The Bible has been read in Africa since the time of the early church. Indeed, the history of Christianity in Africa could be written as the story of African readers understanding, translating, interpreting, explaining and applying its teachings. Nevertheless, with the exception of the section on Ethiopian hermeneutics, this article focuses on the main developments that have taken place in English-speaking African Biblical Hermeneutics since the middle of the twentieth century.
The term ‘hermeneutics’ traditionally refers to the study of how one interprets a text or work of art. While works on hermeneutics in this broader sense are helpful for reading the Bible, this article focuses on resources that relate more directly to ‘biblical hermeneutics’, the study of how one interprets biblical texts. This branch of knowledge includes both the general principles that guide biblical study and the specific methods that are used. In Africa much biblical interpretation is done by ordinary Christians or church leaders at the ‘grassroots’ level, for example, in worship, prayer and preaching. Thus, biblical hermeneutics is not limited to academic study or even written forms of interpretation. Given the variety of resources available, this article uses the term biblical hermeneutics to refer to both theories of interpretation, such as inculturation hermeneutics, and the principles and methods implicit in practices of interpretation, such as those found in African Independent Churches. With the exception of the Ethiopian tradition, which traces its origins back to the early church, African biblical interpretation is characterised by a strong awareness of the distance between imported readings of the biblical text and the African reader. Western missionaries brought their own Western readings of the Bible to African contexts, with the result many African readers faced a ‘double’ hermeneutical gap when approaching the biblical text: between ancient texts and the contemporary situation and between Western readings and African realities. In response, African biblical interpreters have developed their own readings of the Bible to better address the lives of African Christians. Comparative approaches have emphasised the similarities between biblical and African cultural contexts. Furthermore, the African cultural context has come to be seen as a valuable resource for biblical study. These developments have been accompanied by a growing realisation of the importance of the cultural and social location of the reader in biblical interpretation. In a number of ways, African readers may be much better placed than Western readers to understand the Bible.
The article begins with a survey of introductory resources and provides some examples of primary resources that are available online. It then moves to the main approaches in African biblical hermeneutics, which are grouped into interpretive traditions or movements and discussed roughly in order of their historical appearance. These approaches focus on different aspects of the text and the context. Their different emphases are not merely due to personal situatedness, but also stem from deep theological beliefs about God, creation, humanity, revelation and salvation. Grouping the approaches according to interpretive tradition or movement helps to make these theological assumptions more explicit. First, there are sections on the Ethiopian tradition and the African Independent Church movement. Next, there are ‘classic’ approaches in African Christian Theology, including Inculturation and Intercultural hermeneutics, Liberation and Black hermeneutics, Feminist and Women’s hermeneutics, and Contextual Bible Study and Ordinary Readers’ hermeneutics. These are followed by a section on the Pentecostal movement. The article concludes with more recent approaches, such as Reconstruction, Postcolonial and Mother Tongue hermeneutics.
Overviews of African biblical hermeneutics can be organised in various ways, for example historically, regionally, according to ‘hermeneutical school’, thematically, or linguistically. Du Toit 1998 takes a thematic approach, gathering comparative, evaluative and inculturation approaches under the umbrella term ‘African hermeneutics’. Ukpong 1999 takes a historical approach, dividing the history of African biblical studies into three periods in which African biblical interpreters gradually move away from Western readings of the Bible. Phase 1 (1930s-1970s) is “reactive and apologetic,” legitimising African religion and culture over against the negative views of the Christianity imported by modern mission, phase 2 (1970s-1990s) is “reactive and proactive,” focusing on the African context as a source for biblical interpretation, and phase 3 (1990s and beyond) is “proactive,” emphasising the African context as the “subject of biblical interpretation” and the role of the ordinary reader. West 2005 and Mbuvi 2017 also use a historical division, which enables a clearer understanding of how approaches have developed in relation to factors such as trade, colonisation, independence, the end of the cold war and the end of apartheid. Developments in the history of the church have also had an impact, including the modern missionary movements, the founding of African Independent Churches and the rise of Pentecostalism. West 2010, however, opts to organise approaches according to hermeneutical school, which helps to highlight the theological or ideological assumptions in each school.
Du Toit, Cornel. “African Hermeneutics.” In Initiation into Theology: The Rich Variety of Theology and Hermeneutics, edited by Simon Maimela and Adrio Konig, 373–98. Pretoria: J. L. van Schaik, 1998. Export Item
Provides an overview of different hermeneutical approaches but positions itself by defining African hermeneutics as the approach which “considers the Bible and African Traditional Religion as Sources of equal importance” (p. 374). Argues for a broad understanding of hermeneutics that includes practices of using the Bible that are not necessarily reflected upon by formulating academic theories.
Mbuvi, Andrew M. “African Biblical Studies: An Introduction to an Emerging Discipline.” Currents in Biblical Research 15, no. 2 (2017): 149–78. DOI: 10.1177/1476993X16648813 URL: Link Access: Export Item
Provides an overview of both African Biblical Studies and African Biblical Hermeneutics. Organises different hermeneutical approaches using overlapping historical periods and provides a helpful overview of recurring themes in African Biblical interpretation. Based on an extensive literature review of English language sources, as reflected in the ten-page bibliography.
West, Gerald O. “Shifting Perspectives on the Comparative Paradigm in (South) African Biblical Scholarship.” Religion and Theology 12, no. 1 (2005): 48–72. DOI: 10.1163/157430105X00121 Access: Export Item
Focusses on the history of the ‘comparative paradigm’ in biblical studies which studies the Bible next to African realities. Follows this story in relation to colonial history with particular attention for the ordinary African readers of the Bible from pre-colonial times to the present. Also explores the relationship between ordinary readings and African biblical scholarship, which is more deeply influenced by and engaged with Western scholarship.
West, Gerald O. “Biblical Hermeneutics in Africa.” In African Theology on the Way: Current Conversations, edited by Diane B. Stinton, 21–31. London: SPCK, 2010. Export Item
Organises different hermeneutical approaches by considering the view of the text and context in each approach, but also the act of “appropriation” and what “ideo-theological orientation” guides the process of interpretation.
A classic article that has been published several times. See Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 108 (November 2000): 3-18 and The Bible in Africa: Transactions, Trajectories, and Trends, edited by Gerald O. West and Musa W. Dube, 11-28 (Leiden: Brill, 2000). Gives an overview of approaches and authors using a historical division.
Collections of articles are often uneven but provide a helpful orientation to the wide variety of hermeneutical approaches and key topics of discussion. Kinoti and Waliggo 1997 and Maimela and Konig 1998 offer examples of some earlier approaches. West and Dube 2000 is one of the most comprehensive anthologies available. Dube, Mbuvi and Mbuwayesango 2013 and Masenya and Ngwa 2018 offer a sampling of papers presented more recently at sessions of the Society of Biblical Literature’s African Biblical Hermeneutics section.
Almost all the papers in this volume were presented during sessions of the African Biblical Hermeneutics section between 2004 and 2010 at annual meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature. Using a broad postcolonial framework, the contributions cover a range of approaches and themes, including feminist and gender (Part 1), reconstruction (Part 6), and liberation approaches (Parts 7 and 8). Freely accessible for users in African countries.
Kinoti, Hannah W., and John M. Waliggo, eds. The Bible in African Christianity: Essays in Biblical Theology. Nairobi: Acton Publishers, 1997. Export Item
Written from a broadly ecumenical perspective, this volume includes several helpful chapters that focus specifically on hermeneutics, including Emmanuel Obeng, “The Use of Biblical Critical Methods in Rooting the Scriptures,” Laurenti Magesa, “From privatized to popular biblical hermeneutics in Africa,” and Zablon Nthamburi and Douglas Waruta, “Biblical Hermeneutics in African Instituted Churches.”
Maimela, Simon, and Adrio Konig, eds. Initiation into Theology: The Rich Variety of Theology and Hermeneutics. Pretoria: J. L. van Schaik, 1998. Export Item
A thorough introduction on African hermeneutics. Section A deals with different kinds of theologies and Section B with the corresponding hermeneutics. Most of the authors are from South Africa and a number of the contributions focus on African movements. Section B includes Timothy G. Kiogora, “Black Hermeneutics,” Mercy Amba Oduyoye, “African Women’s Hermeneutics,” Cornel du Toit, “African Hermeneutics” and Allan H. Anderson, “African Initiated Church Hermeneutics.”
Masenya, Madipoane J., and Kenneth Numfor Ngwa, eds. Navigating African Biblical Hermeneutics: Trends and Themes from Our Pots and Our Calabashes. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2018. Export Item
This volume is a collection of papers presented during sessions of the African Biblical Hermeneutics section at the 2014 annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in San Diego, California. Part one focuses on Methodologies in African Biblical Interpretations. The first two contributions in this section draw on gender criticism and the third uses the concept of Ubuntu to develop a constructive approach.
West, Gerald O., and Musa W. Dube, eds. The Bible in Africa: Transactions, Trajectories, and Trends. Leiden: Brill, 2000. Export Item
A landmark in African interpretation and hermeneutics. The collection is divided into five parts and contains a total of thirty-nine essays. The first part on “Historical and hermeneutical perspectives,” includes classic texts by Justin S. Ukpong, Gerald O. West, Knut Holter and Grant LeMarquand. The fifth part contains a valuable bibliography on “Studies of the Use of the Bible in Africa / Hermeneutics.”
