social sciences as helpful aids for good theology and missionary work. In particular, he noted that anthropology helps with a holistic view of people in their local settings, giving insight to relevant communication, cultural practices, and social structures. Hiebert was careful to assent to the authoritative nature of Scripture, the mission of God, the centrality of Christ, the work of the Holy Spirit, and the priesthood of all believers, and these remained foundational in his cultural engagements throughout the book. The gospel, he noted, was given within culture; however, it remains distinct from cultures, must be incarnated into each culture, and should call all cultures to be transformed.10

The second section of the book considers the impact of culture on the missionary. Hiebert began with an in-depth look at the causes and stages of culture shock and provided practical insights for navigating through the stress, frustration, and tensions that this shock brings. He suggested that an incarnational approach is a helpful (and biblical) way for missionaries to deal with ethnocentrism and called on missionaries to follow Christ’s example of cultural identification (Phil 2:5–8). Hiebert recognized that many people are ignorant of their own cultural assumptions because of the seemingly innate quality of culture. To help out the Western missionary (his main audience) overcome their cultural blindness, Hiebert traced the major themes of the modern world and how the cultural particularities that come from these themes manifested in Western missionaries—both in their interactions with cultural others and in their (in)ability to distinguish gospel and culture.

The third section moves on to the work of missionaries and investigated how culture affects the message missionaries bring. Effective cross-cultural communication requires speaking in forms that others understand while minimizing distortions. It is here that missionaries were introduced to Hiebert’s hallmark ideas: (1) his call for critical contextualization in order for local believers to embrace forms in their churches that match local cultural patterns and (2) his promotion of the fourth self whereby people “develop a theology in which Scripture speaks to them in their particular historical and cultural setting.”11

The final section recognized that in becoming “bi-cultural,” missionaries now lived in a new reality, never quite at home in any one culture. This was a life-long issue for Hiebert,12 and based on his own struggles, he counseled missionaries in the challenges and the benefits of being a bicultural bridge. He walked missionaries through the stages of missionary life and the relationships they would have to navigate, from local people to supporting churches and mission agencies. He ended the book by recounting a short history of Protestant missions and noting that the task of missions remains unfinished and will always need workers who are able to face the challenges and opportunities of the ever-changing world.

There is no doubt that Hiebert’s book was a success in its time. Though others had written on various aspects of anthropological missiology,13 one could easily make the case that Hiebert’s was the most practical and accessible of them. As a master of his discipline (anthropology), he was able to distill a large amount of information without getting lost on rabbit trails or providing too much information. Throughout, he maintained a balanced tension between gospel and culture while holding to the Evangelical hallmarks of the authority of God’s Word and the necessity of gospel witness. He instructed missionaries about everyday living in order to survive cross-cultural encounters and considered the deeper issues related to missionary tasks like preaching, teaching, and theologizing. As such, his book was not simply a preparation for missionary life but a resource that applied to the entirety of a missionary’s life and work. That he could do this in such a comprehensive way through an easy-to-read and engaging book is impressive. Not everyone has the skill to take weighty academic material and make it accessible to the everyday person. But is there still a place for Hiebert’s work in the twenty-first century?

One way that Hiebert’s book has waned in relevance relates to audience. Anthropological Insights for Missionaries was mostly written for Western missionaries. Though Hiebert acknowledges that the “most rapid growth in the missionary force” comes from the “so-called Two-Thirds World,” Hiebert confesses that his book is “slanted toward a Western audience, because this book will be used largely in the West.”14 There is nothing inherently wrong in this approach and he believes that “the principles examined apply equally to missionaries from the Two-Thirds World” and says, “The reader need only think of local examples to replace the Western ones that are given.”15 However, this is probably only partially so. Though the sections that define culture, describe the use of symbol/function, and relate the challenges that missionaries face when crossing cultures are very translatable, there are two challenges that I see with his approach. First, he devotes one whole chapter to “Cultural Assumptions of Western Missionaries.” Perhaps this could help the “Two-Thirds World” missionaries understand their Western counterparts, but on the whole, this chapter is much less relatable to global audiences than other chapters. Second, and relating to the other critiques listed below, Hiebert follows modern anthropology in considering “others” as the object of study. While he argues passionately for the value of local Christians and defends their place at the table as equally positioned to self-theologize, there is still a measure of “otherness” expressed through the book. With so much focused on the “Western missionary” and the “receiving national,” present day resistance to hegemony may mute Hiebert’s actual belief and argument that missionaries must be humble servants who take the position of learner rather than lord.

Perhaps one of the biggest things working against Hiebert is the fact that he wrote about culture, and culture is never static. Only four years after his book was published, the Berlin Wall fell and two years later the USSR followed suit, instantly making some of Hiebert’s analogies and illustrations obsolete. But bigger than that, the advent of personal computers was just dawning, and worldwide access to the internet was just around the corner. The changes this brought to the world have been unparalleled. Globalization has changed the ways cultures maintain boundaries and interact with other cultures. Such instant access to international realities intensified the questioning of and skepticism toward modern tenants, solidifying postmodernism as an ever-present and challenging reality. Hiebert’s book did not foresee these changes and, because it was never updated, was also unable to account for these changes.16 This is the biggest critique that present-day missiologists bring to anthropological writings from this time.

Michael Rynkiewich, a fellow missiological anthropologist, argues that “Anthropology changed in the 1980s and 1990s, but missiology did not get the news. Anthropology gained some new insights, but missiology seemed satisfied with what it had already learned.”17 The “old” missiological anthropology was rather transactional, with “the missionary problem [being framed] as the communication of a message across cultures.”18 Furthermore, this “old” missiology was “steeped in functionalism and focused on symbol and ritual.”19 Anthropology taught missionaries how do deal with bounded cultural realities and answer the question, “How could a missionary learn language and culture in a setting, usually a village, and then shape the gospel in a way that an individual from that language and culture who was sitting across the table would understand it?”20 We certainly see these proclivities in Hiebert’s work.

But postmodernism brought something new to the world. Rynkiewich notes that postmodernism is a double-edged sword, having changed the world we live in and also the discipline of anthropology itself. No longer is anthropology a discipline where an objective observer considers a subject and then reduces his/her observations into essentialist explanations of a bounded culture. Postmodern anthropology says there is no objective observer and culture is not an internally-consistent whole with sharply-defined boundaries. Culture exists within an arena of contestation because no two people ascribe the same meanings and significance to every aspect of the culture in which they interact.21 And because culture exists on a number of levels (global, national, regional/geographic, and with other subsets), cultural boundaries are not fixed. As Kathryn Tanner notes, cultural identity is now a “hybrid, relational affair.”22 People now “mix and mingle,” says Rynkiewich, so that “culture is marked by hybridity, food is marked by fusion, and language has become languages.”23

Hiebert’s work does not consider this. His book deals, by-and-large, with societies that are “uniform, bounded, and isolated from world history, trends, and technologies,” but as Rynkiewich points out, this simply is no longer the case.24 In this, Rynkiewich is correct in his concern that much of missiological anthropology has not moved with the times. What the postmodern missionary needs is a missiological anthropology that enables her to “be as mobile, flexible, and clever as the postcolonial people she is trying to identify and be in missions with.”25

Craig Ott echoes Rynkiewich’s call for updated missiology and says that Hiebert’s critical contextualization model is largely based on an essentialist understanding of culture that is no longer valid for most of the known world. Since cultural boundaries and identity are not only not fixed, but also rapidly changing, we need to put less focus “on preserving or transforming the ‘traditional culture’ of the past.”26 As such, Hiebert’s concern for local churches having the autonomy to deal with traditional customs does not address the overwhelming influx of Christian programming and ministry models with which these cultures are now bombarded.27 New contextual models must take globalization into account.

So where does that leave us with regard to Hiebert? Is Hiebert so outdated that this book by a man celebrated as “arguably the world’s leading missiological anthropologist” is no longer worth reading? I do not think so. As with any discipline, knowing your roots is important for making sure you understand your present times. Hiebert is one of those reads that any serious student of missiology needs to master. Without writings like his, the missionary enterprise might be woefully behind the times instead of only struggling to keep up with the postmodern changes of the last thirty years.

But I think there is a bigger reason that Hiebert remains valid today. Modern and postmodern anthropology are not “either/or” but “both/and.” Ott rightly observes that:

Hybridization has made cultural boundaries porous, but has not entirely removed them. Cultural differences are not as fixed and impermeable as one thought, but they do still impact identity, communication, and expression. Cross-cultural workers will still do well to learn the local languages, customs, beliefs, and traditions of the people with whom they work. Many aspects of contextualization as advocated in the late twentieth century are still important.28

What is needed is not abandonment of the cultural tools from the twentieth century, but rather adaptation and supplementation. If we use Anthropological Insights for Missionaries as a stand-alone text, we will contribute to a missiology that is “based on an outdated anthropology that is recommended to potential missionaries for a world that no longer exists.”29 But if we use Hiebert’s book as one of many tools, making sure to supplement Hiebert with topics of globalization, urbanization, and cultural identity, Hiebert remains an asset rather than being a detractor. As we noted earlier, Rynkiewich wrote his own book, Soul, Self, and Society, to serve, as his subtitle states, as A Postmodern Anthropology for Mission in a Postcolonial World. He rightly calls out our missiology where it is faulty and behind the times and helpfully adds chapters on postmodern topics related to “Migration, Diaspora, and Transnationalism” and “Urbanization and Globalization.” What is interesting, at least to me, is that Soul, Self, and Society relies heavily on works published in the twentieth century. Until he gets to the chapters related to postmodern issues, Rynkiewich’s book reads much like other anthropology texts I have read, including Hiebert’s cultural approach in Anthropological Insights for Missionaries. The new postmodern realities, as Rynkiewich himself proves, have not meant total abandonment of prior cultural approaches. In this case, Hiebert remains relevant, albeit incomplete.

I would have no problem recommending Soul, Self, and Society as a missiological anthropology text, if you are looking for a straight anthropological text with missionary leanings. Indeed, for advanced missiology students, this would better serve their purposes than a more generalized text like Brian Howell and Jenell Williams Paris’ Introducing Cultural Anthropology: A Christian Perspective.30 However, one thing remains largely in Hiebert’s favor. His book is much more accessible to a wider audience not only because it is easier to read but, more importantly, because it is immensely practical. I continue to use this book as one of the means by which I instruct MDiv and MA in Ministry students about appropriating missiological insights for local church ministry. Having a book that is accessible and garners interest is essential in this endeavor. My students regularly cite their appreciation for Hiebert, and course evaluations consistently show that, for my US-born students (many of whom are postmodern by age, philosophy, and self-identification), Chapter Five on “Cultural Assumptions of Western Missionaries” has (surprisingly) been one of their best reads ever for helping them understand themselves as cultural beings.

It is, perhaps, an indictment upon missiologists that we have not continued to produce updated, postmodern works that define culture and its relation to ministry through compelling, readable, and practical prose. Then again, it may be testament to a humble scholar who used his craft so skillfully in service to the mission of God that Hiebert remains one of the world’s leading missiological anthropologists, and his book—which is almost thirty-five years old—continues to impact kingdom workers to be students of people as well as students of the Word.

Rochelle Cathcart Scheuermann (PhD, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is Vice-President of Academics at Lincoln Christian University, where she also directs and teaches as Associate Professor in a fully online MA in Intercultural Studies.

1 Paul G. Hiebert, “Missions and Anthropology: A Love/Hate Relationship,” Missiology: An International Review 6, no. 2 (April 1978): 178.

2 I am indebted to the oral history of Paul G. Hiebert’s life that I received as a student (2007–2011) in Trinity Evangelical Divinity School’s Intercultural Studies PhD program and to the summary of Hiebert’s life by my mentor, Robert J. Priest, in “Paul G. Hiebert, a Life Remembered,” Trinity Journal 30 (2009): 171–75.

3 Priest, “Paul G. Hiebert, a Life Remembered,” 172–73.

4 Hiebert, Anthropological Insights for Missionaries, 9.

5 Ibid.

6 See Rochelle L. Cathcart and Mike Nichols, “Self-Theology, Global Theology, and Missional Theology in the Writings of Paul G Hiebert,” Trinity Journal 30 (2009): 209–21.

7 Paul G. Hiebert, Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 10.

8 Tite Tiénou and Paul G. Hiebert, “Missional Theology,” Missiology: An International Review 34, no. 2 (April 2006): 221.

9 Hiebert, Anthropological Insights for Missionaries, 10.

10 Ibid., 52–6.

11 Ibid., 141.

12 Robert Eric Frykenberg, “Paul G. Hiebert, 1932–2007,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 31, no. 3 (July 2007): 129.

