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September 18, 2013

Cultural Hermeneutics and Conflict Resolution

by Admin

Rev. Philip Agik lecturer in Systematic Theology at Saint Paul’s University, Limuru, lects on the insights that can be drawn from the implications of Theological Discourse on Cultural Hermeneutics on Conflict Resolution for Continuing Indaba. 


The Anglican Church, at this moment in its history that goes back to the 16th century when it pulled away from the Roman Catholic Church, is facing one of the hardest moments in relation to her indomitable unity as a flourishing family boasting a membership margin of 77 million. The tension of course is aimed at the four pillars upon which the church as a communion bases its theology: the episcopacy, tradition, reason and scripture.

Among the avenues open to the Communion to avert imminent collapse, in our considered view, listening appears to be the key. However, fruitful listening, which is foundational in Indaba, may demand the indispensable role of an umpire- one who does not have vested interest in the game itself and the subsequent result.  But again, listening will also directly depend on disposition of the speaker, how he talks and what he says. Provocative speaking and a response laced with deliberate coarse and irritating responses not only worsens the already bad state of affairs, but also opens further inflammable horizons of a precarious relationship.

There are several positive aspects of the Indaba listening process. It is the intent of this paper that some elements of a healthy listening process could be applied to yield desirable fruits that could help the Church to once more find a common footing in its divine ministry. We have, by way of evaluation, sampled three conversational contexts to exemplify certain ingredients of conversation that need tolerance due to the obvious cultural and personal world views. This paper proposes some African traditional concepts, which could resuscitate a fainting spirit in a long journey- the hallmark lifeline of Indaba.


Embracing Indaba, the Zulu tradition of “deep talk,” through which soulful conversation, where essential but hidden aspects of the individual and community are revealed, is inevitable for the Anglican Church in her endeavor to surge forward in a concerted effort to attain her divine mission. The Anglican Consultative Council (ACC 14), in its 14th meeting held in Kingston Jamaica in May 2009, acknowledged the vital place of listening in relation to those issues which threaten to split the Communion.

In his presentation to the Council, Phil Groves noted that listening is a long term process and that “gracious restraint” is one of its bedrock ingredients. Notably, if the Anglican Communion agrees to go by the spirit of Indaba, and not merely by the surface meaning of the term, then those involved need to be anchored on the virtue of forbearance if a fruitful conversational journey is expected. The virtue of forbearance arises from the understanding that people are different in the way they conceive issues in nearly all circumstances. This paper will deal with a few case studies to illustrate this principle.

Communication breakdown, prejudice and differential status will not help diffuse the tension which assails the communion. What should be taken into account is the obvious reality, recognizing the glaring fact that our diverse perspectives in understanding the pillars of the Anglican Communion should not be used as instruments of division. Instead, the diversity should be translated positively as spiritual gifts to build one another.

This paper seeks to bring out two pertinent components of conflict resolution which need to be emphasized in the Indaba namely, the place of a mediator and a sense of culpability for each party involved.

In the first instance is a dramatic cartoon caption which will serve as a preview to the rest of the illustrations. The second captures an internet dialogue between two people reacting to the ——–Report when it came out in 2004. And the third, a demonstration of what this paper ers to as ‘the Way Forward: the true Spirit of Indaba. In all the illustrations, this paper will engage in a critical evaluation of each case and provide what we may er to as the missed path, which ought to be pursued where cultural differences tend to severe relationships.

Different World Views

Interpersonal Conflict: the Case of Intolerance in a Conversation

My thoughts were provoked considering the apparent conflict within the Anglican Church as I read a humorous cartoon illustration from a daily newspaper. A couple took time out one evening. They walked hand in hand on a pier in a mood an observer would describe as intimate. Their attention was drawn to the lovely moon shining in the sky. The female posed a question, which seemingly in her mind, must have been a very simple question requiring obvious response.

“What does the moon say to you”? She asked.

“It says to me that it will be a great day for fishing tomorrow.” He answered.

The next moment, the man found himself deep down the pier! She had pushed him over to the sea retorting, “INSENSITIVE CLOD!”

