Biblical Authority in the Global South

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?

Comments (8)

  1. Ron

    Thank you for your interesting questions. Here is my answer.
    These questions assume a biblically-centered faith, as opposed to a Christ-centered faith. I feel that I am a follower of Christ, not necessarily a follower of the book. So, I start out with the question of who was Jesus, what did he teach, how did he live, how did he want us to live, etc., then go from there.
    Yes, it leads me to reject parts of the Bible that contradict Jesus’ teachings, even those that contradict the spirit of Jesus’ teachings. In areas that Jesus did not specifically address, I prefer to follow the spirit of his teachings and the example of his life, rather than someone else’s ideas, even if the Catholic Church centuries ago decided to include these other people’s ideas in the Bible.
    This leads to a radically different view of Christianity than the view of those who try to follow the book.
    So, in answer to your questions about “writing the Old Testament out of the book”, my answer would be that I do not worship the book. I try to follow Jesus. So, yes, perhaps we are on completely different wavelengths.
    My question to the Bible believers is more about how they interpret Jesus’ life and teachings. Do they give the Sermon on the Mount equal weight to the Old Testament and to Paul’s letters?
    If Jesus himself had written the Bible, what would he have written? What books would he have included? excluded? Why didn’t he write down his teachings?

  2. DevanD (Post author)

    Thanks for your thoughts, Ron. I’ll respond to them at the end of this comment, but first I’d like to make an observation:

    I am quite stunned at the lack of responses to this post. When we post on GLBTQ issues or sex before marriage, everyone gets in an uproar and posts 12238947324 responses.

    Yet, a post on how the vast majority of Christians on the planet interpret scripture doesn’t even fall on the radar of many YAR’s. Part of me wonders if folks in the YAR community simply don’t care about the way the Global South understands scripture; or if they do, they only care as much as political correctness necessitates them to give it any attention at all.

    Which then makes me wonder if most of our theological assumptions on YAR are based entirely on a privileged status, taking refuge in Western Christian theological assumptions (“we must look at the Bible in its historical context”; “The Old Testament is from an archaic time and largely irrelevant”; “Scripture is only true in some cases, but not all”). Not to mention we fit squarely within a Western theological tradition as Anabaptists. I’m not sure if folks are aware, but there are more Mennonites/Brethren in Africa today then there are in the US, who are now shaping what our church will look like theologically. How do we respond to that?

    Ron: I will not begrudge you a Christ-centered approach to scripture (and I agree with you on many points, yet many African churches feel perfectly at home with First Testament living; indeed, it is bound up with their personhood.) How do you approach the First Testament in relation to the Second from a Christ-Centered perspective? Jesus spent much time interpreting the First Testament. How do you understand that?

  3. ArchaicFuturist

    I would hazard a guess that a reason there hasn’t been much in the way of comment on this post is because folks are hesitant to write about “how the vast majority of Christians on the planet interpret scripture,” as if this majority were a monolithic bloc. I haven’t had any experience in Africa, but my experiences with Christians in Latin America and Asia were extremely varied, even within a given country and denomination. I wouldn’t want to even try to summarize my interactions, except to say that they were at least as diverse as my experiences in North America. And what I do know of African churches is highly varied as well, ranging from the millenia-old Ethiopian and Coptic churches to the many communities that trace their introduction to Christianity to European and North American missionaries, and from The Lord’s Army paramilitary groups to the liberation movements in South Africa in the apartheid era. You simply can’t put all these people in the same box, any more than you can put Quakers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Catholics, Rastafarians, and Four-Square Baptists, not to mention televangelists and Illiff seminarians, into a box that’ll tell you anything meaningful about the contents.

    I haven’t read the Jenkins book, but I suspect from your quotations that he has a specific point on Biblical interpretation to make in his own, Western context: the Old Testament ought to be taken more seriously; its directives adhered to more strictly. I may be wrong — those of you who have actually read the book will have to correct me. But if I’m right, than Jenkins is merely using the supposedly monolithic masses of the Global South as leverage to make his own point.

    Walls’ comment that “You do not have to interpret Old Testament Christianity to Africans; they live in an Old Testament world,” strikes me as particularly troubling, almost like saying “You do not have to interpret Stone Age life to Africans; they live in a Stone Age world,” or something to that effect. Some groups of African Christians may indeed feel more comfortable with the Old Testament than many Western groups, but to equate modern African cultures with 6th-century BCE Hebraic culture — or first-century Jewish and Hellenistic Christian culture — does a disservice to both. They’re simply not the same thing, even if they have superficial similarities.