There are a number of bibliographies on African interpretation and hermeneutics available, which vary considerably in scope and usefulness. LeMarquand 2000 provides an excellent bibliography on the subject but is now somewhat dated. Conradie and Fredericks 2004 includes a short bibliography on theological hermeneutics. Starcher and Anguandia 2008 offers a short but more up-to-date bibliography with helpful evaluative annotations.
The subsection on “Theological Hermeneutics” (pp. 95-97) offers a short list of texts in African systematic theology. Nevertheless, although it was published in 2004, it only contains one entry that was published in the 2000s.
LeMarquand, Grant. “A Bibliography of the Bible in Africa.” In The Bible in Africa: Transactions, Trajectories, and Trends, edited by Gerald O. West and Musa W. Dube Shomanah, 633–800. Leiden: Brill, 2000. URL: Link Access: Export Item
The second section of the bibliography on “Studies of the Use of the Bible in Africa / Hermeneutics” (pp. 642-662) provides an extensive list of the texts on the subject, including many works that focus on “the relationship between culture and interpretation” (p. 633). Freely downloadable from the Trinity School for Ministry Archives.
Starcher, Richard L., and Enosh A. Anguandia. Textbooks for Theological Education in Africa: An Annotated Bibliography. Bukuru: ACTS, 2008. Export Item
The section on “Hermeneutics” offers a short list of texts. For each entry in the list there is also an annotation with information on availability, price, theological orientation, education level, disciplines, a review and an indication of usefulness. Also includes two valuable indices: one listing academic disciplines or individual courses and one listing key words.
Much of the discourse on African hermeneutics is conducted in journals of biblical studies and theology, but there are also some journals devoted to hermeneutics. The field of biblical studies is dominated by South African journals, including Old Testament Essays (New Series), Neotestamentica, and Scriptura. The African Journal of Biblical Studies, published in Nigeria, is one of the few established journals in this field outside of South Africa. The Africa Journal of Evangelical Theology and Black Theology have a wider range of subject areas, but often include reflection on the hermeneutical approaches used both within and outside of their respective theological movements. The Journal of Mother Tongue Biblical Hermeneutics and Theology has a very specific focus and is intended to provide a space for the development of a particular approach.
A scholarly journal published biannually by Scott Christian University in Kenya from 1982 that regularly features studies of biblical texts and discussions on hermeneutics. Its name was changed from East Africa Journal of Theology in 1990. Volumes 1-34 (1982-2015) freely accessible from Biblical Studies.
A scholarly journal usually published biannually by the Nigerian Association for Biblical Studies from 1986.
A scholarly journal published annually by Taylor and Francis from 2002 that is international in scope but with many articles from Southern Africa. It regularly features studies of biblical texts and discussions on hermeneutics.
A scholarly journal first published in 2019 by the Centre for Mother Tongue Biblical Hermeneutics at Trinity Theological Seminary in Legon, Accra, Ghana. All volumes are freely accessible from NOYAM Publishers.
A scholarly journal published annually by the New Testament Society of South Africa from 1966. Volumes 1-51 (1967-2017) are freely accessible by subscription from JSTOR.
A scholarly journal published three times per year by the Old Testament Society of South Africa from 1988. It was previously called Old Testament Essays and published annually by the Department of Old Testament at the University of South Africa from 1983-1987. Volumes 21-33 (2008-2020) are freely accessible from SciELO SA.
A scholarly journal published annually by Stellenbosch University in South Africa from 1980. All volumes are freely accessible from the Scriptura Archive.
There are many textbooks on biblical interpretation and hermeneutics available, but few that have been developed specifically for African contexts. Wetmore 2001 and Kyomya 2010 are useful introductions to the subject for students at the bachelor’s level. Mburu 2019 provides an explicitly African approach, drawing on African conceptual categories and modes of interpretation.
Kyomya, Michael. A Guide to Interpreting Scripture: Context, Harmony, and Application. Carlisle: HippoBooks, 2010. Export Item
Written by the former bishop of Busoga Diocese in the Church of Uganda. Argues that all African Christians need to be able to interpret the Bible well so that they can evaluate the preaching and teaching they hear. Emphasises the need to understand what the author meant and pay attention to the historical and literary context. Uses engaging examples to communicate his points.
Mburu, Elizabeth W. African Hermeneutics. Carlisle: HippoBooks, 2019. Export Item
Written specifically for African students. Uses an intercultural approach to hermeneutics that begins in Africa, moving from the known to the unknown. Offers a “four-legged stool model” for interpreting biblical texts, which involves examining parallels in the African context, the theological context, the literary context, and the historical and cultural context. Together these four legs support the seat: the application of the text to the African context. Includes helpful examples.
Wetmore, Hugh. Why Christians Disagree When They Interpret the Bible: Finding Unity in Our Loyalty to Scripture. Cape Town: Struik Christian Books, 2001. Export Item
Written by the former national coordinator for the Evangelical Alliance in South Africa, with contributions from participants in the National Hermeneutics Workshops. Examines a variety of factors that influence the way in which readers interpret biblical texts and presents some basic principles of biblical interpretation. Gives helpful examples of how to apply these principles in relation to a number of important topics.
Primary Resources Online
There are many different kinds of alternative primary resources available online that are highly relevant to the study of hermeneutics. Recent interest in the digital preservation of Ethiopian manuscripts has led to copies of some previously inaccessible texts being made publicly available for the first time (e.g., Amharic Commentary on Genesis [19th century]). Jesus Mafa 1973 and Mbatha 1979 are examples of artwork that offer interpretations of biblical stories in African settings. Kuma 1981 is a classic example of oral reflection on biblical teaching that draws from local experience and engages with everyday life. The strategic use of the internet by African Pentecostal churches has also resulted in a wealth of material, especially in the form of sermons and music videos. Adeboye 2013 and Lukau 2019 are examples of how African Pentecostals interpret biblical texts with a view to accessing God’s power in life. Praize 2013 offers an example of African Pentecostal biblical interpretation in worship.
Adeboye, Enoch A. Signs and Wonders of the Spoken Word. Sermon video, 56:53. Given at the annual Holy Ghost Congress of the Redeemed Christian Church of God, Redemption Camp, Ogun State, Nigeria, 10-15 December, 2012. Posted 28 November, 2013. URL: Link Access: Export Item
Adeboye is the General Overseer of the Redeemed Christian Church of God, a Nigerian Pentecostal megachurch with a global network of churches. In this sermon (14:30-) he draws scripture to explain that God, the Word who created all things, is able to transform all things. The word of God spoken by his prophet or one of his people will have the same effect as if spoken by God himself.
A good example of an andemta commentary, especially for those who can read Ethiopic scripts, which has been scanned and made accessible online through the efforts of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies and George Fox University as part of the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme. Originals are held at the Manuscripts and Archives Department, Institute of Ethiopian Studies, University of Addis Ababa, Sidist Kilo Campus, Addis Ababa.
A series of paintings from the 1970s growing out of a collaboration of Mafa Christian communities in Northern Cameroon and French Catholic missionary François Vidil. The result are western style paintings of the Gospel stories but with African people in local settings this providing a contextual interpretation of a range of Gospel stories. There are 67 Jesus Mafa items that can be viewed on the Vanderbilt Divinity Library website.
A collection of prayers and praises by an illiterate midwife from Ghana, originally formulated in Twi and transcribed as: Kuma, Afua. Kwaebirentuw ase Yesu: Afua Kuma ayeyi ne mpaebo̳. Accra: Asempa Publishers 1980. Accra: Asempa Publishers, 1981. Kuma’s poetry is often cited as an example of a contextual appropriation of biblical words and images.
Lukau, Alph. Untitled. Sermon video, 1:36:50. Given at a Teaching and Healing Service at Hallelujah Ministries International, Sandton, South Africa, 8 March, 2019. Posted 8 March, 2019. URL: Link Access: Export Item
Lukau (also known as the Apostle of Faith) of Alleluia Ministries International, is from South Africa. This clip (esp. From 2.00 to 5.30 min) is a demonstration of God’s healing power as promised in Scripture. Lukau emphasizes that believers are not victims but victors. He freely refers to Hebrews 10:23, Isaiah 59:19, Deuteronomy 28:7, Psalms 9:7 and Mark 4:35-41 (or parallel versions). This is an example of how Scripture can be appropriated for victory in life.
The Zulu artist Azaria Mbatha has pictured the Tower of Babel story twice in different periods of his life with the second representation much more clearly interpreting the story in relation to an African setting. See for the pictures and an interpretation in the context of an exegesis of Genesis 11: Rathbone, M. “Interpretations of the Tower of Babel Narrative in the African Context.” Acta Theologica 34, no. 1 (2014): 173–96.