As he struggled to raise himself from the mess, he caught a glimpse of the lady dashing away. He was taken aback and shouted after her,

“What! Olive! But you never told me what it says to you!”

This dramatic scene illustrates an occasion of interpersonal conflict. It demonstrates that different people see the same thing differently; people think differently and people interpret differently. Several factors can be called into play in a situation like this, which subsequently lead to a stand-off witnessed in this scene. These are principally two: the first is accusation; and the second, intolerance, which results in failure to go the extra mile in the journey of listening. In a situation like this, one impertinent question arises: “What are the means that could be used to get both parties together to discuss their problem?” Clearly demonstrated in this scene in a very dramatic way is the case of different world views that couch our interpretation of events.

In our understanding, the lady was more engrossed with interpreting the moon in the context of that particular occasion, which was in her understanding, laced with an air of intimacy. In her mind, nothing else counted. She had caged herself into the exclusive world of intimacy and expected the partner to feel the same. And that is where her fault lies. What she expected from the partner was nothing but positive affirmation of her personal inner experience. There are those who give a general panoramic interpretation of a situation. This group requires more time and patience from the other party if expected to address the specific issue in regard to other factors like context and time, which could be intended by the question at hand. Whichever way we look at the reaction of these two characters, one thing is clear, each person addresses something they hold dear. This, in our view, is a question of cultural variation and bias, which lead people to unintentionally lose one another over common issues.

The lady merely listened to the first step of what the moon meant to the partner. She was too impatient for longer versions of interpretation like “a good climate for fishing.” Her reaction also betrayed an element of latent animosity that would still go on anyway had there been no trigger occasioned by the manner of interpretation.

Another thing that can be drawn from this illustration is withdrawal. There is a party that does not give the other space for further dialogical engagement. What this kind of reaction will achieve at best, is to widen the crack of misunderstanding even further. I want to illustrate this frustrating situation from two candidates reacting to the Windsor Report when it came out in 2004. This is an internet exchange between Mark Dyer and Edwin. The subject of debate was same-sex relations.

Misunderstanding, Confusion and Anger

Mark Dyer adamantly closes the debate giving no room for further listening. Although someone was ready to engage in a conversation with him, he is not available to give audience. His comment,

Sexuality merely provides the focus for the real debate, which revolves around how one makes use of scripture. The fundamentalists ‘wing’ is trying to take over the Anglican Communion, and they cannot use Levitical law to do so, because that would reveal them for the ridiculous creatures they are: so they choose sex, because they think most people are as puritanical as they are! The Anglican Church is already split. Many of us have already left it; and I personally have not attended for thirty years! [1]

The opening sentence is one which is objective and notably engaging. But the ones that follow are meant to diminish the recipient. They are full of subjective prejudicial vituperation, which leaves the reader with the feeling of irritation. Worst of all, he has chosen the path of avoidance and sounds like one who no longer belongs.

Edwin, though defensive and virulent, admits the possibility of being in the wrong, particularly in the area of blanket generalization.  His comment, [ed. note: quotation summarised here]

You can throw around smear words like “fundamentalist” all day long, but all you accomplish is to make serious discussion impossible and discredit your own position. Conservative Anglicans (are neither) biblical literalists (nor base their argument on proof texts). On the contrary, we simply can’t see how same sex relationships can be made to fit the pattern of sexual behavior commended in Scripture and Christian tradition. It is not about proof texts, it’s about what we think the purpose of sexuality is. Of course you disagree with us on that point, but why try to pretend it’s about some other point? I admit that many on my side are also unfair in speaking as if all Episcopalians who are liberal on homosexuality are also committed to denying the Creeds or to maintain the radical heresies of Spong. However, the difference is that Spong really does exist.[2]

From this comment we see a clear line of division drawn. There is the ‘you’ and ‘we’ group in the Communion. And while we have the Dyer group in the Communion who think the debate lies on the Scriptural interpretation, the Edwin group admits that, yes there is the issue of the Scripture, but the point in question does not only allow the how of scriptural use, but also the ethical bit of it which cannot allow same sex union. In addition, Edwin goes a step further on the path of philosophical objectivism, by pointing out the error of general vilification of those whose views we do not support. Since the exchange appears brief, each person wants to unwrap all there seems to be up the sleeves in disregard to any possible means of comradeship. In the end, a worse situation than there was before is created. Extreme cases e.g ‘Spong’ and stereotyping are introduced to an already bad situation.

