Scripture as the Interpreter of Culture and Tradition

August 11, 2020

By Kwame Bediako
An excerpt from Africa Bible Commentary: A One-Volume Commentary Written by 70 African Scholars, edited by Tokunboh Adeyemo (HippoBooks, 2016).

The Africa Bible Commentary attempts to relate the Scriptures and African cultures and in so doing to seek ways in which the gospel may be seen to be relevant to African cultures. As we do this, we as readers and as writers need to avoid oversimplifications about the nature of this relationship.

What Is Culture?

Culture comprises far more than just music, dance, artifacts and the like. Our culture is our world view, that is, fundamental to our understanding of who we are, where we have come from and where we are going. It is everything in us and around us that defines us and shapes us. When we turn to Christ as Lord, we are turning over to him all that is in us, all that is about us and all that is around us that has defined and shaped us. Thus salvation encompasses not just our ‘souls’, but also our culture at its deepest level. We need to allow Scripture to become the interpreter of who we are in the specific concrete sense of who we are in our cultures and traditions.

What Is Scripture?

But acknowledging the centrality of Scripture to our identity does not mean that we demonize our own traditional culture or learn to quote certain verses and chapters as proof texts to support particular positions we hold because of our denominational or traditional background. The centrality of Scripture is more fundamental and its significance much larger than that.

Scripture Is a Prism
When light passes through a prism, a rainbow of colors is revealed. Similarly, when our cultures pass through the prism of Scripture, we see them in a new way. The light and shade intrinsic to our cultures are revealed. We are no longer being defined by our traditions, but are allowing Scripture to interpret those traditions.

Scripture Is a Record of God’s Engagement with Culture
Scripture is more than just a record of the history and religion of Israel and the early church. Rather, it records God’s dealings with his people and with their culture, and is itself the fruit of that engagement. It thus provides a yardstick or a model for encouraging, identifying and controlling all subsequent engagements of gospel and culture in the continuing divine-human encounter that characterizes our faith.

Scripture Is a Road Map
Scripture is the authoritative road map on our journey of faith, a journey that began before we first believed in Christ. This road map reminds us that the journey we are on did not begin at the point when we ourselves received the map. By looking at the map in Scripture, we can see where we have come from and how we got to where we are. It also points us in the direction we are to take if we are to reach our destination. This understanding is one that the early preachers of the gospel stressed when they so often used the phrase ‘according to the Scriptures’. Paul reminds Timothy of the guiding role of Scripture (2 Tim 3:16). He demonstrates its use when he recounts part of the history of the Israelites and concludes, ‘These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us’ (1 Cor 10:1-11).

Too often, preachers tend to pick a particular text and use it as a launch pad for presenting their own ideas, but apostolic preaching was not like that. It presented the meaning of Scripture as a whole and applied that meaning to the concrete cultural and social situation of the hearers. That is what we have to do if Scripture is to be the road map for getting us to our destination.

Scripture Is Our History
All the references to Scripture in the New Testament relate to the Old Testament, although the majority of those addressed would have been Gentiles, who did not share the Jews’ cultural background. Yet, Paul refers to ‘our forefathers’ when speaking to Gentile Corinthians (1 Cor 10:1). Israel’s history had become their ‘adoptive’ history, for all believers in Christ become children of Abraham (Gal 3:26-29) and are grafted into the original olive tree (Rom 11:7-20). And all believers were slaves who have been set free (Gal 4:7). All of us have been adopted into Christ, with our traditions, and are therefore transformed, with our traditions. The God of Israel is not a tribal God but the God who created all humanity.

Scripture Is the Basis of Our Identity
The earliest church was tempted to see Gentile Christians as second-class jews, latecomers. But at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) the apostles recognized that God was doing something new. Paul makes the same point when he writes as if there are now three categories of persons: jews, Gentiles and something new, called the church of God (1 Cor 10:32; 2 Cor 5:1 7; Eph 2:14-18).

In the early decades of the church, some Christian writers spoke of Christians as a third race. The first race was the Jews; the second, the Gentiles; and the third was the Christians. The basis of this new identity was religious, not ethnic, national, social or cultural in the narrow sense. We have become ‘a kingdom of priests to serve God and his father’ (Rev 1:5-6; 1 Pet 2:9-10).

Scripture Is Our Story
Scripture is not just a holy book from which we extract teaching and biblical principles. Rather, it is a story in which we participate. When David Livingstone preached in Africa in the nineteenth century, he is said to have always referred to the Bible as the ‘message from the God whom you know’. In other words, Scripture speaks to us because Scripture speaks about us. And it speaks about us because we are a part of the gospel we preach. Paul was very aware of this. He emphasized that God had had mercy on him, and now he was called to preach to others (1 Cor 15:8-11).

