Vernon K. Robbins

Sociorhetorical Interpretation

Emory Studies in Early Christianity

Rhetoric of Religious Antiquity

Religious Sites in Atlanta

Emory Department of Religion

Emory Graduate Division of Religion

Why Participate in African Biblical Interpretation?[1] by Vernon K Robbins


As I approach this essay containing some thoughts on why I participate in African biblical interpretation, I am filled with a mixture of fear and excitement. After my first visit to South Africa during July-August of 1996 to give a series of lectures over a six-week period, some colleagues asked me to publish some reflections on biblical interpretation in this region of the world. I felt completely incompetent to do so. My fear did not cause me to go away without saying anything to anyone, like the women in Mark 16:8. I talked to many people with excitement about my experiences, but I was afraid to publish anything about them, because I felt that my information was so limited.

After attending the post-SNTS meeting in Hammanskraal in August, 1999, where twenty-seven people who reside, or were born and raised, somewhere on the continent of Africa presented papers or responses, I began to feel a little less fear about reflecting in print about biblical interpretation in Africa.[2] After visiting Durban, KwaZulu Natal, and the University of Zululand, and after giving more lectures at the University of Stellenbosch as a Visiting Professor in the Faculty of Theology, I agreed to present some of my reflections in a paper at the NTSSA meeting at the University of Pretoria in April, 2001. I hope you will bear with some personal details. My goal is twofold: (1) to describe the manner in which people who somehow engage in African biblical interpretation came into view for me during the last quarter of the twentieth century as I pursued biblical interpretation as a vocation; and (2) to join the challenges and opportunities of interpreting the Bible in Africa.[3]

1. Pluriformity in Every Region of the World

My first topic is "Pluriformity in Every Region of the World." A touch of participation in African biblical interpretation occurred for me already during the Spring of 1975, when John S. Pobee was a Research Fellow at the Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research at Collegeville, Minnesota, USA. I also was a Research Fellow there with my family, and when Dr. Pobee presented the results of his investigations of New Testament texts, and responded to the work of others, I experienced the energy and significantly different vantage point on biblical interpretation that came out of his context in Ghana, West Africa.[4] His publications emphasize that every culture is pluriform, even Ghanian culture. He considers himself to be a representative of a particular region of Ghana, the Akan, and he tries to speak carefully for West Africa.[5] I myself am somehow a representative of European-American biblical interpretation. I am, more particularly, a representative of an agriculturally based, rural region of the mid-western United States, where oral culture still dominates over elite, literary culture.[6] This is one of the special reasons I find the interpretation of oral traditions by Jonathan Draper and others to be so fascinating and important for study of early Christianity.[7]

When I was invited to visit South Africa with support of the Human Sciences Research Council during July-August of 1996, twenty-one years after first hearing Dr. Pobee, I soon became aware that there are eleven official languages in South Africa. When Douglas Lowery escorted me to the University of the Western Cape to lecture there, I became aware that South Africa certainly, and perhaps most other regions in Africa, face an incredible multiplicity of first, second, and third languages among teachers and students as they approach interpretation of the Bible. One might think that the answer is to work in Hebrew with the Old Testament and Greek with the New Testament. But this is not the case at all. For must students and lay people, the language in which they first hear, and perhaps read, the Bible is a first, second, or third language in which a translation of the Bible is used in worship, in Sunday School, in weekly prayer meetings, and in Bible study. This translation introduces a language that is the medium for multiple meanings that teacher and student alike bring to interpretation of the Bible.

Since I have worked vigorously for some years to bring multiplicity of various kinds into biblical interpretation, the presupposition of multiplicity in African biblical interpretation has made me feel a deep kinship with many people engaged in biblical interpretation in various regions of Africa. To put this in perspective, I must tell you that I have been challenged while lecturing in Europe for my view of multiplicity both within biblical interpretation and within Christianity. I shall not name names, but I have been told by European New Testament scholars that my concept of the multiplicity of culture is simply an American aberration. I should believe, I have been told, that civilized regions of the world are characterized by people who promote culture and people who do or do not participate in that culture. I disagree. To me, culture is a dynamic process of multiple kinds of cultures interacting with one another. As a beginning point, some of you know I have promoted a taxonomy of different kinds of cultures under the rubrics of dominant cultures; subcultures, some of which are ethnic subcultures; countercultures, contracultures, and liminal cultures.[8] In the midst of this, I also have used the sociologist Bryan Wilson�s seven social ways of responding to evil in the world: conversionist, revolutionist, introversionist, gnostic-manipulationist, thaumaturgical, reformist, and utopian.[9] Gerald O. West�s use of the concept of discourse and his incorporation of insights from the works of Paul Ricoeur and David Tracy have helped me begin to describe, analyze, and interpret multiple kinds of discourse in early Christianity.[10]