Praize (born Joseph Omo Ebhodaghe) is a Nigerian gospel singer, praise and worship leader, songwriter and music director at Christ Embassy (LoveWorld Incorporated or Believers' Loveworld Inc.), a megachurch and denomination founded by Pastor Chris Oyakhilome in 1987. This song is a celebration of the nature of Jesus Christ as revealed in the book of Revelation. The video suggests that meditation on Scripture and spirit-filled worship is the key to a life of fulfillment.
Biblical interpretation in the Ethiopian tradition can be traced back to the earliest expressions of Aksumite Christianity in the fourth century but has only recently become the focus of academic research. Over the centuries a distinctive form of interpretation developed known as andemta, which includes translation and commentary in Amharic on the Bible and related literature written in Ge’ez. This tradition existed in oral form until it was written down in the seventeeth century. Andemta commentary analyses the biblical text and gives thorough, often highly contextual, explanations, illuminating stories and key quotations from various authorities to establish its meaning. Typological explanation is common. The importance of the andemta tradition for biblical hermeneutics is that it has developed independently in an African setting and is free from modern Western philosophical baggage, which is not always helpful for the task of biblical interpretation. The pioneering work of Roger Cowley brought the existence of the andemta to the attention of Western scholars and made it accessible to an English-speaking audience (e.g. Cowley 1971, Cowley 1974 and Cowley 1977). Cowley 1983 gives an account of the tradition and examines commentaries on Revelation. Prior to Cowley, Western missionaries and scholars (e.g. Ullendorff 1968) generally assumed that Ethiopian biblical interpretation was directly influenced by Jewish hermeneutical methods. Cowley 1988 finds no historical evidence for this assumption and, based on his study of the themes of creation and Christology in the andemta, argues instead for the influence of Antiochene methods. Stoffregen Pederson 1995 applies Cowley’s approach to commentaries on the Psalms. Alehegne 2011 gives an account of the tradition and examines commentaries on Genesis. Lee 2011, based on his study of the symbolic interpretation in the Syrian and Ethiopian traditions, further challenges the idea of direct Jewish influence on Ethiopian biblical interpretation. An 2016 studies the contextual influences that have shaped the tradition.
Alehegne, Mersha. The Ethiopian Commentary on the Book of Genesis: Critical Edition and Translation. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2011. Export Item
A valuable contribution by an Ethiopian scholar. Alehegne discusses the development of the andemta tradition and the history of research, provides a critical edition and annotated translation of the commentaries on Genesis, and includes a useful appendix consisting of a glossary, archaic lexicon and inventory of andemta manuscripts.
An, Keon-Sang. An Ethiopian Reading of the Bible: Biblical Interpretation of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church. Cambridge: James Clarke, 2016. Export Item
An argues that “tradition and context decisively shaped the way the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church (EOTC) has interpreted the Bible across the centuries” (p. 218). He compares the historical-critical approach to the contextual approach, arguing for the latter, explores the history of Christianity in Ethiopia, especially the EOTC and the development of its interpretive tradition, and offers a description of Ethiopian biblical interpretation in the andemta and a selection of nine sermons.
Cowley offers a valuable introduction to the andemta for English-speaking scholars. He includes a helpful section on the “Principles of exegesis,” which discusses the methods of interpretation, drawing from the introduction to the Pauline epistles in the andemta. Freely accessible by subscription from JSTOR.
In this article, Cowley provides the first annotated translation of a selection of introductions to Old Testament books in the andemta. He includes the introductions to Genesis, Jubilees, Kings (1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings), Maccabees (3 books), Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiasticus, Isaiah, Enoch, and the Ezra Apocalypse, as well as an annotated translation of a general introduction to the tradition by the Ethiopian scholar Liqä Selṭanat. Freely accessible by subscription from JSTOR.
Cowley, Roger W. “New Testament Introduction in the Andemta Commentary Tradition.” Ostkirchliche Studien 26, no. 2–3 (1977): 144–92. Export Item
Cowley provides the first annotated translation of a selection of introductions to New Testament books in the andemta. He includes the preface to the Gospels, called Mäqdemä Wängēl, and the introduction to Romans from the Ge’ez material, and the introductions to the Gospel of Mark, 1 Thessalonians, Acts, 1 Peter, James and Revelation from the Amharic material.
Cowley, Roger W. The Traditional Interpretation of the Apocalypse of St. John in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983. Export Item
In this work, Cowley gives an account of Ethiopian biblical interpretation in the andemta. He provides an annotated translation of a Ge’ez commentary and an andemta commentary on Revelation and compares these commentaries with those found in Arabic, Coptic, and Syriac traditions.
Cowley, Roger W. Ethiopian Biblical Interpretation: A Study in Exegetical Tradition and Hermeneutics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988. Export Item
A magisterial study of the andemta. Cowley argues that it “stands in fundamental continuity with earlier commentaries, especially those of the ‘Antiochene’ tradition” (p. 375). He addresses the possibility of the use of Jewish methods, arguing that many similarities were mediated via Greek, Syriac and Arabic traditions rather than via direct transmission, and provides annotated translations of commentaries on Genesis 1:1-2:4, focussing on creation, and Hebrews 1, focussing on Christology. Contains valuable bibliographies.
An important comparative study. Lee argues that the Syrian tradition has deeply influenced Ethiopian biblical interpretation. He focusses on three symbols – the Ark, the Cross and Paradise – in the work of Ephrem, Jacob of Sarugh and the Odes of Solomon, and in the Deggwa (liturgical hymnody), the andemta and the Kebra Nagast (the national epic), and provides annotated translations of key texts.
Stoffregen Pedersen, Kirsten. Traditional Ethiopian Exegesis of the Book of Psalms. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1995. Export Item
Stoffregen Pedersen provides annotated translations of andemta commentaries on a selection of Psalms. She generally confirms Cowley’s conclusions regarding the development of the andemta.
Ullendorff, Edward. Ethiopia and the Bible. London: Oxford University Press, 1968. Export Item
An authoritative account by a renowned scholar, though now somewhat dated. Ullendorff introduces the Ethiopian context and biblical references to Ethiopia before turning to the question of Jewish influences, arguing that they reached Ethiopia via South Arabia. He addresses the translation of the Bible into Ge’ez, the effects of Jewish influences on Ethiopian Christianity, and the narrative of the Queen of Sheba. Contains a useful bibliography.
African Independent Churches (AICs), also called African Indigenous Churches or African Initiated Churches, were often started as a critical alternative to Western missionary churches that were seen as too closely allied to colonial interests and out of touch with the needs of African Christians. Many were founded by leaders who received a personal calling through a visionary experience but no formal theological formation. Since the 1960s AICs have been an important focus of research in religious studies and African theology because of their unique contribution to world Christianity (e.g., Turner 1965). Most studies of the principles and methods implicit in AIC practices of interpretation focus on specific communities or contexts and there is not yet a systematic overview that brings insights from these various studies together. Nthamburi and Waruta 1997 is a first step, but the choice of examples is not very representative. Nevertheless, existing studies highlight several characteristics of AIC hermeneutics. The Bible is central in AIC worship and has a high authority, but does not exclude other authorities, such as the ancestors, healers and, most importantly, the spiritual leader, whose readings of Scripture are the final word in all matters of faith and practice (Anderson 1996). In AICs the Bible is interpreted quite literally. Biblical texts are used to support the continuation of traditional practices, such as polygamy or food laws. The Scripture is understood as directly related to the challenges facing African Christians. For example, stories of healing are read with the expectation that the Spirit will miraculously intervene with healing power in the lives of believers who are sick. Furthermore, the physical Bible is an object of power. Its presence or the repetition of certain texts can provide protection in situations of need (Adamo 2001). Depending on one’s theological position, this can be interpreted magically, sacramentally or therapeutically.
A generally sympathetic study of AIC hermeneutics in West Africa by one of the most prolific authors on African hermeneutics that focuses on the themes of healing, protection and success. Adamo provides an overview of an African traditional worldview and a short introduction to the relevant AICs: Christ Apostolic Church, Cherubim and Seraphim, Church of the Lord (Aladura) and the Celestial Church of Christ.
An interpretation of AIC hermeneutics based on research between 1991 and 1995 in Soshanguve, South Africa. Anderson follows Latin American liberation theologian’s Severino Croatto’s distinction between hermeneutics as the study of (1) the text, (2) the preunderstanding that influences the reading of the text and (3) and the enlarged meaning of the text that results from this interaction. He positively evaluates AIC hermeneutics from a Pentecostal and evangelical perspective.
Anderson, Allan H. “African Initiated Church Hermeneutics.” In Initiation into Theology: The Rich Variety of Theology and Hermeneutics, edited by Simon Maimela and Adrio Konig, 399–416. Pretoria: J. L. van Schaik, 1998. Export Item
Roughly the same material as Anderson 1996, dropping the framing in terms of Croatto’s distinction, but including more detail on Zion Christian Church and International Pentecostal Church, to which many of the interviewees belonged.
A presentation of the results of a study of preachers and sermons in Southern Malawi to find out what issues were considered in preparing for exegesis, problems faced by local exegetes, the preferred themes and texts, and the role of songs in interpreting the Bible.
