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Rightly Understanding God’s Word: The Reader’s “Social Location,” by Craig S. Keener

Listening to the voices of different interpreters committed to Scripture in different cultures can help us recognize a variety of questions and issues we may not have considered before. Of course, we must learn Scripture in its own setting very well first, so we are not tempted to make it answer questions that it does not address. We cannot force Scripture to say what it does not say, so we must be careful to read it in light of its first cultural context; for some of our questions it provides only general principles. But only by asking the questions will we find out. (A warning here: some people’s cultural assumptions can bias them to totally misunderstand the Bible. Some westerners start from the antisupernaturalistic assumptions of their culture, hence ignore or try to explain away miracles in the Bible, though God’s powerful acts are all through the Bible and at the very heart of biblical Christianity. By allowing their cultural biases to overrule their faith in what Scripture actually says, they cannot come to the biblical text with honest humility to hear its message. Most Africans, whose worldview recognizes the reality of both God and a demonic realm, will not make this same mistake.)

Women in many cultures have asked questions about social roles in the Bible that men have neglected, and have provided helpful conclusions. Latin American scholars have raised issues of justice that many western scholars have failed to notice. Asian scholars have noticed principles of community, honor and shame, family, and saving face. In the same way, African, Caribbean and African-American interpreters have asked questions about the African presence in the Bible and church history and about slavery that many traditional European interpreters have neglected. It is to these questions of Afrocentric interpretation and slave interpretation that we now briefly turn as an example of how social locations can help people ask useful questions. After this we will briefly discuss some other issues in application.

Afrocentric Interpretation

This is merely one example of Christians in particular cultures asking particular kinds of questions; I offer this example because it is one of those with which I am more familiar.

There are extreme forms of Afrocentric interpretation that distort the biblical record no less than traditional Eurocentric interpretations have—for example, those forms which claim that everyone in the Old Testament was black (as some Europeans assumed they were white). But when by “Afrocentric” we simply mean asking questions relevant to African history, we are ready to explore issues that some Eurocentric scholars have ignored. (In these sections we draw on information from Glenn Usry and Craig Keener, Black Man’s Religion [Downers Grove, IL, USA: InterVarsity Press, 1996]; and Craig Keener and Glenn Usry, Defending Black Faith [Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1997].) Again, we do not identify with characters in the Bible solely on the basis of race; otherwise only Jewish people could identify with many characters in the Bible! But it is helpful to know that a number of Africans do appear there.

Before we can look for Africans in the Bible, we have to establish what we mean by “African.” Technically, by Africa today we mean everything from northern Africa to southern Africa, but those boundaries are somewhat arbitrary historically, drawn traditionally by Europeans. Israel is not very far north of Egypt, so redrawing the maps slightly might move Israel to Africa! (By no one’s definition can it be in Europe; the traditional boundaries place it in Asia, on the border of Africa.) Different criteria would arrive at different boundaries, some of them not useful historically at all (based on some genetic traits, one can argue that Norwegians and Fulani belong to one group whereas most Africans and Japanese belong to another group!)

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Category: Biblical Studies, Spring 2006

About the Author: Craig S. Keener, Ph.D. (Duke University), is F. M. and Ada Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He is author of many books, including Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Baker Academic, 2011), the bestselling IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, Gift and Giver: The Holy Spirit for Today, and commentaries on Acts, Matthew, John, Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, and Revelation. In addition to having written more than seventy academic articles, several booklets and more than 150 popular-level articles, Craig is is the New Testament editor (and author of most New Testament notes) for the The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. He is married to Dr. Médine Moussounga Keener, who is from the Republic of Congo, and together they have worked for ethnic reconciliation in North America and Africa. Craig and Médine wrote Impossible Love: The True Story of an African Civil War, Miracles and Hope against All Odds (Chosen, 2016) to share their story. Twitter: @keener_craig

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