The Challenges of the African Context on Biblical Interpretation

The existing response to the modern scholarly approach to biblical interpretation in Africa cannot easily be assessed. Some extensive research has to be done to discover what African Christians make of the historical critical approach to biblical interpretation.

What is evident however is the clamour for a unique African Christianity and inclusive is the desire for a particular guide to interpretation of scriptures in the African mode. It should be noted that while this may be a possibility, there are several lift up a banner challenges to be countenanced. The African context poses these challenges to be discussed due to some reasons. Osadolor Imasogie suggests that the average African’s commitment to Christ is superficial, he often reverts to traditional practices. `

If there is no commitment to biblical scholarship then biblical interpretation would continue to be what it is. John Parrat mentions Dickson and Fashole Luke as Africans who “see biblical scholarship as an urgent task” in African Christianity today, which has been too much neglected by the African church2

The Challenge of African Tradition

African tradition as a challenge in biblical interpretation takes into cognizance: The Language model and The ancestor factor. Other traditional factors may come into focus from other dimensions but these two by far may outweigh any others.

The language Model

To teach sound biblical interpretation means to present the scripture to Africans in their own easily understood language forms. To the greater African audience, the English Bible has been the major source of translations into indigenous African languages. N. Onwu observes this problem in his essay “The Dilemma of the African Theologian. He cites some words in the New Testament which he says cannot easily find equivalents in the Igbo language. He says language is a great problem in hermeneutics precisely because hermeneutics to a large extent is bound to be linguistic and therefore contextual. Language is the soul of the people, the secret into people’s culture, philosophy of life and thought; meaning patterns. It is through languages that reality is distorted. The biblical languages have their own characteristic language models and sometimes do not find easily, indigenous equivalents in some African languages.

To stress this point a comparison of the wording in the English Bible of Ephesians 6:12, with that of the Krio(Sierra Leone) bible would enable anyone to see the challenge of the language model in African biblical interpretation.

The Ancestor Factor

Most of the criticism levied on African tradition is centered on the African world view of ancestors. Western Christianity in particular has incessantly pounded African Religion for its refusal to let go this aspect of ancestors. Some Africans on their part being so devoted to this cultural trait have defended the ancestor mode steadfastly.

Charles Nyamiti, a Tanzanian Roman Catholic theologian, says Christ may be regarded as Ancestor because just as the human ancestor establishes a link between the spirit world and the living, so Jesus by His crucifixion and resurrection establishes a mystical link between God and the Christian community. Nyamiti believes that in Africa the relationship between God and Jesus is more understandable if regarded as one between ancestor and descendant than in traditional Christian imagery of father and son. Another African Benezet Buju agrees that Jesus is best understood as the first ancestor; by which he means Jesus fulfilled all the characteristics of the ideal ancestor but at the same time transcend them.

With the traditional Christian teaching of Christ as the divine word of God, it becomes explicit that ancestorship in teaching a biblical hermeneutic is the challenge to encounter. There are many other traditional challenges to be encountered but these are discussed in a proposed guide to doing theology in Africa. For instance, questions such as how to teach the presence and work of the Holy Spirit in the book of Acts to indigenous Africans, without them thinking of the many spirits inhabiting their natural environments.

The Challenge of Contextualization

It is widely accepted that the contemporary vehicle for making the gospel relevant is contextualization. Indigenization as could be seen, has not worked since it only led to some forms of religious syncretism. The rigid conservative option has also not done much considering the view that its application leads to viewing Christianity as a foreign religion and one for middle and upper class people.

The need for contextualization has been a consensus among many theologians. Learned conferences exemplified by one organized by the W.A.T.I. in 1984 in Nigeria on the theme “Contextualization of Christianity in Nigeria”, bears eloquent testimony to this trend.

Contextualization may be an appropriate option to indigenization or conservatism in contemporary Christianity. But in teaching biblical interpretation questions of what to contextualize, how, by whom and when are all challenges to be faced if we are to overcome over-contextualization or under-contextualization.

The Challenge of the Interpreter

With all the above challenges nearly overcome, the biggest and perhaps most important is the attitude of the proposed interpreter. From the historical review we have noted that most people come to scripture with their presuppositions and frames of reference. The meaning deduced from a particular text may be influenced by the interpreter’s presuppositions. Even if the interpreter confronts a scriptural text with a ‘tabular rasa’ mind he still has enough questions which may either leave him frustrated and empty; which in that instance he may want to abandon the process. Perhaps he may want to appeal to another source which in this case may be a subjective source that may never provide the needed answer. On the whole it is the attitude of the interpreter that will bring out the answers. A pragmatic interpreter may for instance not find anything interesting in the Songs of Solomon or the great part of the gospel of Saint John. A naturalist will see very little importance in the teaching of the miracles of Jesus. An existentialist may never find anything of importance in the narrative of the Exodus.

Socio-economic factors are also challenges within the wider perspective of the interpreter. An interpreter who is thinking more about the socio-political problems of the continent will no doubt appeal to the liberation theologian for his paradigm of interpretation. A feminist will definitely want to quarrel with texts of scripture that express the submission of wives to their husbands etc. On the whole the attitude, thinking and status of the interpreter are challenges to be faced in the hermeneutical task.

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