African Hermeneutics: Extensive Interview with Elizabeth Mburu

I recently had the opportunity to interview Dr. Elizabeth Mburu about her fascinating book on biblical interpretation, African Hermeneutics (Hippo Books/Langham Publications). In this groundbreaking work, she lays out a fresh interpretive methodology, rooted in the rich soil of the African experience. I highly recommend our readers get a hold of this book and digest it slowly, even as the work is a delight to read thanks to her considerate prose.

What is your background, both in terms of life and education?

I grew up in Nairobi, Kenya in a family of six. I am married with three adult children. I am a third generation Christian. My maternal grandfather was involved in the translation of the Bible into Kikuyu (my vernacular) in the early 1900’s. I became a believer in 1993 and began to work with street children in the late nineties. This experience made me realize that I needed more training to be effective.

I went to seminary for my Master of Divinity at Nairobi International School of Theology (now International Leadership University). I then travelled to the United States for a Master of Sacred Theology at Northwest Baptist Seminary (now Corban University School of Ministry) and continued on for my doctoral studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

After teaching in the United States for a while, at Montreat College, we returned to Kenya. I immediately started working at a Christian University and continued with writing. Langham (which targets contextual work from the majority world) first approached me to join the board of the Africa Bible Commentary (ABC) in 2017 as an NT editor as they embarked on its revision.

I was also in the process of writing the book African Hermeneutics with them. After several months of being on the board, they approached me to work with them on a more permanent basis—first to coordinate the ABC revision project, and second to serve as a commissioning editor for their HippoBooks imprint which is focused on scholarship from sub-saharan Africa. I serve as the Langham Literature Regional Coordinator, Anglophone Africa. I am also involved in academics as an associate professor of NT and Greek at Pan Africa Christian University, Kenya and as an extraordinary professor, Northwest University, South Africa. 

I have published several articles and chapters in books as well as two single author monographs—Qumran and the Origins of Johannine Language and Symbolism and African Hermeneutics. I serve on the editorial board of four publications that originate from Africa – Africa Society for Evangelical Theology series, South African Baptist Journal of Theology, Conspectus Journal and Pan Africa Christian University Journal.

In addition to international societies, I am also part of several networks on the continent that enhance my passion for contextual work and theological education. These include the Africa Society for Evangelical Theology, Africa Baptist Theological Educators Network, Association for Christian Theological Education in Africa and Network for African Congregational Theology.

Can you describe your experience earning your PhD from Southeastern?

My experience at Southeastern Seminary was both interesting as well as challenging as I was the only woman in most of the seminars I took. I wasn’t the first woman to be in the PhD programme, although I was the first to graduate. That was in 2008. Most of the faculty were quite gracious. A few had their issues because of the idea that women should not teach. However, these were in the minority. I always felt that I was expected to write on women’s issues, which I didn’t do, as I had other specific areas I was interested in studying within the New Testament and I didn’t believe that these areas were restricted to men. I was a research fellow in my first year and a PhD fellow in my last two years.

During my time at SEBTS, I served as the managing editor of Academicus, the SEBTS newsletter. My colleagues were very supportive of me which helped a great deal and I have good memories of the many discussions we had around the New Testament and other issues. Being a woman of color in a predominantly white environment was also quite challenging. However, because I was from a foreign context I probably missed a lot things that an African American woman might have picked up on.

SEBTS helped me grow in many ways, both intellectually as well as with respect to cultural sensitivity. Since my graduation in 2008, I have received tremendous support from several faculty members at SEBTS.

In 2019, I was awarded the Outstanding Academic Achievement Award by SEBTS during the Seventh Annual Meeting of the Southeastern Fellowship held in San Diego, CA.

What was the driving motivation behind writing African Hermenuetics?

There are several factors that motivated me to write African Hermeneutics. The first was the lack of contextual resources available to my students. I realized that as my students learned how to interpret the Bible, they seemed unable to grasp the link between the world of the text and their own world. Both interpretation and application were often flawed. I realized that the courses in hermeneutics my students were taking didn’t seem to be affecting how they interpreted text. This was also reflected in their preaching. It was not uncommon for sermons to be completely disconnected from the realities of the text.

A second driving force was the rapid growth of the church in the global south and particularly in Africa. By 2018, Africa had the largest number of Christians in the world. In fact, a recent Pew research predicts that 4/10 Christians will live in Africa by 2060. However, there is a troubling dichotomy in the church alongside the growth. This dichotomy manifests itself in several ways. The most serious is Neopentecostalism and its attendant doctrines with the major doctrine being the prosperity health and wealth gospel. There is a proliferation of false “prophets” and of “mighty men and women of God” offering healings, miracles, and wealth.

