Hermeneutics for the African Century

Let me say first that I write this as an observer and a guest, a Westerner who has taught biblical studies in sub-Saharan African theological colleges for more than a decade. I am deeply indebted to the abilities, passions, and commitments of my African colleagues. They have helped me see God at work in and through our institutions and our students, and they have taught me more about the gospel than I ever would have grasped from my own limited viewpoint. But along with my colleagues, I have struggled with the gap between what happens in our classrooms and what happens when our students return home. We painstakingly train students to understand and use the Bible, honing their skills in grammatical-historical exegesis and helping them articulate a careful, reasoned understanding of the meaning a biblical author intended to communicate to his original audience. But when our students return to their home churches, many in their congregations find little interest in this way of reading the Bible. The students’ more scholarly contributions may even be met with scorn by congregations longing for a fresh and active word from God, a word spoken by God through the Bible directly to their own situations. In fact, some consider our students “unspiritual” because their reading of the Bible seems to lack spontaneity and immediacy. Emmanuel Obeng has said that in Ghana, for instance, “It is commonplace to hear statements that there is no need to prepare for sermons; the Holy Spirit will give utterance to the anointed people of God at the time of delivery.”1

While there are many factors contributing to this mismatch between theological classrooms and the church, one thread leads back to the 20th-century history of evangelical missions in sub-Saharan Africa. Many of the current Bible colleges and seminaries in Africa were established with the involvement of Western missionaries who came with pre-formed understandings of biblical truth. Other African training institutions have been influenced by the ethos that these missionaries helped to create. As a missionary myself, I’ve heard a good deal of well-intentioned discussion about the need to enculturate the Bible for African audiences. Certainly, many early missionaries took bold and insightful steps to reach across cultural divides. Unfortunately, what sometimes slipped through unnoticed was that the biblical message, in its ancient Near Eastern, Jewish, and Greco-Roman settings, had already been interpreted and selectively enculturated for Western readers. None of us is the recipient of an objective or “pure” reading of the biblical text or has a culturally neutral perception of the gospel, an objective reading that we might then dress in African clothes. We all pick and choose what we notice in Scripture based on our own needs and interests. We all make sense of what is written in the Bible by filling spaces in the text with our own understanding and experiences. Too many early missionaries, however, not only taught their interpretations of the Bible as though they were of equal authority to the texts themselves, they also enshrined their methods of approaching and reading the Biblethat is, their hermeneuticsas the definitive way to perceive how God speaks to us in and through Scripture.

To unpack this a bit more, we can use a hermeneutical paradigm drawn from the “sender-message-receiver” model of communication. Applying this paradigm to the Bible, scholars speak of an “author-text-reader” model, in which the author is the human author of a biblical book speaking in his own time to his original audience, the text is the Bible as we have it in written form, and the reader is us, the contemporary audience. (God, the divine author of Scripture, is understood to be active by means of the Holy Spirit in all three components of this model.) Through the centuries Christians have placed differing emphases on the relative roles of authors, texts, and readers as they have read the Bible and sought to hear God’s authoritative revelation.

Through most of the late-19th and 20th centuries, biblical scholars in Western universities found their academic discipline dominated by an approach to the Bible that focused on the author-text end of this model. The goal of peering behind biblical texts to explore the historical world of the author and the author’s community tended to supersede interest in the text itself as the Word of God, and often this approach even precluded such an interest. Confronted with the skepticism about God’s role in producing biblical texts that accompanied this “historical criticism,” more theologically conservative scholars began to use the “grammatical-historical method” in interpreting the Bible. This is a more text-centered subset of historical criticism that focuses on the text as a product of the author and his historical age, while leaving room for belief that the human authors who wrote biblical texts were divinely inspired. Such an author-text approach allowed evangelical scholars to engage in academic study of the Bible. But it also kept their attention on the author-text side of the hermeneutical equation, rather than the text-reader side. Even today, or at least until very recently with the renewed interest in theological hermeneutics, evangelical hermeneutics textbooks tend to say more about how to recover historical author meaning in a biblical text than about how to make living connections between the text and contemporary readers.

In addition, African biblical scholars trained in Western theological institutions have often been influenced, even unconsciously, by the historical approaches they learned there. As David Adamo puts it, “Although one appreciates the opportunity to study in many of these great Western universities and seminaries, one thing is certain, the overseas training in biblical studies and theology is one of the ways by which African biblical scholars have been colonized.”2 As a result, mission-related Bible colleges and seminaries may continue to reflect primarily Western approaches to, and assumptions about, interpreting the Bible, even when the teaching faculty and institutional leadership have been nationalized.