  4. DevanD (Post author)


    Thank you for responding!

    You seem to make two points in your comment:
    1) Jenkins is trying to make a point about Old Testament taking the Old Testament more seriously;
    2) That Jenkins (and myself) are presenting Global South interpretation of scripture as a monolith.

    Both points I already fielded in my post:
    “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.”

    If Jenkins makes any theological point, it is simply this: that the classical Western understanding of the Bible will soon be the minority understanding; therefore, it will be something we have to reckon with.

    He does mention that the Global South has many varieties of biblical interpretation; however, I imagine spending his time surveying all of them would fill a dozen volumes. He merely tries to make a point about how lines are being drawn between the Global North and the Global South as it relates to scripture and he cites the Anglican communion frequently as an example of this. He gives a survey of popular African theology. Of course there are variations within the Global South; nonetheless, perhaps what we learn from what Jenkins presents is that we will eventually have to come to understand the many ways the traditions of the Global South understand scripture and perhaps let go of some of our assumptions.

    The quotation about the First Testament world I don’t think is pejorative in any sense: many folks in Africa still depend on agriculture (much like the ancients) and live in largely oral cultures. Many in more rural contexts live in a world where blood sacrifices are a part of traditional indigenous religion, shedding different light on what the blood of the cross means (“a sacrifice to end all sacrifices” is I think how Jenkins describes it). What proceeds from those conditions are radically different interpretations of scripture from the Western tradition, with a tendency towards stricter biblical literalism.

  5. ArchaicFuturist

    I still question whether it is possible to present a useful survey of African theology, popular or otherwise. You and Jenkins say that you recognize that African Christianity is not a monolith, but then you cite popular Western stereotypes of Africa as examples of why African Christians and Old Testament Hebrews can be accurately compared. As my partner (who spent several months in Cote d’Ivoire a few years back) just pointed out to me, while many African cultures are primarily oral, many are also heavily dependent on written literature. Many African societies are agrarian or pastoral, but fully 37.2% of the population of sub-Saharan Africa was urban in 2000, a number expected to rise to nearly 50% by 2015 (according to the Wikipedia article “Urbanization in Africa”).

    And what is the definition of “biblical literalism?” There’s a thousand different “biblical literalisms,” in the various theologies of both the West and the global South. How do we decide that it is “biblical literalism” when some churches in either North America or Africa condemn homosexuality in light of levitical passages, and not when LGBTQ Christians and those in solidarity with them apply the gospel ethic of unconditional love? In almost any case, people pick and choose what passages make sense in their context. People can certainly be informed by biblical passages, and be moved to change by them, but the direction in which they are moved to change is dependent largely on their contexts of status, class, gender, culture, and ability. This isn’t necessarily good or bad, it just means that it doesn’t really make sense to call any one in particular a “literalist” theology.

    It’s also important to acknowledge the role of Western missions activity in communities in the global South. The huge expansion of Christianity in many regions is due to the activity of people native to those regions and the incorporation of a Christian story into indigenous contexts. But in many contexts Christianity was and is introduced, promulgated, enforced, and interpreted by Western missionaries who, while sincere, are wittingly or unwittingly agents of the colonial and neocolonial interests, supported by and advancing those interests. A theology centering around Jesus as the “final sacrifice” might well be an indigenous theological understanding of the gospel in a context where the blood sacrifice of animals has been an integral aspect of the culture for centuries. But it might equally be the understanding of missionary groups who find blood sacrifice distasteful and impose a theology of “final sacrifice” in order to combat the custom. Superficially the two theologies are similar, but in practice reveal very different historical approaches to constructing theology. And what of those several African (and American [North and South] and Asian) societies in which homosexuality was an accepted norm prior to the introduction or imposition of Christianity or Islam? Does their current condemnation of homosexuality represent an indigenous approach of “biblical literalism” or the imposition of cultural mores by colonialists?

    And I’m afraid I don’t have a clue what the “classical Western understanding of the Bible” is. There are so many different streams of thought in Western biblical understanding, and I’m not sure that there are any real points of commonality between all or most or many of them that distinguish them as “classically Western.”