13 Cf., Harvie M. Conn, Eternal Word and Changing Worlds: Theology, Anthropology, and Mission in Trialogue (Grand Rapids: Academie, 1984); Charles H. Kraft, Christianity in Culture; A Study in Dynamic Biblical Theologizing in Cross-Cultural Perspective (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1979); Jacob A. Loewen, Culture and Human Values: Christian Intervention in Anthropological Perspective (Pasadena, CA: William Cary Library, 1975); Louis J. Luzbetak, Church and Cultures: An Applied Anthropology for the Religion Worker (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1976); Eugene A. Nida, Customs and Cultures: Anthropology for Christian Missions (New York: Harper & Row, 1954); Alan R. Tippett, The Ways of the People: A Reader in Missionary Anthropology (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2013).

14 Hiebert, Anthropological Insights for Missionaries, 27–28.

15 Ibid., 28.

16 The reader should note that this article is limited in scope to addressing the contemporary relevance of Hiebert’s Anthropological Insights for Missionaries. In later years, Hiebert did take cultural changes into account and wrote about globalization and postmodernism—mostly from a worldview perspective. See, e.g., Paul G. Hiebert, “The Missionary as Mediator of Global Theologizing” in Globalizing Theology, ed. Craig Ott and Harold Netland (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 288–308, or Paul G. Hiebert, Transforming Worldviews (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008).

17 Michael Rynkiewich, Soul, Self, and Society: A Postmodern Anthropology for Mission in a Postcolonial World (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011), 8.

18 Ibid., 5.

19 Michael Rynkiewich, “Do We Need a Postmodern Anthropology for Mission in a Postcolonial World?” Mission Studies 28 (April 2011): 153.

20 Rynkiewich, Soul, Self, and Society, 5.

21 See Kathryn Tanner, Theories of Culture: A New Agenda for Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997).

22 Ibid., 57.

23 Rynkiewich, Soul Self, and Society, 9.

24 Rynkiewich, “Do We Need a Postmodern Anthropology for Mission in a postcolonial World?,” 164.

25 Rynkiewich, Soul, Self, and Society, 10.

26 Craig Ott, “Globalization and Contextualization: Reframing the Task of Contextualization in the Twenty-First Century,” Missiology: An International Review 43, no. 1 (January 2015): 51.

27 Cf. Hiebert, Anthropological Insights for Missionaries, 171–192; Ott, “Globalization and Contextualization.”

28 Ott, “Globalization and Contextualization,” 54–55.

29 Rynkiewich, Soul, Self, and Society, xii.

30 Brian M. Howell and Jenell Williams Paris, Introducing Cultural Anthropology: A Christian Perspective (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010).

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Lamin Sanneh’s Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture [1989]

Sanneh, Lamin. Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture. Rev. and exp. ed. American Society of Missiology Series. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2009. 324 pp.

Biographical Context for Translating the Message

Lamin Sanneh was born into a Muslim family in the Gambia in 1942. He was a descendant of an anti-jihadi member of a royal family, an imperial hero of the Mandinka tribe: Kelefa Sanneh, who was reputed in Manding kora songs to have given his life to opposing forcible conversion to Islam. Sanneh’s grandfather was the first Muslim in his family. Lamin Sanneh experienced, in many ways, a childhood typical of many African tribal peoples. The Gambia was transitioning from ancient tradition to Islam. During this time, the colonial influence from the Western world was increasing contact with the outside world. He experienced God as distant through the strong Islamic, fatalistic doctrine that everything that happens is God’s will. At the same time, folk magic practices were ways of altering divine faith by manipulating spirits. Such contradictory beliefs and practices lay uncomfortably in the same cultural context. Sanneh’s large extended family with his father, his father’s two co-wives, and multiple siblings instilled a deep value for connectedness in the local community, though his aspirations led him far beyond the horizons of his childhood. By age five he was enrolled in a local Qur’an school. He taught himself to read English at the local grocery store by looking at the pictures and letters on shelved products. He experienced emaciating hunger in the midst of famine. He underwent traditional circumcision as an adolescent. He also attended a Western-style elementary school and an Islamic secondary school. After Islamic school, Sanneh took a series of unfulfilling jobs until he landed a relatively secure place in government finance. His eventual passage into faith in Jesus Christ was not so much a triumph of Christian mission as an accidental, furtive extension of his search, as a Muslim, for some spiritual connection to an implacable, distant, and inscrutable God. In a dearth of fatherly affections, thoughts of God beset him in turns repelling and calling him to something he could not quite work out.

Through faith in Jesus Christ, this God came near to him. For his first year as a believer in 1960, no church (Protestant or Catholic) would have him—for fear of Muslim resentment or reprisals. In the meantime, Sanneh developed a voracious appetite for literature of any type he could find. The local British Protectorate library’s meagre collection of books served as his initial catechist, though none of the books were Christian in any overt sense. When a consignment of paperbacks arrived at a local supermarket among them were some writings of C. S. Lewis: the first overtly Christian literature he read. Sanneh writes:

I was entranced by his compellingly clear prose, the force of his reasoning, his scrupulous candor, his unsparing self-scrutiny, and his towering faith in the God who had beset me all those many years. Lewis was proof that God’s grace was unmerited and without bound, and that such a God demanded and deserved our free and unfettered consent. We were made for such company.1

Eventually in 1961, Sanneh was baptized as a Methodist. He left his government job to pursue an “A” level university preparatory course at the Gambia High School in Banjul. Thus, a path opened toward a proper British university education. Through the offer of a scholarship for college study in the US, Sanneh ended up at Union College in Schenectady, New York. While there, he eventually attended an Episcopal church. In 1968 he entered a marriage that failed after three months. After studying at the University of Birmingham in England and the Near East School of Theology in Beirut, he earned his PhD in Islamic History at the University of London. In 1973 Sanneh married his wife, a fellow graduate student in African languages. Sandra was a white, avid anti-apartheid native of South Africa. After accepting a post at the University of Ghana, they began their family with the birth of their son Kelefa. Political unrest led them to Aberdeen, Scotland, where he accepted a post at the University of Aberdeen in 1978. That year their daughter, Sia, was born. There he met Andrew Walls, a Methodist minister and colleague at the university. Walls encouraged him to share preaching in local parishes around Aberdeen. Walls also appointed Sanneh to teach courses in African Christianity. This assignment resulted in something like a second conversion in Sanneh’s life. Preparation for teaching this course puzzled Sanneh because there was a

nagging problem in the sources for which I was totally unprepared: the apparent facility with which Western missions downloaded the text of scripture into the vernacular idiom, adopting in the process the local concept of God. . . . It stumped me that, in spite of its relative disadvantage as an undocumented language without any literary works to its credit, the mother tongue should attract the interest and devotion of missionaries who made it the language of scripture—something Muslim agents would never dream of doing.2

While at Harvard’s Center for World Religions in 1981, Sanneh was encouraged to develop these more or less inchoate thoughts. He taught at Harvard till 1989. During those years the original notion of the missionary use of pagan names for God in Bible translation developed into the book Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture. Since 1989 Sanneh has taught at Yale University where he holds the D. Willis James Professorship of Missions and World Christianity, as well as professorships in History and Religion. While at Yale, Sanneh became a Roman Catholic. He is an editor-at-large at the Christian Century magazine and serves on the board of several other journals. He has authored over 200 articles in scholarly journals and more than a dozen books on Christianity and Islam as well as editing the series Oxford Studies in World Christianity.

A Summary of Translating the Message

The basic thesis of the book is that Christianity, from its beginning, found its identity in the need to translate its theological message from the native Aramaic and Hebrew of its founder, Jesus Christ. While this thesis may not seem noteworthy at first, its implications are weighty. Sanneh was able to view missions and the development of the faith from the standpoint of the vernaculars into which Christianity was translated. This perspective was ripe to be explored by someone who could see what was only obvious once the question was asked. Lamin Sanneh was that person. The contrast with Islam, which does not find its identity in translation, also becomes clear once the question is posed. Christians found their identity and theological genius in translation, thereby relativizing their Jewish roots. They effectively distanced themselves from, and finally rejected entirely, the native language of its founders in favor of the languages of its new adherents. In relativizing its Jewish roots, Christianity thus destigmatized Gentile culture so that both Jewish and Gentile elemental dynamics became intertwined in the development of Christianity. At the earliest stage, in the passage from Aramaic and Hebrew into Greek, the New Testament and the earliest Christian liturgical materials demonstrate this process in a way that is repeated in each successive cultural barrier crossing, until Christianity moved from East to West.

In Chapter 1, Sanneh treats the radical pluralism involved in the transmission of Christianity from a theological perspective. The writings of the apostle Paul demonstrate that earliest Christianity came to a clear position regarding the translatability of the gospel, and lay the foundation for recognizing the merit of the most diverse cultures in God’s universal purpose. The fact that Christians, through translation, embraced other cultures or languages as nondivine enterprises nevertheless left them open to continued influence from their Jewish heritage. Though Sanneh does not speak of this dynamic in terms of differentiation, that is precisely what was taking place: Gentile difference emerged while at the same time maintaining contact with original Jewish sources.3 Thus the successive expressions of Christianity were neither completely cut off from their roots, but neither were they explicitly an attempt to simply repeat the past cultural expression. Both newness and continuities ensued.

Chapter 2 shifts the argument to the next logical step. As Christianity broke free from its exclusive Judaic frame, it took a radical turn and adopted Hellenic culture to the point of complete assimilation. Christian thought now fused with Greek thought. Nevertheless, even as Christianity achieved an impressive synthesis with the world of Greek learning and culture through translatability, the very translatability that had allowed this transformation to take place also radically challenged it. As the synthesis of religion and Hellenic culture, particularly the Greek metaphysical outlook, hardened into a dogmatic cultural attitude and the Greek intellectual template became the rule for others, continued translation effected new cycles of theological, ecclesial, and liturgical development among Latins, Armenians, Copts, Goths, and Ethiopians. In this chapter the emphasis falls upon developments among the Slavs; however, from each cultural turn followed a version of the faith expressing the spirit of their national culture. Among Slavic peoples, the church took root in the vernacular soil stimulated by the translation enterprise. Eventually, the mission was curbed (“reformed,” in official jargon) to weaken its vernacular impact and bring local churches under firmer central control.

Chapter 3 describes the Anglicanization of the faith through translation into English in the case of the King James Version. This chapter, new in the second edition of Sanneh’s book, is especially helpful for English speakers to problematize what may be opaque to scrutiny, simply because it otherwise remains unconscious. English speakers too easily equate their own experience of Scripture and Christianity with the original meaning rather than clearly seeing how their experience is mediated and amalgamated with their own culture. “Nourished by the vernacular Scripture, a homegrown Christianity need not be heretical or chauvinistic to be credible, as Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer as the vernacular liturgy conclusively demonstrated” (120). The effect of vernacular translation in English on both language and culture was accordingly immense. The case of the KJV demonstrates that

the vernacular Bible flooded the thoughts and feelings of an ever-widening circle of uneducated country folk on the principle that, after all, God was their God, too, only more so, given the primacy of spoken language over textual erudition. Translation is not so that the initiated can traffic in the arcane and baffling, nor is it an occasion of linguistic perfection and literary virtuosity. Rather, translation is empowerment for the humble in heart to seek fellowship with their God. (120)

Chapter 4 confronts the contested issues of mission and Western colonialism. The most salient point Sanneh makes is that vernacular Bible translation outdistanced and outlasted the ephemeral forces of colonial rule. More importantly, vernacular Bible translation and all the structures that support it effectively empowered local peoples against their colonial overlords. Where they could, colonial powers attempted to restrain mother-tongue development taking mission policy hostage by imposing the exclusive use of European languages for education and social structures under their control. The struggle between colonial power and the religious impulse toward vernacularization is a constant theme of Christian mission in the colonial period. Roman Catholic missions in the early modern period defended indigenous languages and cultures against the exclusive requirement of Castilian Spanish, and the papacy recognized the vernacular in the liturgy and conduct of church discipline. In Mexico and Mesoamerica, missionaries accommodated local art forms in the church. In India and Japan, though policy did fluctuate, the policy settled for accommodation. The result was a high valuation of local converts in terms of their indigenous agency. In Japan, Catholic mission insisted on deep familiarity and respect for Japanese religious and cultural traditions as the basis for mission. In India individual Catholic missionary pioneers assimilated into the Hindu religious worldview in an attempt to secure genuine intercultural exchange. Assimilating missionaries recognized the value of mother tongues for the Christian life. Furthermore, globally, the nineteenth-century Protestant missionary movement made the translation of Scripture into the mother tongues the sine qua non of mission. Many popular religious movements rose in response to these missionary translation projects. This is especially true in Africa where colonial exploration paved the way for Christian mission to plant vernacular-speaking churches. Nevertheless, divergent logics of colonial rule and the dynamism of African churches were epitomized by the vernacular policy of Bible translation. Without regard to motivations, the fact remains that missionaries empowered mother-tongue speakers through their systematic documentation of vernaculars. In many cases, missionaries encouraged the founding of native political organizations and the people educated in mission schools emerged to lead the anti-colonial cause.