Among the Luo community, and I suppose this is true in other African tribes, there is a saying, oyany gweno, oyany ogwang’ literally translated means, ‘rebuke the chicken, rebuke the fox.’ This saying carries the explanation that when a fox attacks a chicken you have to rescue the chicken by first chasing away the fox and then turning to the chicken with stern warning never to stray in the fox’s territory. The moral lesson is that, in every conflict, each party must bear responsibility for the conflict. Each party approaches the negotiation table with a baggage of guilt on the back. No one is innocent. Just as the bible says, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). And again, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us,” (1 John 1: 8); for that reason, each party must be humble enough to account for their part in the conflict. The spirit of Indaba demands listening to what is yet to be said.

The Way Forward

Deep talk: Gracious Restraint

An example of ‘soulful conversation’ that calls for ‘gracious restraint’ is demonstrated in the captivating discourse between Professor Joseph Galgalo and the Reverend Debbie Royals, both coming from two different cultural world views. Having engaged each other on a wide range of topics on which they obviously presented divergent views with a few notable common understanding on others, both disengage from the grip of this soulful dialogue on a very light hearted note, where each recognizes the other with words of affirmation and dignity.  Both of them wind up the conversation in an open ended manner with an unmentioned committment of “Let us meet next time and talk more.”

Debbie concludes,

My brother in Christ, Joseph, has been a companion on this path to understanding God. I realize that he struggled with my identity as a Two Spirit in a committed, loving relationship with another woman, but he recognized my commitment and faith in God. We agree on so much.[3] 

The reader can not miss the warm Christian family title borne by the first person possessive pronoun, “my brother.” It reminds me of the common saying, “blood is thicker than water.” This saying may have different connotations depending on the context in which it is applied. But in the African traditional context, particularly among the Luo, it could be applied in a situation where a close relative has wronged another so much that the person offended may not see the sense of maintaining a relationship any more. In that kind of stand-off, a third party intervenes, to remind those involved to reconsider their views in light of the indelible binding codes of family relationship, which must stand whatever the circumstance.

This sense of permanence in family relations which no controversy can destroy no matter how severe, goes hand in hand with another saying in the Luo community ‘rangach no duoge.’ Loosely translated, it means that the one, who has gone out through the gate of relations, would in the same way, come back through the same gate. This saying applies to a member of the community, who by way of personal vow has decided to cut family links with the community. The elders would recline to the saying with a sworn conviction in their mind that no one can turn his back from his birth place. Alive or dead, he remains a member and would still come home and be welcomed back through the very gate he used to exit.

The lead terms which have held my attention in Rev. Debbie’s concluding remarks, and which, in my considered understanding of the spirit of Indaba, should accompany the Anglican Communion in this long journey of self examination and a heart of compassion toward one another, are these,

“Joseph has been a companion in this path…”
“I realized that he struggled with my identity…”
“He recognized my commitment and faith in God.”

Professor Galgalo, on his part, wound up the conversation remarking,

This has been such a humbling experience. It is no simple task seeking wisdom and God’s grace in a difficult situation that calls for wise and honest choice of words to say to a dear friend whose life style conflicts with my belief system. Whose discernment and appropriation of words of life are irreconcilably opposed to my understanding of the same.[4]

Professor Galgalo and the Reverend Debbie Royals’ conversation is one of those  trend setting examples of how two different worlds, in terms of cultural diversity, can come together to listen to the inner expressions of one another’s feelings and experiences in a family. Despite the polarities in their world views as noted by both, (just like the English words ‘push’ and ‘preservative;’ and the Portuguese words puxe meaning to pull, and preservetivo, meaning condom, may sound similar but are worlds apart in meaning) they sit together as equals without betraying a sense of cultural status barrier which may hinder understanding.[5]

Deeper Concerns

Although Professor Galgalo is categorical in his conclusion that the basic cause of the conflict in the same-sex union debate lies on Scriptural authority and sufficiency, and of course he is not alone in this understanding. The presupposition of this paper is that there could be more than meets the eye. I have always raised the question, “Is it not that the communion has been bedeviled with deep internal tensions that same-sex relations is just but one of the most compelling triggers?” Christopher C. Brittain notes just that.

