Posts Tagged ‘ Interpretation ’

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 Very Brief Guide for Interpreting a Whole Book of the Bible

I recently spent a morning with young Zambian women who are thinking about attending seminary. Our focus was learning to interpret the Bible, and we studied the whole of Paul’s letter to the Philippians using these questions below.

1.  Read through the book in its entirety, seeking to understand it as a whole. Does the reading of the whole enable you to see things you had not noticed before, or which haven’t been emphasized in your prior exposure to the book? Do certain aspects stand out as characteristic of this book?

2.  Can you find evidence for the occasion that led the author to write the book, or the situation which the writer is addressing? Do you find information about the original audience and their circumstances? What aims for the book do you find? What does it seem the author was trying to accomplish by writing this book?

3.  What primary themes stand out? Look for repetition of key words, images, phrases, and ideas. (As you read this book of the Bible, keep asking what the main themes are and where they change.)

4. In light of your attention to the book as a whole, what have you come to understand about this book’s perspective on God and the Christian life? What clues do you find regarding how the Christian life looks and works? Do you have any new insights into key verses that have been meaningful to you in the past?

5. In light of all that you have discovered above, how does this book speak a living word to you personally, and how might it speak to your church or to others you know? If you were to teach or preach from this book, what would you wish to emphasize?

A Brief Guide for Learning to Interpret a Whole Book of the Bible

Note: I wrote this with the interpretation of New Testament epistles in mind, but most of it applies to other parts of the Bible, too.

1. Read through the book in its entirety, seeking to understand it as a whole and trying to follow the line of thought. As you read the whole book, be aware if you see things you haven’t noticed before or if you recognize parts that may not have been emphasized in your prior exposure to the book. Also, does reading the whole give you have a sense of the basic structure of the book?

2. What clues do you discover about the rhetorical situation and aims? That is, can you find evidence for the occasion that gave rise to the book, or what situation the writer is addressing? Do you find information about the original audience and their circumstances? What clues does the book give about the writer? What rhetorical aims do you find? That is, where and how does the writing express what the author was seeking to accomplish by writing this book?

3. What primary themes stand out? Look for literary devices like repetition of key nouns, verbs, images, phrases, and ideas. Look for “book ends”, where a theme stands out at the beginning and end of the book. Try to trace how the author develops the main themes. Making an outline of the book will help you follow the flow of thought and the way the themes develop. Where and how do the key themes intersect? As you read this book of the Bible, keep asking what the main thought is and where it changes.

4. In light of your attention to the book as a whole, what have you come to understand about the theological perspective of the book? What seem to be the most important beliefs, and how are they described?

5. What perspective on the Christian life do you find? How does this piece of literature describe the inner dynamics and outward behaviors of the Christian life? What are the Christian’s resources for living in this way? Try to figure out and describe how the Christian life works, according to this document.

6. This is optional but possibly clarifying: How do your observations regarding numbers 5 and 6 compare with what you’ve seen in other books of the Bible? Does the comparison help to distinguish the particular perspective of this book?

7. In light of all that you have discovered above, how does this document speak a living word to you personally, and how might it speak to your church or to others you know?

8. If you are writing an essay, teaching a class, or preparing for a preaching series that will interpret the book as a whole, read and dwell with your observations until you can develop a way of organizing your discoveries in a meaningful way.

Forming a Christian Family (despite not having all the explicit directions from the Bible that we might like to have)

Our faculty and student small groups used this piece for discussion. We had good conversations, and I hope it can be helpful beyond our campus.

The New Testament does not offer as much direct guidance for family life as we might like. Passages that teach about the life of the church, and how believers are to live in unity with one another, may have as much to tell us about our life as Christian families as those few passages that deal directly and explicitly with family life.

When the New Testament was being written, those who wrote it were preoccupied with the meaning of the gospel, the nature of discipleship, and the welfare of new congregations of believers. The New Testament was written so early in Christian history that the biblical writers may have barely begun to give thought to what it means to have a Christian home and to live as Christian families. That may be why it’s hard to find many passages that deal explicitly and directly with our life as Christian families. The New Testament does confirm certain teachings from the Old Testament, such as reserving sexual relations for marriage. And we find specific guidance now and then, as when Ephesians tells husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church (Eph. 5:25). However, as a whole, family life was not at the forefront of thought for those who wrote our New Testament. Because of this reality, when we turn our attention to Scripture for the formation of our families as Christian families, we have to exercise extra thoughtfulness.

Yet the truth is that the New Testament does give us plenty of guidance for forming Christian families, if we consider that the Christian home is a place of Christian fellowship and that a Christian family is a small piece of the body of Christ. In a Christian home we carry out our life of discipleship in a very close and personal way with other believers. When we realize these things, we can realize also that passages of Scripture that teach believers to live out the Christian life in fellowship with one another implicitly have much to say about life as a Christian family. Passages that teach believers to grow together as disciples fill the pages of Scripture. While the passages of Scripture that deal explicitly with family life may be limited, passages which teach Christians how to live in unity and grow together in Christ are plentiful.

So, today we are going to look at the passage that may be the poetic height of the apostle Paul’s writing on relationships between believers. It is safe to say that Paul was not thinking about family life or marriage when he wrote 1 Corinthians 13. He was thinking of helping the body of Christ in Corinth to get along with one another, and not harm each other, as they learned to use their spiritual gifts to build up their congregation. However, since Christian families are also small pieces of the body of Christ, what Paul said about love between believers in the body of Christ also speaks depths of wisdom about creating a Christian home.

Questions for Study and Discussion of 1 Corinthians 13

Let’s read 1 Corinthians 13:1-13 for the purpose of what these verses might speak to us regarding Christian family life.

1. In verses 1-3, love is a standard to measure the value and contribution that we add to the church. What would it look like to use these verses as a standard to measure what we as parents, spouses, brothers, sisters, and children offer to our families?

(1 Corinthians 13:1-3 If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.)

2. Why might Paul have said in verse 13 that “the greatest of these is love”? Why would he elevate love over hope and faith?

(1 Corinthians 13:13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.)

3. How do verses 4-8a describe love? Can you summarize?

(1 Corinthians 13:4-8  Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 8 Love never ends.)

4. What do these qualities look like when they’re expressed concretely in family life? And what would be the result if these qualities were present and increasing?

5. Are there parts of Paul’s description of love that were very present as you grew up in your own family as a child? Were there parts that seemed to be lacking?

6. What parts of the description of love are difficult or most challenging for your family now?

7. What habits or practices have you found to be helpful for cultivating love in your family? What ideas can you share that might help other families?

8. How can we pray for one another’s families today?