Mijoga, Hilary B. P. Separate but Same Gospel: Preaching in African Instituted Churches in Southern Malawi. Blantyre: Christian Literature Association in Malawi, 2000. Export Item
A more elaborate presentation of the material already introduced in Mijoga 1996, that interestingly concludes that there is little difference between the preaching in mainline churches and AICs in Southern Malawi and that the differences lie in rituals and practices.
Nthamburi, Zablon J., and Douglas Waruta. “Biblical Hermeneutics in African Instituted Churches.” In The Bible in African Christianity: Essays in Biblical Theology, edited by Hannah W. Kinoti and John M. Waliggo, 40–57. Nairobi: Acton Publishers, 1997. Export Item
An analysis of AIC hermeneutics using a variety of disparate empirical studies and examples, presumably from proper experience, mostly from Southern Africa. The analysis is used as a starting point for more general reflection on what biblical hermeneutics in Africa should look like.
Turner, Harold W. Profile through Preaching: A Study of the Sermon Texts Used in a West African Independent Church. London: Edinburgh House Press, 1965. Export Item
Possibly the first elaborate empirical study of preaching in AICs, in this case the Nigerian Aladura movement, thus presenting the lived theology and hermeneutics of its leaders.
Inculturation and Intercultural Hermeneutics
Inculturation and intercultural hermeneutics are very similar and are therefore handled together in this article. Both are Afrocentric, as opposed to Eurocentric; both emphasize a two-way dialogue between the world of the biblical text and the world of traditional and contemporary African realities; both include exegesis of the text as well as analysis of contextual African realities; and both focus on the religio-cultural dimensions of the text and the contemporary contexts. A key aspect of both methods is the inclusion of ordinary readers’ contribution to biblical scholarship. The major development is that while inculturation hermeneutics focuses on the incarnation of the gospel in a culture as well as its evangelization, intercultural hermeneutics consolidates a constructive dialogue (Loba-Mkole 2012). Both these approaches legitimize cultural diversity.
The term ‘inculturation hermeneutics’ was first introduced by Justin Ukpong in 1995. Many earlier writers emphasized that the Bible must be relevant and relatable to African life and thought (e.g., Abogunrin 1986). Ukpong recognized the growing perception of Christianity as foreign and irrelevant to the African religio-cultural context. Inculturation hermeneutics is a contextual, interdisciplinary hermeneutic that acknowledges that there is no neutral exegesis and that explicitly makes the African context the subject of biblical interpretation. Because of the African integrative view of reality, the worldview and the life experiences within a culture, as well as historical, social, economic, political and religious aspects consciously inform the interpretive process. However, because of their ideo-theological orientation, most proponents of this method tend to focus on the religio-cultural dimensions of the text and the African contexts. The goal of analysis is to yield the “theological meaning of the text within a contemporary context” (Ukpong 1995). As opposed to most Western methods, the focus is on the communities that receive the text, rather than the text itself or its authors. It is a hermeneutic of trust rather than suspicion. Its assumptions include: a unitive view of reality; the divine origin of the universe and the interconnectedness between God, humanity and the cosmos; community relationships; emphasis on concrete realities; and the Bible as the sacred, word of God that has relevance for today’s society. Some have questioned whether the framework of an African spiritualized cosmology is useful in the development of a scientific imagination crucial in today’s globalized world (Ngong 2014). Proponents insist that the Bible must be read in a way that reflects the multicultural dimension of the Christian faith. This approach therefore complements approaches from other cultural perspectives
Abogunrin, Samuel O. “Biblical Research in Africa: The Task Ahead.” African Journal of Biblical Studies 1, no. 1 (1986): 7–24. Export Item
Argues that the major contribution of African scholars will be the presentation of the biblical message to Africans in the perspective of their worldview. He provides general guidelines for interpreting texts of the Bible that he asserts are relevant for interpreters from any church tradition or conviction.
Provides a critique of inculturation approaches, particularly with regards to the supposedly African spiritualized cosmology which is generally pitted against a supposedly Western rationalistic and disenchanted cosmology. Argues that the African condition can be effectively addressed through interpreting the Bible in ways that encourage the development of the scientific imagination. Freely accessible by subscription from Academia.
Ukpong, Justin S. “Rereading the Bible with African Eyes: Inculturation and Hermeneutics.” Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 91 (1995): 3–14. Export Item
A programmatic article by the main proponent of inculturation hermeneutics. Ukpong proposes a method that addresses the inadequacy of Western methods of biblical interpretation and answers the questions of African readers. He suggests “rereading the Bible” through an eclectic method that combines resources of the African people’s culture and historical life experience with Western approaches. He elaborates a concrete procedure, exegetical conceptual framework and methodological presuppositions.
Ukpong, Justin S. “The Parable of the Shrewd Manager (Lk 16: 1-13): An Essay in the Inculturation Biblical Hermeneutic.” Semeia 73 (1996): 189–212. Export Item
This article illustrates the different steps of Ukpong's inculturation hermeneutic in the parable of the shrewd manager and its relevance to contemporary West Africa.
Ukpong, Justin S. “Inculturation Hermeneutics: An African Approach to Biblical Interpretation.” In The Bible in a World Context: An Experiment in Contextual Hermeneutics, edited by Walter Dietrich and Ulrich Luz, 17–32. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002. Export Item
Ukpong discusses the methodology of inculturation hermeneutics with regards to its constitutive elements as opposed to the interpretation process. He emphasizes that ordinary people and their socio-cultural contexts are the subject of biblical interpretation. The goal of this method is sociocultural transformation and its ethos is cultural diversity and identity in reading practices.
Intercultural hermeneutics evolved from inculturation hermeneutics. It was first introduced by C.N.A. Cilumba and U.C. Manus who developed Ukpong’s inculturation hermeneutic further (Loba-Mkole 2008). Cilumba, who was strongly influenced by Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur, takes into account the assumptions of the reader, a fusion of the two horizons as well as application of the text in the context of the reader. Manus 2003, whose method has close connections to Ukpong’s, starts off with the ordinary African’s socio-cultural context and connects this with a “similar” biblical context. His method is eclectic in that he also employs inculturation, liberation and reconstruction approaches. Loba-Mkole 2012 adds a further dimension of intercultural mediations. He incorporates both horizontal a horizontal dimension that includes dialogue across different contemporary cultures and a vertical dimension that includes dialogue across historical cultures.as well as vertical ecclesial contexts. More recent developments in this area include Mburu 2019. Her method has the interrogation of worldviews as its starting point. As with inculturation hermeneutics, some proponents differentiate between the exegetical process and contextualization in application. Others integrate the African context throughout the process, albeit in slightly different ways.
Loba-Mkole traces the rise and development of intercultural Biblical exegesis in Africa, especially with regard to New Testament interpretations. This article focuses on the different proponents of this method and the differences in their approaches are noted and appraised as a healthy tension.
Loba-Mkole, Jean-Claude. Triple Heritage: Gospels in Intercultural Mediations. Nairobi: WordAlive, 2012. Export Item
Loba-Mkole shows the difference in approach between inculturation theology and intercultural mediation. While the first focuses on the incarnation of the Gospel in a culture and the evangelization of that culture, intercultural mediation embarks on consolidating a constructive dialogue between an original biblical culture, church tradition, and contemporary audiences.
Loba-Mkole engages in a dialogue with a triple dimension that includes the original biblical cultures, ecclesial cultures and contemporary cultures. His method grants each cultural context its own epistemological privilege. Each of these cultural entities thus contributes equally and yet distinctively in the process of a constructive dialogue.
Manus, Ukachukwu C. Intercultural Hermeneutics in Africa: Methods and Approaches. Nairobi, Kenya: Acton Publishers, 2003. Export Item
An intercultural hermeneutic that combines historical, literary and social methods in analyzing various New Testament texts and integrates this with African folk stories. This method is eclectic and uses both folkloric approaches and intercultural exegesis as well as other paradigms such as liberation, (re)construction and postcolonialism.
Mburu, Elizabeth W. African Hermeneutics. Carlisle: HippoBooks, 2019. Export Item
A method that recognizes that parallels between biblical worldviews and African worldviews can be used as bridges to promote understanding, internalization and application of the biblical text. It also makes use of cultural resources such as stories, proverbs, songs etc. and applies principles of interpreting these genres to the biblical text. This method is interdisciplinary in methodology and recognizes the importance of theological, literary and historical aspects of the text.
Liberation and Black Hermeneutics
Liberation theology was developed in the 1960s and 70s in the context of oppression and inequality in Latin America and amongst African Americans in North America. When liberation approaches were embraced in Africa, it could build on an existing sensitivity that Christian theology needs to address the realities of injustice, oppression and colonization. Liberation theology not only presents a proper hermeneutic in the sense that it brings to the fore other elements of the biblical message with a particular focus on liberation and on the Exodus as the foundational event in the history of Israel. It is also a new hermeneutical method. It is characterized by the sequence of see-judge-act in which the understanding of the meaning of the Scriptures begins with an understanding of the context, particularly the realities of oppression and injustice. This seeing can never be done from a distance, but must always be done while engaged in the struggle for liberation. Social analysis, often with the help of analytical tools borrowed or adapted from the Marxist tradition is then followed by the need to judge this situation with the help of the Scriptures. In this approach the social sciences take the place traditionally held by philosophy and history as the preferred academic conversation partner for theology and biblical studies. This finally leads to renewed action, for biblical interpretation should not primarily lead to new theological insights but to new liberating courses of action. A second hermeneutical principle is that God’s preferential option for the poor is not only a thesis with regard to the content of the biblical message. It is also an epistemological preference for the perspective of the poor from which one can understand both the nature of their struggles to which the Scriptures speak and to understand the revolutionary message of the Scriptures itself, which may well escape the powerful or may be suppressed by them.