In his article, “Confession Obsession? Core Doctrine and the Anxieties of Anglican Theology,” Brittain comments,

Anglicanism has always represented a constellation of diverse theological and ecclesial positions, held together by complex interweaving bonds of language, empire, culture, history, and other shared allegiances. It is noteworthy that those who diagnose the current tensions in the Communion as arising from a theological failing seldom explore how contemporary social and economic shifts within the global churches of the Communion may significantly influence the tensions that shape the crisis over theological unity. The dispute over the status of same sex relationships in the church that has erupted with such intensity since Lambeth 1998 could be interpreted as simply another episode in an ongoing confrontation with the difficult reality of maintaining a unified Communion in the face of considerable cultural and ethnic diversity.”[6]

Brittain asserts that there are a plethora of open and covert issues and that spending all our energy on trigger symptoms of deep underlying tensions that have existed before would be, at its best, a detour from reality. In section 3 of an article titled, “Lambeth Indaba Capturing Conversations and lection from the Lambeth Conference 2008 Equipping Bishops for Mission and Strengthening Anglican Identity,” the bishops, confessed that with the myriad differences among them, they had found themselves “proudly connected with one another and committed to God’s mission.”[7]

The Pertinent Component of Conflict Resolution

In all forms of conflict resolution and management, two kinds of results are expected.  On the one hand, prospects of success may be demonstrated where the disputants are willing to either compromise or collaborate in regard to the contentious issue. On the other hand, signs of failure are predicted where self-serving traits of avoidance, accommodation and competition are showing. In the first two signs, participants are both willing to lose and win unlike, in the latter three cases the only guiding attitude is to win while the other loses. But again, approaches tend to be products of cultural orientations. For instance, research on conflict resolution shows that in Western cultural contexts conflict resolvers always talk about a win-win solution. This is a mutually satisfying occasion which involves fostering communication among disputants and drafting agreements that meet their underlying needs.[8] It should be noted, however, that this is a generalized kind of conclusion which might not apply in all cases.

In many non-Western cultural contexts, although there is open desire to reach a win-win solution to a conflict, getting there calls for a different kind of approach. In this context, direct communication between disputants that explicitly addresses the issue at stake in the conflict can be perceived as very rude, making the conflict worse and delaying resolution. Instead, it can make sense to involve religious, tribal or community leaders, to communicate difficult truths indirectly through a third party and make suggestions through stories.[9]

Intercultural conflicts are often the most difficult to solve because the expectations of the disputants can be very different and there is much occasion for misunderstanding. A firm position in diplomacy must be maintained.

No matter what the problem is, it needs to be solved. It should not become a source of discontent, hard feelings and broken relationships. It is important to recognize that any problem that involves people who oppose your position is a conflict. Any conflict can be dealt with in a logical way, with the desired outcome weighed against the long-established relationship. The question that we should always balance in our mind as we continue to listen to one another is whether the conflict is a mere passing cloud, like many others that the communion has weathered through in the long history of the journey, a serious breakdown with bleak or no future at all, or a positive turning point for a better future with stronger cords of love?[10]

The Need for a Mediator

In a situation of interpersonal conflict the role of a mediator is very important. This is  especially true in the African context, which boasts a communal approach to issues. Considering the illustration given above, it may be a tussle trying to get the person, who has withdrawn, back to the drawing board. While both parties may feel the need of a conversation, taking the initiative may not be an easy affair. The reason for this difficulty is that each person may think that the other would consider them weak. This calls for a neutral party to fill the gap.

Two months ago, there was an inter-tribal conflict between the Pokot and the Samburu, occupying the northern arid parts of Kenya. One community raided the other and, as a result, 35 people, vulnerable women and children included, lost their lives. Two weeks after the attack, Mr Osman Warfa, the Rift Valley Provincial Commissioner convened a meeting “to forge a way forward in attaining sustainable peace.” The elders shared a meal as a sign of reconciliation. And for the first time, the elders vowed to persuade Pokot warriors and Samburu morans to stop the practice.[11]  Although it may take a long time to bring a lasting solution to the conflict between these two communities, we can see that the role of a mediator is vital.