Chapter 5 is an historical exploration of vernacular Scripture translation by the Anglican Church Missionary Society (CMS) and its effects in the Niger Delta, focused primarily on the role of Bishop Dandeson Coates Crowther. The goal of the CMS was, ostensibly, “to produce a self-reliant, self-supporting African pastorate, one that would preside over autonomous Anglican churches in communion with Canterbury” (164). The missionary Henry Venn thus anticipated the “euthanasia” of the foreign mission alongside the establishment of the native church. The path to an independent church was blazed through a policy of vernacular translation in Yoruba and other languages. Crowther gathered and appointed African leadership for decades for the CMS churches, and his appointment as bishop in 1876 was seen at first as the mission’s crowning achievement. Soon, however, allegations of moral perfidy surfaced against some of his assistants. This led to the dismissal of Crowther in 1879 as bishop by a young English missionary sent for that purpose. Consequently, the African church was demoralized, while some of the English leadership were confirmed in their doubts that Africans could lead the African church. This led to varying responses. Crowther called for patience and attempted to mollify the African offense. Jameson Johnson, who later became a bishop, led a stiffening resistant response to the foreign mission. However, revival under the prophet Garrick Braide and the later Aladura revival of 1928–30 led to a dramatic transformation in the churches and the mission. At the heart of all this churning was the vernacular project of translation.

Chapter 6 on missionary translation is a theological and missiological assessment of the effects of vernacular translation from an African perspective. Missionaries, committed to vernacular translation as essential to Christian life, proceeded to translate the scriptural God in terms of vernacular concepts freighted with traditional meaning with no need to reinvent the concept of God. Armed with their own Bible, Africans discovered scriptural sanction for joining the Old and New Testaments to the old and new dispensations of their own tribal history and experience. The message that God’s work in the world was not done but continues in the new age gave invigorating power to their primal societies as they confronted new challenges. Thus, they threw themselves into projects of social change and renewal without the burden of having to deny their old traditions in order to claim the promise of Abraham. The challenge was to integrate old and new rather than completely overthrowing the old assurance as a condition for embracing new hope in Christ. The universal gospel in the local vernacular both weakened and strengthened various aspects of tribal identity and contributed to the creation of post-colonial nation states.

Chapter 7 is a reappraisal of the issue of missionary interference in other cultures. Since vernacular translation must commence with the need to recast the gospel in terms of familiarity, the missionaries must rely on field methods and experience. An intimate grasp of the vernacular local customs and usage is absolutely necessary. This approach makes the Christian Scriptures breathe the oxygen of local life and stimulates indigenous cultural renewal. The expert in this process is the local member of the tribal culture. The recipient culture thus becomes the arbiter of the appropriation of the message, not the missionaries. This results in anti-elitist popular impulses of ordinary usage and favors the open and public nature of religious faith along with the political effects of free and equal access to the things of God. Vernacular primacy thus tends to shift agency from missions to favor indigenous cultural integrity in conducting the ongoing mission of God. The focus on sola scriptura biblicism in extreme Protestantism, which was received from the spirit of the Reformation, further emphasizes dependence upon local resources (not so much on commentaries and exegetical literature from the West) to make sense of translation, shielding the indigenous cultures from Western intellectual domination.

Chapter 8 recapitulates the themes of the power of vernacular translation in Christian mission in contrast to the Islamic value of untranslatability. For Christians, God’s word must be translated for it to become God’s word for the other. This places a premium on pluralism and an emphasis on the equality of languages and cultures before God. The practical effect of this valuation of the vernacular was that Christian missions were responsible for about 90 percent of the grammars and lexica that document the output of descriptive linguistics in the world. On the other hand, Islam’s focus on untranslatability for the Qur’an has led to the promotion of Arabic and the relegation of the vernacular to a subaltern status. Both approaches have their pros and cons for the lives of vast numbers of people. Furthermore, Islam has a focus on territoriality, with its center in Mecca. Christianity, having lost its Jerusalem temple, has various centers and no center, no homeland. The result is serial growth or regression, with the most vibrant areas of lively Christian faith often found on the margins far from its various centers.


The breathtaking sweep of Sanneh’s thesis and its brilliant theological development reframed the debate about mission and colonialism. It implied that languages and cultures are, from a Christian perspective, equal before God. No culture is so advanced or superior that it may lay claim to exclusive access to God. No language is so marginal or remote that others may dismiss it as unworthy of hosting theological discourse. All have merit, and none are dispensable. Therefore, the sort of monotheism that Christianity received from Judaism views cultural exclusivism as idolatry. From this perspective, Bible translation transcends debates over literalism. The Bible cannot be literal in any language into which it is translated, but at the same time, its message affirms every language worthy as a vehicle of divine discourse.4

Relation to Contemporary Thought

Sanneh has received his share of criticism,5 if anything, for his very positive view of the possibilities of missionary translation into the vernaculars. As Andrew Walls rightly cautions, translation “is the art of the impossible.”6 It is easy to turn the argument for translatability on its head and assert “untranslatability.” It would be better to see the translatable and the untranslatable as aspects of any message in context. Crucial, important aspects are invariably gained and lost in the process of translation, yet translation goes on even if, at times, chastened. Furthermore, translatability does not guarantee equivalence in any objective measure, if such were possible, and the “equivalence” of the translated message is rather in the eyes of the community that receives the text in the place of an original. Equivalence is a social norm, attributed to the translation by the vernacular community. As Theo Hermans has said:

Equivalence, which I . . . interpret as meaning equality in value and status, is not a feature that can be extrapolated on the basis of textual comparison. Rather than being extracted from texts, equivalence is imposed on them through an external intervention in a particular institutional context. In other words, equivalence is proclaimed, not found. [However], the proclamation is effective only if the conditions are right. Moreover, a translation raised to equivalent status with its original will necessarily be recognised as a correct representation of it, indeed it is of necessity the only correct representation.7

As equivalent vernacular translations multiply, the inevitable differences that arise between “equivalent” translations provide fodder for pluralism in the unity of the faith.8 For his part, Sanneh is unconcerned about objective measures of equivalence; he is more concerned to ground the equivalence of cultures and languages in God’s equal love for all peoples.


Translating the Message is a powerful and useful book to read and re-read. It should be required for every prospective missionary struggling with notions of fidelity to the gospel and concomitant fears of syncretism. It will expose cultural supremacies for what they are: an affront to the gospel. At the same time, Sanneh’s book will leave the reader asking: “What is invariable and what is variable in translating the gospel across cultures?” This is a healthy question to ask, though answers may be few and illusory at times. The struggle and the search will point the way toward the definitive revelation of God’s life in Jesus Christ and give proper weight to the role of Scriptures and other extensions of the liturgical life of God’s people that bear witness to that revelation. All of these witnesses to God come to us mediated through the languages and cultures of others, and they take up the concepts and practices of any culture like oxygen and produce life where they may go.

Yancy Smith is Senior Director for Translation Services with Bible League International. He earned a BA and an MA in Biblical Languages and New Testament from Abilene Christian University and a PhD in Biblical Interpretation from Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University. He was a church planter in South America and West Texas for 20 years, and was an elder in the church at Antioch Fort Worth for 10 years.

1 Lamin O. Sanneh, Summoned from the Margin: Homecoming of an African (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans: 2012), 111.

2 Sanneh, Summoned, 282.

3 Here I borrow “differentiation” from a systems theoretical perspective. See the Bowen Center for the Study of the Family, “Eight Concepts,”

4 Lamin O. Sanneh, Disciples of All Nations: Pillars of World Christianity, Oxford Studies in World Christianity (Oxford: Oxford, 2008), 25.

5 See, for example, Sangkeun Kim, Strange Names of God: The Missionary Translation of the Divine Name and the Chinese Responses to Matteo Ricci’s «Shangti» in Late Ming China, 1583–1644, Studies in Biblical Literature 70 (Peter Lang: New York, 2005), 9.

6 Andrew Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith (Orbis: Maryknoll, New York, 1996), 26.

7 Theo Hermans, A Conference of Tongues (Routledge: New York, 2007), 17–18; see also Gideon Toury, “The Nature and Role of Norms in Translation,” in Descriptive Translation Studies and Beyond (Amsterdam-Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1995), 61, and Theo Hermans, “Norms of Translation,” in The Encyclopedia of Applied Linguistics, ed. Carol A. Chapelle (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013),

8 See Yancy Smith, “The Mystery and Mirage of Equivalence: Bible Translation Theory and the Practice of Christian Mission,” Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 5, no. 1 (February 2014):

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Andrew Walls and The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Introducing World Christianity to Church History [1996]

Walls, Andrew F. The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996. 266 pp.


In 1957, fresh from Oxford with his PhD in Patristics, Andrew Walls arrived at Fourah Baye College in Sierra Leone for his first teaching assignment. The young Scot had the responsibility of teaching church history to individuals training for ministry. Like many of his contemporaries, Walls believed that his task was to disclose the accumulated wisdom of the older Western, churches to the “young churches” of Africa.1 As he continued his course of teaching in Sierra Leone and later in Nigeria, however, he discovered that his attitudes and assumptions about church history were wrong. Walls was not merely teaching his students about the second century church; he was living in the midst of one. He began to recognize how closely the practices of the churches in Sierra Leone and Nigeria mirrored those of early Christianity. Moreover, he began to realize that the church in Africa was not a carbon copy of the Western Church, but that African churches had a history of their own that merited critical investigation. As he put it, “The life, worship and understanding of a community in its second century of Christian allegiance was going on all around me. . . . The experience changed this academic for life.”2 The final phrase in the previous quote is characteristic of the understated Walls. Not only did his realization change his life, but it fundamentally changed the study of church history: Christianity was never just a religion of the Western world, and by the 1950s its vital centers began appearing outside of the West. Walls exposed the inadequacies of a Eurocentric reading of church history and planted the seeds for a new academic discipline: world Christianity.3

Walls never published a book. Over the next forty years, however, it seemed that with every article he wrote, he broke new ground and brought new insight and further clarity to the study of church history and missions. Moreover, during this time he also trained a new generation of scholars who would become leaders in their respective fields and spurred the preservation of numerous materials from missionaries and churches.4 He was among the first to recognize the shift of the center of Christianity to the Global South—a development whose implications churches and scholars the world over are still struggling to grasp.5 In short, Walls’s career is rare and extraordinary in its range and impact. This is no less true for his book, The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith. Part history and part theology, The Missionary Movement in Christian History is a collection of previously published articles and lectures that span a significant portion of Walls’s extraordinary career (1971–1994). These essays both represent his most important scholarly contributions and, in this collected edition, have quickly become a classic in church history, missions studies, and world Christianity.6 The purpose of this article is to revisit this classic work, consider its legacy, and discuss its continuing relevance to current scholarship.

Translation and Serial Progression

The Missionary Movement in Christian History is divided into three parts with an autobiographical introduction that helps the reader understand how what Walls calls “a collection of fragments” connects with each other.7 In part one, “The Transmission of Christian Faith,” he focuses on the nature of the Christian faith through its historical, geographical, and temporal transmission. He argues that the survival of Christianity depends on the transmission of faith through an act of translation that leads to the inculturation of the gospel and that this process ought to be the central focus of church history. In part two, “Africa’s Place in Christian History,” Walls discusses the transmission of faith in the context of Africa as he explores the Southern continent’s place in the history of Christianity. In part three, “The Missionary Movement,” he considers how this process of transmission affects both sides of those involved in the process as he examines the Protestant missionary movement from Western Europe, notably the United Kingdom, and North America. Each section of the book has essays that make significant contributions to the study of church history.

In the first essay of the collection, “The Gospel as Prisoner and Liberator of Culture,” Walls engages in a helpful thought experiment that demonstrates the core contributions of his work.8 Tipping his hat to Henry Van Dusen’s “visitor from Mars,” he imagines a long living extraterrestrial who is a “Professor of Comparative Inter-Planetary Religions” who can visit Earth every few centuries to study Christianity.9 Over a period of centuries, the scholarly visitor encounters a diversity of expressions of Christianity. He witnesses the Jewish roots and context of the early church, the first Council of Nicea and medieval Irish monasticism, and the height of the Western Protestant missionary movement in London and the vibrancy of indigenous African Christianity in Nigeria.10 What is Walls’s “Professor of Comparative Inter-Planetary Religions” to make of this Earth religion called Christianity?