    So the West will no longer be the center of Christianity in decades to come. (Hallelujah!) But I hazard a guess that the global Church will not develop a new center, at least not for some time to come. It will be multi-polar, not necessarily dominated by any particular “literalist” stream. I hope, as you do, Devan, that we can all have the courage to learn from each other … especially as those of us in the West have a great deal of learning, and unlearning, to do.

  6. Jason


    Thanks for your original post as well as your observation about the relative lack of responses to this post.

    You write, “Part of me wonders if folks in the YAR community simply don’t care about the way the Global South understands scripture; or if they do, they only care as much as political correctness necessitates them to give it any attention at all.”

    I’ll answer that for myself. I know a number of lgbtq folks who have shared with me their experiences of exclusion and discrimination based on their sexuality or who they’re involved with romantically. I’ve also done a fair amount of looking at my own life and can see how I — even as someone who hasn’t had a same-sex partner — am diminished by heterosexism in the church and society at-large. I can now articulate (and have) about how I feel that diminishment in real ways in my life.

    In comparision, the friends I have from the Global South mostly do not confess a Christian faith (probably by virtue of the humanist-leaning Quaker college where we mostly met). And I don’t have many face-to-face relationships with folks from the Global South who describe conflicts in theology as connected to exclusion/disempowerment in their lives.

    And while ST has written about some such experiences in Split Youth in the Southern Cone
    I don’t know much about that experience. I’m more likely to write from my experience, especially if it seems to be tied to an issue of injustice that I can FEEL.

    My sense is that I need to do more of my own work with how a Western-centric or US-centric theology and worldview diminish my life (which would consist at least in part of hearing stories from Global South folks about the way they experience such theology and cultural imperialism).

    Without grounding my discussion in an experience and familiarity with how the issue impacts my life, talk about global theology (or other topics) feels abstract and less meaningful.

    Does this connect with anyone else? Is our sexuality analysis more refined than our North-South analysis? What might I do if I suspect that’s the case for me?

  7. DevanD (Post author)


    great thoughts. You hit the nail right on the head with:

    Without grounding my discussion in an experience and familiarity with how the issue impacts my life, talk about global theology (or other topics) feels abstract and less meaningful.

    There is a local church here in my city that is beginning a very interesting program. I’m not sure if it will demonstrate how the issue of Western theological traditions impact your life, but it would give you an opportunity to learn about a different point of view – along the lines of hearing stories and theology in the Global South.

    The program at the church is called “Power Points”. The concept is that once a week (or every other week) a pair of folks get together and talk about the Bible. One person is from the States, the other from the Global South. By reading the same passage of scripture and talking about it, each can come to an understanding of how the other understands the Bible and her relationship to God, while also perhaps learning a foreign language ( non-English speakers learn English, or English speakers learn Spanish, Swahili, Arabic….).

    If you have the opportunity, I would suggest that as one outlet to hear stories about how God shapes the understanding of someone you know from the Global South. We happen to have a significant refugee population in my city, so such a program is much more realistic.

  8. Nathan Eanes

    This is a very interesting post. I have a few responses:

    1) I do find it troubling to see those Christians who are so willing to write off various parts of the Bible, such as the Old Testament (because it is gory and unapetizing) or the Pastoral letters (because there’s a good chance Paul himself did not write them). For thousands of years Christians have taken these texts seriously, and we would do well to at least listen to what these historical Christians have to say.

    That said, though, I am not sure I agree with Jenkins’ assumption that a majority of American Christians are willing to flippantly throw out texts like the Old Testament or certain Pauline letters. To the contrary, i’d say that the most common tendency within American Christendom is to ignore, or radically reinterpret, the teachings of Jesus that conflict with the Western ethic of nationalism and force that can be extrapolated from the Old Testament.

    2) I agree with you that it’s important to listen seriously to the way African and Asian Christians interpret the Bible, maybe the most important thing we can all do– eastern and western, northern and southern alike– is critique our modern understandings of Scripture against the way early Christians of the first and second century understood these writings. From what I’ve read, it seems that, although they were quite diverse, early Christian “fathers” generally did not hold to the literalist interpretation of modern conservatives, nor did they so flippantly reject certain writings they didn’t agree with– as some liberals do today.

    3) To answer your third question, I don’t think it’s necessary to reject the Old Testament or the Pastoral letters in order to formulate a biblical argument for nonviolence or the ordination of women. Rather, we need to understand these texts in their proper historical contexts– e.g. who wrote them and why, who they were written to, etc.

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