In most of the conflicts, there is usually an unspoken reason to precipitate it. Each party fights for a reason the other is not aware of. Unless a moment of prolonged listening is established to allow the disputants to lay their hearts open, a war may go on with each group having their own reason for the fight. Illustration of this can be observed from Judges 12:1-6—the Gilead verses Ephraim battle.

Observed from outside, it is clear that the Ephraimites attacked the Gileadites because the latter did not seek their support when they went to war with the Ammonites. Zaphon, the commander of the Ephraimite army posed, “Why did you go to fight the Ammonites without calling us to go with you? We are going to burn your house over your head.”

Jephthah’s response did not help and was contrary to the question, “I and my people were engaged in a great struggle with the Ammonites, and although I called, you wouldn’t help…Now why have you come up today to fight me?”

As the fight ensued, we learn that the fundamental reason for this fight did not surface in the conversation between the leaders. In fact each had a hidden reason for engaging in the fight. 42,000 Ephraimite soldiers went to their grave without a clue why their enemies attacked them. The narrator of this story makes it plain that “The Gileadites struck them down because the Ephraimites had said, ‘You Gileadites are renegades from Ephraim and Manasseh.’”

The same scenario can be applied to the Kenyan situation in regard to the post-election tribal animosity that rocked some parts and affected the whole nation. The immediate factor was diagnosed as the disputed Presidential results. But when inter-tribal evictions, destruction of property and killings were introduced to the political milieu, it was later discovered that something more than politics was in the offing. Socio-economic stratification and perennially unresolved land issues that date back to independence and even beyond in the nation’s history, came to the fore. The political differences acted as a trigger, and the situation needed quick fixing. The deep issues relating to land and others could not just be fixed in a flash. They needed more time of talking and listening to unearth and cannot just be wished away like any other political bad joke.

In his analysis of the socio-economic and political mess in Kenya, and by extension, other economically challenged nations, the so called “Third World,” under the title, “Bringing Home the Reality of our Moral Vacuity,” Lukoye Atwoli[12] says that all forms of ideological experiments adopted by these unfortunate nations cannot work because these foreign ideologies are not in sync with natural cultural characteristics of the people of these nations.

Concerning Kenya in particular, Atwoli records a true indictment, “(the country) perfected the art of inheriting the outward appearances of a system of government without internalizing the associated values and morals.”[13] The picture we gather from this kind of indictment exemplifies occasions when values and behavior conflict with the beliefs that produce them. This problem arises from the confusion within the culture between operating beliefs – those that affect values and behavior – and theoretical beliefs – set creeds which have little practical impact on values and behavior.

Gerry Loughran, a regular correspondent with the Sunday Nation, provides a graphical psychological touch to this human phenomenon. As he took a walk from his home, he spotted a fierce looking dog of a type he had never seen before. It was a Japanese fighting dog according to the owner. He wondered why someone need acquire such a dog in town. Further enquiry into the matter led him to the information that “status dogs such as Rottweilers and Staffordshire Bull Terriers” occasionally engaged in informal fights in the city parks. And according to the staff with the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, injuries to animals was on unprecedented increase, where “ears are torn off (and) eyes torn out.” The relevance of this situation to this paper lies in Loughran’s conclusion: “Everyone knows that everybody who keep vicious dogs see them as macho projections of their own miserable personalities.” He finally comments that next time the police spot these dog fights, they should be kept away but the owners set to fight each other.

It reminded me of an interview Professor Bethwell Ogot, a renowned historian, currently the Vice Chancellor of Moi University in Kenya. According to the magazine, Professor Ogot’s favorite T.V. program is wrestling. He would always identify with the winner and enjoy watching his enemies beaten up useless.

