A Christianity Today article in 2008 suggested that Andrew Walls may be the most important person you’ve never heard of. I am quite sure that I didn’t know who he was in 2008, but Walls has had a significant impact on the course of my life since then. I am often still surprised to be where I am, doing what I am doing. The road to working on a PhD in Septuagint studies in service of doing theological education with SIM was not a turn that I saw coming.
Of course there were all sorts of bits and pieces which nudged and shuffled us this direction, but for me the move was especially fuelled by two big shifts in my thinking. First, a growing recognition of the character of the Global Church, and second, the realization that the Septuagint can be viewed as an exemplar for what missions is still trying to accomplish.
Andrew Walls was the catalyst for me on both of these fronts.
Introducing Andrew Walls
Walls just passed away in mid-August and you may have heard his name recently because of that. It is a big loss to no longer have him amongst us but he left behind a rich legacy of insight and reflection. You’ll be better off listening to those who knew him and his work better than myself, so here are a few links worth following:
- A tribute from the Centre for the Study of World Christianity (Edinburgh), which Walls founded, along with a couple videos of talks by Walls.
- A collection of tributes from Christianity Today.
- Timothy Tennent has also written a tribute highlighting some of Walls’ key insights.
- Eddie Arthur has posted a tribute and summary of Walls impact as well as a podcast with David Smith focused on Andrew Walls.
Any of these will be a good start to understanding the significance Andrew Walls’ life and thought for our understanding of missions and the Global Church. Let me now just briefly outline in particular how his work has been a catalyst for me.
Recognizing the Global Church
I can’t remember the details of how it all got rolling, but somewhere in the last 10 years I started to recognize that the church I knew was not the church. That might sound too obvious to mention, but if you’ve gone through a similar process you’ll know what I mean. More and more I began to see that there are Christians and Christian traditions all over the globe. I started to become more of what John Stott called us to when he said that we must be global Christians with a global vision, because our God is a global God.
But as your awareness of the Global Church grows you immediately become aware of the variety of Christian expressions. This can be troubling. At first it calls the validity of these ‘other’ traditions into question. But this variety then turns the same question on us. If these expressions of Christianity are so different, how would we know which one is the right one? How would we know if we have the ‘right’ one?
What Andrew Walls helped me to see was that a certain kind of variety is natural to Christianity itself. When I read The Missionary Movement in Christian History, a collection of his essays, a lot of pieces began to fall into place. In an article called “The Translation Principle in Christian History,” Walls argues that the variety of Christian expression is built into Christianity because of the incarnation of Jesus. Here is how he puts it:
“Incarnation is translation. When God in Christ became man, Divinity was translated into humanity, as though humanity were a receptor language. Here was a clear statement of what would otherwise be veiled in obscurity or uncertainty, the statement ‘This is what God is like.’ But language is specific to a people or an area. No one speaks generalized ‘language’; it is necessary to speak a particular language. Similarily, when Divinity was translated into humanity he did not become generalized humanity. He became a person in a particular locality and in a particular ethnic group, at a particular place and time. The translation of God into humanity, whereby the sense and meaning of God was transferred, was effected under very culture-specific conditions.” (p. 50)
Walls is saying that the incarnation of Jesus sets the pattern for Christianity. Just as God became a particular man who belonged to a particular culture, Christianity brings churches into being which also belong to the particular culture that they grow in. Our churches look different because they grow in different soils.
What this means is that the variety in the Global Church is not there because things have gone wrong. It is there because this is what Christianity does. It is not an invasive ivy which spreads across the surface choking out indigenous expression. It is a seed which grows naturally, and with beautiful variety, from any soil in which it is planted.
Of course there is a crucial caveat here. Some of the variety in the church is a problem. All of us are wrong about some things, but some of us are wrong about essential things. The ongoing work will always be to discern where the lines are. The task is always to discern what the faithful expression of the Christian gospel is in this, and in every other, culture.
Through this, Walls helped me to see the central task of the Church worldwide more clearly. The goal is not that we all look and sound the same. The goal is that the gospel is fully and faithfully translated into each culture that so it can be fully and faithfully transmitted from that culture.
In another article, Walls talks about the “infinite translatability of the Christian faith” (p. 45). As Christianity crosses cultural boundaries, it encounters “the burning questions within that culture” and “the points of reference within it by which people know themselves” (p. 46). What we should recognize in the variety which stems from Christianity’s translatability is the beauty of the faith. It is not bound to a single cultural expression but can directly face and satisfactorily answer the issues of every human culture on earth.
This ability, this infinite translatability, means that it is constantly creating new expressions of itself. These expressions belong where they grew but are able to transplant and grow somewhere new. A Christianity which looks exactly the same across the continents is something far less than what it was meant to be. It is something which falls fall short of the beauty of the gospel. Again, the goal is that the gospel is fully and faithfully translated into each culture so that it can be fully and faithfully transmitted from that culture.
That is a tall order. But Walls also helped me to see that we have help toward this task from an often overlooked source.
Looking to the Septuagint
In that same article on the “Translation Principle,” Walls argues that the Septuagint is an exemplar of the process which I just outlined. A couple hundred years before Jesus, the substantial Jewish community in Egypt began to translate the Hebrew Bible into Greek. It looks like the Pentateuch was done as some kind of a set there, but the work was carried on (and revisited…and revised…and so on…) in different places over the next few centuries. The name we use for these texts is “the Septuagint.”
Walls has a lot to say in his article about the Septuagint. He devotes a full five pages to it and traces its influence through Judaism in the Hellenistic era (which is roughly marked as falling between Alexander the Great and the rise of Rome, or 323 – 31 BC) and into early Christianity. What he helped me to see is that the study of the Septuagint is a fruitful place to consider the ongoing task of the Global Church.
The Septuagint is a crux of cross-cultural movement. A Jewish community, living in Egypt, had to make their scriptures speak a new language in a new time and place. What does it sound like when God speaks Greek from Mt. Sinai? Does he have the same thing to say on the banks of Nile as he did by the Jordan?
Walls showed me that when we look at the Septuagint, we are standing at a linguistic and cultural intersection that looks a lot like the ones that the church lives on today. He sees the Septuagint as pivotal for the success of the early Christian movement. But he also argues that it is a model for what Christianity would continue to do:
“Altogether the effect of that first pre-Christian translation was crucial for the development of an indigenous Hellenistic Christianity. But it was also exemplary for the whole history of Gentile Christianity, a direction indicator for the encounter of many peoples in their subsequent interaction with the Christian faith. Many of the issues that have occurred since within or as a result of the work of Bible translation, are foreshadowed in that first great movement of cross-cultural Christian diffusion.” (p. 58)
The spread of Christianity through the Hellenistic world was enabled by the pre-Christian translation of the Jewish scriptures into Greek. Christianity has spread through the world since its inception via this same channel of translation. But it is crucial that we understand translation as more than a game of linguistic algebra. Translation is a process intimately interwoven with the culture and history of the peoples on both sides of the equation.
Bible translation is at the centre of all this of course, but a much broader process of transformation is invoked. Remember, the goal is that the gospel is fully and faithfully translated into each culture so that it can be fully and faithfully transmitted from that culture. We will be better positioned to navigate the course of this river by taking a trip to the headwaters.
Translation stands at the core of the Christian faith. This is why the church can look so different, and yet be as it should be, in so many different places. This also means that we have a lot to learn from the Septuagint. So when people ask why I, as a missionary, am working on the Septuagint here at Cambridge, I can very easily answer: Andrew Walls sent me.
*Quotations are taken from The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of the Faith (Orbis Books, 1996).