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

Setting Apart Specific People for the Work of Missions: The Role of the Local Church in Choosing and Sending Missionaries

How does your church choose and send missionaries? How does one go about becoming a missionary? Are there principles to guide this process? In most cases, an individual realizes that God is calling him to missions. He approaches a mission agency, which agrees to send him. Afterwards, he tells his church leaders (or the missions board) that God has called him to missions. Then the church accepts him as called, and prepares to send him to the mission field after he fulfills whatever requirements they have in place.

This is not necessarily a bad approach, but it does raise questions about the role of the local church in choosing and sending missionaries. It seems obvious that the local church needs to be intimately involved in the process, both in recognizing those who are gifted in the work of missions, and in seeking God for how they could be set apart for that work. Missions ought to be a major part of the life of the church.

There are two texts that are helpful in knowing how a church should choose and send out missionaries.

Matthew 9:37-38

Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.

Acts 13:2-3

While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then after fasting and praying, they laid their hands on them and sent them off.

The following points and questions are based on the two passages above, and are meant to help you think specifically about the role of your own church in choosing and sending missionaries.

  1. The church should recognize the serious need for laborers. Jesus made it clear to his disciples that the harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few. That remains true today. Do you see the need and are you moved by the lack of workers in the field? How so? Can you think of specific ways that show you see the need and are concerned?
  2. The church’s response to the need is earnest prayer. Jesus asked his disciples to respond in prayer to the Lord of the harvest by praying earnestly for him to send out laborers. Are you a church that is earnest in prayer to God to send out laborers? What are specific ways in which you are doing this, and what are some ways you think you could do it better? Who are you asking God to send out?
  3. The church should be ready to obey the leading of the Holy Spirit. When the church recognizes the need for laborers and prays earnestly, the Spirit will speak. That is what happened in the church in Antioch (Acts 13:2). Is the vision for missions in your church such that it is evident in your worship services regularly? Or is it something that is only evident once a year? In your worship of God, and your fasting and praying, do you listen to the Holy Spirit? If so, what is he saying to you concerning missions and the sending of missionaries?
  4. The church should be obedient to the instructions of the Spirit no matter how hard they may seem. The church in Antioch responded in obedience when they were asked to set apart Barnabas and Saul for the work of missions (Acts 13:3). How can this be applied in your own church? In your fasting and praying, what has the Spirit said and how have you responded? Who are specific people in your congregation that the Spirit has called to missions? Have you affirmed that call? Are you willing to respond in obedience if the Spirit instructs you to set apart the best in your congregation for the work of missions? Barnabas and Saul were prominent people in Antioch, but when the church fasted and prayed and knew it was the will of God, they responded in obedience. How can you follow this example in your own church?

In sum, the role of the local church in the choosing and sending of missionaries is very important. The decision to send a missionary should be one that is made and affirmed by the whole church. When the church recognizes that many in the world are perishing without the gospel, and that laborers are few, her response is to turn to God and pray for him to send out laborers. We do so knowing that the Holy Spirit will ask us to set apart people from within our own congregations for the work of the gospel. The role of the church is therefore to worship, fast, pray, and set apart as the Spirit leads and to commission those thus set apart. This makes the choosing and sending of a missionary more than an individual decision: it is corporate.