Athens

Tomorrow I leave for Athens Greece with my good friend, Pastor Matthew Henry of
Missio Dei Fellowship in Kenosha. We will arrive in Athens on Saturday, preach at
some ethnic churches on Sunday, and spend next week leading mini conferences.
Pastor Matt will lead seminars on “Theology, Preaching, and the Pastor—An Urgent Call
to Be Men Controlled by the Word of God.” I will be teaching on “Unity of the Bible.”

Our purpose is to follow up on the trip we took last May and also to lead mini
conferences with various church leaders. Training Leaders International will launch a
Theological Training Center in Athens in January so we are laying the groundwork for
that. Many pastors in Athens lack theological education and do not think that they
need it. We will help them see the importance of studying to be better equipped for
teaching and preaching.

A Strategic Opportunity

Here is our schedule, sent by the Southern Baptist missionary with
whom we will work. You can see what a strategic opportunity this is.
We have an opportunity to teach church leaders from 6 language
groups. Training Leaders International will start a center to train
pastors for these language groups, sending teams to Athens three times
a year for 3-4 years.

  • Monday, November 14:   Arabic Language
  • Monday, November 14:  Farsi Language.
  • Tuesday, November 15:  English Language (for Africans, Filipino, and other English speakers)
  • Wednesday, November 16:   Hindi or Urdu Language
  • Thursday, November 17:  Albanian Language
  • Friday, November 18:  Romanian Language

Pray that:

  1. Our ministry will be well received by the brothers in
    Athens.
  2. We will teach with clarity and that God will be pleased to
    accomplish his purpose for Athens through us. For many to
    see the need for theological education in their lives and
    churches.
  3. We will make good progress in laying the ground work for
    TLI training center, which begins in January.
  4. Travel mercies, and for Linda and the kids to be well back
    at home.

Cultural Hermeneutics Applied

In the book Vernacular Hermeneutics[1], David Tuesday Adamo has a chapter on “African Cultural Hermeneutics.” His aim is to make a case for the practice of cultural hermeneutics in Africa. He goes further to apply this method to the Psalms. Adamo’s chapter illustrates what I call the danger of cultural hermeneutics and shows why this emphasis should be rejected if we are to continue to maintain the truth of Scripture.

Adamo argues that,

In African indigenous culture, the means for dealing successfully with traditional problems like disease, sorcerers, witches, enemies and lack of success in life, have been developed. Western missionaries taught African Christians to discard these indigenous ways of handling problems without offering any concrete substitute, except the Bible. Charms, medicine, incantations, divination, sacrifices and other cultural ways of protecting, healing and liberating ourselves from the evil powers that fill African forests were hurriedly discarded in the name of Christianity. Yet, we were not taught how to use that Bible as a means of protecting, healing and solving the daily problems of life. The Euro-American way of reading the Bible has not actually helped us to understand the Bible in our own context (p. 66).

Three things stand out in this above statement. 1) Christianity is a Western missionary thing. 2) Missionaries discarded African traditional practices and only replaced them with the Bible which is not a concrete substitute for dealing with their problems. 3) Africans should have been taught by the missionaries on how to use the Bible for protection, healing, and solving daily problems. Implied in Adamo’s argument, then, is that African cultural hermeneutics will enable Africans to interpret the Bible in a way that brings back such practices and makes use of the Bible to do what charms, medicine, incantations, divination etc. did in the culture.

Adamo’s approach (in line with those who argue for African cultural hermeneutics) is to begin with the African experience, then search the Scriptures to see if there is anything in it that could solve problems faced in that context.  He states,

Faced with some peculiar problems as African Christians, we searched the Bible consistently with our own eyes in order to discover whether there could be anything in the Bible that could solve our problems. In the process of reading the Bible with our own eyes, we discovered in the scripture great affinities with our own worldview and culture. We discovered in both the Hebrew Scripture and the New Testament resemblances to events similar to African experience, especially painful experience (p. 67).

Applying his African cultural hermeneutics to the Psalms, Adamo points out that the Psalms, interpreted from the African perspective, can be used protection, healing, and success in life. Before the advent of Christianity, the indigenous tradition of Africa used incantations and charms to protect themselves against enemies and evil. Given this cultural context, he comes to the Psalms and applies his cultural hermeneutics approach. He argues that the Christianity brought by missionaries did not meet the need of Africans for protection, healing and success. What the missionaries did not give, African indigenous Christians found by searching the Bible.  As he puts it,

“Using African cultural hermeneutics to interpret the Bible, they [African indigenous Christians] found secret powers in the Bible, especially in the book of Psalms. They used the Bible protectively, therapeutically, and successfully to fill the missing gap left by Eurocentric Christianity” (p. 74).

One wonders how Adamo sees the Bible, that he uses it as he describes.