It has been a great joy for me to see Bernard Combrink use the multiplicity I built into socio-rhetorical interpretation in The Tapestry of Early Christian Discourse and Exploring the Texture of Texts in 1996 to analyze and interpret not only multiple dimensions of interpretion within biblical commentary,[11] but also multiple Church traditions and multiple enactments of Reformed theology.[12] It also has been a joy to see Gerhard van den Heever explore the vast literature on utopian worldviews in the Mediterranean world as a context for interpreting the Gospel of John.[13] The ability of some interpreters in Africa to identify with and use multiple modes of social, cultural, ideological, and rhetorical approaches to the Bible and to religious groups past and present makes it very productive and informative for me to participate in African biblical interpretation.

2. African Biblical Interpretation

My second topic is "African Biblical Interpretation." In 1984, approximately a decade after meeting and hearing John Pobee at the Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research at Collegeville, Minnesota, I moved to Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. In this context, Randall C. Bailey was exploring the Hebrew Bible from the perspective of African history, society, culture, and religion.[14] From the perspective I had been taught, it seemed strange to think of Egypt as North Africa, but the more I explored it the less strange it appeared. Within a few years, Clarice J. Martin completed her interpretation of the interchange between Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:26-40.[15] The things I learned about Africa from reading the literature she cited in her footnotes, and the things with which I agreed in her well-formulated commentary, led me to present a summary of her article on the Ethiopian eunuch in the Introduction to the paperback edition of Jesus the Teacher, which appeared in 1992.[16]

When John Pobee asks, "What Is African?", I am informed by the six facets he proposes:

  1. Africans are human beings.
  2. Africans seem unable to explain life without reference to what is religious and spiritual.
  3. An African person finds his or her being and its meaning in community.
  4. Africans perceive reality in holistic terms.
  5. In Western Africa ... and ... particularly ... Ghana ... the institution of chieftaincy is the focal point of culture and a model for leadership patterns in society.
  6. Africans have often urged that the churches project an "African Christ."[17]

Within these six facets, I see wide-reaching, transcultural features intermingled with highly particular features.[18] This interweaving of features that are noticeably specific and distinctive with features that are widely shared across the world is very informative to me as I work toward biblical interpretation and commentary guided by insights into social, cultural, ideological, and rhetorical aspects of religious life.

In the midst of this attention to Africa, I became aware of apartheid interpretation and use of the Bible, especially through Johannes (Bobby) A. Loubser�s book on The Apartheid Bible.[19] It was very informative to spend a week during August of 2000 with Bobby and his family in KwaZulu Natal and to visit the University of Zululand. My wife and I recently visited him at the Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research in Collegeville, Minnesota, where he is spending six months of research leave from the University of Zululand. It was interesting to visit Bobby and talk about current issues of biblical interpretation in the same environment where I first met John Pobee twenty-six years ago.

3. Contextual Interpretation

While Bobby Loubser has wrestled with the implications of the apartheid Bible in South Africa, John Pobee and many others have worked diligently to describe a reciprocal relation between culture and religion as the word of God "tabernacles" "in each particular culture, with no culture deemed normative for either mission or gospel."[20] Some use the term "contextual hermeneutics" to describe this, while others, as can be seen by the articles edited Dr. Teresa Okure and colleagues, focus on "inculturation readings."[21] Following a dictum of Paul Tillich, Pobee proposes that "culture is the bearer of religion," and "religion is the substance of culture."[22] In other words, Pobee, like many other African interpreters, has been working for many years to develop interpretations of the Bible that set Mediterranean contextual interpretations of the Bible in dynamic dialogue with multiple contextual interpretations throughout Africa.

I began to hear contextual emphases many years ago in the writings, presentations, and Seminars of Bernard Lategan, and before his death, Willem Vorster. I met them first, I believe, at meetings of the Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas, commonly known as the Society for New Testament Studies. I remember well the shock of the news of Willem Vorster�s untimely death. Since then, I have learned more of the shock to others who were energetically at work with him. Beginning with issues concerning texts and history, Bernard Lategan and Willem Vorster were working diligently to find their way from traditional Western modes of biblical interpretation through South African modes of interpretation to modes that function in the new international environment of interpretation. Since Willem Vorster's death, Bernard Lategan has chaired a Seminar on Hermeneutics and the Biblical Text in the SNTS, and it has been beneficial for me to attend a number of the sessions and to make some presentations in them. It has been a great help for me to know that Bernard Lategan has understood and encouraged the pursuit of the social, cultural, ideological, and rhetorical approach I take to biblical interpretation.