Liberation theology is a broader term for all theologies that follow the see-judge-act pattern of interpretation and want to address different forms of oppression and include also feminist theology (see below) and other theologies that address specific forms of inequality and justice such as Indian Dalit-theology, Korean Minjung theology or HIV and AIDS theology that has played a significant role in Africa (Chitando and Gunda 2007). Some of the major African voices in liberation theology “north of the Limpopo river” (the border of South Africa) come from French-speaking Africa (Ela 1986, Ela 1991, Ela 1994) and have had limited influence in English-speaking Africa.
The two authors critically study Old Testament texts that are used to support the stigmatization of people living with HIV/AIDS. They argue that stigmatizing readings are in fact “emphasizing trivialities at the expense of the critical dimensions” (192) of Scripture. They rather plead for a liberation hermeneutic which they understand as a reading in the light of the overarching theme of God’s intention “to liberate, save and sustain life” (194).
One of the main expressions of African liberation theology north of the Limpopo river. It originated as a collection of occasional writings rooted in pastoral ministry in the North of Cameroon leading to the outcry, pleading against a church that was too narrowly focused on conversions and baptism and for a church that invests in the development of human beings in all dimensions of their existence.
Ela, Jean-Marc. “A Black African Perspective: An African Reading of Exodus.” In Voices from the Margin: Interpreting the Bible in the Third World, edited by Rasiah S. Sugirtharajah, 256–66. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1991. Export Item
An abstract from African Cry focusing on the meaning of the Exodus for the church in Africa today. The God of the Scriptures is a God of history who cannot be identified with the eternal cycles of life and death, thus calling the church to liberate the oppressed from ignorance of this purpose of God in history and to a new solidarity in view of this liberation.
Ela, Jean-Marc. “Christianity and Liberation in Africa.” In Paths of African Theology, edited by Rosino Gibellini, 136–153. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1994. Export Item
Ela gives specific attention to hermeneutics in the section on ‘the Bible and Africa’ which picks up central liberation themes of reading the Scriptures from the situation of the poor, realizing that God is not neutral with regards to that plight and that the struggles of the oppressed connect with the memory of the Crucified.
The dominant form of liberation theology in English-speaking Africa is South African ‘Black theology’. This theology shares its name and many of its themes with North American Black theology, but where the latter theologizes from the context of an oppressed racial minority, South African theology originated in the apartheid context of an oppressed majority. Amongst those who read the Bible with a liberation hermeneutic we find on the one hand those who read the Scriptures with a basic ‘hermeneutic of trust’ supposing the Bible presents a liberating message for the poor and that the abuse of the Bible to legitimate oppression represents a misinterpretation of its central message (e.g., Kiogora 1998). On the other hand we find interpreters who approach the Scriptures with a ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ because they see the Scriptures themselves as a site of struggle where the voices of the oppressed need to be brought to the fore against the tendency of the voices of the powerful to silence them (Mosala 1989, Mosala 1991). Such expressions of liberation hermeneutics resonate with the themes of postcolonial hermeneutics.
Kiogora, Timothy G. “Black Hermeneutics.” In Initiation into Theology: The Rich Variety of Theology and Hermeneutics, edited by Simon Maimela and Adrio Konig, 337–48. Pretoria: J. L. van Schaik, 1998. Export Item
An introductory article that describes South African Black theology in relation to Latin American Liberation theology, each understood in relation to their respective contexts.
Mofokeng considers the paradox that the Scriptures were brought to South Africa by the colonizers, yet embraced by the colonized and used in the struggle for liberation. He argues that the text itself contains oppressive strands and needs to be read critically from the experience of the oppressed. He moves into postcolonial analysis in his attention to the silenced voices of the oppressed in the Scriptures.
Mosala, Itumeleng J. Biblical Hermeneutics and Black Theology in South Africa. Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans, 1989. Export Item
Mosala proposes a ‘historico-materialist’ reading of the Scriptures. In line with Marx, he understands the modes of economic production as the decisive factor in social relations and the focus for liberation. He focusses on an analysis of Micah and Luke 1-2 against the economic relations of the time and argues that the Scriptures need be read critically, because they are not a liberating text, but are themselves a site of struggle.
Mosala, Itumeleng J. “The Use of the Bible in Black Theology.” In Voices from the Margin: Interpreting the Bible in the Third World, edited by R. S. Sugirtharajah, 50–60. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1991. Export Item
A reprint of an essay from 1986 that presents the central argument of Mosala’s 1989 study. Mosala argues that older forms of Black theology are still influenced by bourgeois theology in considering the entire Bible as the Word of God which speaks an authoritative and universal message. The Bible is rather a site of struggle that includes the opposing ideologically-motivated voices of both the oppressors and oppressed.
Feminist and Women's Hermeneutics
As in the West, African feminist hermeneutics focuses on the struggle against the subordination of women in contemporary society, and ecclesiastical and familial roles. African women, whose experiences of oppression are different from those of Western and other women, are the subjects of interpretation. The term ‘feminist’ to refer to a black feminist of colour is still under debate. Consequently, some proponents prefer to use ‘womanist’, or African indigenous terms, or the general ‘African women’s hermeneutics’ (West 2010). Feminist hermeneutics has affinities with both inculturation and liberation hermeneutics. It has a strong religio-cultural emphasis and also seeks to critique and “re-read” scripture in order to uncover its liberative message for women under the oppression of sex, race and class. While feminist hermeneutics is a hermeneutic of suspicion, it does not reject the Bible or Christianity because religion plays a significant social function and the Bible is a highly esteemed religious symbol (Masenya 1995). It uses the conventional resources of critical tools and is interdisciplinary in approach. Assumptions that undergird feminist hermeneutics include the full humanity of women, the mutuality and equality of men and women, the value of the experience of black African women, and the participation of the ordinary reader. It includes contextual interpretation of the Bible, church and African tradition, community and motherhood agendas as the basis of interpretation, translation into African cultures; there is no expectation of unanimity in interpretation (Oduyoye 1998). Ukpong 1999 describes five major approaches in African feminist hermeneutics: a challenge to conventional androcentric hermeneutics, “re-reading” scripture to highlight male/female equality, highlighting the positive contributions and roles of women in the bible and church history, uncovering theological frameworks that serve as a guide to interpreting biblical texts about women, and interpreting texts from the perspective of African women’s experiences.
Dube, Musa W. Postcolonial Feminist Interpretation of the Bible. St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2000. Export Item
Dube begins with the premise that the biblical interpretation in the West is patriarchal and oppressive of readings from other parts of the world. Through a reading of the gospel of Matthew, she suggests a model for biblical interpretation that is cognizant of and respects the needs of women in the two-thirds world. For Dube, the Bible should be viewed as decolonizing rather than imperialist literature.
Dube, Musa W. “Talitha Cum Hermeneutics of Liberation: Some African Women’s Ways of Reading the Bible.” In The Bible and the Hermeneutics of Liberation, edited by Alejandro F. Botta and Pablo R. Andiñach, 133–45. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2009. Export Item
Dube introduces a hermeneutic that empowers readers to rise against the powers of patriarchy, colonial oppression and exploitation. It is based on the pioneering work of Kimpa Vita/Dona Beatrice, whose model is one of the inspirations of the AIC movement the AIC movement. She provides an introduction to the works of four African women: Mercy A. Oduyoye; Madipoane Masenya; Musa W. Dube; and Teresa Okure.
Fiedler, Rachel N., Johannes W. Hofmeyr, and Klaus Fiedler. African Feminist Hermeneutics: An Evangelical Reflection. Luwinga, Malawi: Mzuni Press, 2016. Export Item
With the help of an older ecumenical expression, the authors describe the development of African feminist theology as ‘an irruption within an irruption’, in its relation to other feminist theologies as well as related theologies such as contextual, liberation and the holiness feminist movement. It provides an introduction to the three branches of African feminist hermeneutics, the general theories, principles and approaches.
Gabaitse, Rosinah M. “Towards an African Pentecostal Feminist Biblical Hermeneutic of Liberation: Interpreting Acts 2:1-47 in the Context of Botswana.” PhD diss., University of KwaZulu-Natal, 2012. URL: Link Access: Export Item
Gabaitse aims to construct a Pentecostal Feminist Biblical Hermeneutic that is both liberating as well as transformative. The main challenge that Pentecostal Batswana women face is patriarchy, which is fuelled by a Pentecostal hermeneutic. Qualitative research as well as analysis of Luke-Acts that included ordinary readers provided data for the study. She develops eight principles for a feminist hermeneutic that subverts and will ultimately transform the existing Pentecostal hermeneutic.