This bird’s eye view of Christian history illustrates the two assertions that constitute the central themes of The Missionary Movement in Christian History. First, Walls argues that translation lies at the core of the Christian faith and is key to its survival across geographic and cultural boundaries.11 His argument begins with the assertion that the incarnation is the paradigmatic act of translation.12 Human beings cannot be separated from their cultural and social networks any more than a person can lift a bus while standing inside of it. Therefore, when God became a human being, God did not just become a “general” human being but was a person in a particular location, in a specific ethnic group, and in a specific time and place. God became a Jewish male in first-century Palestine. This act of translation, however, was not a one-way process but a dynamic interaction that took place between God and humanity. As the divine entered into first-century Jewish Palestinian culture, the people in that cultural-temporal location had to rely on pre-existing language and cultural conventions to comprehend this new element. In doing so, they had to take the existing structures of their language and culture and reorient them toward the divine. In this way, the gospel became rooted in the mental habits and cultural forms of that first-century society for a distinctive Christian mind to be formed and a unique Christian fellowship to be built on the core principles of the religion.13 Christianity grew out of the grassroots of human culture and came to expression in a distinctively Jewish way.

Walls takes this theological argument and views Christian history through the lens of translation. As the gospel entered into new contexts, it was as if the incarnation happened all over again in each different setting. The Word became vernacularized among a new people. As they oriented their language, customs, and social networks toward the gospel, however, they raised new questions and concerns significant to their contexts that previous Christians had not.14 Recall our Professor of Inter-Planetary Religions who observed the Christian faith situated in a Jewish context, expressed in terms of Jewish ritual and concerns. Three hundred years later when he observes the Council of Nicea, he witnessed a Christianity enmeshed in Grecian philosophical framework concerned about metaphysics and theology that, in many ways, seemed disconnected from its earlier Jewish context. Fast forward yet another 300 years and Walls showed us another cultural shift—metaphysics had been set aside for the earthiness of the Celtic Irish and their focus on developing a spirituality through the crucible of penitential discipline. A little over a thousand years later we witnessed the excitement of Christians gathered in London who, rather than seeking to be apart from society like their Irish ancestors in the faith, displayed intense activism that they brought to bear on every aspect of their society. Finally, by 1980 our space professor saw that for the Aladura churches of Nigeria, power as revealed through preaching, healing, and personal vision, is paramount.15

As the gospel was transmitted from one context to the next, new concerns arose for it to address. This transmission led to a diversity in the expressions of Christianity across time and space. Yet, Walls avoids a deconstructive postmodern relativism as he points out the coherence that unites these disparate Christian communities across the centuries: (1) they all worship the God of Israel, (2) they place ultimate significance in Jesus Christ, (3) they believe that God is active where believers are, and (4) believers are a part of God’s people, a community that transcends time and space.16 For Walls, this paradoxical dynamic of “indigenizing” and “pilgrim” principles lies at the heart of the Christian faith and its transmission.17 On the one side, human beings cannot escape their cultural and social networks, so the gospel must become indigenized, or expressed through these cultural norms. On the other side, as God’s interactions with human beings begin in their particular contexts, God reorients them and begins to transform them into what God desires. With this dynamic in view, Paul’s assertion that every knee would bow before Jesus in Philippians 2 and John’s vision of all the nations gathered around God’s throne in Revelation 7 take on new significance and meaning. These images become realized in the tremendous diversity of human life and culture as it expresses the gospel and becomes reoriented toward God. The kingdom is fulfilled in diversity, not homogeneity. This theological point coupled with a historical survey of Christian history reveals one of Walls’s significant contributions to church history: translation lies at the heart of Christian faith, and the history of the religion is best understood through its translation and transmission across time and space.

The second theme that becomes a significant contribution to the study of church history, and is closely related to the first, is Walls’s concept of “serial progression.”18 Again, consider Walls’s space professor’s journey through Christian history. He witnessed Christianity as a Jewish sect in the first century. He saw Christianity transformed into a non-Jewish Greek speaking religion in the fourth century. He observed medieval Irish monks’ spiritual practices in the seventh century. He attended a gathering of British activist evangelicals in the nineteenth century. Finally, in the late twentieth century, he watched Nigerian Christians claim God’s power through healing, preaching, and personal vision. In each case what was once the periphery of a center of Christianity became a new heartland for the religion as the old passed away. For example, in the first century, the Gentiles were on the peripheries of Jewish Christianity, but by the fourth century, the center of Christianity was among non-Jewish Greek-speaking peoples with a northern European barbarian frontier. The Christian faith, throughout its history, has not progressed steadily onward, claiming new territory and maintaining its hold on places it has been. Instead, as new Christian centers emerge old ones die away. First-century Palestine, fourth-century Constantinople, seventh-century Ireland, nineteenth-century Britain, and twentieth-century Nigeria have all become heartlands of Christianity in their time, and they have all (except Nigeria) ceased being so. Indeed, as Walls shows, if it were not for the process of cross-cultural transmission that lies at the heart of the Christian faith, the religion would have died out long ago.19 Growth takes place at the edges and frontiers of Christian areas, even as the previous Christian center experiences decline.

Walls’s concept of the serial progression of Christianity is significant, not just for the study of Christian history but also for the present and future of world Christianity. Areas that had once been heartlands for the Christian faith, namely Europe and North America, have been experiencing a massive decline in adherents to Christianity just as new centers of the religion have emerged in what had once been peripheries of the faith: Africa, Asia, the Pacific, and Latin America. It seems that the future of Christianity is in the Global South, and, as Walls asserts, Christianity’s encounter with Southern cultures will be “as determinative for the future shape of Christianity as was the encounter with the Greek world.”20 Taken in light of Walls’s argument that translation lies at the core of the Christian faith, the concept of serial progression has significant implications not only for the study of Christian history but also for the contemporary study and practice of Christian missions and theology as both disciplines are conceived of in the West. While it is outside of the scope of this essay to explore those implications in detail, one is clear: business as usual for Western missionaries is over. This does not mean that Christians from North America or Europe should stop seeking to practice missions. Rather, in light of the historical developments and arguments highlighted by Walls, Westerners ought to reevaluate the assumptions, methods, and theology that undergird their participation in the mission of God.21

Contemporary Scholarship

While The Missionary Movement in Christian History represents numerous contributions that Walls has made to the study of world Christianity, Christian history, and missions studies, there are places where this collection of essays falls short and where scholarship has moved beyond his work.22 Walls’s work in this volume leaves Roman Catholicism and Pentecostalism out of the analysis. While there are chapters that explore Christianity through the medieval period, he fails to investigate the role that Roman Catholic mission and expansion played in the global transmission of Christianity in the early modern period.23 Moreover, the contemporary role that Roman Catholicism plays in the mosaic of world Christianity, especially in its charismatic forms, is essential to understanding the religion in the Global South.24 In the same way, the rise of global Pentecostalism and its missionary roots are essential for understanding the emergence of world Christianity in the twentieth century. More than any other form of Christianity, Pentecostal and charismatic movements are sweeping through the Global South.25

Another feature of world Christianity that is essential to understanding contemporary Christianity is its gendered nature. In her book, Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion, Dana Robert shows that the ratio of female to male Christians is roughly two to one. She argues that since women significantly outnumber men as practicing Christians, Christianity is a women’s religion.26 Since the majority of public leaders in Christianity’s past and present have been men, however, the crucial role that women have played in the history of the religion has long been buried. Scholars like Robert, who are doing the work to uncover these stories, recognize the groundwork that Walls laid by drawing attention to the traditional margins of Eurocentric Christian history.

No work of scholarship is immune to the passage of time, and The Missionary Movement in Christian History is not an exception. As mentioned above, there are areas of Christian history and world Christianity that this collection misses. Such criticism, however, does not undercut the value of Walls’s enduring contributions. The breadth of his analysis over the span of Christian history, his range of knowledge, and his ecumenical sympathies give this collection of essays a significance that will last for years to come and inspire generations of readers.


The Missionary Movement in Christian History is a classic for good reason. A veritable “who’s who” of scholars, from Mark Noll and Philip Jenkins to David Bebbington and Kwame Bediako, publicly recognize how Walls’s work has impacted and influenced their scholarship.27 The themes of “translation” and “serial progression” as Walls introduces them in this volume challenge the very way we study and understand the history of Christianity, Christian mission, and world Christianity. Scholars are still coming to grips with the implications of the shift of Christianity from the West to the Global South for their work, and those who ignore this change do so at their peril. There is still much that Walls has to teach us, and we are fortunate that we have this collection of essays to return to as we evaluate our respective situations in light of the changing face of world Christianity.

Jeremy Hegi is a PhD candidate at the Boston University School of Theology in Church History and World Christianity. Prior to matriculating at Boston University, he received his MA and MDiv from the Abilene Christian University Graduate School of Theology. Jeremy’s research interests focus on the intersection of American religious history, the history of missions, and women’s history.

1 Walls, The Missionary Movement, xiii.

2 Ibid.

3 World Christianity, as an academic discipline, provides a framework for studying Christianity that focuses on local, indigenous expressions of Christianity as these expressions relate to and are embedded in transnational networks. Joel Cabrita and David Maxwell’s recently published Relocating World Christianity: Interdisciplinary Studies in Universal and Local Expressions of the Christian Faith provides the best overview and discussion of world Christianity as an academic discipline. See Joel Cabrita and David Maxwell, “Introduction: Relocating World Christianity,” in Relocating World Christianity: Interdisciplinary Studies in Universal and Local Expressions of the Christian Faith, eds. Joel Cabrita, David Maxwell, and Emma Wild-Wood (Boston: Brill, 2017), 1–44. Following Lamin Sanneh’s lead, I prefer the term world Christianity to global Christianity. The latter term implies a replication of Christian forms and patterns developed in Europe while the former term is more in line with Walls’s thought. For a more in-depth discussion see Lamin Sanneh, Whose Religion is Christianity? The Gospel Beyond the West (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 22–23.

4 For more information on the impact of Walls’s work through his students and establishment of repositories for missionary materials, see Jonathan Bonk, “Changing the Course of Mission and World Christian Studies,” in Understanding World Christianity: The Vision and Work of Andrew F. Walls, ed. William R. Burrows, Mark R. Gornik, and Janice A. Mclean (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011), 61–78.

5 As Walls was writing about African Christianity as a new and vibrant center of World Christianity, David Barrett was in the process of gathering demographic data and publishing the first edition of the World Christian Encyclopedia that corroborated Walls’s assertions. Barrett and Walls were the first scholarly voices to recognize the shift of the centers of Christianity from the West to the Global South. For more information on Barrett’s life and work see Gina Zurlo, “ ‘A Miracle From Nairobi’: David B. Barrett and the Quantification of World Christianity, 1957–1982” (PhD diss., Boston University, 2017).

6 While the essays in this volume reflect Walls’s most significant contributions, he published one of his most important and impactful articles, “Eusebius Tries Again: Reconceiving the Study of Christian History” after the publication of The Missionary Movement in Christian History. See Andrew Walls, “Eusebius Tries Again: Reconceiving the Study of Christian History,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 24, no. 3 (July 2000): 105–11.

7 Walls, The Missionary Movement, xiii.

8 Ibid., 3–15.

9 Henry Van Dusen established the first American seminary professorship in the field of World Christianity in 1945. His definition of the field, however, reflected his context. He envisioned “World Christianity” as the inevitable worldwide unity and cooperation of Protestant Churches. Thus, contrary to Walls’s “Professor of Comparative Inter-planetary Religions,” his Martian visitor witnesses a self-conscious interconnected religious movement toward Christian Unity. See Henry P. Van Dusen, World Christianity: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury, 1947), 46. See also Walls, The Missionary Movement, 3.

10 Walls tells this story in the first part of “The Gospel as Prisoner and Liberator of Culture.” See Walls, The Missionary Movement, 3–7.

11 Walls most clearly discusses this point in ch. 3, “The Translation Principle in Christian History.” Ibid., 26–42. Lamin Sanneh similarly emphasizes the centrality of translation to the Christian faith in his masterful, Translating the Message. See Lamin Sanneh, Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1989).

12 Walls, The Missionary Movement, 27.

13 Ibid., 28.

14 Ibid., 10.

15 Ibid., 3–5.

16 Ibid., 24.

17 Ibid., 7–9.

18 Though this is a theme that repeatedly appears throughout the book, Walls explores this concept most thoroughly in chapter 2, “Culture and Coherence in Christian History.” Note that this chapter was delivered as a speech in 1982, the same year David Barrett published his World Christian Encyclopedia. Walls, The Missionary Movement, 16–25.