Am I advocating a rejection of historical and grammatical study of the Bible? By no means. But a more comprehensive approach to biblical interpretation that takes into account the author, the text, and the reader in God’s choice to communicate with his human creatures through written revelation motivates a more profound and honest look at how reading takes place and who the Bible’s readers are. Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart remind us that “whether one likes it or not, every reader is at the same time an interpreter.”3 Or, as W. Randolph Tate says, “Readers always wear tinted glasses and make sense of a text according to the particular shade of the lenses.”4 The point is that readers have always been involved in making sense of the Bible, even when they mistakenly believed their understanding of biblical texts to be objective or absolute. Through much of the history of evangelical missions in sub-Saharan Africa, it was Western readers interpreting the Bible for their African converts. My point is that African readersand especially today’s African biblical scholarshave an important contribution to make to our understanding of biblical revelation by offering a different set of lenses through which to encounter God’s truth in Scripture.

As it happens, Western evangelical biblical scholarship has in recent years moved beyond its focus on author-text approaches and begun to explore more reader-centered ways of approaching the Bible. In light of increasing global and cultural awareness and a growing value placed on the contributions of diverse viewpoints, Western scholars are eager to hear the insights that biblical interpreters in Africa and elsewhere in the Majority World bring to our understanding of God’s revelation. The door is wide open to the voices of African readers of the Bible. But ironically, little has been produced thus far by evangelical African biblical scholars about ways to engage the reader’s view-point in biblical interpretation. What has appeared comes largely from university circles in South Africa and beyond, interpreters who may express suspicion of the Bible itself as an inherent source or tool of imperialism, patriarchy, and oppression.5 This suspicion runs counter to evangelical convictions about divine revelation and the Bible’s unique authority. In fact, the association of reader-centered, contextual interpretations of the Bible with these more ecumenical practitioners may have tainted such hermeneutical approaches with a “liberal” label that inhibits their use by more conservative biblical scholars in Africa.

How might we envision an evangelical African biblical interpretation that takes seriously the divinely inspired authority of authors and texts, while acknowledging the role of readers in completing the process of God speaking? In bringing their insights to global biblical interpretation, African evangelicals offer significant contributions as readers in at least two ways. First, because of cultural affinities with pre-industrial, agrarian, and/or communalistic societies like those within which the Bible was written, African biblical interpreters can sometimes clarify practices and values that Western readers misunderstand or ignore. I personally have gained from the expertise of research students at Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology, who have explored the resonance between biblical texts and their own social and cultural contexts in practices as general as community worship, sacrifice, and polygamy, or as specific as familial curses (Noah in Gen 9:20–27) and respect for the tombs of ancestors (Nehemiah in Neh 2:1–5).

Secondly, because of their own experiences, African biblical interpreters often challenge other readers in terms of what they notice and prioritize in biblical texts. Conceptual frameworks such as honor and shame, poverty and power, patronage, or extended family relationships may be central to the interests and concerns of the biblical authors themselves but overlooked by Western readers for whom these are not daily categories of concern. That Nehemiah was motivated by a sense of shame and his desire to restore honor to his ancestral homeland, as mentioned above, is one such example.6 In terms of leadership and power, my students in Nairobi were intrigued by the framing of the relationship between Paul and Apollos in 1 Corinthians 16:12: “Now concerning our brother Apollos, I strongly urged him to visit you with the other brothers, but he was not at all willing to come now. He will come when he has the opportunity.” All too familiar with hierarchically organized societies where a senior leader (like Paul) might be threatened by a successful younger figure (like Apollos) and take steps to suppress his activity, these students noticed the mutual respect, openness, and deference shown by Paul in inviting Apollos to continue connecting with the Corinthians, and by Apollos in choosing not to get involved at that point. What I had barely noticed, or taken as a simple statement of fact, my students recognized as a model of generous relational détente between two church leaders. Similarly, in Paul’s letter to Philemon, they recognized that Paul’s seeming humility is actually the rhetorical cloak of an established leader gracefully and perhaps humorously telling subordinates what to do: “I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus….So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me…I say nothing about your owing me even your own self” (vv. 9, 17, 19).

I have also observed that at times Western interpretive traditions block my African students from identifying similarities between the biblical text and their own contexts. Sometimes these readings need to be unlearnedor “decolonized,” as Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and others have so famously said.7 For example, Luke’s focus on the poor in his Gospel is well known, but white middle-class Westerners, to select just one set of readers, may too readily assume this refers simply to material poverty, that is, the situation of not having enough money. In fact, a closer look at “the poor” in Luke (and the passages in Isaiah from which he draws) highlights Jesus’ attention to social and economic injustices that create material poverty while benefitting an elite few, as well as his concern for the social and religious marginalizationthat is, relational povertythat the poor experience. This reading of Jesus’ attention to poverty and poor people in Luke’s Gospel is not only truer to the historical author’s intent, but also offers a much richer resonance for African readers who have their own experiences of social and economic injustice on a national or global scale, and for whom cohesive relationships with family and local community are an essential element of daily existence. When we reread these passages in a New Testament class in Kenya, in an attempt to filter out Western assumptions absorbed through previous Bible studies and textbooks, students felt challenged to reimagine their own roles as Christ-followers in addressing poverty in their local settings.

