Intercultural Hermeneutics -- Contextual Exegesis

Article excerpt

A MODEL FOR 21ST CENTURY EXEGESIS [*]

1. On the situation of Christianity from an ecumenical perspective

The ecumenical movement began over a hundred years ago with the enthusiastic vision of "evangelizing the whole world within a generation". The world mission conference in Edinburgh in 1910 brought together 1200 representatives of missionary societies and churches, but these included only 18 representatives of young churches in the Southern hemisphere. It was recognized that to reach this lofty goal, an important task would be translation of the Bible into local languages, especially in Asia and Africa. This was undertaken in response to a strong impetus from the national Bible societies which had been founded in the 19th century, and in continuation of the work which they had already done. In the decades around the turn of the century, Protestant missions distributed hundreds of thousands of Bibles in the Southern hemisphere. [1]

As a result of these efforts, the world mission conferences which followed could record a steadily growing number of delegates from the colonial regions, with a sharp increase in their participation in the World Council of Churches after the end of the colonial era. For the churches, the period of decolonization was marked at first by the complete handing over of church leadership functions to indigenous theologians. These theologians, however, though trained in European theology, soon began thinking in terms of their own cultures and life contexts, and undertook to try to inculturate and contextualize the gospel. In addition, a large number of genuinely indigenous churches were founded, in some cases theologically very different from one another. Theologians from Africa, Asia and Latin America began to organize themselves into national, continental (e.g. the All-African Conference of Churches, AACC) and intercontinental conferences (e.g. the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians, EATWOT), from wh ich they could confidently bring their own perspectives into the ecumenical debate.

At the end of the 20th century, we are beginning to speak of a "shift in the centre of gravity of Christianity" [2] away from the increasingly rich nations of the Northern hemisphere, towards the populations of the economically dependent nations of the Southern hemisphere. Even though the majority of Christians today do live in Africa, Asia and Latin America -- and not in Europe and North America, as they did at the beginning of the 20th century -- this observation is not true only from a numerical viewpoint. The interpretation of the Bible in the countries of the South, and the accompanying developments in worship, teaching and the life of faith, point to an extensive re-orientation and re-focussing of Christianity. In spite of all confessional differences, a common denominator of churches and theology in the Southern hemisphere could be said to be their perspective as economically disadvantaged and impoverished peoples who live by their unshakeable experience of the presence of God.

2. Challenges

After almost 200 years of efforts by national and international Bible societies, the Bible has been partially or fully translated into a great many existing languages. These translations represent interpretations which are the result of processes of understanding taking place within specific socio-linguistic contexts. In view of the diversity of contemporary inculturation processes, one may ask how Christians are to communicate among themselves. Even though ecumenical Christianity as a whole represents a living commentary on the one Bible, it can hardly be considered a uniform community of readers worldwide. Instead, the ecumenical community must be seen as made up of many communities of interpretation, each with its own specific cultural and contextual characteristics. One faith -- different faces. But can the members of the ecumenical Christian family look one another in the eye and see in the face of the other, which may be deep black, pale white or in-between, a sister or brother who is their equal? …