19 Ibid., 22.

20 Ibid., xviii.

21 Walls begins to explore the implication for Western missions in this volume as well. See ch. 11, “Structural Problems in Mission Studies”; ch. 17, “The American Dimension of the Missionary Movement”; ch. 18, “Missionary Societies and the Fortunate Subversion of the Church”; and ch. 19, “The Old Age of the Missionary Movement.” Ibid., 143–59, 221–61.

22 Outside of the two themes I outlined above, The Missionary Movement in Church History represents many more scholarly contributions that Walls has made over the years, especially in African Studies.

23 For an in-depth exploration of early-modern Catholicism from the perspective of World Christianity, see Dale T. Irvin and Scott W. Sunquist, History of The World Christian Movement, vol. 2, Modern Christianity from 1454–1800 (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2012).

24 See the discussion of Roman Catholicism and world Christianity in Scott W. Sunquist, The Unexpected Christian Century: The Reversal and Transformation of Global Christianity, 1900–2000 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015), 103–12.

25 For an excellent survey of the missionary roots of Pentecostalism, see Allan Anderson, Spreading Fires: The Missionary Nature of Early Pentecostalism (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2007).

26 Dana L. Robert, Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 118.

27 For more on Wall’s influence, see Bonk, “Changing the Course of Mission,” 61–78.

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Romans, Reconciliation, and Role-Playing in Mozambique: Benefiting from the ‘New Perspective on Paul’

The “New Perspective on Paul” has shaped the author’s teaching of the book of Romans in Mozambique. Role-playing the background of the letter and using an important play on words in the Makua-Metto language helps present the historical and religious issues involved. This sets up a more comprehensive reading of Romans which, instead of focusing on individual justification, serves to find important points of contact and relevance for the church in Mozambique at congregational, civic, and cosmic levels.

Paul’s epistle to the Romans may be the most significant piece of literature for Protestant Christianity,1 so it should not be a surprise that its interpretation has been hotly debated. One group of recent proposals under the heading “the New Perspective on Paul” (NPP) aims to reorient the dominant interpretive approaches (which have focused on individual justification, following Luther and others) by calling readers to consider the original historical and religious context more closely. A comprehensive summary of the NPP and a complete discussion of the controversial proposals are certainly beyond the scope of this article.2 The purpose of this piece is to show how certain emphases of the “New Perspective on Paul” have been useful in teaching the book of Romans in Mozambique. This way of reading has made the letter resonate more deeply with our African friends than I had anticipated. My objective in appropriating the NPP has not been to teach it for its own sake but to faithfully communicate Romans in a way that helps the church in Mozambique to see the letter’s relevance today.

I begin with a short overview of the NPP and how it impacts a reading of Romans. I then look at how role-playing the historical situation in Rome helps Mozambican participants understand and identify with the church’s circumstances, which in turn sets the stage for a better interpretation of Paul’s counsel to its original recipients. Lastly, we will turn our attention to how reading Romans from a more comprehensive perspective connects with churches in northern Mozambique.

The New Perspective on Paul and the Book of Romans

Trying to define the NPP is complicated because this school of thought is not monolithic and its development is still ongoing. The authors in this category each have their own emphases—it is not one “new perspective” but a group of “perspectives” that interpret Paul’s writings from a variety of angles while still sharing a common corner.3 Kent Yinger notes that while the chief proponents of the NPP (generally recognized as E. P. Sanders, James D. G. Dunn, and N. T. Wright) and others differ on certain specific issues, “the main lines of the NPP should be clear enough.”4 He traces the line of reasoning this way:

1. First-century Judaisms were not legalistic, but were characterized by covenantal nomism—saved by God’s grace and obligated to follow his ways. 2. Since Jews were not espousing works-righteousness, Paul was not opposing legalism in his letters. 3. Instead, at issue was a question of social identity: ‘Who belongs to the people of God and how is this known?’ i.e., does one have to be Jewish—be circumcised, keep food laws, celebrate Sabbath, etc.—in order to inherit the promises of Abraham? 4. Paul does not differ from most other Jews as to the roles of grace, faith, and works in salvation; where he differs is the conviction that Jesus is Israel’s Messiah and the Lord of all creation. No longer is the Torah the defining center of God’s dealings; what counts now is belonging to Christ.5

Another way to think of the difference between the “older perspective” on Paul and the NPP is to consider how each perceives the central question that lies as the heart of his letters. For the NPP, “the primary question being answered in these Pauline texts is not Martin Luther’s anguished ‘How may I, a sinner, find a gracious God?’ but “Who belongs to the company of the righteous, to God’s saved people?’ To read Paul as though he were answering the question, ‘What must I do to be saved?’ is to misread the apostle’s main intent. Instead, these parts of his letters that deal with salvation and justification are usually answering the question, ‘How may Gentiles take part in God’s saving grace to Israel?’ ”6 How we phrase the central question orients our expectations of what we will encounter in Paul. I would like to highlight two main NPP proposals or shifts7 that replace Luther’s inward-looking question and look briefly at how these shifts shape a reading of the book of Romans.

1. The shift to a more historical perspective—from primarily inwards to backwards—asking the question: What Jewish religious/cultural backgrounds and conflicts (potentially over boundary markers) are shaping this letter?

Reading Paul in light of Jewish backgrounds (and retreating from Luther’s question) helps us appreciate that his letters address communities wrestling with an understanding of holiness in their new, common identity in Christ. The struggle included how to make sense of their Jewish and Gentile heritages (with conflict often concentrated on the “hot button” boundary markers of circumcision, Sabbath, and food laws).8 A significant point of divergence between NPP and the older reading is over the role of these “works of the law.” Yinger explains: “Prior to Sanders, this referred to Jewish legalism, doing works in order to be saved. Dunn argues that this phrase refers not to works-righteousness but to particular observances of the Law that functioned as badges of Jewish identity in the ancient world. . . . Rather than being a code-phrase for legalism, ‘works of the law’ could be more accurately understood as a sociological category. It refers to a group of people, the Jewish people, who can be identified by their practices of these ‘works of the law.’ ”9

This is an important, complicated debate that is outside the scope of this article. Nevertheless, the position one takes on this issue will shape his/her reading of Romans. The ‘works of the law,’ following the NPP, have “as much to do with one’s social location (membership of the covenant group) as it does with theology.”10 While some NPP writers focus so much on sociology that Paul’s “theological views become secondary, the views of Dunn and Wright, on the other hand, represent more of a both-and to this issue of sociology versus theology.”11 The “ ‘works of law’ do identify one’s social positioning (Jewish, non-Jewish), but precisely this social identity is central to the theological issue of justification.”12 NPP writers helps us remember that “being part of Abraham’s offspring (Gal 3) is both a sociological and theological matter.”13 The church in Rome, for example, needed counsel on the issue of boundary markers and Paul reexamines circumcision as a sign of the covenant for being part of the people of God (2:25–3:1, 4:9–12) and tackles the issues of Sabbath observance and food laws (14:1–23).

Issues of religion and sociology are even at the forefront in the letter’s key thematic verses: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from the first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith’ ” (Rom 1:16–17 NIV). Readings of Romans that start with Luther’s question tend to put the weight on the quotation from Habakkuk in verse 17. Hence, Paul’s argument is principally about how the righteous will live by faith. A reading of Romans that follows the NPP angle, though, will weigh seriously the importance of verse 16—that Paul’s major agenda is to communicate that the gospel is God’s power to save all humans—first the Jews and then the Gentiles.

These two examples from the book of Romans, the way it addresses the “works of the law” or boundary marker issues and an important reference to the issue of Jews and Gentiles in its “theme verses,” unite sociology and theology into one cohesive whole. In the next section we will see how the gospel has even further implications, not only for the church community in Rome—the reconciliation of Jewish and Gentile Christians—but how it reverberates into other dimensions as well.

2. Shift to a more comprehensive perspective—from primarily inwards to outwards—asking the question: What are the congregational, civic, and cosmic dimensions that the gospel is addressing in this letter?

The NPP reminds us that an “individualistic focus represents a non-Pauline and modern Western way of viewing the world. Ancients understood themselves (i.e., as individuals) in terms of family and national heritage—group identity.”14 The corresponding critique of this position, though, is that some of the NPP proponents “seem to jettison much interest in individual salvation.”15 They have, in effect, thrown the baby of individual salvation out with the bathwater of critiquing an approach that ignores the communal dimensions. A more responsible position would be to “resist this reductionism (everything reduced to sociological matters) as a ‘false dichotomy’ and call for more of a both/and position,”16 or possibly even a primarily/and position—that Paul is primarily dealing with a question of group identity but that certainly what he has to say has real and important implications for the individual. As Garlington notes, “to belong to the new covenant is to be among the community of the saved. And justification does, in fact, tell us how to be saved, in that it depicts God’s methods of saving sinners—by faith in Christ, not by works of the law—and placing them in covenant standing with himself.”17

So, while Paul’s letters undoubtedly have significance for the individual, the NPP emphasizes that a highly individualistic reading of Paul’s letters will distort the totality of its message. We need to read Romans, for example, with an awareness that the challenge of the gospel is to be heard in all arenas of life, with powerful implications at the congregational (e.g., 12:1–21); civic or political (e.g., 13:1–7); and cosmic levels (e.g., 8:1–39). Taking off the blinders imposed by a modern Western individualistic reading widens our field of vision. It helps to reveal how, at its essence, the book of Romans is about Paul applying his big picture understanding of the gospel to the big issue of how Jews and Gentiles together share in a righteousness through faith. That common identity makes them one big people of God, which in turn ends up being a big deal for the world as well.

Shifting to a More Historical Perspective: Using Role-Playing and a Play on Words to Look Backwards

In my experience, the best way to help people begin to understand the book of Romans from the angles of the NPP is to help them identify with the church in Rome by reenacting the events that led to the situation Paul was addressing. To lead Mozambican church leaders through this role-playing experience, I begin by asking everyone to vacate their seats and hand each person a nametag. About one third of the group are labeled “Jewish Christians,” with a handful of them designated as leaders. Another third of the group are labeled “Gentile Christians,” with a few of them labeled as leaders. And then the final third are given nametags that read “pagan.”18

Everyone stands around the edges of the room and we imagine that this space in front of us is Rome. The chairs, organized in rows, symbolize how the church is gathering together in that city. We start by setting the stage for the story and picturing the church in Rome as a mixture of Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. Since the Jewish Christians had a significant head-start in the faith, it is natural to assume their prominence in the church at its earliest stage. Participants labeled “Jewish Christian leaders” take their seats at the front, with the “Jewish Christians” sitting behind them; in the following rows are the “Gentile Christian leaders” and then the “Gentile Christians” sitting in the back. The “pagans” are left standing on the edge of the room watching what is taking place. I have the class imagine what worship is like at this period in the church in Rome—they suggest that the Jewish Christians are probably leading the community’s life and worship.

But then I inform the group that some time has passed and it is now the year AD 49. Emperor Claudius has issued a decree that all Jews must leave Rome.19 All the participants labeled “Jewish Christian” are asked to stand up and vacate their seats, moving to the edge of the room. Then I ask the group to imagine what happens next. Do the Gentile Christians in Rome stop worshiping? No. So, I ask the “Gentile Christian leaders” to move to the front seats and the other “Gentile Christians” to fill in behind them. We try to picture what their church structure or worship looks like now that they are the ones in charge. Maybe it loses some of its Jewish flavor? It is easy to imagine that the majority of their songs are now being sung in Greek or Latin. Also, we imagine that as the Gentile Christians begin to feel more ownership of the church, they begin to evangelize their pagan neighbors. At this point, I go up to each of the “Pagans” in the room and cross out that label and write “Gentile Christian” on their nametags, asking them to take a seat with the church. We discuss what it would be like to be a part of a Gentile church functioning this way for about five or six years.

Then in the year 54, Claudius dies, his decree expires, and the Jews are finally allowed to return to Rome. We talk about the significance of this event, and I invite the “Jewish Christian” participants to go back to Rome and rejoin “their” church.20 There is usually confusion at this point because the seats they used to sit in are now occupied by “Gentile Christians.”21 They fill in some of the seats on the side and in the back. We talk about how they may have reacted when they discovered that the church’s organization and worship have lost some of its Jewishness.22 I get the participants to imagine how this shock between the “founders” of the church and those who have continued following Christ in their absence could have manifested itself. To appreciate the division that is appearing in their community, I create a center aisle between the chairs and have the “Jewish Christians” sit on one side and “Gentile Christians” on the other.23 To further highlight this separation between the two groups, I make a line using masking tape down the aisle to show that they are now divided.