Syncretism is also a major challenge. Traditional practices such as witchcraft, ancestor worship/veneration, and polygamy are actually on the increase with a growing group of Christians in Africa now rejecting Christianity altogether. Other evidences of this dichotomy include corruption and unethical practices, wars and displacement, schisms (based on power struggles rather than doctrinal controversies), and the growth rather than the decrease of ethnic hostility

I felt that we were missing something in our interpretation of the Bible. Given that Christianity has been on the continent for more than a century (i.e. the modern missionary movement), these issues should not be there. I concluded that foreign methods were the problem as they introduced a double hermeneutical gap which made the text seem even more remote from our African context.

How might African hermeneutics differ from standard approaches to interpretation?

The specific African hermeneutical approach proposed in my book African Hermeneutics is an intercultural approach based on the concept of moving from the known to the unknown. It has five distinct steps that engage text and context in a constructive dialogue. It moves directly from theories, methods and categories that are familiar in the African world into the more unfamiliar world of the Bible, without taking a detour through any foreign methods. It is understood that because readers approach the text from their contextual situatedness, they come with their own assumptions. While our assumptions may sometimes aid in reading the text, we sometimes import these assumptions into the text with negative results. At the same time, the various methods that we use in hermeneutics are also based on certain assumptions.

Most students in African theological institutions study hermeneutics, exegesis and various courses on Bible exposition using the resources available to them. These are mainly Western sources. While these resources are useful, what theological educators may not realize is that we are imposing Western assumptions on our students which makes understanding more complicated. At the same time, we are failing to interrogate the assumptions our students bring to the text from their various backgrounds. 

This method recognizes that the African culture (material and non-material) is a significant tool for the interpretive process. This includes the techniques that enable us to interpret the various genres of African literature (oral as well as post-colonial). However, this model goes further by considering the worldviews represented by the reader. These are valid and form an essential interpretive bridge. 

Because there is no neutral interpretation of a text, our worldviews will always influence our understanding of Scripture, either positively or negatively. For instance, our prior understanding of God will influence how we understand passages that talk about God. Worldviews are shaped within specific cultural contexts. As African readers of the biblical text, we must discover our cultures and worldviews and apply them in our hermeneutics. Yet, as we do so, we must be careful to interrogate our assumptions so as not to displace biblical revelation. Our conclusions must be in alignment with the biblical metanarrative. 

However, this method is also similar to some Western methods in that it recognizes the value of the theological, literary and historical contexts of the text. It strives to provide a balanced reading of texts and therefore complements rather than replaces Western methods.

Explain your ‘four-legged stool’ analogy, and the significance of the first leg, Parallels to the African Context.

A stool is a familiar object in Africa, both in the past and in the present. Just as a good stool is stable and supports our weight, so this hermeneutical stool is one we can put our weight on, confident that it provides a stable or accurate interpretation of the biblical text. While the five steps represented by the stool are distinctly separate for purposes of analysis, it is understood that there is overlap between them as each step must necessarily enhance the others until greater precision in meaning and understanding is achieved—much like the so called “hermeneutical spiral” in Western hermeneutics.

The first leg is parallels to the African context. This method recognizes that parallels between biblical and African cultures and worldviews can be used as bridges to promote understanding, internalization and application of the biblical text. This approach to unlocking the African understanding of biblical texts is not new. It is doing what Jesus did, for he too used elements of his culture to teach, moving from the known to the unknown, particularly in his parables. Paul was also an expert in this kind of intercultural dialogue (Acts 17). The reader’s context is a therefore the logical starting point that guides readers from the known to the unknown.

This first leg primarily involves identifying parallels between our theological and cultural contexts and the biblical text. It is a bridge between the two contexts that allows us to do two things. One, it enables the listener to begin to understand the biblical text from a familiar position. Two, it allows us to examine ourselves so that we can correct any faulty assumptions that may hinder the interpretive process. An accurate reading of the text demands that as the listener steps into the text, the text is also being urged to confront the perspective of the listener – an inter-dynamic process that ensures that no faulty assumptions interfere with interpretation. This leg therefore guides us in identifying both points of contact as well as differences with the biblical context. 

Only when we encourage dialogue between the African and the biblical worldviews can we determine what is negotiable and what is non-negotiable. This will help us develop a truly biblical worldview while at the same time retain what is uniquely African. 