In a similar vein, Johannes Vorster, commonly known as Vossie, and Jan Botha contacted me in the late 1980s and early 1990s when they were in the USA doing research and writing there. When I heard Vossie wrestling with theoretical and ideological dimensions of rhetorical interpretation and heard Jan Botha interpret Romans with deep insight into the argumentative strategies of Pauline discourse and with firsthand experience of the use of Romans by church and government leaders in South Africa, I saw the dynamics of society, culture, and ideology in substantive ways I had not seen before. My experience in 1994 of editing and publishing in Emory Studies in Early Christianity Jan Botha�s book, Subject to Whose Authority? Multiple Readings of Romans 13, gave me deep appreciation for the manner in which African scholars were working diligently to interweave traditional Western approaches to biblical interpretation with dynamically contextual interpretation in the regions in which they lived.[23] I experienced similar dynamics when a large contingent of South Africans attended the Rhetoric Conferences organized by Thomas Olbricht and sponsored by Pepperdine University in Heidelberg in 1992 and London in 1995. At these and subsequent meetings sponsored by Pepperdine University, I experienced a wide range of approaches to both the Old and the New Testaments and met Pieter J. J. Botha, Gerhard van den Heever, A. H. Snyman, Lambert D. Jacobs, Hendrik Viviers, J. P. H. Wessels, and I deepened my acquaintance with and appreciation for Johannes Vorster�s rhetorical work. All of these interpreters, sometimes in an openly expressed manner and sometimes implicitly, were interpreting the Bible dynamically in a context other than Europe and the Americas.

The experience was even more dramatic at the 1999 SNTS Conference at the University of Pretoria and the SNTS Post-Conference on African Hermeneutics and Theology at Hammanskraal. Dr. Teresa Okure gave a main paper in a plenary session at the SNTS conference itself, using African hermeneutics to interpret Matt 13:35 ("I Will Open my Mouth in Parables"), Prof. G. T. Cloete made a special presentation on "The Rainbow Hermeneutics on the South African Horizon," and Johannes Vorster read a paper in the Socio-Rhetorical Interpretation Seminar that I co-chair with Professor Samuel Byrskog of Sweden. Here I first met Dr. Adrianjatovo Rakotoharintsifa, who attended the sessions of this Seminar. The Seminar on "Hermeneutics and the Biblical Text," co-chaired by Bernard C. Lategan and James W. Voelz, featured special papers focusing on contextual interpretation of the Bible. At the SNTS post-conference at Hammanskraal, twenty seven people from places throughout Africa either gave papers or gave official public responses. According to the official report, thirty-three of us SNTS members were present, plus 29 guests from Africa. I met many additional African biblical interpreters at this Conference.

One of my surprises at the SNTS post-conference was the manner in which most interpreters took seriously some aspect of what one might call European-American approaches to biblical interpretation. At the same time, they were insistent that they must have the freedom to use insights from traditional modes of interpretation in ways they themselves deemed useful. The experience reminded me once again how human creativity regularly builds interactively on other human activity. Especially in the field of biblical interpretation perhaps, no one starts completely anew. First, everyone begins with some kind of translation of the Bible. Second, everyone begins with certain practices of interpretation with which they are familiar. Third, as a person reaches out for assistance in interpretation of the Bible, he or she finds layers and layers of books, journals, treatises, pamphlets, sermons, diaries, and other sorts of material that guide a person in one way or another. The first theme of the Conference was "Emerging Concerns of African Biblical Scholars and Theologians," featuring J. Mugambi, T. Maluleke, E. Katongole, E. A. Obeng, W. Mande, M. Getui, and T. Okure. The second theme was "African Readings/Interpretations/Applications of the Bible," featuring G. West, M. Dube-Shomanah, A. Kalu, H. Mijoga, D. Adamo, J. Ukpong, A. Rakotoharintsifa, B. Yeboah, B. Ntreh, and C. Manus. The third theme was "Reading the Bible with Ordinary Readers in a Post-2000 World," featuring E. Anum, G. Yorke, P. Noss, J. Ekem, J.-C.Loba-Mkole, P. Renju, R. Omanson, E. Hermanson, H. J. B. Combrink, and E. Wendland.

