Student Researchers

One of the parts of my work which I feel mostly strongly about is mentoring masters students and fourth-year bachelors students as they carry out research and writing projects (and possibly Ph.D. students in the future). The African church has many serious matters to think through, and all of my students are sorting through challenges facing their churches as they do their academic work. Let me share a little about my current research students and the significance of their areas of focus.

Rev. Bannet Muwowo is a Zambian Presbyterian pastor writing a master’s thesis that seeks to describe what the process of mature biblical interpretation should be like and what it should accomplish in Zambia today. Rev. Muwowo believes people’s poverty tends to take control of what they are able to see in the Bible; poverty drives interpretation. Rev. Muwowo suspects that believers’ self-interest might be playing a bigger role in interpretation than the Bible itself. The temptations of self-interest and self-deception need to be faced. Mature interpretation gives priority to God’s will and whatever God wishes to say to readers.

Miss Naele Mawere is dealing with how pastors in the Reformed Church of Zambia (in which she’s preparing for ordination as a fourth-year bachelors student) are being tempted to act like the pastors on Africa’s TVs and billboards, who seem constantly to tout their ability to perform miracles of healing and financial breakthroughs. She is focusing on the purpose of healing miracles in the Gospel of John. It turns out that miracles in John are all signs of Jesus’ identity that inspire faith in him. This understanding can become a way for testing whether or not miracles and ministries are genuine: are people being directed to Jesus, or toward a particular minister’s glory and wealth?

Rev. Agness Nyondo-Nyirenda, a Malawian Presbyterian pastor and fourth-year bachelors student, is writing a research paper on the meaning of “abundant life” (one of African Christianity’s most prominent phrases) in the Gospel of John. She’s thinking through the issue – controversial here – of whether preachers in her denomination should define “abundant life” according to how people in their communities define it, or if they should give first priority to what the context of John’s Gospel itself says about what “life” is. Who gets to define abundant life: African culture, the Bible, or some combination of the two?

Rev. Feston Chilumpha, who has served as a pastor in a mainly Muslim area of Malawi, is my one researcher in missiology (mission and evangelism) instead of New Testament. He is asking the question: What are the best practices for reaching Malawian Muslims with the gospel of Jesus Christ? He is thinking through how Christians can themselves become an inviting and loving message of good news to the Muslims around them. He hopes his research will lead to new directions for his synod’s mission outreach and that, upon finishing his degree, he can return to minister more effectively in an area with many Muslims.

I have two newer masters students who are still thinking through possible research areas…

Rev. Faresy Sakala, a Presbyterian pastor in Zimbabwe and current masters student, may write her master’s thesis on the theme of submission in 1 Peter. How should Zimbabwean Christian women receive the emphasis on submission in 1 Peter as they deal with the common reality of violence from their husbands and rampant alcoholism in the home? What does the call to submission mean for such women?

Rev. Clever Chifombo is a masters student and Reformed Church of Zimbabwe pastor who may work through the problem of why so many Christians’ marriages in his country are being torn apart by adultery, and with how many Christians act like they are enslaved to sin, even though Scripture says they have died to sin. He may study Romans 6 to understand the idea of becoming slaves to God’s righteousness instead of slaves to sin, and how this may be contextualized in Zimbabwe.

As you can see, our students are thinking seriously through what a faithful Christian life and message should be on the African continent. I’m grateful that Presbyterian World Mission and Justo Mwale University give me the opportunity to be a part of students’ growth and learning.

I look forward to receiving more students who are eager to learn and grow, and to serve the church with their knowledge and skills. If a candidate has the adequate qualifications and has interests which match my own, I could also supervise Ph.D. studies through the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, South Africa, via distance education.

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Expanding Africa’s Model of Biblical Interpretation: Toward More Promise and Less Peril from Contextual Hermeneutics

This is a summary of a piece I’m writing…

This paper seeks to introduce the concepts of inductive Bible study and attending to the literary context of passages of Scripture to those who teach and practice African contextual hermeneutics. The essay engages my experience teaching biblical interpretation in Zambia (2010-2017), the observations of Justo Mwale University (JMU) student researchers, and literature from scholars of biblical hermeneutics in Africa, Europe, and the United States. The paper argues that in order to preserve the promise of contextual hermeneutics and to avoid its pitfalls, those who teach Scripture and theology in Africa need to expand contextual hermeneutics, so that it integrates inductive Bible study and attention to the literary context of biblical passages.