The second leg is the theological context. Many scholars have noted that Africans tend to be very “religious,” even in modern/postmodern Africa. By this is meant that, the spiritual dimension of life is always a factor in an African’s interaction with the realities around him/her. This implies that in Africa, biblical hermeneutics is inseperable from theological reflection, as the emphasis is generally to address contextual realities within our culture. Because of this orientation to life, an understanding of the theological emphases of the text therefore provides the foundational data for the reader, orienting his/her approach to the interpretation of the text.

At the same time, this inevitably leads to the fusion of the two horizons, meaning that some tentative points of application will already begin to present themselves at this stage. Since, this model recognizes a distinct separation in the two horizons, application at this point can only be tentative. The most prominent theme is Christ and his work. 

The third leg is the literary context. Here one identifies the genre, literary techniques, language used and the progression of the text as it unfolds, as well as in relation to surrounding texts. 

The fourth leg is the historical context. In addition to theological and literary concerns, Africans try to make sense of our lives in relation to the historical and cultural contexts in which events occur. African literature is no different. It is informed and shaped by socio-cultural, political and economic conditions within the continent. Thus, any interpretation must consider these crucial factors.

This means that “behind the text” issues provide crucial data in the interpretive process. If authorial intent and determinacy of meaning is to be taken seriously, we must “enter into” the world of the author and allow his world to provide the parameters that guide our understanding.

Finally, we have the seat. These four legs together reveal the probable meaning as it was intended for the original listeners. The seat is where we derive significance. The important feature of meaning as distinct from significance is that meaning is the determinate representation of a text for an interpreter.

One implication of this is that the listener cannot thrust his assumptions on the story or make it mean whatever he/she wants it to mean, in a postmodernist kind of way. Even though we, the listeners, become part of the story, we do not make the story “in our image” but allow it to guide us to its true shape and form.

Significance, on the other hand, is the application to the context of the listener expressed in terms that we understand in our own African society. This last step is only a confirmation of the tentative application of the text as uncovered in the legs above.

Can you give an example of African hermeneutics as applied to a particular genre of Scripture?

I recently published an article with the South African Journal of Theology entitled “Unity in Gender and Ethnic Diversity” that was an intercultural analysis of the story of the Samaritan woman and her interaction with Jesus (John 4:1-42). The text of John 4:1-42 tells the story of an immoral woman who has a life-changing encounter with Jesus (Mburu, 2010:48-52). A Samaritan by ethnicity, she meets Jesus at Jacob’s well, in a town in Samaria known as Sychar. However, this story is not about the woman. Rather, it is about Jesus and the sub-text uncovers his perspective on gender and ethnicity. 

Parallels to the African context: There are four parallels uncovered in the story. These include worship, gender inequalities and negative ethnicity. 

Theological context: In this text, the narrator presents Jesus as the fulfillment of the symbolism inherent in the Jewish cultus – its feasts, institutions, festivals and symbols. Theologically, these can be traced back to Moses, the Exodus, and Old Testament prophets, particularly Isaiah. 

The second theme that stands out is that of the new community. The formal constitution of the new community is found in the commissioning narrative (20:22). Nevertheless, it is chapter 4 that the reader begins to understand that Jesus’ mission includes those outside the Jewish community and that the new community is characterized by belief in Christ and inclusivity.

The third theme is that of salvation. The text reveals that salvation is always conditioned upon belief in the person and the teaching of Christ. It leads to eternal life. The narrator also reveals that it is both already accomplished and not yet consummated. 

The third leg is the literary context. Because our text is narrative, there are certain additional rules that apply from African literature. The characteristics of African stories provide us with an interpretive “key.” African stories exist in two distinct but interconnected “worlds.” The first is the world of the agents of communication. The second is the world of the story and is concerned with what happens within the story itself.          

Because the genre of this text is narrative, rules of narrative that stem from African oral literature are applied. These include a recognition of the two worlds of the agents of communication and of the story itself that enable us to fully appreciate its message. Within the world of the story, the conflict between belief and unbelief is evident as the narrator strives to uncover Jesus’ identity through his interaction with the Samaritan woman.

This unveiling, which is made possible through the dialogue that unfolds between her and Jesus, lies at the centre of the plot. The narrator uses several literary and structural devices to weave his story. There is alternation between narration and dialogue, with dialogue occupying the greater proportion of this story.

Other significant devices include the use of narratorial comments, misunderstandings, double entendre and irony. These serve not only to propel the plot forward, but to shift direction in unexpected ways. The movement is therefore not purely linear.