As the papers and responses occurred, I saw interpreters intermingle traditional approaches with decisively African approaches in a wide variety of ways. In many ways, these meetings were a watershed. For many years, some of us have tried, always without lasting success, to place traditional European modes of biblical interpretation alongside other modes, rather than in the center. It was a shock to many traditional colleagues when openly articulate, vigorous non-European approaches to the New Testament were featured in the public SNTS program at the University of Pretoria. Such papers have appeared in Seminars like the one Bernard Lategan and James Voelz chair, and on a rare occasion one might have appeared as a short paper among other short papers, but to have them featured publicly was something new for the society. In the official report of the SNTS post-conference, Prof. Hans-Dieter Betz, speaking as the President of the Society, spoke in the following manner:

...the metaphor of reconstruction, that was so prominent at the conference, also applies to the history of the SNTS and the nature of its activities. Critically reconstructing ancient texts, history and a community of scholars is an unfinished task. Although scholars in Africa and elsewhere are working in different contexts, they are involved in a common process. Fresh insights into Biblical wisdom and faith are needed from Africa, Asia, Europe, the Americas and elsewhere if scholarship is to grow and flourish. In this respect, colleagues in Africa have a unique contribution to make. Although the SNTS has to remain true to its main task, namely to provide the opportunity of studying the New Testament in ways that are responsible and credible in a world in which Biblical studies must face a highly critical audience, the conference has demonstrated the need for and the possibilities of closer co-operation with colleagues in Africa.[24]

It is obvious, first, that Prof. Betz resonated positively with Prof. Jesse N. K. Mugambi�s paper, "An African Approach to Biblical Hermeneutics," which opened the post-conference with an emphasis on reconstruction as a metaphor to build productively on the metaphor of liberation, which functioned so dynamically during the twentieth century. It is also noticeable, second, that Prof. Betz found the range of textual and interpretive issues people addressed in their papers to be stimulating, and in some instances highly informative. One recognizes, third, the guarded and careful way in which he made his remarks. While indicating an openness to new approaches and insights, he emphasized "studying the New Testament in ways that are responsible and credible in a world in which Biblical studies must face a highly critical audience." Here, I suggest, lies a major challenge for biblical interpreters everywhere. What Prof. Betz means by "responsible and credible," and what he considers the "highly critical audience" to be may vary considerably from interpreter to interpreter. In other words, I think many will agree that one of the most conflicted issues at the beginning of the twenty-first century is the nature of "responsible and credible" biblical interpretation in the world in which we live today. In other words, not only history, society, and culture play a strong role in scholarly biblical interpretation, but also ideology. At this point, we discover that all of us are ideological in one way or another. I suggest that a major task for twenty-first century biblical interpreters is to develop sophisticated systems for negotiating ideologies, rather than developing a dominant paradigm that can "hold ideologies at bay" like cape buffalo gather in a group, defending an outer boundary that will keep hyenas and other predators from penetrating into the middle of the herd. Much work remains to be done, but some of the work has begun, and we must continue this work as best as we can.

4. An Example of Participation in African Biblical Interpretation

For a specific example today of the benefit of participating in African biblical interpretation, I want to respond to and build on an essay that Professor Elna Mouton, now at the University of Stellenbosch, send to me over the internet on Monday, November 27, 2000. She presented this paper first at the Society of Biblical Literature meeting in Boston in November, 1999, then reworked it for the NTSSA meeting at RAU in March, 2000. When it reached me, its title was "A Rhetoric of Vision? Revisiting Scripture�s Surprising Role in Liturgy." The essay begins with the following sentence: "The twentieth century has seen proportions of human violence and indignity of which the full consequences are simply beyond description." The second paragraph begins with: "The African continent, for sure, has experienced a century of immense brutality and dehumanisation, with devastating consequences in terms of poverty, famine and illness."[25] The title of the first section of her paper is "A �culture of shame�." My training in "shame culture" has focused on the ancient Mediterranean world, and a major emphasis has been on males as embodiments of "honor" and women as embodiments of "shame."[26] Instead, Mouton focuses on "the personal and collective scars of a deeply divided society — such as poverty, power and substance abuse, violence, crime and corruption" (p. 2). She follows the guidelines of Andrew P. Morrison and Edward Wimberly to describe a culture of shame as "characterised by a pervasive sense of worthlessness, of being unlovable, by a feeling that there is a fundamental flaw in one�s being."[27] As I read through the succeeding sections on "South Africa�s New �Carceral� Moment" and "A New Moral Awareness Growing from Hermeneutical and Societal Shifts" to "A Rhetoric of Vision? Reconciliation as Logos," I began to understand why I participate in African biblical interpretation. Continually as I hear and read African biblical interpretation, I am challenged to reconfigure my understanding. Mikhail N. Epstein, my colleague at Emory University in Atlanta who worked for many years in Russia with the works and thought of M. Mikhail Bakhtin, refers to this experience as "interference."[28] While I was thinking my line of thought, Professor Mouton�s line of thought interfered with mine. Her concept of a "culture of shame" does not come from social anthropology of the ancient Mediterranean world, but from detailed analysis of culture in Africa, and, in particular, in South Africa.