 

Contextual Hermeneutics: Promise and Perils for Africa

Contextual hermeneutics, as an approach to interpreting the Bible, elevates the question, “What does the Scripture mean to us and our community?” above other questions.[1] Contextual hermeneutics is highly valued in Africa for multiple reasons. It takes readers and the needs and experiences of their communities seriously. It goes further than traditional Western approaches in acknowledging the importance of what readers themselves bring to the interpretive process. It is highly practical — focusing not on the biblical past but on the Bible’s current impact. It also accords honor to ordinary readers, instead of privileging the readings of experts. By valuing the process of African readers in producing interpretations for their own communities, this method also encourages the individuation of the African church as it comes out from under colonial powers. For many reasons, contextual biblical hermeneutics is a natural fit for Africa’s approach to the Bible.

However, contextual hermeneutics also has shortcomings: Despite the reality that numerous African ways of seeing bear resemblance to biblical ways of seeing, the Bible presents human interpretation as prone to error and in need of direction from beyond itself. Contextual hermeneutics places too much confidence in human judgments; it fails to recognize that readers need guidance and limits. It too readily allows interpretations to mirror the aspirations and values of readers, so that the Bible becomes overly affirming of culture. It does little to encourage finding content which calls preconceptions into question. It also gives implicit permission to overlook or relegate to what is irrelevant the parts of Scripture which do not seem to speak to African values of healing, material well-being, and protection against enemies. In short, contextual hermeneutics tends to prioritize the culture and perspectives of readers somewhat above what is actually written in Scripture, so that the Bible means (mostly) what the readers’ community wants it to mean. Despite its key advantages for the African church, contextual hermeneutics is also perilous for God’s people in Africa because it turns the experience of readers and their community into a canon beyond the canon of Scripture.

The prevalence of the prosperity gospel in Africa supplies evidence that the aspirations of readers tend to trump the actual content of biblical texts. For example, a JMU student researcher, also a Malawian pastor, is writing on the meaning of the phrase “abundant life” (John 10:10) — one of African Christianity’s most prominent phrases. She is thinking through whether preachers in her synod should define “abundant life” according to how people in their communities define it, or if they should give first priority to how the context of John’s Gospel itself speaks to the theme. In surveying her fellow pastors, 75% say priority should go to how people in the communities define their need for prosperity in all areas of life. Scripture should be of high priority, but the needs of the community should come first in determining the message to be proclaimed. Other examples could be shared.

 

The Promise of Inductive Bible Study and Literary Context for Contextual Hermeneutics

Who gets to define the message that the African church proclaims? African culture? The Bible? Or some fruitful combination of the two? Proponents of African contextual hermeneutics usually prefer the third option over the first, and expressly concern themselves with reading for the sake of transformation. Yet how much transformation occurs if we go to Scripture looking to affirm our culture and do not get hold of content which challenges how we think and what we value? Contextual hermeneutics needs intentional and structured ways to help readers grasp more of the transforming content of Scripture. If those who teach Scripture and theology in Africa expand contextual hermeneutics, so that it also integrates inductive Bible study and attending to the literary context of biblical passages, this can empower people to discover biblical truth for themselves. Scripture reading is most transformative when readers are given skills to see what is present in Scripture and also space to let dialogue happen between text and context.

Inductive Bible study, as an evidential approach, focuses on developing readers’ skills to attend carefully to the words, phrases, and thoughts of Scripture. Inductive Bible study seeks to foster a “radical openness”[2] to what will be found in the words of Scripture. As readers discover what is in Scripture, this leads to a “critical interaction between their pre-understandings … and the witness of the biblical text”.[3] In other words, inductive Bible study leads to critical contextualization.

To attend to the “literary context,” we interpret words and verses according to what we find in the immediate and surrounding passages. We interpret small sections of verses in light of chapters and larger sections of a book of the Bible. Words, sentences, passages, and chapters “take their meaning from the biblical book of which they are a part”.[4] When we read something in its literary context, we have to face what is really in the text. We deal with a verse in light of what the rest of its own context is saying. The literary context is important because it helps to keep us on track.

 

How We Might Combine These Methods

Inductive Bible study, like contextual hermeneutics, fosters skills in ordinary readers and opens dialogue with readers’ context. These aspects ease the way for it to be combined with contextual hermeneutics. However, contextual hermeneutics tends to start with questions and conversation about the needs and realities of the readers’ context instead of starting with the text itself. This is an issue I am still sorting through. However, in my own teaching, I have found that the methods may be combined by training students to ask questions which open the text of Scripture and questions which open their context in conversation with the text. My experience is that while the latter occurs naturally, the former is more difficult and requires patience and practice. The eyes of most students need to be trained to follow the line of thought of something they read, and to attend patiently to the literary context of a passage. I am developing a biblical interpretation course which trains students to work at skills of inductive Bible study and attention to literary context, in which we spend each class period in the practice of asking open questions of passages from a variety of genres of biblical literature. The midterm and final assignments/exams are used for students to describe how the students would go about teaching these same methods in their own congregations.