Africans have a strong sense of their pre-Christian religious journey and should be alive to this participation in Scripture. This was certainly true of the Liberian prophet William Wade Harris (1865-1929). He was the first distinctive African Christian prophet of modern times, and a man who brought many people into the church. Harris cut himself off from his Grebo life and family in a radical conversion, but he did not live without ancestors or a community. He simply changed his family connections to those based on faith in Christ as known through the Scriptures. His was a spirituality of vital participation totally indigenous to his African way of being within a community. He did not think in terms of what Moses saw or Jesus did in the Bible, but of how his new ancestors, Moses, Elijah, and supremely Jesus Christ, interacted with him. That was how he broke through to many people and they became Christians.

In African culture, participation in a common life constitutes community and marks out an ethnic group. When a libation is poured, the community recites the names of all those who are absent, treating them as present. Traditional believers summon their ancestors, and they believe that these ancestors are present at the ceremony that follows. (Do we have a similar confidence that Jesus is present when we pray?)

In Christian terms, we participate in Christ, and thus also in the resources and powers of the entire community composed of those who are also one with Christ through the Spirit. This community includes both the living and the dead (Luke 20:33-38). It is a transcendent community in which the human components experience and share in the divine life and nature (2 Pet 1:4).

Bringing Scripture and Culture Together

We should not focus on extracting principles from the Bible and applying these to culture. Scripture is not a book existing independently of us. Scripture is the living testimony to what Cod has done and continues to do, and we are part of that testimony. The characters in Scripture are both our contemporaries and our ancestors. Their triumphs and failures help us understand our own journey of faith (Rom 11:18). Scripture is not something we only believe in, it is something we share in. This is why the people in the Bible will not be made perfect without us (Heb 11:40), nor we without them. The application of Scripture to our cultures is a gradual process of coming together, of life touching life. Our particular culture encounters the activity of God in building up a community of his people throughout history, a community that now includes us and our particular traditions, history and culture. We will gradually come to share in a family likeness that is not measured by ethnic particularity but by nothing less than Christ himself (Eph 4:13).

Scripture and culture are like merging circles, gradually coming to have one centre as we increasingly recognize ourselves in Scripture and Scripture becomes more and more recognizable as our story.

The process of bringing the gospel and culture together takes more than one generation. To look for a once and for all biblical ‘answer’ to a particular cultural problem is to misunderstand the process whereby a community and people come to see themselves as called into the people of God and come to participate in that community.

The process takes several generations, both ancient and modern. All the endeavors of believers from many backgrounds wrestling with gospel and culture are an integral part of our story. To fully understand the impact of the gospel engaging with any particular cultural environment we need to know of the struggle of ancient Israel to come to terms with the uniqueness and the majesty of Yahweh, their backslidings, apostasy, calamity, tragedy and triumphs. We also need to know how African earth shrines relate to God’s way. We need to know how the gospel was brought from Alexandria to Axum, how it was taken from Ireland to the English, how it was taken from south-eastern Ghana to the Upper East Region. No part of the story of the people of God is alien to any other part of the story or is more important than any other part. The gospel has no permanent resident culture. It is as we take the experiences and the struggle in one context and funnel them through our own reading and experience of the Scripture in our mother tongue that we find that other Christian stories illuminate our story.

Scripture, Language and Culture

Mother-tongue Scripture has a fundamental place in the engagement of gospel and culture. If people recognize that Onyankopon (as God is called by the Akan of Ghana), the God they have known from time immemorial, is their Savior, and that the coming of the gospel is what they have looked forward to, then God is continuing to ensure that they will hear him each in their own language so that they can marvel at his majesty and his love for them. Our mother tongue is the language in which God speaks to each of us. He does not speak in a sacred language, but in ordinary language, so that we may hear him and realize that this gospel is about us and that we have been invited to join a company drawn from every people, tribe, tongue, nation and language (Rev 7:9).

‘Scripture as the Interpreter of Culture and Tradition’ by Kwame Bediako, in Africa Bible Commentary, edited by Tokunboah Adeyemo (HippoBooks, 2016). Used with permission.

Kwame Bediako (Author) served as the Resident Minister at the Ridge Church in Accra, Ghana, and was a visiting lecturer at the University of Edinburgh. He also served as Director of Akrofi-Christaller Memorial Center for Mission Research and Applied Theology in Akropong-Akuapem, Ghana. He held PhD’s in French Literature and Divinity from University of Bordeaux and University of Aberdeen, respectively.

Tokunboh Adeyemo (Editor) was the executive director of the Centre for Biblical Transformation having served previously as general secretary for the Association of Evangelicals in Africa. He held a PhD from Dallas Theological Seminary as well as an honorary doctorate awarded by Potchefstroom University for his outstanding Christian scholarship and leadership.