In the final part of her paper, Professor Mouton introduces multiplicity by talking about "reconciliation as logos," "biblical authority as liberating practice (ethos)," and "lament and praise in liturgy as pathos." Throughout all of it, there is an emphasis on restoration, renewal, healing, love, celebration, lament, remembering, and dismembering. As an interpreter with considerable interest in rhetoric, I observe with appreciation the multiplicity Professor Mouton brings into her analysis by focusing first on logos (reasoning or speech), second on ethos (character and practice), and third on pathos (emotion, attitude, and disposition). And here my interpretive juices start flowing. Interfering with my line of thinking, she began, out of a context of African biblical interpretation, to challenge me to work programmatically with her line of thinking in a context of my own line of thinking.

Here is my line of thinking that met the thinking of Professor Mouton. I have become convinced that the Christians who brought forth the writings we read in the New Testament produced discourse that should be interpreted not only from the three aspects of logos, ethos, and pathos and the three modes of judicial, deliberative, and epideictic discourse, but that we must identify the multiple modes or "rhetorolects" of early Christian discourse as: wisdom, prophetic, miracle, suffering-death, apocalyptic, and pre-creation discourse.[29] For me, then, the challenge is to identify and describe the manner in which reconciliation, healing, and self-worth are enacted by all six modes of early Christian discourse.

First, Professor Mouton�s paper takes us directly to "paranetic wisdom discourse" when it refers to God�s impartiality in James 2:1-13 (pp. 14-15). In the mode of wisdom discourse, the epistle of James works toward reconciliation using kinship relations in a household for the undergirding topoi. The issue is the relation of rich people to poor people in the gathered community (2:2-4). The discourse introduces the topos of "loving God" in 2:5, which goes to the heart of Jewish wisdom as grounded in the Torah: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind" (Deut 6:5). In turn, you shall "love your neighbor as yourself" (Lev 19:18). In the tradition of wisdom discourse grounded in the Torah, early Christians linked the "love" of God in the Shema with the "love" of neighbor in Leviticus. The discourse in James correlates the love of God with the "love" of "family members" for one another as it refers to its hearers as "beloved brothers" (2:5) and bases its argumentation on "a brother or a sister who is badly clothed or without daily food (2:15-16). Thus, in NT discourse, reconciliation and self-worth may occur through the wisdom of "love," where the model of people�s treatment of one another is based on the relationship of family members in a household to one another. This is simple, basic reasoning — the kind of reasoning a person is asked to learn at a very early age within the family or surrogate family in which one is born and raised. In turn, wisdom discourse views God as beneficent, one who shows love as a parent loves a child.

Second, Professor Mouton�s paper views reconciliation in the NT in terms of the miracle of "the power of God�s healing love and compassion" (p. 12). The undergirding topoi of NT miracle discourse focuses on the relation of God�s power to the individual body of a believer. James 5:13-18 shows how the gathered community is to focus with prayer and anointing of oil on individual believers who are sick. An underlying issue in NT miracle discourse is what God can and cannot do, and the conditions in which God will work with extraordinary power. Professor Mouton refers to "processes of personal, communal, societal, and cosmic healing" (p. 12). At this point, I would like to reflect on an experience some of us had at the Hammanskraal Conference in 1999. Two of the papers of African biblical interpreters, as I recall, explored the healing activities of members of African Independent Churches.[30] Among all the papers, it seemed to me that these two brought forth some of the most severe concerns and objections. Miracle discourse, the members of the audience perceived, was a negative phenomenon, rather than in any way positive. Christian people who participate in miraculous healing rituals, it was asserted, regularly are informed not to go to health clinics, and the result is incredible suffering, unnecessary spread of disease, and unfortunate death. The presenters of the papers emphasized that dynamic, miraculous healing is a central part of religious belief, practice, and ritual. The amazing thing is that this kind of dynamic experience was so dominant in early Christianity that its discourse is strong in all four Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. Scholarly interpretation of the NT has much work to do to understand the deep commitment to miracle discourse in the center of early Christian story. Deeply grounded in social, cultural, and psychological healing, miracle discourse provides a second mode of reconciliation in Christian thought and action.[31]

