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The Challenges of the African Context on Biblical Interpretation


The response to the modern scientific approach to biblical interpretation in Africa is not easily appreciated. Extensive research needs to be done to find out what African Christians think about the historical critical approach to biblical interpretation.

However, there is a clear need for a unique African Christianity and a desire for a specific guide to interpreting the scriptures in an African way. It should be noted that while this is possible, there are several challenges to be faced. The African context has some reasons to discuss these challenges. Osadolor Imasogie suggests that the average African’s commitment to Christ is superficial, often reverting to traditional practices. `

Without a commitment to biblical scholarship, biblical interpretation would remain as it is. John Parrat mentions Dickson and Fashole Luke as Africans who see “biblical scholarship as an urgent task” in African Christianity today, which has been too neglected by the African church2

The challenge of African tradition

The African tradition, as a challenge in biblical interpretation, is included in the study: the language model and the ancestral factor. Other traditional factors may come into focus from other dimensions, but these two far outweigh the rest.

The language model

Teaching correct biblical interpretation means presenting the scriptures to Africans in their own, easy-to-understand language form. For the larger African audience, the English Bible was the main source of translations into indigenous African languages. N. Onwu observes this problem in “The Dilemma of the African Theologian. He quotes some words from the New Testament which he says have no proper equivalents in the Igbo language. He says that language is a big problem in hermeneutics precisely because hermeneutics Language is the soul of people, the secret of people’s culture, philosophy of life and thinking, patterns of meaning. Languages ​​distort reality. Biblical languages ​​have their own distinctive linguistic models and sometimes do not easily find native equivalents in some African languages.

To emphasize this point, a comparison of the wording of Ephesians 6:12 in the English Bible and the Krio (Sierra Leone) Bible would allow anyone to see the challenge of the language model in African Bible interpretation.

The Prime Factor

Most of the criticisms against African traditions are directed at the African worldview of the ancestors. In particular, Western Christianity has incessantly lambasted African religion for its refusal to let go of this ancestral aspect. For their part, some Africans, so committed to this cultural trait, have staunchly defended the way of the ancestors.

According to Charles Nyamiti, a Tanzanian Roman Catholic theologian, Christ can be considered an ancestor because, just as the human ancestor creates a connection between the spirit world and the living, with the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, he creates a mystical connection between God and the Christian community. . Nyamiti believes that the relationship between God and Jesus in Africa is better understood as a relationship between ancestor and descendant than in traditional Christian father-son imagery. Another African, Benezet Buju, agrees that Jesus is best understood as the first ancestor; by this he means that Jesus fulfilled all the characteristics of the ideal ancestor, but at the same time exceeded them.

The traditional Christian teaching about Christ as the divine word of God makes it clear that the challenge to be faced in the teaching of biblical hermeneutics is to obtain the ancestors. There are many other traditional challenges to be faced, but these are discussed in this proposed guide to the practice of African theology. For example, questions such as how to teach the presence and work of the Holy Spirit in the book of Acts to the native Africans without thinking about the many spirits in their natural environment.

The challenge of contextualization

It is widely accepted that the means of making the gospel relevant is contextualization. Indigenization, as you can see, did not work as it only led to certain forms of religious syncretism. The rigid conservative option did not do much either, considering the view that its application leads to Christianity being seen as a foreign religion, a religion of the middle and upper classes.

Many theologians agreed on the need for contextualization. The conferences organized by WATI in Nigeria in 1984 on the theme “Contextualization of Christianity in Nigeria” bear eloquent testimony to this trend.

Contextualization can be a suitable option for indigenization or conservatism in today’s Christianity. However, when teaching biblical interpretation, the question arises as to what, how, for whom and when to contextualize if we want to combat contextualization or under-contextualization.

The interpreter’s challenge

All of the above challenges are almost overcome, the biggest and perhaps most important is the attitude of the proposed interpreter. From the historical review, we noted that most people approach Scripture with presuppositions and frames of reference. The meaning derived from the given text can be influenced by the presuppositions of the interpreter. Even if the interpreter confronts a scriptural text with his “tabular rasa” mind, he still has enough questions that can leave him either frustrated and empty; which in this case wants to abandon the process. Maybe you want to refer to another source, which in this case may be a subjective source that will never give you the answer you need. Overall, the interpreter’s attitude gives the answers. A pragmatic interpreter, for example, finds nothing interesting in the Song of Solomon or most of the Gospel of St. John. A naturalist will see very little significance in Jesus’ teaching of miracles. An existentialist will never find anything important in the Exodus narrative.

Socio-economic factors also challenge the broader perspective of the interpreter. An interpreter who thinks more about the socio-political problems of the continent will undoubtedly turn to the liberation theologian for his interpretive paradigm. A feminist definitely wants to argue with scriptures that express the subordination of wives to their husbands, etc. Overall, the attitude, thinking and status of the interpreter are a challenge during the hermeneutic task.


Biblical interpretation is as profound as it is important and interesting. As an African theologian, my interest is in the correct understanding of scripture based on correct interpretive principles, with the aim of making the scriptures contextually relevant to the African mind. This is the task we now face and must resolve decisively. Exegesis and not eisegesis should be our tool.

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