I am currently reading The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South by Philip Jenkins. It is a fascinating book and if you have a chance to read it, I would highly encourage it. You can also hear Philip Jenkins give a little bit of an overview of the book from his address at the Berkeley Theological Union.
I would like to share a few quotes for discussion. From the end of the the chapter “Power in the Book” which surveys contemporary African and Asian perspectives on the Bible and its striking conservatism in relation to Euro-American “scholarly” understanding of biblical interpretation, Jenkins writes:
By what standards, for instance, do churches decide whether particular biblical verses or passages carry special weight, or might be less authoritative than others? Except for the hardest of the hardcore fundamentalists, American Christians rarely believe that each and every verse of scripture carries the same degree of inspiration, and hence the same value. Instead, many assume an implicit hierarchy of texts, based on what is commonly viewed as the best scholarly opinion. So, for example, the assumption that St. Paul did not really write the Pastoral Epistles attributed to him – the letters to Timothy and Titus – means that these can be treated as less serious, less authoritative, than the apostle’s undoubted words in Romans or the Corinthian correspondence. To claim that “Paul didn’t really write this” consigns the Pastorals to a semi-apocryphal status. At one synod of the Church of England, a clerical presenter made the remarkable argument that since no scriptural texts prohibited the ordination of women, modern conservatives should not “set up artificial and inept lines that no one can defend”. Apparently, in such a view, the explicit prohibition on women’s leadership or teaching authority found in 1 Timothy 2:11-12 no longer ecen counts as part of the New Testament. Opinions can differ about the authority that such a passage should command, but for many believers, it literally has been read out of scripture. (Jenkins, 40)
Jenkins is not arguing towards a particular “right or wrong” interpretation of scripture; his book is a sociological survey of current understandings of the Bible in the Global South. Yet, nonetheless, he does make clear that both sides in the “North-South” debate (which, he admits, both sides have a debate within themselves) literally have a completely different understanding of scripture. A Kenyan Archbishop, speaking of the differences between the northern and southern Anglican Communion, states: “Our understanding of the Bible is different from them. We are two different churches”. Jenkins goes on to note:
The liberal view thus claims the right to assess the value of particular texts based on historical criticism. The African view effectively follows more contemporary theories of reading and interpretation, stressing the role of the communities that receive and use the texts in question. From this perspective, it makes little difference to argue that a given text is clearly not from the hand of its supposed author , if it is received as authoritative by the churches that read it. Nor, unsurprisingly, do Northern churches make much headway when they try to place the Pauline condemnations of homosexuality in a social or historical setting. If the text says it and the church believes it, that authority is decisive enough. The nature of the reading community is critical. In this sense, literalism has much in common with postmodern theories of reading.
Jenkins also observes that the African (and similarly Asian) views of the Bible and theology will, in less than 50 years, be the dominant understanding in Global Christendom.
I cannot help but notice the similarity between African understanding of the Bible and Anabaptist understanding. Reading and understanding the Bible in community is one of the core tenants of Anabaptist – or, at the very least, Mennonite/Brethren – thought. African Christians are coming across the Bible in a culture where it is fresh, where popular culture doesn’t have Western Christian motifs injected into it. It has immense power. Similarly, the Anabaptists were able to better access scripture as a result of the Reformation which made it fresh over/against Catholic dogma.
And yet, Anabaptists rarely in their history took the Bible as literally as the current African church. Anabaptists had, for the most part, had to shy away from giving much merit to Old Testament wars, battles, and assassinations, so that it could build up a theology of Christian pacifism. Jenkins goes on to note:
118890-In popular thought, many believes associate the Old Testament with those aspects of Christianity that they find uncongenial, including the stories of Creation and the Fall, the vision of God as angry judge rather than loving parent, the justification of war and ethnic cleansing, and the pervasive legalism. (I am of course presenting popular stereotypes here, rather than my own view of the text.) These tendencies are most acutely obvious in a ritualistic, clerical, and legally oriented book like Leviticus. The Old Testament sets in sharper contrast the radically new, antihierarchical, and supposedly antilegalistic message of Jesus… It is almost as if Western Bibles today should be printed with a consumer’s warning at the beginning of the Old Testament declaring “This part should not be taken seriously”
Conversely, South African theologian Madipoane Masenya boldly asserts that “[i]f present day Africans still find it difficult to be at home with the Old Testament, they might need to watch out to see if they have not lost their Africanness in one way or the other”. Andrew Walls comments “You do not have to interpret Old Testament Christianity to Africans; they live in an Old Testament world”.
I offer some questions to think about and respond to:
1) While Western Christians (particularly Anabaptists and American liberal Christians) have, for the most part, written much of the Old Testament out of their theology, is this a responsible interpretation of scripture?
2) Does it matter if it’s a responsible interpretation?
3) Is writing the OT out of our theology a necessity in a Western society, just as it is crucial to have the OT in an African society?