Third, the NT contains prophetic discourse, where a person confronts leaders about the administration of justice to the poor, the oppressed, and the outcast. Here the underlying topoi for reconciliation come from the political realm of the kingdom, and the patronage system becomes a major mode for distribution of benefactions during the Hellenistic-Roman period. In turn, God is envisioned as the kingly Father (the heavenly patron) who assures justice to all people, demanding that the leaders of the temple and the kingdom (nation) provide food, clothing, and housing for all, including the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. This mode of reconciliation focuses on God�s call of various individuals and groups to special responsiblities, with a promise of special blessings if they remain true to their tasks and a warning of special punishments if they fall away from them.

Fourth, the NT contains suffering-death discourse, where a person is aware that acceptance of ultimate danger to one�s life in the context of political assembly, regularly in a city, is the only possible means of moving forward toward reform and reconstruction. Professor Mouton develops this mode of reconciliation in detail (pp. 13-16), discussing the focus on the passion of Christ in the work of the Croatian systematic theologian, Miroslav Volf;[32] the reference to the cross of Jesus as "a site of carceral trauma" by Mark Kline Taylor; and interpretation of the violent death of Jesus as an innocent victim in the writing of Elizabeth A. Johnson.[33] Suffering-death discourse, then, provides resources for reconciliation especially in contexts of political assembly regularly located in cities.

Fifth, the NT contains apocalyptic discourse, where God�s holiness is insistent on creating places for people to dwell without danger to life and well-being. Here the social perspective reaches throughout the regions of an empire, with God envisioned as emperor of the world. Regularly, apocalyptic envisions a substantive sequence of violence and destruction, through which a space is created where there is no violence, destruction, or deprivation. Alan A. Boesak envisions apocalyptic discourse as a means to work toward a society where people live together in reconciled communities.[34] Here, strategies of protest, violence, and destruction become a medium for the establishment of a reconciled population living in God�s world.

Sixth, the NT contains pre-creation discourse, where God is modelled as an eternal friend of the world.[35] This friendship begins with an intimate relation between father and son prior to the creation of the world, and it continues as God sends his son to be a friend who reconciles people to one another and to God. This mode also works from the perspective of God as emperor of the world, but in this instance the model is friendship that reaches into the imperial house itself.

In summary, then, Christian discourse speaks of reconciliation and images reconciliation in multiple ways. These multiple ways function as resources for people in different ways in different contexts. It is important for all of us to learn how to interpret and enact these multiple modes of reconciliation in God�s world. Joining in each other�s challenges and opportunities from the perspective of multiple continents in the world is a major way to learn how to work toward reconciliation in multiple ways.


Why, then, do I participate in African biblical interpretation? There is not simply one answer, but many. First, Africa is a part of God�s world, and first century Christianity already understood itself as the recipient of blessings that God had brought into the entirety of God�s created world. Scholarly interpretation of the Bible should proceed in a manner that makes it possible to move with insight from early Christianity to any region of God�s world. Any mode of biblical interpretation that does not nurture this movement is an inadequate scholarly approach. Second, once a person begins to envision social, cultural, rhetorical, and ideological modes of interpretation as ways of moving with insight from scholarly interpretation of earliest Christianity to any region of God�s world, then it becomes important to work cooperatively with interpreters in different regions to formulate inclusive, programmatic strategies of interpretation in those modes. Third, biblical interpretation must keep in view and advantageously use the multiplicity in the Bible itself, as well as the multiplicity in every region of God�s world. If a person intentionally focuses on a limited region of God�s world and develops a limited mode of interpretation based on this limited region, then a person overlooks the inner nature of the revelation of God in God�s created world. Fourth, if a biblical interpreter is invited into a region of God�s world unknown to him or her, the person should go, if at all possible, and join in the opportunities and challenges of interpreting the Bible there. There is a long tradition of people going into regions where they have not been invited for the explicit purpose of interpreting the Bible to the people who are there. In the global, information-oriented world in which we now live, this tradition is reversing itself. In the twenty-first century, many people would like people to know about them, and they would like to be considered to be of value and importance. One way for this to happen is to respond to invitations from people to join in their work, their leisure, their worship, their hopes, and their prayers.

[1] Written originally for the NTSSA meeting at the University of Pretoria, April 17-20, 2001. I am deeply grateful to Johannes A. Smit, Chair of the Hermeneutics Section, and Jan van der Watt, President of the NTSSA, for the invitation and arrangements for my participation.

[2] See "Report of the SNTS Post-Conference, Hammanskraal, August 1999," NTS 46 (2000) 287-89.