Masenya focuses on the plight of women in South Africa, but the principles discussed apply across the continent. She considers women to be the most marginalized of all peoples in Africa and patriarchy, particularly as it manifests itself in the Bible, a serious enemy. Consequently, women need to achieve their liberation through a particular way of reading the Bible. She provides a valuable comparison of Western and African forms of feminist hermeneutics
Mbuy Beya, Marie-Bernadette. “Doing Theology as African Women.” Voices from the Third World 13, no. 1 (1990): 153–74. Export Item
Mbuy Beya argues that women experience oppression in all spheres of life. Pauline texts that have traditionally been used by the church to justify the attitude towards women are reinterpreted within the first century cultural context. Mbuy Beya grounds her theology in the fundamental equality of Galatians 3:26ff. and highlights texts that demonstrate this equality.
Nasimiyu-Wasike, Anne. “Christology and an African Woman’s Experience.” In Faces of Jesus in Africa, edited by Robert J. Schreiter, 70–81. Faith and Culture Series. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991. Export Item
Nasimiyu-Wasike presents Christology from a female perspective. Oral interviews provide data on the practical, lived out experience of African women with Christ and their interpretation of the Christ-event. Christology is not an abstract or philosophical concept. Rather, it is practical. Four main models emerge: the eschatological, anthropological, liberational and cosmological.
Oduyoye, Mercy A. “African Women’s Hermeneutics.” In Initiation into Theology: The Rich Variety of Theology and Hermeneutics, edited by Simon Maimela and Adrio Konig, 359–71. Pretoria: J. L. van Schaik, 1998. Export Item
Oduyoye addresses the multifaceted nature of Christian theology and the church in Africa and proposes that a hermeneutic that is distinctly feminist must locate the African women in this religio-cultural context. The bulk of the chapter is focused on African women’s theology as a basis for African women’s hermeneutics.
Okure, Teresa. “Biblical Perspectives on Women: Eve, the Mother of All the Living (Genesis 3:20).” Voices from the Third World 8, no. 3 (1985): 82–92. Export Item
Okure argues that the place and status of women in the church throughout history is based on Eve and the creation story. She conducts an exegetical study from a woman’s perspective to uncover new and valuable insights in relation to the debate on the status and role of women in contemporary society. She concludes that nothing in the Genesis texts supports the subordination of women or the superiority of men.
Tzabedze, Joyce. “Women in the Church (1 Timothy 2.8-15, Ephesians 5:22).” In Talitha, Qumi!: Proceedings of the Convocation of African Women Theologians, Trinity College, Legon-Accra, September 24-October 2, 1989, edited by Mercy A. Oduyoye and Rachel A. Kanyoro, 84–88. Ibadan: Ibadan University Press, 1990. Export Item
A short article that provides a rationale for reinterpreting 1 Timothy 2:8-15 and Ephesians 5:22 and reclaiming these texts from the traditional interpretation that promotes male superiority and female subordination. Tzabedze encourages a dialectical reading that takes into account the different contexts of the biblical texts, and the diversity of viewpoints expressed in other texts.
Contextual Bible Study and Ordinary Readers' Hermeneutics
‘Contextual Bible Study’ has become a label for a specific form of hermeneutics developed out of the Institute for the Study of the Bible in South Africa with Gerald O. West as one of its most prolific authors and theorists (West 2014). This approach to hermeneutics foregrounds the role or the ordinary, non-academically trained Bible reader and specifically the reading of Scripture with marginalized communities. This hermeneutical school has been active in setting up all sorts of Bible reading groups, mainly in South and Southern Africa in which academically trained scholars read the Scriptures together with members from marginalized communities. Contextual Bible reading stands in the tradition of the various expressions of liberation theologies and reads the Scriptures with different marginalized groups, such as the poor, women, and HIV/AIDS groups (e.g., Sibeko and Haddad 1997, Muneja 2012). These readings are chosen because the church is not only ethically obliged to give privileged attention of the poor (because God is the God of the poor); the oppressed also have an epistemological privilege. Because they are marginalized, they are better placed to understand their proper situation of oppression and the meaning of the Scriptures for this context. This hermeneutical approach does not, therefore, share stronger Marxist notions of oppression which suppose that the oppressed suffer from a ‘subjugated consciousness’ in which they have come to accept the worldview of their oppressors. The poor do have the space to come up with critical understandings of their own situation and Bible study can actually provide the space and the means to nurture such critical reflection. Contextual Bible reading shares this understanding of the value of the non-schooled reader with Pentecostal and AIC hermeneutics, but in the case of the latter two movements this privilege is not predicated on their oppression, but on the universal gift of the Holy Spirit. Contextual Bible reading gives less attention to the question of whether the oppressed and poor might also discover aspects of the original meaning of the Scriptures that might escape academic readers of the Scriptures because of the specific cultural location of the latter. This is because Contextual Bible reading tends to focus more on the meaning of the Scripture for the reader today than on the original meaning of the text.
Carter, Jason A. Inside the Whirlwind: The Book of Job through African Eyes. Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2017. Export Item
This study is the result of a contextual bible reading project among Fang Christians in Equatorial Guinea of a variety of denominational backgrounds. It shows how the Bible is read in relation to African struggles in a cosmology dominated by a struggle against evil. There is also Christian engagement with these African readers, for example, in contrasting anthropocentric readings with the theocentric focus in the text.
Using contextual Bible reading, the author uses the story of the rape of Tamar by her brother Amnon and its aftermath to reflect on the value of the biblical message in the context of the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa. It points out that the Bible can be used in contradictory ways, both to support gender-based violence and stigmatization of HIV/AIDS patients, yet argues for a liberating reading of the Scriptures.
Sibeko, Malika, and Beverley Haddad. “Reading the Bible ‘with’ Women in Poor and Marginalized Communities in South Africa.” In Reading the Bible as Women: Perspectives from Africa, Asia, and Latin America, edited by Phyllis A. Bird, Katharine D. Sakenfeld, and Sharon H. Ringe, 83–92. Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 1997. Export Item
This article presents a report and analysis of the reading of Mark 5:21-6:1 (the healing of the hemorrhaging woman and the resurrection of the daughter of Jairus) with a group of women from AIC background in Amawoti, an informal settlement in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, thus combining interests of contextual, feminist and AIC hermeneutics. The interpretation focusses on cultural practices surrounding menstruation and the power of Jesus.
Speckman, M. The Bible and Human Development in Africa. Nairobi, Kenya: Acton Publishers, 2001. Export Item
This study applies the contextual Bible reading method to the story of the healing of the crippled beggar at the temple gate in Acts 3 exploring how it is read in the context of post-apartheid South Africa. It therefore reads the story as an example of empowerment of the downtrodden which thereby challenges the elite of the day.
West, Gerald O. “Locating ‘Contextual Bible Study’ within Biblical Liberation Hermeneutics and Intercultural Biblical Hermeneutics.” HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies 70, no. 1 (2014): 1–10. DOI: 10.4102/hts.v70i1.2641 Access: Export Item
West provides a systematic analysis of the Contextual Bible Study method developed within the Ujamaa Centre in South Africa compared with other methods of liberationist hermeneutics and Intercultural Bible Study, as developed by Hans de Wit and others. He compares the place given to the ordinary reader, the focus on socio-political and other forms of oppression, the level of trust in the Scriptures and the role of the facilitator.
West, Gerald O., Musa W. Dube Shomanah, and Phyllis A. Bird, eds. “Reading With”: An Exploration of the Interface between Critical and Ordinary Readings of the Bible: African Overtures. Semeia 73. Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1996. Export Item
A collection of essays which present reports of readings of biblical texts with a range of communities such as members of AICs, Botswana women, Marian communities, peasant farmers, and urban workers. The focus is on how the Scripture is understood in these contexts (a reader response approach to hermeneutics) in relation to the socio-political aspects of the contexts. It ends with four concluding reflections, one of which is from Africa.
Classical Pentecostalism came from outside Africa, but it resonated with aspects of African traditional worldviews and African Independent Churches are often seen as part of the wider cluster of charismatic movements. Classical Pentecostalism had its roots in North American Evangelicalism, particularly in the holiness movements and Pentecostal hermeneutics, therefore, has some parallels with Evangelical hermeneutics in its later fundamentalist form, particularly in its strong focus on the absolute authority of Scripture. This should not, however, obscure the profound differences that are mainly related to the role of the Holy Spirit in Scriptural interpretation. In fundamentalism, the meaning is given once and for all and needs to be discovered by careful interpretation of the historical text. In Pentecostalism, the meaning of Scripture needs to be actualized by the presence of the Holy Spirit in the believer and in the believing community. The Scriptures are normally interpreted literally, not because revelation was only given in the past, but because the Spirit who inspired Scripture still works in the church today. This allows at the same time for a measure of interpretive freedom. In this respect, Pentecostalism does not merely offer a different interpretation of Scripture following the same hermeneutical method. Rather, it provides a new method of interpretation that reflect an understanding of the role of the Holy Spirit and the contemporary church in the process of interpretation. Herholdt 1998 and Nel 2015 write in the South African context but give very little attention to the specific hermeneutical challenges and opportunities that arise in light of the affinity between certain aspects of Pentecostalism and African traditional worldviews. Omenyo and Arthur 2013 is a more empirical study describing the hermeneutics of Ghana’s neo-prophetic movements as part of the broader cluster of neo-Pentecostal movements and showing they have their origins in both the traditional African worldview and global Pentecostalism.