It is that alignment between God the Holy Spirit speaking into the situation of the biblical author and his community, as it is then recorded in the biblical text, and God the Holy Spirit speaking similarly into readers’ own parallel situations that completes the process of divine communication through written revelation. Tate suggests, “The words on the page never change, and in one sense neither do the worlds of texts. But readers must always approach the textual world and make sense of it in relation to their own world, a world constantly in flux,”8 while at the same time the text provides a limited playing field of possible meaning.

A brief walk through 1 Corinthians 8–10 illustrates what this might look like in terms of African evangelical hermeneutics. I’ve noticed that many Western Christians fragment Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 8–10, not recognizing the topical continuity that flows through these three chapters. More concerningly, they tend to miss the unfamiliar (to them) concrete historical issue of sharing food in the context of pagan worship. Not so my African students. Christians who regularly encounter marriage ceremonies, infant naming ceremonies, burials, and the like, where social and family celebrations are interwoven with traditional animistic or syncretistic rituals, are very familiar with the sorts of questions Paul and his audience raise about participating in temple feasts in Corinth. That is, African readers tend to understand the author’s world in this situation and therefore may be more likely to notice how Paul responds in this text. I’ve listened to many lively discussions among my African students about the tensions faced by young Christian couples who resist participating in such practices, yet who want to be part of celebrations that knit together their families and communities while at the same time being fully convinced of Jesus Christ’s superiority over the spirit world. (Not to mention that that roasted goat slaughtered by an uncle murmuring incantations to the spirits tastes pretty good. Otherwise, when do we get to eat meat?)

In addition, living in a multireligious context like Kenya means being invited to share food with neighbors and colleagues when the food offered may have been part of Muslim or Hindu worship. One student told us about going with church members to the home of a Hindu woman with whom one of them had shared a hospital room the week before. A follow-up visit to check on her health and pray for her was an open door to a relationship in which they might share the gospel with her. But when they arrived, they saw the family’s Hindu shrine. And when they were served tea, they knew the milk in the tea had previously been poured over the idol as an offering. Should they drink the tea, or not? It’s at this point that God speaking through Paul into the Corinthians’ situation, as we find it in the text of 1 Corinthians 810, aligns with God’s message to these Kenyan readers in their own multireligious context, and the Holy Spirit brings written revelation to life as divine communication.

But there’s more. With such understanding, African readers have the power to remind readers elsewhere that these chapters in 1 Corinthians are not merely about the possibility of offending the sensibilities of other Christians (“should Christians drink alcohol?”). They also address more troubling issues of syncretism and potential demonic activity for believers to consider when we participate in social practices with religious or quasi-religious overtoneswhether it’s Halloween in Europe and North America, the Day of the Dead in Latin America, the Hungry Ghost Festival in China, Asian practices directed toward ancestors, Christians in India confronting the multitude of Hindu temples and festivals that surround them, or any of us receiving thoughtful gifts of holiday food from Muslim friends and neighbors on Maulid (Mohammed’s birthday) or Eid (the end of Ramadan). My goal here is not to prescribe the decisions Christians should make in any of these situations, since circumstances vary substantially, but instead to point out the opportunity for a confluence of author, text, and reader in African evangelical hermeneutics that can offer important insights from the Bible not just to African readers, but to all of us in the global church.

In Africa, where people long for the Bible to address daily needs for identity, security, health, prosperity, and defense against dark spiritual forces, an evangelical African biblical hermeneutic that weaves together the divinely inspired authority of authors and texts with the role of the readers to whom God is speaking today opens new possibilities for the Holy Spirit to bring written revelation to life as divine communication. And as the numerical center of Christianity moves to the Global South, especially to Africa, the understanding they draw from God’s inspired Word will flow north and west, enriching us all.

1. Emmanuel A. Obeng, “Emerging Concerns for Biblical Scholarship in Ghana,” in Interpreting the New Testament in Africa, ed. Mary N. Getui et al. (Nairobi: Acton, 2001), 39.
2. David Tuesday Adamo, “The Task and Distinctiveness of African Biblical Hermeneutic(s),” Old Testament Essays 28, no. 1 (2015): 34.
3. Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 4th ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014), 22.
4. W. Randolph Tate, Biblical Interpretation: An Integrated Approach, 3rd ed. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2008), 220.
5. See, e.g., some of the essays in Gerald O. West and Musa Dube, eds., The Bible in Africa: Translations, Trajectories and Trends (Leiden: Brill, 2000).
6. Peter Yuh Kimeng, “Shame and Honour in the Nehemiah Memoirs: A Hebrew and African Comparative Analysis,” PhD dissertation, Africa International University, 2010.
7. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (London: J. Currey, 1986).
8. Tate, Biblical Interpretation, 269.