The great idea here is that external behavior may not communicate the profound internal reality of individuals or cultural groups. Behavior, according to Lloyd Kwast, is a moral aspect, which in itself, is merely an external indicator of the core value. And that this layer is the most superficial. In other words, observable behavior, in most cases, is but a smoke-screen. To this effect, Kwast notes that for effective cross cultural communication to take place thorough understanding of its implications is indispensable, and the best one can do is to appreciate various different cultures.[14] At the same time, Kwast explains how daunting the task is- that enables one to attain what he calls “supra-cultural perspective”[15] status in the society in which he lives. For there is no one who can actually transcend his own culture by mastering all the nuances of its influence in a person’s life.

It is true that people never consider seriously the stake of world-view variations in a conflict situation. Other concerns may take center stage above the principle role that cultural difference may play. For that reason, questions that take into account the reality of world-view between any two parties, must be raised. Is what they see, say and act  on really all there is to the issue at hand, or could there be something else, or something more to the view presented. Every culture assumes specific answers to these questions and the subsequent answers control and integrate every function, aspect, and component of the culture.[16]

Cultural Implications on Biblical Interpretation

Scriptural Interpretation and Authority

The authority of Scripture depends very much on the correctness of its interpretation in respect to how relevantly the message meets the needs of its hearers. But who is qualified to interpret the Bible in such a way that its message may have a universal bearing? Will such conception of authority of the Bible address specific personal needs? Steven G. Smith puts it succinctly, “As one published text among others, scripture affirms the autonomy of individual readers, appealing to their discernment.” Our understanding of “individual,” as applied by Smith, already leads us to the borders of ethical perspectives of scriptural interpretation and authority. Indeed, the whole question of Scriptural authority is a complex one if lected against the backdrop of conflict in the Anglican Communion. Ashby paints the grim picture:

What began then as a confidence in authority with the Greeks and the Hebrew has changed to doubting authority. What began with confidence in reason has changed to a fear of the irrational. What began as a sense of unity with the universe has changed to a sense of alienation from the natural and the spiritual world. As we look around our modern terrain we seem to be living in the ruins of ancient beliefs, caught up in irreconcilable conflicts with no moral exemplars and no clearly defined responsibilities.[17]

To this, Samuel W. Kunhiyop correctly concludes, “(Today) there is no compelling moral consensus that provides an adequate social base for the construction of an ethical system.”[18]

In his topic, “Western Ethics and Christian Ethics,” Kunhiyop, explains that “Western approaches to ethics do not always transfer well to the rest of the world,” tracing the phenomenon from the Enlightenment era, Kunhiyop describes the Western world-view as focusing more on “developing a secular ethic without God or religion,” based on the principle of individualism, which establishes a negative attitude toward objective authority. The Western ethical system is incongruent with those cultures where individual decision making and subjective authority of the individual are frowned upon.[19] A solution to this widely documented cultural polarity is to recognize the fact that culture, like the visible church, is not perfect. For that reason, cultural imperatives must be tested against scriptural injunctions and not against each other.

The Willowbank Report – the product of a January 1978 consultation on “Gospel and Culture” – makes this point apparent. It states, “Because man is God’s creature, some of his culture is rich in beauty and goodness. Because he is fallen, all of it is tainted with sin and some of it is demonic.” God’s personal disclosure in the Bible was given in terms of the hearers’ own culture. So we ask ourselves what light it throws on our task of cross-cultural communication today.

The Cultural Conditioning of Scripture

The cultural factor is present not only in God’s self-revelation in Scripture, but also in our interpretation of it. Christians are concerned to understand God’s word, but there are different ways of trying to do so.

Bible translation and interpretation pose a great challenge to the Indaba listening process. The normative nature of Scripture should be understood specifically along the lines of the audience, and the questions that arise out of this concern are not simple to solve. For example, would an exegetical solution provide exactly what the Scripture is affirming to the extent of retaining the essential meaning of the biblical message so as to preserve the normative quality of the Bible? And are the existing hermeneutical approaches up to the challenges that buoy the Anglican Communion in its variant understanding of the Bible?