Applying his methodology of cultural hermeneutics, Adamo identifies three groups of Psalms for the African indigenous churches. They are: 1) Protective Psalms (Psalms 5, 6, 28, 35, 37, 54, 55, 83, and 109. He argues that these are protective Psalms and thus should be used against enemies and evil. They can be used in the African context to defeat the evil plans of enemies. 2) Therapeutic Psalms (Psalms 20 and 40 [for swollen stomach]; 51 [to heal barrenness]; 6 [to relieve from pains and worries]; 1 [to prevent miscarriages] etc.). 3) Success Psalms include Psalms 4; 8; 9; 23; 24; 46; 51; 119:9-16; 134 (for success in examinations or studies

In the end, Adamo has replaced the African traditional practices with the Bible. Rather than hearing what the Bible says to the African indigenous church, he wants the African indigenous belief system brought into the Bible. Cultural hermeneutics, then, is finding in the Bible those aspects that agree with the cultural practices and then using them, even to the point of using the Bible as a charm to protect from evil.

Adamo’s work may sound trivial to Western ears, but is a worry because what he says is reflected in so much of what is published in African theologies these days. Such hermeneutics will keep people comfortable in their belief systems, and they will never see the need to embrace Christ as Lord and Savior.

Cultural hermeneutics as a topic of discussion may be appealing to scholars, and the push for cultural sensitivity might keep us from challenging such arguments, especially when made by Africans. But that would be disastrous for the future of the church in places like Africa. We must know about these issues, as they serve to show the serious need for proper theological education.


[1] Rasiah S. Sugirtharajah, ed.  Vernacular Hermeneutics (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999).

The Challenge of Cultural Hermeneutics

Teaching Hermeneutics to pastors on the mission field was a joy for me. Helping students see that there is indeed meaning in the text that the author intended to communicate, and that we can arrive at that meaning was a thing that students found significant for their own preaching. One day in class, a student remarked, “Now, I do not have to look for things to put into my sermon because the text gives me so much to deal with.” Contrast this with a pastor who got up to preach one Sunday and told the people, “I have had this sermon for a month but was looking for a passage to go with it.” The question is, should we train pastors on the mission field to go from text to sermon or from sermon to text? The answer is obvious. The text, rightly interpreted, gives the message, which should be preached, to the people.

The practice of hermeneutics (going from the text to sermon, going from author’s intended meaning to significance for our context , commonly known as application) is being challenged, and this is dangerous for the health of the church. This challenge comes in the form of what is called “cultural hermeneutics.” The challenge is coming from scholars in various cultures, as well as from the West.

At the Evangelical Theological Society meeting in Atlanta in 2010, there was a discussion group on New Testament Studies in Africa. It was a very helpful discussion, but I was shocked at one statement: that we need to make room for and be open to African Hermeneutics. I raised an objection to this statement and started thinking of the implications of such an approach.  Recently I met with a seasoned missiologist who, after finding out what TLI is about, asked me, “Will you practice cultural hermeneutics or are you going to bring western hermeneutics and dump it on them?” He argued that we need to have the cultures interpret scripture the way they see it. We need to be comfortable with other cultures coming to the text and seeing different things. Again, this way of speaking is dangerous and will do damage to the church.

Who is being catered to in this challenge of cultural hermeneutics? I fear that those in the West jumping on the band wagon of this subject, have not carefully considered its origin and who is being served in advocating such a position. Take Africa for example, who in the African context is making the case for cultural hermeneutics? A casual reading shows that it is the liberal scholars, western trained, with no concern for the purity of the gospel, who are making the argument and rejecting the normal practice of hermeneutics as Euro-centric and uncaring for the African context. Are scholars in the West, then, promoting the demands of African Liberal Scholars? It seems so.

Those in Africa who advocate for cultural hermeneutics argue that Africans should be allowed to read the Bible for themselves, and will see things differently. They should be able to come to the Bible and see a different meaning in the text than a westerner will see. There should not be a western imposition on one’s right to see truth in the Bible from his or her own cultural perspective.

The basic argument of cultural hermeneutics is captured by Professor Gosnell L Yorke, Faculty of Theology & Religious Studies, University of Eastern Africa, Banaton, Kenya. Writing for UNISA (University of South Africa) Online, he says,

Since it is now acknowledged that all theology is practiced* from a certain perspective, a space is cleared for an Afrocentric reading of biblical scriptures. Afrocentrism is an attempt to re-read Scripture from a premeditatedly Africa-centred* perspective which breaks the hermeneutical hegemony and ideological stranglehold of Western biblical scholarship. It is shown, furthermore, that an Afrocentric reading of the Old and New Testaments and an Afrocentric understanding of the figure of Jesus Christ undercut all Eurocentric pretensions.[1]

*[English rather than American spelling of several words.]

This challenge of cultural hermeneutics is serious. If left unchallenged, it will affect the church and create problems in understanding the Word of God.

