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

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