[3] The second goal nurtured the presentation of this paper on May 4, 2001, at the University of Stellenbosch with the title: "Joining in the Challenges and Opportunities of Interpreting the Bible in Africa."

[4] John S. Pobee, "Church and State in Ghana 1949-1966," in Religion in a Pluralistic Society (ed. John S. Pobee; Studies on Religion in Africa 2; Leiden: Brill, 1976) 121-44; idem, Towards an African Theology (Nashville: Abingdon, 1979); idem, "Bible and Human Transformation," Mission Studies 1 (1984) 4-12; idem, "Teaching the New Testament in an African Context," Journal of Religious Thought 42 (1985) 22-29; idem, Kwame Nkrumah and the Church in Ghana 1949-1966 (Accra: Assempa Press, 1987); idem, "Oral Tradition and Christian Oral Theology: Challenge to our Traditional Archival Study," Mission Studies 6 (1989) 87-93; idem, "In Search of Christology in Africa," in Exploring Afro-Christology (ed. J. S. Pobee; Bible Studies in the Intercultural History of Christianity 79; Franfurt-am-Main: Peter Lang, 1992) 9-20; idem, "Skenosis. Christian Faith in an African Context" (Mambo Occasional Papers — Missio-Pastoral Series 23; Gweru, Zimbabwe: Mambo Press, 1992); idem, "Europe as Locus Theologicus," Ecumenical Review 45 (1993) 194-201; idem, "Study in Africa: A Passover of Language," Semeia 73 (1996) 161-79; idem, West Africa: Christ Would Be an African Too (Gospels and Cultures Pamphlet 9; Geneva: WCC Publications, 1996).

[5] Pobee, West Africa, ix, 21-22.

[6] For accounts of my own understanding of my identity and ideological location, see Vernon K. Robbins, The Tapestry of Early Christian Discourse: Rhetoric, Society and Ideology (London and New York: Routledge, 1996) 24-27 and idem, Exploring the Texture of Texts: A Guide to Socio-Rhetorical Interpretation (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1996) 96-100.

[7] Richard A. Horsley and Jonathan A. Draper, Whoever Hears You Hears Me: Prophets, Performance, and Tradition in Q (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2000).

[8] Vernon K. Robbins, Tapestry, 167-74; idem, Exploring, 86-88; cf. idem, "Rhetoric and Culture: Exploring Types of Cultural Rhetoric in a Text," in S. E. Porter and T. H. Olbricht (eds.), Rhetoric and the New Testament: Essays from the (1992) Heidelberg Conference (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 447-67.

[9] Robbins, Tapestry, 147-79; idem, Exploring, 72-75.

[10] Gerald O. West, Biblical Hermeneutics of Liberation: Modes of Reading the Bible in the South African Context (2d rev. ed.; Pietermaritzburg: Cluster Publications and Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1995). Cf. Vernon K. Robbins, "The Dialectical Nature of Early Christian Discourse," Scriptura 59 (1996) 353-62; idem, "Argumentative Textures in Socio-Rhetorical Interpretation," in Argumentation in the Bible (ed. Anders Eriksson, Walter �berlacker, and Thomas Olbricht; Emory Studies in Early Christianity; Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, forthcoming).

[11] H. J. B. Combrink, "The Challenge of Making and Redrawing Boundaries: A Perspective on Socio-Rhetorical Criticism," NedGerefTheologiese Tydskrif 1&2 (1999) 18-30; idem, "The Feasibility of a Socio-Rhetorical Commentary," forthcoming.

[12] H. J. B. Combrink, "The Rhetoric of the Church in the Transition from the Old to the New South Africa: Socio-Rhetorical Criticism and Ecclesiastical Rhetoric," Neotestamentica 32 (1998) 289-307; idem, "The Contribution of Socio-Rhetorical Interpretation to the Reformed Interpretation of Scripture (Princeton: Center for Theological Inquiry, forthcoming).

[13] Gerhard van den Heever, "Finding Data in Unexpected Places (or: From Text Linguistics to Socio-Rhetoric): A Socio-Rhetorical Reading of John�s Gospel," Neotestamentica 33(2) (1999) 343-64; = revised version of SBL Seminar Papers, 1998 (2 vols.; SBLSLP 37; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1998) 2:649-76. Cf. idem, "Theological Metaphorics and the Metaphors of John�s Gospel," Neotestamentica 26 (1992) 89-100.