The core of the story is that not only is Jesus the fulfilment of Jewish expectations, he is also the fulfilment of the Samaritan religion. This story affirms that it is possible to know God but the only way to know Him genuinely is to understand his plan of redemption through the Jewish race. This period of worship is now present in Jesus, the true temple. Both the locus and the manner of worship have been redefined by Christ. Jesus not only removes the barriers of salvific opportunity, he goes further to include those outside the Jewish race and women in active participation in the new community. In this way, the horizontal is actualized once the vertical becomes a reality. 

Historical context: Historically, Samaria was a mixed population, both racially and religiously and had a long and bitter history. Their religious orientation was also syncretistic. They were hated by the Jews. With regards to gender issues, there are a few instances in which women are referred to positively but in general women were openly despised.

The seat: If Jesus is the fulfilment of the Jewish and Samaritan religions, then it follows that he is the fulfilment of the African religions. Syncretism is not tenable. A second application point relates to inclusion of the hated Samaritans. This sets an important trajectory for modern day African believers with regards to ethnicity.

One way to understand it is through the lens of the Ubuntu philosophy. However, this worldview must be reframed in terms of Christ if we are to understand the application of this text. Because alignment along tribal lines has henceforth been replaced by alignment with Christ, negative ethnicity must be eliminated.

The final application point relates to gender inclusion. Women are to be included in the new community founded by Jesus. This inclusion does not merely stop at salvific opportunity but extends to active participation in various roles.

Why are resources such as African Hermeneutics important for the church in Africa? 

One, the biblical text finds a home in the African heart because it speaks to the contextual realities that believers face daily. It is no longer an object that has been imposed on us by the West, but rather a relevant text that allows us to engage in constructive dialogue and confronts us where it matters. Because it pays attention to the African context, application is more relevant.

Two, it confronts dichotomy and syncretism by allowing for dialogue between the biblical and African cultures and worldviews thus exposing wrong doctrine and practice. 

Three, it acknowledges the multidimensional/global character of Christian faith. This is because it allows for fresh insights from the biblical texts. It provides a different way of reading that complements Western and other readings. 

Four, it includes ordinary readers. Rather than relegate hermeneutics to the domain of academics/intellectuals, it makes it possible for ordinary readers to participate actively in Bible interpretation. 

Five, it encourages transformation of society. Because it promotes understanding and internalization of biblical truths within the African context, the potential for transformation of society is increased. 

Six, it promotes understanding and interrogation of African contexts and awareness of our religious spaces. This is important because Africa is very pluralistic and religious spaces are quite porous which is why syncretism is so prevalent. 

Seven, and perhaps most importantly, it helps redefine African Christian identity. Identity is core to our human existence. We operate on the basis of our identities. In Africa, culture (including religious culture) and ethnic identity may even overshadow Christian identity. Our identity markers should not be decided for us by ATR, culture, or even our African worldview. This approach allows for a redefinition of identity based on biblical criteria.

How might non-African pastors and scholars utilize the tools you provide in African Hermeneutics?

I personally think that the most important chapter for non-African pastors and scholars is the one on worldviews. That is the chapter that enables readers to understand the assumptions that inform an African’s reading of the biblical text.

The chapters on the different genres help readers who are not from an African context discover new and fresh ways of approaching the text. Because an African example is given before the biblical one, it is fairly easy to follow along. 

How do you think this book might be useful for Western Readers and others unfamiliar with the African context and worldview?

If we truly believe that the church is one body, then we ought to be aware of what is happening in the rest of the world. After all, our scholarship ought to serve the Church and society. This is the concept of unity in diversity and the recognition of the multidimensional/global character of the Christian faith that is vividly illustrated in Revelation 7.

It challenges and broadens the lens of Western assumptions and interpretation because it presents Western readers with a different way of looking at texts. It can help Western readers see what lies in their blind spots. The African worldview and the biblical one are so similar in many respects that we see aspects of the biblical text that a westerner might miss. This reading can help complement Western and other readings.

It can help the West understand the assumptions and worldviews behind the numerous African churches that are springing up in Europe and the United States in the recent upsurge of reverse missions. 

It provides an awareness of at least one approach in the discipline of hermeneutics from the global south. 

Finally, a western reader is able to appreciate the value of a functional hermeneutic that raises awareness of and provides solutions to contextual realities on the continent. 

Elizabeth Mburu’s African Hermeneutics is now available on Logos. Get your copy today, and read the biblical text differently to apply it better.

Written by
Tavis Bohlinger

Dr. Tavis Bohlinger is the Creative Director at Reformation Heritage Books. He holds a PhD from Durham University and writes across multiple genres, including academia, poetry, and screenwriting. He lives in Grand Rapids with his wife and three children.

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Written by Tavis Bohlinger
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