We discuss the tension in the church in Rome and how the two groups could have been feeling about and relating to each other. A year or two later, Paul writes his letter to this divided church in Rome. And as we read through and discuss it, I ask them to imagine how Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians will hear what Paul is saying at different parts of the epistle. I emphasize that Paul wants to remove the barrier between them (removing the masking tape down the aisle) and to help them regain their identity as a unified people. Though this reenactment does not perfectly represent the situation of the church in Rome (how could it?), the role-playing activity helps the text come alive and has been a helpful way to encourage Mozambican church leaders to step inside the historical/social situation that Paul is addressing in his letter to the Romans.24

Paul’s goal in writing to the divided church in Rome is reconciliation. To make that point with Mozambican participants, I have found it helpful to take advantage of a play on words in the Makua-Metto language. There is only a slight difference in the pronunciation of the word for a woven mat (ntthatto) and the word for a bridge (nthato). Woven mats are powerful symbols of fellowship in Makua-Metto culture. A willingness to sit and potentially eat with someone expresses an openness to be in relationship with that person. Refusing to sit near or share a meal with someone is an action with loud symbolic meaning—it can constitute a rejection of them and/or their group. I ask Mozambicans to imagine that the church in Rome is like a woven mat that has been torn apart and now Paul is doing his best to weave it (them) back together as one united mat or ntthatto (Jews and Gentiles in fellowship through Christ).

This image of weaving or sewing is one that would be all too familiar to Paul. We should remember that, “far from being at the periphery of his life, Paul’s tentmaking was actually central to it.”25 The apostle’s “trade occupied much of his time—from the years of his apprenticeship through the years of his life as a missionary of Christ, from before daylight through most of the day. Consequently, his trade in large measure determined his daily experience.”26 Hock describes the lengthy apprenticeship in tentmaking that Paul would likely have experienced and then goes on to describe the work he would have been involved in:

Leatherworking involved two essential tasks: cutting the leather, which required round-edge and straight-edge knives; and sewing the leather, which required various awls. These tasks would have been done at a workbench, with the leatherworker sitting on a stool and bent over forward to work. With respect to tentmaking, an apprentice like Paul would have learned how to cut the leather pieces so that their placement would take advantage of the natural strengths of the leather and thus best withstand strains and pulling. An apprentice like Paul would have also learned how to sew these leather pieces together, using either a basting stitch, a seam stitch, or a felling stitch, the latter two being used where seams needed to be waterproof.27

Paul’s tentmaking and leatherworking was not that different from his letter writing—stooped over (maybe the same) bench, crafting words to cut out problematic pieces in the churches, and selecting the right rhetorical tool to weave the separated community back together. He used every type of stitch imaginable, lining up the communities’ strengths and weaknesses to sew them into a new tent (or tabernacle/temple) that would be waterproof and able to withstand the storms of persecution and pressure from the world around them. To go back to the images that resonate with Makua-Metto culture, Paul is sewing or weaving back together this torn mat of fellowship (ntthatto) that will serve as a bridge (nthato) to connect Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. At the end of Romans (15:23–16:27), we see him using the upcoming offering for Jerusalem and the list of greetings to people of both Jewish and Gentile backgrounds as a way to sew the church back together again, to reconnect their fellowship and call them to a common mission.

Shifting to a More Comprehensive Perspective: Exploring Further Dimensions of Reconciliation

The role-play (activity) and the word play (of the woven mat/bridge) in the previous section have been helpful ways for Makua-Metto participants to look backward to better understand the historical context. But the theme of reconciliation in the letter to the Romans has further implications that resonate outward into the world today. In this section we will look briefly at three other levels of reconciliation that connect with a reading of Romans in Mozambique: congregational, civic, and cosmic.

Conflict and Reconciliation at the Congregational Level

Dissention and division are problems within the church in Mozambique. While visible ethnic boundary markers are not the flash point for what divides people in our African context, division still happens based on history, leadership, culture, or favoritism. We have seen multiple denominations in our region splinter and congregations split to worship under different church registrations. On occasion our mission team has been called to help mediate conflicts in the church that stem from ethnic differences (for example, a Lomwe evangelist working among the Makua-Metto people). That should not be the case. For Paul, “the central symbol of (his) worldview is the united community: Jew/Greek, slave/free, male/female: the one family of Abraham, the family for the world, the single family created anew in Jesus Christ from people of every kind.”28 J. N. K. Mugambi offers a loud warning that “the plague of Christianity in Africa is its internal division and rivalry, not external threat.”29 The church as a community needs reconciliation, and Romans speaks to that need.

In Romans 3:21–31, Paul reminds the church that neither Jews nor Gentiles have grounds for boasting and that the basis for their salvation is found in Jesus Christ. When I talk about the implications of this text with Mozambicans, I like to ask them if this problem of boasting, pride, or looking down on other groups is a problem in the church. The answer is always a resounding “Yes!” To help unpack how Paul is counseling the church in Rome in this section, it has been helpful to use the examples of ships and stars.30 I ask them to imagine two fishermen who have gone out in their boats. They are from the same village but they do not get along with each other. The first man looks across the water at the other and notices that his boat is riding low in the water—he is sinking! The first man laughs to himself at the plight of the other—glad to see that his enemy is getting what he “deserves.” The second man, unaware that he himself is sinking, glances over at the first one and realizes that the other’s boat has sprung a leak—it won’t be long until his boat is sunk! That second man chuckles to himself. Both of these men are in trouble; neither are in a position to look down on the other. Our Mozambican friends are quick to note that it is only Christ who can plug the leak in either boat, or better yet, invite both of them to leave their sinking vessels behind and together join him in God’s boat.

The other example that has been helpful is to consider two women, one standing on the beach and the other on top of a tall mountain. Both look up and see the evening star shining brightly—it is beautiful and they reach out to touch it. Even though one of these women is miles closer than the other, neither of them has any chance of touching the star, neither woman has grounds for boasting—Jesus is the one who holds the stars in his hands. These two illustrations of ships and stars have been helpful for showing how Paul’s counsel to move beyond pride and boasting are important steps for reconciliation and unity at the congregational level even today.31

Conflict and Reconciliation at the Civic Level

The country of Mozambique has experienced great suffering and violence. Following almost five centuries of Portuguese colonial rule, this nation only achieved autonomy after the war of independence terminated in 1975. It is telling to note that “the green, black, gold and red flag of Mozambique is the only national flag in the world to show an AK47. Crossed with a hoe above an open book, the Russian-made gun forms one side of the pyramid which represents the war of liberation and on which independence was built: armed struggle, tilling the land, reading and writing.”32 Unfortunately, not long after independence, Mozambique was plunged into a civil war that included deliberate destabilization efforts backed by external forces. It wasn’t until the early 1990s that peace agreements were formalized and opposing military forces in Mozambique took on the form of opposing political parties. Unfortunately, that did not put an end to violence, as the minority party has sometimes acted as an insurgency, resorting to acts of terrorism and destabilization to achieve its goals. Hopes for development through literacy or agriculture were dashed as “the revolutionary trinity of book, hoe, gun was chewed up and swallowed by the ravening (civil war) . . . and spat out as the singularity of the gun.”33 The country of Mozambique has been famished for lasting peace, having suffered too long from division. Mozambique’s civic arena needs the peace of Christ for real reconciliation.The letter to the Romans can help the church find a place to stand and speak appropriately to that need.

One way that the church can encourage reconciliation and peace at the civic level is to model respect for government authorities and pray for them as Paul instructs the church in Rome. Walters cautions us against reading Romans 13:1–7 as a comprehensive theology of church and state, reminding us to consider carefully this counsel’s context and function:

When Paul wrote Romans, the Christians were in an extremely vulnerable position. This pericope addresses the altered circumstances of Roman Christianity following the edict of Claudius. Previously the Christians operated under the umbrella of the synagogue, but now they must survive independently, as small house-churches, alienated from the synagogues and lacking the greater tolerance Rome afforded to ancient religions. The best course of action would be for Christians to keep their heads down by living “peaceably with all men.” This would be facilitated by avoiding disruptive encounters of any kind; a painful lesson from experience (the Claudian expulsion) should have already suggested this strategy. Moreover, they should stay clear of politically charged controversies such as the tax resistance movements of that period. Instead, they must be subject to the governing authorities as ordained protectors of the divine order, thereby illustrating the non-subversive nature of the Christian congregations.34

The church in our part of Mozambique is small, relatively powerless politically, and must be wise in the way it relates to the powers and authorities. By reading Romans 13:1–7 in light of its historical context, Mozambican church leaders have found their situation to be surprisingly similar. They hear Paul’s counsel to respect the government authorities as speaking to their situation, but in a way that acknowledges the limitations of human systems. In this text, “Paul insists, over against normal imperial rhetoric, that earthly rulers are not themselves divine, but are answerable to the one true God. They are God’s servants, and as servants they can expect to be held accountable. This passage actually represents a severe demotion of the rulers from the position they would have claimed to occupy.”35 By modeling the proper type of respect for the governing authorities while still speaking courageously about justice and truth, the church can find a space where it can exist as a minority, as well as potentially find its place as an advocate for reconciliation at the civic level.

Conflict and Reconciliation at the Cosmic Level

Wright notes that one place where the NPP helps us understand the cosmic dimensions of the gospel message is Romans 8.36 There we can see that, “Paul’s vision of God’s saving purpose drives him beyond any idea of a merely personal or human redemption. What is at stake in all this is creation as a whole and the fulfillment of God’s original intention in creating the cosmos.”37 Chapter 8 has been helpful in connecting the dots between the Holy Spirit’s redemptive work to liberate human beings and the world they inhabit. That chapter reminds us that followers of Jesus share in the same Holy Spirit that speaks to God on our behalf and reminds us that we are all (both Jew and Gentile!) children of God (8:12–17), that our reconciliation to God signals the liberation of creation that also has been suffering under sin (8:18–21), while also noting that nothing in all of creation has the ability to separate us from the love of God in Christ (8:37–39).

In many ways, the Greco-Roman worldview around the time of the New Testament was closer to a typical African worldview than that of the Western perspective today. At that time, the spiritual realm was seen as ever-present and affecting human lives: “ ‘spirits’ or however they may be termed, could be found everywhere.”38 Since the spirit realm is one that is perceived as both active and full of secrecy for the Makua-Metto people, I try to speak openly about this topic in order to shed some light on this dark and mysterious part of life. I often share this conviction: human beings are made for possession.39 That idea, that we were “made for possession,” may sound strange to Western ears, but it is one that I believe Paul would agree with. Romans 7 and 8 contrast how being led, controlled, or indwelled by “sin” is different than being led, controlled, or indwelled by the Holy Spirit.40 Our Mozambican friends connect easily with the idea that humans were made for possession and understand that there is a drastic difference between being possessed by God’s Holy Spirit and being possessed by a lesser spirit.41 While many people in this context are filled with destructive, divisive, deceptive, and defective spirits,42 all of God’s children can share in God’s Holy Spirit. The Spirit of life whose power raised Jesus from the dead can dwell in us, empowering us, possessing us to live as Jesus’s disciples. Romans 8 offers a pneumatology that speaks to the realities of life in northern Mozambique. Dunn notes that:

in thus setting Christian self-understanding against a cosmic background Paul also provides a clear outline of the salvation process as he saw it working out in believer’s experience. The two decisive moments are reception of the Spirit and redemption of the body, with the intervening period characterized by eschatological tension—the strain between what has already become and what is yet to become, the strain of a relationship with God already established but not yet matured. The first decisive moment which integrates the individual into the plan of cosmic redemption is the gift of the Spirit, God’s effective power reaching out to man and welcomed by him as the chief directive force in his life.43

The gift of the indwelling Holy Spirit liberates human beings, but Paul goes on to show in Romans 8 that our liberation signals the liberation of creation as well (8:18–21). The earth has been groaning under the separation caused by sin. It too was “made for possession,” but had been possessed by human beings possessed by sin and death. The reception of the Holy Spirit and the redemption of our bodies, then, are not merely the grounds for individual salvation but have a more comprehensive effect—redemption of the creation/cosmos.44


This article began by noting the complexity of the NPP. Wright states that “there are probably almost as many ‘New Perspective’ positions as there are writers espousing it—and . . . I disagree with most of them. What I agree is as follows. It is blindingly obvious when you read Romans . . . that virtually whenever Paul talks about justification he does so in the context of a critique of Judaism and of the coming together of Jew and gentile in Christ.”45 Approaching Romans through Luther’s inward-looking question can lead the reader to think that Paul’s letter primarily represents a sequence of individual Christian experience, from justification in chapters 1–5 to sanctification in chapters 6–8. Instead, “what drives the argument from beginning (1:16) to end (15:13) is expressed in the conclusion—that God might give Jews and Gentiles ‘the same attitude of mind toward each other that Jesus Christ had,’ so that together ‘with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (15:5–6). The focus of the argument is on what makes such unity possible: God’s righteousness given to Jew and Gentile alike on the basis of faith in Christ Jesus and effective through the gift of the Spirit.”46 The role-playing activity and the play on words in Makua-Metto (for woven mat/bridge) have been effective tools in helping Mozambicans understand the historical and social background for the church in Rome and this focus in Paul’s letter. That approach creates a more comprehensive reading of Romans that, instead of focusing only on individual justification (a topic of less interest in the Makua-Metto context),47 serves to locate important points of contact and relevance for the church in Mozambique at the congregational, civic, and cosmic levels. The New Perspective on Paul has been helpful for finding the primary questions at the heart of Romans and connecting them to the questions and concerns about reconciliation that resonate with the Makua-Metto people.