 

Conclusion

What defines the message that the African church proclaims? African culture? The Bible? Some fruitful combination of the two? Scholarship on African biblical hermeneutics usually says that the answer is found in the third option; but in actual practice, the needs, expectations, and values of readers and their communities tend to dominate. Contextual hermeneutics, all too often, identifies messages from Scripture which affirm the pre-understandings of local culture. Although we should embrace contextual hermeneutics, we should also incorporate inductive Bible study and attending to the literary context of Scripture. By doing so, believers will learn to recognize where Scripture speaks words that are different from the values and beliefs of local culture. Training believers in inductive Bible study and attending to the literary context of passages could give contextual hermeneutics what is needed to be truly transformative, and thereby make a substantial contribution to the practice of biblical interpretation in Africa. By taking in more available evidence from the world within the biblical text, readers position themselves to hold genuine transformative dialogue between their own world and the world which Scripture describes.

[1] Justin Ukpong states: “Methodological priority is given to the context of the readers”. See “Inculturation Hermeneutics: An African approach to biblical interpretation”, in Dietrich and Luz (eds.), The Bible in a World Context: An Experiment in Contextual Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 28.

 

[2] Bauer and Traina, Inductive Bible Study: A Comprehensive Guide to the Practice of Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 18

[3] Ibid, 1.

[4] Jeannine Brown, Scripture as Communication: Introducing Biblical Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 213. In contextual hermeneutics, words take meaning from the community of readers. I take both of these to be true, but the community needs the literary context of biblical passages to guide the interpretive process.

A Guide for Studying a Theme (or particular word) in a Book of Scripture

  1. Read through the entire book of the Bible to see where it mentions the theme. If the book is very long, consider using a concordance instead to see everywhere the book uses the word. Trace the theme’s use and development through the book as a whole. Look for repetition of key nouns, verbs, phrases, images, and ideas. Remember that a theme can be expressed in many different ways. Keep in mind that a key word in Greek might be hidden behind two or three different English words in translation (if you have access to the Greek text and/or Greek concordance, try to use these).
  2. Notice how this theme intersects and overlaps with other key themes in the book. For instance, if you are studying trials and temptations in James, what other themes in James shed light on these themes? Also, does the book contain contrasting or opposite themes that shed light on the theme you are studying? For example, if you are studying “endurance” in Hebrews or Revelation, how does the book contrast endurance with another theme?
  3. How does the theme relate to the book’s rhetorical situation and aims, and what role does it play in achieving the author’s aims? For instance, John states his aim in writing his Gospel in 20:30-31, and he mentions “belief” and “life”, and other key themes in John tend to relate to these themes.
  4. Attempt to arrive at this book’s specific understanding of this theme by making use of all the book says about the theme. Be open to variation and complexity, and to seeing things you didn’t expect. What observations can you make regarding the theme’s role in the overall theology of the book?
  5. Be careful not to assume that this book of the New Testament (NT) speaks about the theme in precisely the same way that another NT book deals with the theme. Can you pinpoint clarifying comparisons or contrasts between the theme in this book of the NT versus other NT books?
  6. What does your study of the theme reveal about this book’s perspective on the Christian life? Has your study shed light on how the Christian life works, according to this book?
  7. During your study of this theme, have there been particular ways that you relate personally to this theme? Are there ways the theme helps you see your life a little differently or more clearly? How does this theme speak to you personally? How might this theme speak to your family? How might it speak to your church?
  8. After you have followed through on the above steps, consider secondary sources that might help you gain greater insight into your theme (a study Bible, commentary, Bible dictionary, an article, etc.) or correct any misperceptions. If you are writing a paper and take an idea from such a source, you must reference that source and clarify exactly what you took from it.
  9. If you are writing an essay or preparing a teaching, read and reread your observations until you can develop an outline that organizes your material in a thoughtful and meaningful way.

Paul’s Way of Imparting Christ Crucified

 

Today I submitted an essay I’ve been working on for a book project called “Making Sense of Jesus”, written by scholars related to the University of the Free State in South Africa. Here’s what my essay is about…

What would it mean for us, in Southern Africa today, to know what Paul knew of Christ crucified, and to give this knowledge and experience to others? To serve those who might wish to reflect more deeply in answer to such questions (for Africa or elsewhere), I ask the more preliminary questions: What did Paul mean by knowing Christ crucified, and especially, how did he approach imparting this knowledge?