A cultural anthropological study on how Scripture is interpreted in a Redeemed Christian Church of God congregation in Nigeria. Davie-Kessler distinguishes two stages in the development of believers that also represent two aspects of interpretation: first, reading Scripture as an encompassing narrative and worldview in which to find one’s place and, second, reading Scripture guided by the Spirit that requires further initiation to discover one’s personal destiny.
Fyanka, Bernard B. “Postmodernism and the Hermeneutics of Nigerian Pentecostalism: Implications for Class Mobility.” Social Science Research Network, April 29, 2014. DOI: 10.2139/ssrn.3023377 Access: Export Item
Written by a Pentecostal, this paper criticizes the movement as being vulnerable for postmodern influences on its reading of Scripture because of the oral and contextual nature of Pentecostalism. Pentecostalism therefore runs the risk of replacing the unifying metanarrative of Scripture with one of the many smaller stories found in the Scripture. This is particularly seen in prosperity theology that fits a particular social context.
Gabaitse, Rosinah M. “Towards an African Pentecostal Feminist Biblical Hermeneutic of Liberation: Interpreting Acts 2:1-47 in the Context of Botswana.” PhD diss., University of KwaZulu-Natal, 2012. URL: Link Access: Export Item
Using Contextual Bible Study, interviews, focus groups and participant observation, this study explores the tensions between the patriarchal nature of Tswana traditions and the marginalization of women in Pentecostalism on the one hand and the egalitarian message of the foundational texts of Acts 2 on the other in order to construct a liberating Pentecostal hermeneutic.
Herholdt, Marius D. “Pentecostal and Charismatic Hermeneutics.” In Initiation into Theology: The Rich Variety of Theology and Hermeneutics, edited by Simon Maimela and Adrio Konig, 417–32. Pretoria: J. L. van Schaik, 1998. Export Item
Herholdt sets out the characteristics of Pentecostal hermeneutics on the basis of both concrete hermeneutical practices and central Pentecostal notions, such as the newness of the dispensation of the Spirit, the sermon as a means to mediate God’s power to save and heal, and the fourfold office of Christ as Saviour, Healer, Spirit Baptizer and King. Although written in South Africa, it has limited explicit attention for the African context.
An article by one of the main authors on the subject. Nel defines Pentecostal hermeneutics as “the inter-relationship between the Holy Spirit as the One animating Scriptures and empowering the believing community” (p. 3), and discusses it in relation to crucial debates on philosophical hermeneutics, with references to Gadamer, Ricoeur and Thiselton. Only little reference is made to the specific challenges and possibilities of Pentecostalism in the African context.
Nel argues that it is neither possible nor desirable to distinguish a Pentecostal hermeneutic from those of other major traditions because of continuing internal debates. Rather, Pentecostals should bring their focus on the role of the Holy Spirit in interpretation to broader ecumenical discussions. Furthermore, he points out that while both Pentecostalism and Postmodernism stress the role of the reader, the former retains the notion of a metanarrative centered in Christ.
Nel, Marius. An African Pentecostal Hermeneutics: A Distinctive Contribution to Hermeneutics. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2018. Export Item
Nel provides an overview of “Bible readings of Pentecostals” (with limited reference to Africa), an attempt at a definition (generally following Nel 2015) and three chapters setting out the main theological characteristics of Pentecostal hermeneutics, according to the author: the centrality of the Holy Spirit, the eschatological lens and the role of the faith community.
A study of the hermeneutics of what the authors call the ‘neo-prophetic movement’ in Ghana as an expression of Ghanaian Pentecostalism. Omenyo and Arthur describe the movement by presenting their interpretation of a few critical texts and central theological terms. They then analyze how the movement incorporates elements of the African Traditional Worldview on the one hand and of the hermeneutic principles of global Pentecostalism on the other.
The theology of reconstruction represents a theological development that was not imported from elsewhere but originated at the All African Conference of Churches meeting in Nairobi in 1990. The main voices of this stream include Jesse N. K. Mugambi from Kenya (Mugambi 1991, Mugambi 2003), Charles Villa-Vicencio from South Africa (Villa-Vicencio 1992) and Kä Mana from the Republic of the Congo (writing in French). The movement responds to the challenges of the period after the Cold War that led to the end of the proxy battles between the capitalist and communist blocks in Africa and also contributed to the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa. Now that the continent has been liberated from colonial powers (at least in the sense of direct political control), what is needed is reconstruction. The movement also responds to the fact that although some African nations had already been independent for three decades, poverty, injustice and inequality remain rampant. Similar to liberation theology, reconstruction theology emphasises the interpretation of the Scriptures in the light of political, social and economic realities, but the focus is no longer on the fight against the oppressors, but on the collaborative and inclusive task of reconstruction. The movement sees reconstruction as holistic, including spiritual and cultural renewal, and the movement therefore also integrates insights from inculturation theology. Reconstruction theology contributes to biblical hermeneutics by moving away from the focus on the Exodus story, which in liberation theology is not just the beginning of the nationhood of Israel, but also the dominant motif of the entire canon. “Theologically, we need to appreciate that entry in the land of Canaan from Egypt is only the beginning of a long process of human fulfilment. The Exodus is only a prelude to a process” (Mugambi 1991). The book of Deuteronomy guiding the reformation under king Josiah, the reconstruction of the land after the Exile under Nehemiah, and the Sermon on the Mount as a reinterpretation of the Old Testament law for the new people of God now take centre stage in biblical interpretation.
Farisani, Elelwani B. “Transformation and Renewal in Contemporary Africa (Rom 12:1–2).” In Text and Context in New Testament Hermeneutics, edited by Jesse N. K. Mugambi and Johannes A. Smit, 56–82. Nairobi: Acton Publishers, 2004. Export Item
An exegesis of Romans 12:1-2 presenting a model for transformation that recognizes its debt to Mugambi’s theology of reconstruction.
Gathogo, Julius M. “Liberation and Reconstruction in the Works of J. N. K. Mugambi: A Critical Analysis in African Theology.” PhD diss., University of KwaZulu-Natal, 2007. URL: Link Access: Export Item
This thesis contains a section on Mugambi’s use of the rebuilding of the temple as the biblical paradigm for the reconstruction of Africa in the post-Cold War era (pp. 173-185). A significant part of this (pp. 173-80) is taken up with a historical reconstruction of the Babylonian exile and less directly related to the hermeneutics of reconstruction.
Gathogo points out that biblical interpretation is always reconstructive, because it intends to reconstruct the meaning of the text to discover its relevance in a new context. After an overview of Christologies, he argues for the need of a Christology of reconstruction that moves beyond the inculturation-liberation paradigms. He sees this exemplified in Jesus’ constructive re-interpretation of the OT law in Matthew 5-7.
Manus, Ukachukwu C. Intercultural Hermeneutics in Africa: Methods and Approaches. Nairobi, Kenya: Acton Publishers, 2003. Export Item
Manus sees Jesus as “the Master Reconstructor of both the spiritual and the social well-being of the bnaiya Israel, the simple folk of his day in the first century Palestine” (p. 4). Chapter 8 provides a “reconstructive reading” of the story of the cleansing of the temple (Mk 11:15-19) and intends “to demonstrate how Mugambi’s theology of reconstruction can be further strengthened, via intercultural hermeneutics” (p. 106).
Mugambi, Jesse N. K. “The Future of the Church and the Church of the Future.” In The Church of Africa: Towards a Theology of Reconstruction, edited by All Africa Conference of Churches, 29–50. Nairobi: All Africa Conference of Churches, 1991. Export Item
A programmatic paper presented at the All African Conference of Churches meeting in Nairobi in 1990 that is credited with launching the project of a ‘theology of reconstruction’. Mugambi proposes a shift in focus from liberation to reconstruction, replacing the model of the Exodus with the return from exile. He uses the book of Deuteronomy, understood as the book used for the reform under King Josiah, as a theological model.
Mugambi, Jesse N. K. Christian Theology and Social Reconstruction. Theology of Reconstruction Series. Nairobi, Kenya: Acton Publishers, 2003. Export Item
A development of the ideas in Mugambi’s earlier work From Liberation to Reconstruction: African Christian Theology after the Cold War (Nairobi: East African Educational Publishers, 1995), which includes a section on “Reconstructive Biblical Hermeneutics in Africa” (pp. 150-57).
Mwase, Isaac T. “The Post-Exile Motif in Mugambi’s Theology of Reconstruction.” In Theologies of Liberation and Reconstruction, edited by Eunice Kamaara, Jesse N. K. Mugambi, and Isaac T. Mwase, 198–223. Nairobi, Kenya: Acton Publishers, 2012. Export Item
Mwase analyses Mugambi’s use of Ezra-Nehemiah in his theology of reconstruction followed by the criticisms of Tinyiko Maluleke and Musa Dube. Using sociological analysis, Mwase himself proposes to move beyond Mugambi in reading Ezra-Nehemiah ‘against the grain’ by asking attention for the excluded voices of the am haaretz who are excluded in the main voice of the text which is biased in favour of the returned exiles.