Alan Howell, his wife Rachel, and their three daughters live in Cabo Delgado, Mozambique. Alan is a graduate of Harding School of Theology. The Howells have lived in Mozambique since 2003 and are part of a team serving among the Makua-Metto people.

1 “This letter is arguably the most influential book in Christian history, perhaps in the history of Western Civilization. But that doesn’t necessarily make it easy to read!” Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stewart, How to Read the Bible Book by Book (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 317–8.

2 One important online resource that contains a large collection of writings on the New Perspective on Paul that is updated regularly is The Paul Page,

3 “There are, in fact, numerous New Perspectives on Paul,” says Kent L. Yinger, The New Perspective on Paul: An Introduction (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011), 24. Yinger’s book is a short, helpful introduction to the NPP, and it will serve as our guide to help us find our path and note major features in this complicated discipline.

4 Ibid., 30.

5 Ibid., 30–31.

6 Ibid., 23.

7 N. T. Wright, Pauline Perspectives: Essays on Paul, 1978–2013 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013), 289.

8 Ibid.

9 Yinger, 20. He goes on to notes that “Dunn bolstered his understanding of ‘works of the law’ by finding similar usage of the phrase in other Jewish writings. Thus a number of the Dead Sea Scrolls used the Hebrew equivalent to ‘works of the law’ to describe the sect’s distinctive practices. By these practices, these ‘works of the law,’ it became clear who did and who did not belong to the sect. The phrase did not suggest a theology of meritorious agreement, but it spoke of how to identify the true followers of God. Paul does the same in Galatians when he contrasts those who are ‘of the works of the law’ with ‘those who are of faith’ (Gal. 3:9–10)” (21).

10 Ibid., 32.

11 Ibid., 49.

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid., 84. Stinton, summarizing the work of many others on concepts of community in traditional Africa, states, “a cardinal point in African anthropology is that individual identity is established and fulfilled only in the context of community. To be is essentially to participate in family and community.” Diane Stinton, Jesus of Africa: Voices of Contemporary African Christology (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2004), 145.

15 Yinger, 83.

16 Ibid., 84.

17 Don Garlington, In Defense of the New Perspective on Paul: Essays and Reviews (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2005), 11–12.

18 There are certainly other groups present in Rome. “Jews not following Jesus as Messiah,” for example, who want to keep the Jewish boundary markers, are an important group related to the background of this letter, but since Paul is not addressing them, and my goal is to help participants identify with recipients of the letter as well as understand the original context, they will not be included as part of the role-playing.

19 Suetonius, Claud. 25.4, tells us: “Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he [Claudius] expelled them from Rome.”

20 Walters believes that the “edict’s scope . . . was more socio-religious than ethnic. When Christian Jews, like Aquila and Priscilla, and gentile Christians who lived as Jews were driven from Rome, the ratio of gentile Christians without Jewish socialization increased. Because the self-identity of these Christians was not shaped in a Jewish context they were less likely to conform to Jewish practices. Roman Christianity lacked significant ‘Jewish’ presence for about five years, until the death of Claudius (54 C.E.), when the edict lapsed and the ‘Jews’ returned.” James C. Walters, Ethnic Issues in Paul’s Letter to the Romans: Changing Self-Definitions in Earliest Roman Christianity (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1993), 60.

21 “During the intervening years between the expulsion and the lapse of the edict, gentile Christians in Rome would have attracted other gentiles who had not previously been involved with Judaism. Moreover, anti-Jewish sentiments that were common among some Roman residents were easily intensified by the Christian message itself” (Walters, 63–64).

22 “Christian Jews in Rome in the aftermath of the Claudian edict found themselves in an exceedingly painful situation: Being a Christian involved changes that were more radical than they could have previously imagined. The resocialization they once expected of gentiles who wished to enter the Jewish community was now being required of them” (Walters, 63).

23 Churches in our part of Mozambique often are separated by gender with men sitting on one side and women on the other, so this is a surprising contrast to show a church “separated” by ethnic identity.

24 I also used a version of this activity for a New Testament survey course at Harding University in the spring of 2016. From that experience, I saw that doing this reenactment activity to explore the story of the church in Rome was useful not only for teaching the book of Romans to Mozambicans but also for teaching it to Millennials. As the university students listened to the letter, I had the class imagine an approval meter where Jewish and Gentile Christians gave their thumbs up and thumbs down at different points from each of their perspectives at the different stages in Paul’s discourse.

25 Ronald F. Hock, The Social Context of Paul’s Ministry: Tentmaking and Apostleship (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1980), 67.

26 Ibid.

27 Ibid., 24–25.

28 Wright, Pauline Perspectives, 409.

29 J. N. K. Mugambi, From Liberation to Reconstruction: African Christian Theology after the Cold War (Nairobi: East African Educational Publishers, 1995), viii. Ideally, Christianity should resist tribalism that, in certain regions, was exacerbated by colonial powers, instead of being caught up and participating in divisive systems.

30 Here I am adapting an idea from Mike Cope, “Sermons from Romans 1–8” in Preaching Romans, ed. David Fleer and Dave Bland (Abilene, TX: ACU Press, 2002), 161–3.

31 Paul is trying to transform the “us vs. them” and turn it into “us = them in Christ.”

32 Sarah LeFanu, S is for Samora: A Lexical Biography of Samora Machel and the Mozambican Dream (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 5.

33 Ibid., 7.

34 Walters, 65–66.

35 N. T. Wright, Paul: In Fresh Perspective (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005), 78.

36 Wright, New Perspectives on Paul, 289.

37 James D. G. Dunn, Romans 1–8, Word Biblical Commentary, 38A (Dallas: Word, 1988), 487.

38 Ramsay MacMullen, Paganism in the Roman Empire (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981), 82.

39 I am indebted to Phil Henderson for introducing me to this idea.

40 Especially Romans 7:20; 8:5–7; and 8:14.

41 One example that has been helpful is to think of human beings as cups. We were made to have our souls filled by something—and we will be filled by something. If nature abhors a vacuum, then it is even more true in the spiritual realm (e.g., Luke 11:24–26). And whatever we are filled with can’t remain hidden for long. There is a spillover effect into the rest of our lives.

42 For more on the impact of the occult and spirit possession among the Makua-Metto people see my “The Occult in Mozambique: Dramatic Case Studies” in Evangelical Missions Quarterly 47, no. 3 (July 2011): 284–88; “Turning it Beautiful: Divination, Discernment and a Theology of Suffering” in International Journal of Frontier Missiology 29, vol. 3 (Fall 2012): 129–37; and “Building a Better Bridge: The Quest for Blessing in an African Folk Islamic Context” in International Journal of Frontier Missiology 32, no. 1 (Jan-Mar 2015): 43–51.

43 Dunn, 489–90.

44 While there could be a danger of non-Christian environmental movements hijacking a biblical “redemption of creation” theology, that should not make us fearful of exploring the important implications of this for the church in different contexts today—a task which is certainly outside the scope of this article.

45 Wright, Pauline Perspectives, 276.

46 Fee and Stewart, 318.

47 For more on approaching justification and the atonement among the Makua-Metto people see my “Through the Kaleidoscope: Animism, Contextualization and the Atonement,” International Journal of Frontier Missiology 26, no. 3 (Fall 2009): 135–42; and “From Mozambique to Millennials: Shame, Frontier Peoples, and the Search for Open Atonement Paths,” with Logan T. Thompson, International Journal of Frontier Missiology 33, no. 4 (Oct–Dec 2016): 157–65.

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Foreword of Stephen V. Crowder, The Field is the World: A History of the Canton Mission (1929–1949) of the Churches of Christ, by Thomas H. Olbricht

Thomas H. Olbricht

Missio Dei’s standard copyright does not apply to this article. Used by permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers ( All rights to this material are reserved. Material is not to be reproduced, scanned, copied, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without written permission from Wipf and Stock Publishers.

Stephen Crowder, in The Field is the World: A History of the Canton Mission (1929–1949) of the Churches of Christ, provides a new and welcomed insight into Churches of Christ missions. I will focus on the contribution Crowder makes to the history of Chinese missions, the role of Harding University administrators and professors in encouraging missions in China and elsewhere, and Stephen Crowder’s great legacy in respect to the key China missionaries.

Chinese Missions

Christian missionaries have been in China since the Roman Catholics in the fourteenth century and Protestants beginning in the nineteenth century. Crowder provides a brief history of these efforts. He reports on the numbers of professed Christians in China with about 800,000 Roman Catholics and 100,000 Protestants by 1900. Today some estimate the number of Christians in China as more than 20,000,000 but various demographers dispute this number. Crowder’s significant contribution lies in narrating a specific time frame—1929–1949—in regard to the efforts of Churches of Christ missionaries in China. His concrete details and photographs provide real life depictions of those who went, their approaches, and their successes and failures. These are insights heretofore unavailable in a singular publication.

My wife and I have been interested in China from our youth because beginning in the 1930s we heard news reports regarding its occupation by Japan, China in World II, and the Communist takeover led by Mao Zedong. We have also been interested in Churches of Christ missions in China because we knew some of the missionaries involved. In 1984 we signed up for a People-to-People World Tour promoted by Dwight D. Eisenhower. We flew from San Francisco on Air China to Shanghai and spent nine days, then flew north to Beijing for seven days. Our group leaders were J. Jeffrey and Eleanor Auer of Indiana University and among those on the trip were two former speech professors of mine at Northern Illinois and the University of Iowa. The tour agenda was to visit historical sites, attend cultural events, and meet with communication peers in China. I would have relished contact with Christians, but such arrangements were not built into our schedule. On this trip I wondered about the work of George and Sallie Benson—the focal point for Crowder’s book.

I normally wake up early. In Shanghai we stayed at a hotel located in the old German compound. A large park lay south of our hotel and all sorts of Chinese were doing slow, elegant Chinese exercises. I walked around the park and was surprised when I was stopped by three or four people who asked me in English if I was an American. When I responded yes, they proceeded to tell me that they had studied in the United States before World War II; one or two had taken courses at Yale Divinity School. I knew of the interest and involvement of Yale trained clerics in Chinese missions from the turn of the century. The importance of these early missions became increasingly vivid when set forth by Crowder in this work. One day I visited a commune of seventy-five thousand Chinese along with some of our group several miles out of Shanghai. As we traveled westward through the city, I had the eerie feeling that something was different. As I looked around it seemed as if I might be in an older European or American city, though the buildings didn’t look exactly the same because of bamboo structures and clothes lines. It finally dawned on me that what was different was that no church steeples were visible in any direction on the horizon. Crowder, in this book, sets out some of the historical reasons why Christian structures were absent.

Mission Instruction and Encouragement at Harding University

The early missionaries in Churches of Christ had special ties with Harding College (later University) of Searcy, Arkansas, founded there in 1924. The Harding University influence was especially true of the China Mission. For that reason Crowder’s book presents an important glimpse into the pre-World War II history of Churches of Christ missions. J. N. Armstrong (1870–1944) president of Harding 1924–1936 was influential in promoting missions. Armstrong taught several of the missionaries Crowder discusses in this book. The influence of Armstrong began at least as early as his presidency at Western Bible and Literary College in Odessa, Missouri, 1905–1907. I will focus on missionaries trained at Harding until about 1950. I knew several in my years at Harding (1947–49; 1954–55).