Responding to this challenge, we must not engage in debating such scholars, but in preparing future scholars who see the proper role of hemeneutics in their context. These will be people who can go from text (properly interpreted) to significance in their various contexts. It seems to me that the argument for cultural hermeneutics is confusing “meaning” (what the author intended to communicate) and application of the meaning in our own contemporary context.

The practical outworking of the cultural hermeneutics argument is disastrous. See the next post tomorrow on “Cultural Hermeneutics Applied.”


[1] See his full article online at http://www.unisa.ac.za/default.asp?Cmd=ViewContent&ContentID=7348

Are Ph.D.’s Necessary for Theological Education on the Mission Field?

While pursuing my doctoral studies, I was often asked this question by well- meaning people: “Why are you getting a Ph.D. if you are only going back to work in Africa?” This question assumes that effective ministry in Africa does not require a Ph.D. This is a false assumption. Here are four reasons I believe more people should pursue Ph.D.’s before engaging in theological education overseas.

1.  Guarding the truth of the gospel entrusted to us. Paul says to Timothy, “O Timothy, guard the deposit entrusted to you. Avoid the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called ‘Knowledge’” (1 Timothy 6:20). The deposit entrusted to Timothy is the gospel and he was to guard it against what is falsely called “knowledge” (false teaching). The gospel in most mission settings remains undefined and false teachings are rampant. We know that the gospel has its roots in the OT (cf. Gal 3:8). Jesus made the point that his life and ministry could only be understood from the OT context (Luke 24:25-27). In order to understand the gospel and guard it against false teaching, as well as preserve it for future generations, one needs to study the Scriptures well. The pursuit of a Ph.D. enables the church to continue to guard the gospel. While Masters degrees are sufficient for ministry, they do not necessarily prepare one for the kind of research and writing needed to guard the gospel and defend it against errors. A Ph.D. prepares for this task. We need people gifted in research and writing to help the church on the mission field to fully understand the gospel and pass it on to others, so that it will not lose its message, and so that people will neither add to nor subtract from it. While seminary education at the M.Div. level is good, we remain dependent on the work of those who have invested their lives in research and writing as a means of serving the church.

2.  Evangelical Christianity is lacking in higher education on the mission field. Judging by the publications available in a context like Africa, it is clear that evangelicals have a long ways to go in keeping up with the theological debate that has been ongoing since 1960. There are endless number of books on African theology, Afrocentric hermeneutics, liberation hermeneutics, feminist hermeneutics, black theology etc. Many of these volumes carry teachings that are contrary to Scripture. Yet, there is no ready response to the arguments made by these liberal scholars. We end up with publications on African theology and interpretation that are not helpful for the church. Why the absence of a response? The authors of such books are Ph.D. holders, trained in the West, who have returned to Africa to make their contributions. They are the face of African theology from a liberal perspective. How is the evangelical church going to respond to this situation? It will take African evangelicals who have pursued graduate studies and are able to research and write in response. At the very least, we need Ph.D.’s on the mission field to respond to the growing scholarly contribution of liberal Ph.D. holders. We cannot possibly expect pastors, many of whom are holders of a bachelors degree, having been trained by missionaries with masters degrees or less, to engage the highly trained liberal scholars on the continent. Can we?

3.  The church in America proves that Ph.D.’s are needed if there are to be strong churches on the mission field. What do I mean? If there were no Ph.D. holders in America, what would the state of the church be? God has graciously provided us with gifted men and women who have invested their lives in studies so that they are able to do research and write on matters of Scripture. Their work and their publications are used by pastors and lay people for preaching and teaching in the local church. Take all of these men and women out and the evangelical Christian literature will shrink. Those with Ph.D.’s are helping the church to continue to hold to the truth of their faith. Commentaries, articles, and devotional materials are written by many who have pursued higher education. Seminary graduates, pastors, and other Ph.D. holders depend on such works for ministry. If this is necessary for the church in America, how much more for the church on the mission field?

4.  Leadership development. There continues to be a cry for well-trained leaders for the churches on the mission field. This absence of leaders is embarrassing given the long history of missionary presence in those areas. Yet, one can understand why such scarcity of leaders exists. It takes well-trained leaders to provide leaders of such quality. The absence of Ph.D. holders on the mission field meant that less-qualified missionaries were left with the task of building the church and preparing future leaders for the churches. That is an impossible task. If leaders of high quality and education are to exist in any context, it will require others with higher education to prepare them. How can a missionary with a master’s degree possible prepare scholars for the church in his area of service? Such scholars are sorely needed.

I would hope that the question will no longer be, “Why are you pursuing a Ph.D. if you are only going back to Africa” but rather, “Why are you going to Africa without a Ph.D.?” The church on the mission field needs Ph.D. holders who will prepare future leaders of the world-wide church, who are able to guard the deposit entrusted to them.