For Paul, knowing Christ crucified means having a relationship with Christ and the gospel in which Christ’s death becomes, for believers, our dying; that is, Christ’s death becomes our way of life, our gospel-shaped identity and vocation.

While acknowledging that Paul imparted this relationship with Christ’s death through preaching the gospel, I demonstrate that he imparted it by embodying the gospel’s pattern in his own life. I maintain that 1 Corinthians represents Paul’s written attempt at imparting the identity and vocation which arise from knowing Christ crucified. Paul uses his own self-portrayal, as an extension of embodying the gospel with his life, to impart a way of thinking and living that makes space for God’s power in the midst of weakness and sacrifice. This impartation of Christ crucified seems to be the heart of what Paul has in mind when he calls believers to imitate him. For the apostle, “making sense of Jesus” means coming to know Jesus Christ in such a way that his crucifixion (and life and resurrection) becomes our way of life. Writing 1 Corinthians was Paul’s attempt to transfer this same reality from himself to the Corinthians, so that knowing Christ crucified would shape the Corinthians even as it had shaped his own life.

 

 

Be Cautious about Prophets but Zealous to Prophesy: 1 Corinthians 14 and Today’s Questions about Prophecy (in Southern Africa)

Johanneke Kroesbergen-Kamp’s research (2016) among students at Justo Mwale University suggests that members of the Reformed and Presbyterian Churches of Southern Africa are asking numerous questions related to prophecy and prophets: What is prophesying? What are prophets? Can we have prophets today? Are prophets dangerous, or are they specially gifted and worthy of elevated status? Is God still speaking in the same way that he spoke to the biblical prophets? What would the existence of prophets and prophecy mean for the relevance of the Bible? How does prophesying relate to preaching?

This essay attempts to allow Scripture to answer these questions which are being asked in Southern Africa, instead of allowing the prevailing Pentecostal atmosphere, or even our Reformed heritage of Justo Mwale University, to dictate and define the terms. This approach requires that we identify where the Bible speaks of prophesying and prophets, that we ask of the biblical texts these same questions about prophecy, that we do exegesis with literary and historical sensitivity, and that we reflect theologically on how the biblical passages might answer these questions arising from our context. This essay will concentrate on 1 Corinthians 14, asking what evidence we find therein for answers. I have selected 1 Corinthians 14, in the literary framework of chapters 12-14 as a whole, in order to focus the essay and because it is the chapter in the New Testament which deals with prophets and prophesying in the most depth and detail.

The essay will argue that 1 Corinthians 14 guides us to be cautious about prophets but to appreciate and welcome prophesying as a gift from God to edify the church today. 1 Corinthians 12-14 provides direction which, if maintained, can ensure that the gift of prophecy is used to strengthen the church instead of causing harm. My findings suggest that the older, more established churches should embrace certain aspects of a Pentecostal approach to the prophetic gift, even while also advocating measures that place limitations on and give greater direction to prophesying. This essay also urges Pentecostal churches to consider how Paul’s words affirm certain strengths of the Reformed tradition. The hope is to offer a mature response to Scripture and to what is happening with regard to prophecy in Southern Africa today, for the sake of the wisdom and unity of the churches.

To download and read this paper, go to https://justomwale.academia.edu/DustinEllington

My Missionalia article came out today

So that We Might Become the Righteousness and Justice of God: Re-examining the Gospel in 2 Cor 5:21 for the Church’s Contribution to a Better World

http://missionalia.journals.ac.za/pub

http://missionalia.journals.ac.za/pub/article/view/137/pdf

So that We Might Become the Righteousness and Justice of God: Re-examining the Gospel in 2 Cor 5:21 for the Church’s Contribution to a Better World

Here’s the abstract and introduction of my article coming out before long in Missionalia (Southern African Journal of Missiology).

ABSTRACT

This article interprets Paul’s summary of the gospel in 2 Cor 5:21 as saying that Christ died so that believers might be transformed into God’s righteousness (not only deemed as righteous by God). The article explains the powerfully generative nature of God’s righteousness and then demonstrates that dikaiosunē also means justice. The interpretation of 2 Cor 5:21 clarifies that the gospel Christians believe for salvation also transforms them to embody God’s righteousness and justice. This enlarged angle on Paul’s view of the gospel serves as a basis for teaching a seamless continuity between believing in Jesus Christ and becoming a force for justice in the world.