A number of missionaries who studied under Armstrong in Odessa went to Africa. The W. N. Shorts went in 1921 and J. Dow Merritt and wife in 1926. A. D. Brown an MD also went. Merritt was in Searcy on furlough when I was a student there in 1947–49, and Brown lived in Searcy and was a practicing physician. I also met the Shorts while at Harding.1 William Brown, J. A. Britell, John and George Reese, and Myrtle Rowe also went to Africa. Those who went to Japan were O. D. Bixler and Omar Bixler a nephew, son of Roy Bixler (Roy also attended Western) and E. A. Rhodes. There may also have been other missionaries who attended Western. Don Carlos Janes (1877–1944), born in Morgan County, Ohio, studied at Western. Janes lived in Louisville, Kentucky, at a later time. He was a one-man mission encourager and fund-raiser especially for missions in Japan and Cuba. He was associated with R. H. Boll (1875–1956) in Louisville. Most of these missionaries sent reports to Word and Work, edited by Boll. Janes supervised these reports. He took trips around the world to visit the missionaries, beginning in 1904. George S. Benson (1898–1991) who studied under Armstrong at Harper College in Kansas helped plant congregations in China from 1925 to 1936. Sallie Benson, the wife of George knew the Armstrongs when she studied at Cordell Christian College in Cordell, Oklahoma. Armstrong served as president of Cordell from 1908–1918. L. C. Sears, the son-in-law of the Armstrongs, became a teacher at Cordell and later a dean at Harper College. The legacy of James A. Harding (after whom Harding University was named), his daughter Woodson Harding Armstrong, and their daughter Pattie Hathaway Armstrong Sears and son-in-law L. C. Sears is told in their granddaughter’s book: The Greatest Work in the World: Education as a Mission of Early Twentieth-Century Churches of Christ: Letters of Lloyd Cline Sears and Pattie Hathaway Armstrong, edited by Elizabeth Cline Parsons (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2015).

Other persons who attended Harding and became missionaries before 1945 were: Stanton Garrett who went to Rhodesia in 1930; Alvin Hobby, Zambia and Rhodesia, 1938; and J. C. Shewmaker, Zambia 1939. A new surge of Churches of Christ missions occurred after World War II. The leadership of the churches increasingly took up the challenge of taking the Gospel into all the world. Many members of the churches traveled abroad during the war either in the military or in organizations connected with war operations. Their travels opened their eyes. Various leaders encouraged mission undertakings, chief among whom was Otis Gatewood (1911–1999) who spoke on campus at least twice when I was a student at Harding and also in the fifties when I taught there.

When I arrived at Harding in the fall of 1947 I ran into many persons excited about missions. I’m not sure it was all prompted by Harding teachers. Andy T. Ritchie Jr. encouraged evangelism of all sorts, but especially in areas in the United States where Churches of Christ were few. George Benson (president of Harding 1936–1965) certainly encouraged foreign missions, but that was one among many agendas he pursued. He spent far more of his time raising funds for Harding and getting his National Education Program off the ground. Harding College had no one on the faculty assigned to teach mission courses in the late forties. It seems to me that J. Dow Merritt, who was on furlough, may have taught a course in missions and had a group meeting in his residence to encourage missions. Other families lived in Searcy who had been involved in missions, among them the Lawyer family, who had worked in Africa. Various mission study groups sprang up on campus focusing on specific countries, for example, Japan and Germany. I attended the German group even though I did not plan to be a German missionary. My sister, Nedra Jo Olbricht McGill, however, hoped to spend time in Germany. She graduated from Harding in 1949 and after marrying James R. McGill in 1955, they spent 1960–62 in Nürnberg and München, Germany. Missionaries—for example, Keith Coleman who was in Germany, and Dieter Alten who was studying at Lipscomb but who went back to Germany to preach, and Joe Cannon who went to Japan—spoke at the Harding chapel and elsewhere.

In the late 1940s several former Harding students departed from the United States. J. C. Reid went to Zambia in 1947; Robert Helsten 1948 to Germany, later to Switzerland; Jack Nadeau to Germany, Samuel Timmerman in 1948 to Belgium, and Joe Cannon, 1947; Robert Harry Fox, Jr., 1949, and George Gurganus to Japan. Most of these people knew each other while on the Harding campus.

Several who went to Germany were classmates of mine (except Glenn Olbricht, 1959 to Nürnberg, my brother). He would have been a classmate had I stayed at Harding long enough to graduate. Bob Hare first worked in Germany in 1950 then Austria, Ted Nadeau (brother of Jack Nadeau) went to Germany 1950, and Glenn Boyd, 1958, ended up in Heidelberg. Bob and Barbara Morris went to Karlsruhe in 1958. Bob was a talented opera singer and sang in German opera companies. L. T. Gurganus went to Japan. He was the nephew of George P. Gurganus. His support was typical in that several Alabama churches contributed to his funds. L. T. was born in Cordova, Alabama, and his father L. T. Sr. still lived there. Others were Carmelo Casella, 1958, and Rodney Wald, 1955–59 (my Harding roommate), to Australia. Jerry Porter went to Scotland in 1959, Jack Meredith, 1958, to Puerto Rico, Bert Perry, 1950, (A Canadian and older student when I was at Harding) to the Philippines, and Charles W. Davis, 1955, to the Philippines; Kenneth Rideout 1950 went to Thailand. Ken was related to Dortha Rideout Taylor, my Uncle Tom Taylor’s wife. J. L. and Margaret Crumpet Roberts commenced mission work in Belgium in 1954. Margaret was my chemistry lab instructor in several courses. Truman Scott went to Italy sometime in the 1950s.

Indeed, Harding College, later University, was a training ground for missionaries and their families. Stephen Crowder has therefore given us a window from which we can look into the background of those who undertook missions to foreign lands in Churches of Christ. The Bensons, the Whitfields, the Davises, the Broadduses, and others mentioned by Crowder in this book are very important links in the history of missions in Churches of Christ.

The Stephen Crowder Legacy

Crowder became interested in the Canton Mission because the key leaders, George and Sallie Benson, were his grandparents. His mother, Ruth Benson Crowder, in her early years grew up at the Mission. I first met Stephen’s parents in Iowa, after they were married. His father, Numa Crowder, was the minister for a congregation in Muscatine. The Crowders later moved to Macomb, Illinois. We lived in Iowa City where I preached and took graduate courses at the University of Iowa. The Crowders and the Olbrichts shared an occasional meal. I first met Stephen at Abilene Christian University. He attended the Minter Lane Church of Christ where I was an elder. I was chair of the Religion Division at Pepperdine University, Malibu, California, 1986–1996. After retiring I continued to offer graduate courses in Biblical Theology in the Pepperdine off-campus programs. Stephen enrolled in the course I offered in our Albuquerque programs in the early 2000s.

The Bensons were also important in Churches of Christ and national history. Books by Edward Hicks and John C. Stevens have been published about the Bensons, but neither Hicks nor Stevens spent much time on the Chinese mission’s aspect of the Benson story.2 They focus more on the return of the Bensons to the United States and George S. Benson’s presidency of Harding University. Stephen undertook major research in original, published and unpublished sources, in order to write this book. He possesses or has available several family documents and diaries. He has also visited other pertinent archives and utilized periodicals not all of which are readily available. He has incorporated several important pictures and maps into the text. Crowder has opened up an exceptional window into Churches of Christ missions in China.

Thomas H. Olbricht

Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Religion

Pepperdine University

1 The sources for the information in this Introduction are: Gary Owen Turner, “Pioneer to Japan: A Biography of J. M. McCaleb” MA Thesis, Abilene Christian, 1972. Charles R. Brewer, ed., A Missionary Pictorial (Nashville: World Vision, 1966); Lynn D. Yocum, ed., 1979 Missionary Pictorial Supplement (Nashville: World Vision, 1979); Don Carlos Janes, Missionary Biographies (Louisville: Janes Printing, 1940–1943); Shawn Daggett, The Lord Will Provide: James A. Harding and the Emergence of Faith Missions, 1892-1913, ThD diss., Boston University, 2007.

2 L. Edward Hicks, Sometimes in the Wrong, but Never in Doubt: George Benson and the Education of the New Religious Right (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1994); John C. Stevens, Before Any Were Writing: The Story of George S. Benson (Searcy: Harding University Press, 1991).

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On the Necessity of Reengaging Mission Classics (Editorial Preface to the Issue)

Chris Flanders is Associate Professor of Missions at Abilene Christian University (Abilene, Texas).

What are the most important works in English literature? If I asked you this question, no doubt you could immediately begin constructing a list. Surely, you would include something from Charles Dickens. Perhaps you would consider works from Brontë, Poe, and Melville. Oh, and don’t forget Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Robinson Crusoe? Absolutely. Your mind would scan countless options and you would make difficult choices about which to include and which to exclude. You would likely change your mind as you recall a book you had forgotten, taking some off your list and including others. Exercises like this are fun and typically produce energetic debate. To be included in such a list is to become a part of a canon, a measuring rod by which we judge other works. It is to become a classic.

Have you ever thought about what makes a particular work a “classic”? It seems that for a book to become a classic, it must have enduring value and be noteworthy for reasons a particular community has judged significant. Therefore, classics are rarely recent works, as they must pass the test of time to demonstrate they are not simply riding the crest of a trendy wave of popular sentiment. A classic also must have broad impact. It must be generally thought to “matter.” It is weighty. To be a classic means that the work cannot be ignored—it must be taken into account when discussing the particular area it addresses. There are likely other important criteria, but these suffice to demonstrate that to become a classic is no small feat and is to a great degree a matter of reasoned judgment and debate rather than scientific precision and attaining an absolute standard of some kind.

So, what are the classics in missions? What would be your list of required reading, your Top 10, your canon for mission literature? To construct such a list would require the same discernment, debate, and deliberations as is necessary for English literature. There is no absolutely certain answer that would satisfy every person. Yet, in the area of mission studies and missiological literature, it is certainly possible to construct a canon of important works that have influenced mission theory and practice. Though not absolute, this canon of classics is discernible, albeit debatable.

In this issue, we highlight ten works we have deemed “classic.” These selected works we see as part of the missiological canon, particularly those works that have been written during the past fifty years. By doing so, we are not claiming these works are an all-time Top 10 of the most important missions texts. We are not attempting to be exhaustive or normative. There are many significant missions works we did not select. Rather, those we have selected we believe to be acknowledged classics—texts whose profound impact on mission practice and theory no informed missions educator or practitioner would question.

For each of these ten classic mission texts we have invited an esteemed missions expert and educator to reread and reevaluate them. Rather than simply note them, we wish to reengage these missions classics. We have asked our reviewers to dip back into a missions classic and help us take a fresh look, providing compelling commentary on the history and enduring significance of each classic work.

To reengage classics in such a way is a critical part of the ongoing work of any vibrant community. The passage of time means the changing of contexts. And, if missionaries and missiologists are about anything, it is our developed capacity to pay attention to context and culture. We, above all guilds and all communities of practitioners, are attuned to how changing environments impact our own evaluations.

No work is perfect, even if it has become an established classic. Indeed, it is often the passing of time and a new set of eyes that allows the imperfections of an important work to become more obvious. This is why, for any community of scholarship or practice, it is critical to occasionally engage in the self-reflective act of reengagement.

As missiological debate ensues, we recalibrate our assumptions and commitments, and we often see much more clearly both the glory and the warts of any book. By bringing into focal attention those texts and works that have significantly shaped our discipline, we can examine the assumptions, arguments, and conclusions of those classical texts and see if they stand the test of time, or we might instead find them wanting. That is, in this act of reengagement, we sometimes come to see that some of our critiques may have been based more on caricature than an actual close reading. Similarly, we may find how we now consider inadequate, or even patently wrong, the grounding assumptions that made a work popular and important at a particular time.

To reengage classics is also an act that reminds ourselves that we have a history—our mission theory and our mission practice do not exist ex nihilo but emerge out of a long-standing conversation that has been shaped by many works, including these ten we highlight here. So, we think this practice of going back to the wells of seminal works to reengage those texts is a necessary and healthful practice.

Such a practice is especially important for those of us who work within Stone-Campbell churches. Our history as a restoration movement has, by definition, made us religiously reactionary, seeking to reset what we have deemed deficient in the surrounding religious environment. Such a reactionary posture, coupled with our strong attention to Scripture, has often led us to be extremely reticent to pay attention to what other Christian groups were reading or writing. This has been less so among Disciples of Christ but has often been a characteristic of Churches of Christ and Independent Christian Churches. While this has certainly kept our fellowships grounded in Christian scripture, it has often meant that we have paid insufficient attention to the significant scholarship from those around us. Indeed, until only recently, it would not be uncommon for some Church of Christ or Christian Church missionaries not to have read nor heard of many of the texts that we highlight in this issue. To reengage the mission classics is also, therefore, a call for us to remember that much missiological wisdom exists outside of our smaller fellowships.

So, let the reengagement begin.