It is the nature of human persons to rely much more on those theories that tend to support their argument and neglect those that appeal less to their position. Like the numerous theories of atonement, each of which gained popularity within a given context, and helped the target audience translate the death of Christ for their faith, making it intelligible in that way, this paper proposes complementary application of the hermeneutical approaches. This application will help avoid the weaknesses of each approach and provide a wider perspective of interpretation, addressing nuances of culture prone to fanning controversy in understanding the Bible.

The Positive and Negative Aspects of Hermeneutical Approaches[20]

The Traditional Approach

+        The reader has the benefit of interpreting the text as if it was written in his own language, culture and time.

+        This interpretation is open to all people regardless of their intellectual level.

+/-   It demands good translation.

–          Does not seek to understand the text in its original context, and for that reason, runs the risk of missing the intended meaning.

–          No cultural group can be faulted for their particular way of understanding the scripture. This gives room for cultural relativism and creates the problem of the universal normative quality of the Bible.

Historical Approach

+        Attempts to rediscover the original historical and cultural context of the text

+        Cognizes the Sitz-im-Leben of the text

–          Fails to consider what the scripture may be saying to the contemporary reader

–          Falls short of the cultural implications of the reader.

–          Acquires academic knowledge without obedience

The Contextual Approach

(This approach complements the positive aspects of the two above.)

+        Considers the necessity of studying the original context and language and the necessity of listening to God’s word and obeying it.

+        Takes seriously the cultural context of the contemporary readers as well as of the biblical text, and

+        Recognizes that a dialogue must develop between the two. It is the need for this dynamic interplay between text and interpreters which we want to stress.

How to Apply Biblical Interpretation

In spite of the fact that complementary approachs to biblical hermeneutics may offer a little relief to the implications that cultural variation pose to interpretation; it is our understanding that as long as culture remains on the scene, further ramifications arise. The Willowbank Report stipulates the complication; it states that contemporary readers “cannot come to the text in a personal vacuum, and should not try to. Instead, they should come with an awareness of concerns stemming from their cultural background, personal situation, and responsibility to others.” [21]

Although the focus of this report was “culture and the Gospel” for cross-cultural witness, two pertinent issues can be mentioned. First, when an individual undertakes the task of interpreting the Bible, the process must be based on some ethical principles grounded upon cultural orientation. Second, within the framework of interpretation and reading, ‘others’ must be put in the picture. What this means is that our endeavor to understand the Bible should not merely serve personal self-interest; rather, it should deliberately attempt to address the welfare of “my brother and my neighbor.” For that reason, the challenge to Scriptural translation, interpretation and reading is to answer the question, “Where is your brother?” as in Genesis 4:9, and  “Who is my neighbor?” as in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Thus, hermeneutics must address the philosophical moral theory of utilitarianism, which holds that “the right action maximizes the good,”[22] but not in the hollow ethical secularism.

There is a dialectical tension attached to biblical interpretation that must be balanced. In as much as interpretation of the Bible must retain cultural value, it should, in the same vein, concern itself with the question of how that understanding affects those of other cultures in the larger family of God—the Body of Christ. Cultural variation should not, theore, be a cause of division in the Church, but rather a call to Christian unity. The focal point of unity in the Christian family is of course Jesus Christ, the head of the church. Christ is the uniting factor, for no one culture is superior to the others. The Apostle Paul is categorical in this understanding when he addresses the division in the Corinthian church. Whereas each party appeared to brag about their association with the respective apostle who led them to Christ, Paul poses, “What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? For no one can lay any foundation other than Christ” (1 Cor. 3:5, 11). The series of rhetorical questions become more specific and evident as the apostle continues to argue his point.

After exhorting the church to “learn from us the meaning of the saying, ‘Do not go beyond what is written,’” he goes on to pose, “For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?”  These questions bring us to the next level of concern for this paper. How faithful are culturally based hermeneutical approaches to the gospel truth?