 

INTRODUCTION

This article explores the nature of the Christian gospel in an effort to understand what the gospel may contribute toward establishing righteousness and justice in the world. Sometimes the gospel we Christians proclaim promotes escaping the reality that this world is neither righteous nor just, whether through focusing on questionable promises of health and wealth in this life (see Ellington 2014:327-342; Gbote & Kgatla 2014:1-10), concentrating on promises of the life to come (however true to the witness of Scripture), or appreciating almost exclusively the individual and personal benefits of salvation. A motivating concern for this article is that Christians may be failing to contribute as much as we could toward a better world, because we fail to recognize the resources for human transformation toward righteousness and justice which reside within the gospel. This investigation turns to Scripture for a description of the gospel that responds to the need for transformation toward both personal righteousness and social justice, for the sake of the church’s contribution to Africa and beyond.

Paul’s letters to the Corinthians give extended attention to the relationship between the gospel and the formation of a Christian way of living in the world. This essay will focus on one of Paul’s key summaries of the gospel. The apostle states in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “He (God) made him who did not know sin to be sin for our sake, in order that we might become the righteousness of God in him.”[1] This essay concentrates mainly on the final portion of 2 Cor 5:21. Margaret Thrall states: “The traditional understanding of ‘becoming God’s righteousness’ is that it means ‘being justified by God’” (1994:442). I affirm that Paul’s gospel includes the change in status from guilty to justified, but this does not do justice to the statement of the gospel in 2 Cor 5:21. While we might expect Paul to say, “He made the one who did not know sin to be sin for us, in order that we might be justified”, Paul actually says, “that we might become God’s righteousness”.[2] Paul’s assertion that we become God’s righteousness is not the same as saying that we are justified, or pronounced righteous.[3] This essay does not downplay justification or soteriology; it would be more accurate to say that it takes soteriology more expansively, as including the establishment of a transformed and world-restoring community through the gospel and through our union with Christ.[4]

When we interpret 2 Cor 5:21 in the literary context of 2 Corinthians, we can find insight into the relationship between God’s righteousness and justice and believers’ own righteousness and justice.[5] This insight includes discovering that the gospel itself is a basis of human transformation. The article argues that, when 2 Cor 5:21 is interpreted properly, the gospel paves the way for believers’ transformation toward embodying, and becoming agents of, God’s righteousness and justice in this world.

[1]  All translations are the author’s own unless stated otherwise.

[2]  Morna Hooker (2008:369) observes that most interpreters have tended to interpret dikaiosunē (righteousness) in 2 Cor 5:21 as a genitive of origin (“righteousness from God”) with the ultimate meaning of dikaiōthentes (“having been justified”), as though Paul meant that we are given the verdict that we are righteous. While this interpretation is conceivable, in light of the literary context of 2 Corinthians as a whole, it is not persuasive. Moreover, Paul chose the noun dikaiosunē, not the participle dikaiōthentes, even as he does in 2 Cor 3:9; 6:7, 14; 9:9-10; and 11:15. In 2 Corinthians, Paul does not use the participle related to dikaioō, though he frequently utilizes it in Romans and Galatians. We should not assume the same line of thought in 2 Corinthians as in Romans and Galatians.

[3]  Richard Hays (1996:24) states: Paul “does not say … ‘that we might receive the righteousness of God.’ Instead, the church is to become the righteousness of God”. This contrasts with the positions of Harris (2005:455) and Collins (2013:126), who interpret dikaiosunē in 2 Cor 5:21 as essentially meaning “justification”. Thrall (1994:444) speaks mainly of a “change in status”, though affirms that Paul has in mind more than simple imputation, on account of our being united with Christ. Thrall rightly states: “In the first half of the verse Paul has described the first element of a dual process of identification and exchange” (1994:442). I take Thrall’s assertion as less than correct when she says 5:21 relates reconciliation to justification. The accent of 5:21 is upon exchange that brings transformation, which is more than justification. I commend Stegman (2011) for demonstrating that Paul’s language related to dikaiosunē, in 2 Corinthians and beyond, is not only juridical but also deeply concerned with transformation.

[4]  This view accords with the New Perspective on Paul in recognizing the apostle’s central interests in participation in Christ and ecclesiology.

[5]  The focus of this essay does not allow us to deal with righteousness and justice in relation to all the varied expressions of the gospel in the New Testament, including the literature of the synoptic gospels. Moreover, the article deals with many interpretive questions related to 2 Cor 5:21, but it does not attempt to cover them all.