African Hermeneutics by Elizabeth Mburu

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Elizabeth Mburu is African by birth but received her theological training at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (PH.D.). She is a professor of New Testament and Greek and on the board of the Africa Bible Commentary.  Thus she is well suited, both by her personal background and by her education and experiences, to address the vital subject of hermeneutics within the African context.

I began reading this book with serious apprehension due to its title.  I reject any concept that there is an African hermeneutic, or an American, or Asian hermeneutic, for that matter. There is only a biblical hermeneutic and all cultures must determine the meaning of the biblical text as God intends.  To entertain the idea that Africans can interpret the Bible differently from Westerners must be quickly rejected.  At times, however, this appears to be what Mburu is suggesting.  She claims that millions of Africans use “foreign” approaches to the interpretation of the Bible (p. xiii). Mburu blames colonialism for introducing westernization (p. 4) and Western reading of the Bible (pp. 22, 29).  Missionaries, she claims, brought an approach to biblical interpretation that fails to consider African culture and worldview (p. 211).  The reader is therefore set up to be instructed in a radically different approach to hermeneutics – one from an African perspective – a contextualized approach (pp. 5, 6, 211).  The goal would be to teach African believers how to truly understand and apply the biblical text (pp. 7, 19).

Strangely, however, given such an accusation, when Mburu turns to her actual subject she delivers a standard volume on hermeneutics that is fully consistent with Western evangelical works.  There is little if any, difference between the interpretative method Mburu prescribes and that of Ramm, Terry, Virker, Duvall or Hays.  The reader, whether African or otherwise, determines the meaning of the text using normal, literal-historical-grammatical hermeneutical principles and then applies this meaning to their lives. The difference between a Western and an African interpretative process lies not in the authorial intent of the biblical text, but in the starting place of the reader, and in its application.

For this reason, Mburu writes a chapter on the worldview of Africans, informing the reader that traditional Africans are more communal than individualistic (pp. 21-43).  However, the author repeatedly admits that the African culture is changing, becoming more modernized and Western and that in fact today there are numerous African worldviews (pp. 24, 29, 36-43, 47, 51, 154-155, 213).  Mburu helpfully identifies a number of common beliefs found in Africa such as worship that focuses on self and desires (p. 28), the law of harmony (p. 33), a theology of power (pp. 34-35), retribution theology (pp. 54, 163, 183), little interest in the future (p. 59), and the danger of syncretism (pp. 8, 30).  Yet, every one of these is embedded in Western culture as well. The circumstances may differ but the worldview is quite similar and becoming increasingly more so.  As Mburu admits, “Traditional Africa and the Africa in which we live today are worlds apart” (p. 213).

Having said all of this, happily Mburu’s main thrust is that the African worldview must be corrected by a biblical worldview (pp. 35, 42, 46-47, 50-51, 56, 58, 69, 78, 183). She gives numerous examples of how a traditional African would misinterpret the Bible and how a biblical hermeneutic would correct such interpretations.  She offers a “four-legged stool” method of interpreting Scripture (pp. 65-89): the African context, the theological context, the literary context, and the historical/cultural context or authorial intent (p. 85).  Upon these legs rests the seat of application.  Mburu applies her four-legged stool approach to the various genres of Scripture in respective chapters: biblical context (chapter 5), stories and parables (chapter 6), wisdom literature (chapter 7), songs (chapter 8), and letters (chapter 9).  Each of these chapters is valuable and offers excellent examples of the proper use of grammatical-historical hermeneutics.

Mburu is pleading for a contextualized approach to African hermeneutics (pp. 5-6).  As an example, she exegetes Paul’s conversation with the Athenians in Acts 17:16-34 (pp. 10-18).  The conclusion of her exegesis is identical to the conclusion drawn by Western readers of the same text.  This is consistent with her interpretations throughout.  I would reiterate my thoughts from earlier: there is only one correct hermeneutic – the literal-grammatical-historical. This understanding of hermeneutics searches for the intended meaning of the biblical text and then applies it to current situations.  Mburu is advocating exactly this.  I believe she is confused about her artificial separation of correct Western and African interpretation.  Individuals within these cultural contexts may have a different starting place, and make different applications, but their interpretation of Scripture should be the same.  However, this book does teach excellent hermeneutics, written by an African scholar, and therefore perhaps African Christians will be more likely to accept what she is prescribing.

African Hermeneutics by Elizabeth Mburu (Nigeria: Hippobooks, 2019) 234 pp. + xviii, paperback $23.99

Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor-teacher at Southern View Chapel

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