Villa-Vicencio, Charles. A Theology of Reconstruction: Nation-Building and Human Rights. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Export Item
This study is written in the context of the end of Apartheid in South Africa between the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990, yet before the first general elections in 1994. It argues for a new liberating theology that focusses on nation-building. It presents a major voice in reconstruction theology, but has limited biblical material and explicit hermeneutical reflection.
In the expression ‘postcolonial hermeneutics’ the adjective postcolonial is much more than a time marker for the period beginning after the end of the colonial era. It stands for a mode of reading inspired by postcolonial literary criticism that analyses how literary texts themselves are shaped by ‘imperialism’: texts themselves reflect power struggles, often expressing the interests of those in power and supporting their imperialist agenda by silencing the voice of the ‘other’. Yet, the subjugated voices of the oppressed may equally express themselves in such texts and need to be retrieved. Some forms of liberation theology see the Bible primarily as a positive factor in the struggle for liberation. Postcolonial criticism is already present or pre-figured in those expressions of liberation theology, such as Mosala 1989 and Mofokeng 1988, that see the Bible itself as a site of struggle between the interests of the oppressors and the voices of the oppressed. Musa W. Dube from Botswana is one of the prime representatives of postcolonial African interpretation. She argues that the critical exegesis of the Scriptures can never be separated from the manner in which the Scriptures themselves are both used as a tool for colonialism and reflect imperial modes of thinking. She combines feminist and postcolonial readings arguing that the interests of both perspectives need to be kept in mind. Otherwise criticisms of the colonial West can be used to defend traditional patriarchal structures or feminist readings can still reflect Western power structures in which white women participate (Dube 1997). Assessments of postcolonial interpretation such as Van den Toren 2019 have lauded it as a sharp critical tool, but also criticized it for the way in which power difference and oppression can become the dominant or even sole interpretative perspective. In this way, postcolonial interpretation may itself become a particular perspective that may obscure other aspects of the Scriptural texts, such as their function as revelation or witness.
Dube, Musa W. “Toward a Post-Colonial Feminist Interpretation of the Bible.” Semeia 78 (1997): 11–26. Export Item
This article provides a general introduction to feminist postcolonial interpretation, arguing that biblical interpretation can never be understood apart from the role of the contemporary reader. Using her own experience as a Motswana woman, Dube argues Scripture cannot be understood without taking into account how the Bible has been used to legitimize colonial oppression and she argues for an awareness of the colonial setting in which these texts themselves developed.
All of the authors share post-colonial sensitivities, but some essays equally represent other interpretive approaches. The essays are organized into eight groups of three to four essays around central themes such as gender, the Bible in creative writing, Bible translation, the land, social engagement, etc. Freely accessible for users in African countries.
Punt focusses on the meaning of postcolonial hermeneutics for South Africa, but the discussion is more widely applicable. He distinguishes between colonial abuse of the Bible and imperialist influences in the Scriptures, demanding a retrieval of subjugated voices and a subversion of traditional interpretations of the text. He also asks whether Western style biblical studies can change in order to minimize the epistemological violence in the colonial encounter. Freely accessible by subscription from JSTOR.
Rukundwa, Lazare S. “Postcolonial Theory as a Hermeneutical Tool for Biblical Reading.” HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies 64, no. 1 (2008): 339–51. DOI: 10.4102/hts.v64i1.26 Access: Export Item
Rukundwa considers the value of postcolonial biblical criticism using authors from both Africa (such as Dube and Punt) and Asia (such as Sugirtharajah and Kwok Pui-Lan). He draws attention to its value, but also points out that the method may lead to anachronistic readings of the Scriptures.
This article draws on personal experience working as an academic in French-speaking Africa and uses postcolonial analysis to show how intercultural dialogue between Africa and Western centres of academic theology is limited because of the power difference, which is reflected in both academic structures and expectations. Nevertheless, it argues that a theological critique of postcolonial analysis is necessary to avoid it becoming itself an imperialist tool that drowns out other crucial perspectives.
Mother Tongue Hermeneutics
Mother tongue hermeneutics is the use of indigenous language translations of the Bible as resources for interpretation. The rationale stems from two factors. First, a mother-tongue is the “heart language” of many Africans, the medium in which their innermost feelings and thoughts are expressed. Second, there is less chance of misunderstanding the meaning of the biblical text as it is the native language into which one is born and in which one grows up. A mother tongue, defined as a person’s own native and indigenous language, is intertwined with, and is an expression of, a person’s identity, it is a repository of the community’s indigenous wisdom, knowledge, insight, science, theology and philosophy. One’s mother tongue is a vehicle that expresses culture and worldview. Apart from doing interpretation from the indigenous languages, mother tongue hermeneutics also attempts to resolve translation problems in the text and to offer correct alternatives. This method focuses on the world in front of the text. Mother-tongue hermeneutics is a collaborative, communal task. It is an eclectic methodology that borrows from other methods including Biblical Studies, Bible Translation Studies, and Language Studies (Kuwornu-Adjaottor 2012). It thus necessarily involves at least two kinds of dialogue: between the Christian and the African worldviews (intercultural/cross cultural), and between the translated texts and their originals (intertextual). In applying mother tongue hermeneutics through the use of dialogical exegesis, Ekem adds one more dialogue partner, bringing the insights of the first two dialogues to bear on the development of contextually relevant Bible Study Notes and Commentaries (applied hermeneutics) (Ekem 2007).
Anum, Eric N. B., and Jonathan E. T. Kuwornu-Adjaottor. “New Testament Concepts of Forgiveness in the Gospels in the Context of the Dangme Translation and Usage.” American Journal of Biblical Theology 12 (2011): 1–19. URL: Link Access: Export Item
Anum explores the extent to which the translation of the concept of forgiveness in the Dangme Bible fits with contemporary understandings and uses among the Dangme. He argues that the current translation is enslaving and proposes a more liberating translation which frees Dangme believers from the hangover of being perpetually burdened by the debt of sin which they seem unable to finish paying.
A summary of the life, work and ministry of Kwame Bediako. It covers Bediako’s pioneering approach to theology through his emphasis on mother-tongue hermeneutics, oral or grassroots theology, and the study of primal religions as the sub-structure of Christian expression in the majority Two Thirds World.
Bediako, Kwame. “Biblical Exegesis in the African Context: The Factor and Impact of the Translated Scriptures.” Journal of African Christian Thought 6, no. 1 (June 2003): 15–23. Export Item
Bediako argues that the use of the appropriate Twi words for ‘God’ will enable a greater understanding of biblical texts concerning the uniqueness of the God of the Bible, allowing for new insights in the nature of biblical monotheism. Republished as “Biblical Exegesis in Africa: The Significance of the Translated Scriptures.” In African Theology on the Way: Current Conversations, edited by Diane B. Stinton, 12–20. London: SPCK, 2010.
Ekem, John D. K. “Biblical Exegesis in an African Pluralistic Context: Some Reflections.” Journal of African Christian Thought 6, no. 1 (June 2003): 31–34. Export Item
Ekem addresses the encounter between Christianity and African traditional religions and the implications of their respective worldviews for biblical exegesis within the African religiously pluralistic context. He argues for cross-cultural biblical interpretation and translation.
Ekem illustrates the importance of biblical interpretation in a multi-cultural context, using the concept of hilastērion in Rom. 3:25a as a case study. The dialogical exegesis used here engages the local language, the source texts, and translations into other languages. This allows for an appreciation of the cultural nuances of the texts, a critical evaluation of their historical, linguistic and theological developments, as well as their impact on the community of faith.
Ekem, John D. K. Priesthood in Context: A Study of Priesthood in Some Christian and Primal Communities of Ghana, and Its Relevance for Mother-Tongue Biblical Interpretation. 3rd rev. ed. Accra: SonLife Press, 2009. Export Item
This work brings out the challenges that exist in forging a dialogue on the concept of priesthood in the Bible and in the African context. Ekem shows how the understanding of the priestly worldviews in the Ghanaian context has implications for mother tongue biblical interpretation.
Kuwornu-Adjaottor, J. E. T. “Mother-Tongue Biblical Hermeneutics: A Current Trend in Biblical Studies in Ghana.” Journal of Emerging Trends in Educational Research and Policy Studies 3, no. 4 (2012): 575–79. URL: Link Access: Export Item
Kuwornu-Adjaottor gives an overview of various hermeneutical approaches that enrich the field of Biblical Studies, focusing particularly on mother tongue hermeneutics in Ghana. He provides an explanation of the method as well as its major proponents.
How to Cite This Resource
Van den Toren, Benno, Elizabeth Mburu and Samuel K. Bussey. “Biblical Hermeneutics.” The Bibliographical Encyclopaedia of African Theology. 29 January 2021. Accessed [enter date]. https://african.theologyworldwide.com/encyclopaedia-bible-in-africa/biblical-hermeneutics.