Posted by: Petros | April 23, 2009

Prof. Andrew F. Walls: A Pioneer Scholar of Africa Christianity

prof-andrew-walls-negst-campus

Prof. Andrew F. Walls at campus of NEGST, August 10, 2007

Yesterday I mentioned Prof. Andrew Walls in passing.  Tim Stafford of  Christianity Today says he “may be the most important person that you don’t know.”

Africa and the Second Century

Stafford’s very fine tribute to Prof. Walls doesn’t mention that he was trained in patristics.  This is what led to the insight that the experience of African Christianity today is analogous to the second century of the primitive church.  He said that of his experiences in Sierra Leone, a generation ago.  (Stafford quotes Walls, p. 2):

“I still remember the force with which one day the realization struck me that I, while happily pontificating on that patchwork quilt of diverse fragments that constitutes second-century Christian literature, was actually living in a second-century church,” he explains. “Why did I not stop pontificating and observe what was going on?”

This observation is important for understanding both African Christianity and the early church, and I have used it to gain insight in my studies of the second century Acts of Paul.  For example, in a paper I presented at the Ottawa workshop called, “Christian Apocrypha for the New Millenium“, I suggested that the Book of Acts, unlike the Acts of Paul, presents a set of first generation problems:  (1) Should we allow gentiles into the church?  (2) What are the entrance requirements for these gentiles?  (circumcision, sabbath-keeping, or just baptism?).  But the Acts of Paul presents problems related to a later generation.  No longer preoccupied with the problems of entrance requirements for gentiles, who have now been in the church for over a generation.  Instead, Acts of Paul is concerned about issues that are contemporary to the second century (gnosticism, martyrdom,  sexual continence, and so forth).  During the Ottawa workshop I recounted a story from Elisee Ouoba of the first generation of Christianity in his country:

A retired missionary returned to Burkina Faso to visit the faithful amongst whom he had labored.  He was there during a baptism, and the pastor, who had been his disciple, baptized several new converts and after dipping each in the water, he took his handkerchief and wiped his brow.  Afterward, the missionary asked the pastor, why did you wipe your brow after each baptism.  The pastor replied, “Because this is how you taught us to baptized.”  The missionary said,  “That was because it was hot and I had to wipe the sweat off my brow!”  My second-generation students often claim that certain changes can only happen slowly in the African church because of the reverence that the first generation has for the teaching of the missionaries, the “apostles” who taught them the faith.  In the second century, the Quartodeciman controversy arose because Christians had different days for Easter, all of them claiming that the original teaching went back to the apostles!  So I have found Prof. Wall’s insight about the second century taking place in Africa very helpful.

African Christianity and the shared world view of Patristic writers

Prof. Walls is a pioneer scholar in missionary movement in Africa.  As a result of being a patristic scholar, he is also an expert in early African Christianity:  Augustine, Tertullian, Antony.  This makes it possible for him to compare the two domains, finding insights and commonalities.  For instance, Antony, an early Coptic Christian, shares a worldview which is typically African.  An American friend of mine, who is a New Testament scholar, told me that Athanasius’ Life of Antony is like a comic book.  But according to Prof. Walls, Antony, like most Africans, lives in a much larger universe than the post-enlightenment Westerner.  Thus, Antony’s struggles with demons is very much understandable and coherent in the African context.  I would look forward to African scholars who live in this larger universe, sharing their insights into biblical and patristic literature and thereby enriching the whole theological world.

During the meeting in Nairobi, Dr. Ndjerareou and I had the opportunity to muse about this with a couple of others during a break.  We had been stimulated by Prof. Walls lecture. We talked about how the theological terms were informed by Greek philosophy, which helped the early Christians to formulate Logos theology (John 1.1-14); it made it convenient to express something that may have been difficult in purely semitic context–how is it that Jesus could have existed before he was Jesus?  The answer: as the Logos of God.  Now, we have the possibility to gain insight from African theologians.  We rejoiced in the idea that some concept of God’s grace has been awaiting this time to be unlocked by our brother and sister theologians from Africa.  But it is still a major project to make this theological reflexion happen.

A Shift in the Centre of Christianity

I really like Prof. Walls because he is one of the first scholars to draw attention that there has been numerical shift in the centre of Christianity from the Western to the Southern hemisphere.  In Nairobi, he called on Africans theologians and their partners to deep theological reflexion and to the creation of centres of research and writing where Africans can come together to formulate a contextual theology which will help the church to move forward but also enrich Western theologians.

Lectures at Dallas Theological Seminary

I found this interesting series of four lectures from Dallas Theological Seminary available on streaming audio or video.

Part 1: Two Thousand Years in African Christian History

Part 2: A Tale of Three Continents

Part 3: Tales of the Unexpected


Responses

  1. Prof. Andrew Walls has been instrumental in the birth and growth of the vision of the Akrofi-Christaller Institute, which late Pr. Kwame Bediako, a former student of Prof. Walls, spearheaded until his death last year.

    The Akrofi-Christaller Institute strives to address burning issues in African Christianity. It is no surprise therefore that the relatively new institute is making inroads into the global theological conversation. This is the kind of endeavors we need to encourage in response to the growth of the church in Africa and in anticipation of the needs of the church in the future. This is a challenge that more theologians need to help take up. The need is even greater and the challenge more urgent for French-speaking theologians in Africa.

    I also am increasingly convinced that a return to serious study of Early Christianity (esp. the first four centuries) is critical for the health of the church worldwide, but perhaps more so for the health of Christianity in Africa. The potential for understanding the current state of Christianity in Africa and the ways to move forward in biblical studies, theology, and mission can hardly be exaggerated.


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