Faithfulness to the Scripture

The Lausanne Covenant declares that Scripture is, “without error in all that it affirms.” This lays upon us the serious exegetical task of discerning exactly what Scripture is affirming. The essential meaning of the biblical message must at all costs be retained as discussed above. Though some of the original forms in which the essential meaning was expressed may be changed to meet cultural needs, such changes must not compromise the normative quality of the scripture. For God personally chose them as wholly appropriate vehicles of his revelation. So each fresh formulation and explanation in every generation and culture must be checked for faithfulness by erring back to the original.[23]

The question that needs to be addressed at this juncture is the measure of faithfulness that cultural hermeneutical approaches endeavor to maintain concerning the truth of scripture. The discussion compels us to revisit Richard Niebuhr’s five-model viewing of the relationship between Christ and culture. The point is, is Christ against/of/above/or transforming culture? Or, are “Christ and culture in paradox”?[24]

Defining theology appropriately as “biblical reasoning,” and going further to elucidate the meaning as, “the redeemed intellect’s lective apprehension of God’s gospel addressed through the embassy of Scripture, enabled and corrected by God’s presence and having fellowship with him as its end,”[25] John Webster, indicates that the process of biblical interpretation is a forum where human beings have fellowship with God. Theore, “Scripture and reason are elements of a religious-cultural economy; creaturely realities participating in the dynamics of cultural production. [26] For that reason, holiness of this divine-human fellowship must be conceived to lect the holiness of God. In his own words, “Scripture and reason are not only contingent activities of speech and intelligence; they are to be understood in relation to the divine revelation.”[27]


According to Marilyne Adams,

The real unity and eventual functional harmony of the church are not in jeopardy, because they are guaranteed by God. By contrast, visible church institutions are human constructions that have no intrinsic authority. The human side of the church, like the text of the Bible cannot escape human fallibility. The human side of the church is no purer than are its individual members.[28]

This view of the Church is demonstrative enough in the sense that it raises two pertinent issues relevant to this paper.  First, recognizing the fact that God is in control with Christ as the foundation stone of the Church universal. Second, all the threats to this unity must be viewed as inevitable in regard to human activity in the church.  In view of these two realities, this paper encourages a conversation that recognizes the human frailty of all the parties. This calls for a compassionate and prayerful kind of listening, where others are affirmed and lifted by considering them as better. This paper has also proposed the element of reading and interpreting the Bible without loosing sight of the mutual need of others, in spite of obvious differences that our cultural backgrounds pose. This paper has worked out trends of hope to be considered in a community of fellowship with God and with one another.


[2] Ibid.
[3] Philip Groves, ed., The Anglican Communion and Homosexuality (London, SPCK, 2008), 264.
[4] Ibid, 265.
[6] Anglican theological Review, Fall 2008, Vol. 90, No. 4, 779
[9] Ibid.
[10] See Susan B. Wilson at  http:/
[11] The Saturday Standard, 26 Sept, 2009,  26.
[12] He is a consultant Psychiatrist and Lecturer at Moi University, School of Medicine.
[13] The Sunday Nation, October 11, 2009, 33.
[14] Lloyd E.Kwast, “Understanding Culture” in Perspectives on the Word Christian Movement: A Reader, Ralph D. Winter & Steven C.Hawthone, (eds). (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1981), 362.
[15] Ibid, 362.
[16] Ibid, 364.
[17] Quoted in Samuel W. Kunhiyop,  African Christian Ethics (Nairobi: Hippo Books, 2008), 43
[18]  Ibid, 43
[19] Ibid, 43-44.
[20] The insight is developed from Raph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne, eds, Perspectives on the World Christian Movement: A Reader (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1981), 512-13.
[21] Ibid, 513.
[22] Utilitarianism is the prominent version of consequentialism. See the Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Philosophy, Frank Jackson & Michael Smith (eds), 2005, 34.
[23] The insight is developed from Raph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne, eds, Perspectives on the World Christian Movement: A Reader (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1981), 511
[24] As used by Terry Brown & et al, “Homosexualities and Culture” in The Anglican Communion and Homosexuality, Philip Groves ed. (London: SPCK, 2008), 182
[25] John Webster, “Biblical Reasoning” in the Anglican Theological Review, (Fall 2008, Vol. 90, No. 4), 747.
[26] See ibid, 747.
[27] Ibid, 736.
[28] Marilyn McCord Adams, “Shaking the Foundations: LGBT Bishops and Blessings in the Fullness of Time,” in the Anglican Theological Review, (Fall, 2008, Vol. 90, No. 4), 714.

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