[14] Randall C. Bailey, David in Love and War: The Pursuit of Power in 2 Samuel 10—12 (JSOTSS 75; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1990); idem, "Beyond Identification: The Use of Africans in Old Testament Poetry and Narratives," in Stony the Road We Trod: African American Biblical Interpretation (ed. Cain Hope Felder (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990) 165-84; idem, "They�re Nothing But Incestuous Bastards: The Polemical Use of Sex and Sexuality in Hebrew Canon Narrative," in Reading from This Place: Social Location and Biblical Interpretation (ed. Fernando F. Segovia and Mary Ann Tolbert; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994); idem, "�Is that Any Name for a Nice Hebrew Boy?� Exodus 2:1-10: The De-Africanization of an Israelite Hero," in The Recovery of Black Presence: An Interdisciplinary Exploration. Essays in Honor of Dr. Charles B. Copher (ed. Randall C. Bailey and Jacquelyn Grant; Nashville: Abingdon, 1995) 25-36.

[15] Clarice J. Martin, "A Chamberlain�s Journey and the Challenge of Interpretation for Liberation," Semeia 47 (1989) 105-35; cf. idem, "The Function of Acts 8:26-40 within the Narrative Structure of the Book of Acts: The Significance of the Eunuch�s Provenance for Acts 1:8c" (Ph.D. diss., Duke University, 1985).

[16] Vernon K. Robbins, Jesus the Teacher: A Socio-Rhetorical Interpretation of Mark (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992) xxxiv-xxxviii.

[17] Pobee, West Africa, 22-26.

[18] For transcultural biblical interpretation, see Kathleen M. O�Connor, "Crossing Borders: Biblical Studies in a Trans-Cultural World," in Teaching the Bible: The Discourses and Politics of Biblical Pedagogy (ed. Fernando F. Segovia and Mary Ann Tolbert; Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1998) 322-37; cf. Vernon K. Robbins, "Where is Wuellner�s Anti-Hermeneutical Hermeneutic Taking Us? From Scheiermacher to Thistleton and Beyond," in a volume honor of Wilhelm Wuellner (ed. James Hester and David Amador; Emory Studies in Early Christianity; Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, forthcoming).

[19] Johannes A. Loubser, A Critical Review of Racial Theology in South Africa: The Apartheid Bible (Texts and Studies in Religion 53; Lewiston/Queenston/Lampeter: Edwin Mellen Press, 1990).

[20] Pobee, West Africa, 2; idem, "Skenosis."

[21] See Teresa Okure, et al (eds.), 32 Articles Evaluating Inculturation of Christianity in Africa (AMECEA Gaba Publications Spearhead, 112-114; Kenya: AMECEA Gaba Publications, 1990); cf. the use of "contextual" in Teresa Okure, The Johannine Approach to Mission: A Contextual Study of John 4:1-42 (WUNT 2, Reihe 31; T�bingen: Mohr, 1988).

[22] Pobee, West Africa, 5.

[23] Jan Botha, Subject to Whose Authority? Multiple Readings of Romans 13 (Emory Studies in Early Christianity 4; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1994).

[24] "Report of the SNTS Post-Conference, Hammanskraal, August 1999," NTS 46 (2000) 288-89.

[25] Mouton refers here to: Grace Wamue and Mary Getui (ed.), Violence against Women: Reflections by Kenyan Women Theologians (Nairobi: Acton, 1996).

[26] Cf. Bruce J. Malina, The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology (Rev ed.; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1993) 28-62.

[27] Citing Edward P. Wimberly, Moving from Shame to Self-Worth: Preaching and Pastoral Care (Nashville: Abingdon, 1999) 17.

[28] Ellen E. Berry and Mikhail N. Epstein, Transcultural Experiments: Russian and American Models of Creative Communication (New York: St. Martin�s Press, 1999) 7-13, 96-100.

[29] Robbins, "Argumentative Textures," and idem, "The Dialectical Nature."

[30] A. Kalu (Umuahia, Nigeria), "Interpreting Biblical Miracles through African Traditional Lenses," and D. Adamo (Abraka, Nigeria), "Reading the Bible Protectively in African Independent Churches in Nigeria."

[31] Cf. John J. Pilch, Healing in the New Testament: Insights from Medical and Mediterranean Anthropology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000).

[32] Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996).

[33] Elizabeth A. Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (New York: Crossroad, 1992) 158-59.

[34] Allan A. Boesak, Comfort and Protest: Reflections on the Apocalypse of John of Patmos (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1987).

[35] See Sharon Ringe, Wisdom�s Friends: Community and Christology in the Fourth Gospel (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1999).

Back to SR Studies by VKR

Back to SR Studies

Back to SRI Homepage