Hermeneutics and the Myth of Tabula Rasa

The Maasai Creed composed by the Kenyan tribe in the 1960s. They were asked to create a theological statement that reflected their own faith in Christ in a way that seemed most appropriate to them. They wrote these words:

We believe in the one High God, who out of love created the beautiful world and everything good in it. He created Man and wanted Man to be happy in the world. God loves the world and every nation and tribe on the Earth. We have known this High God in darkness, and now we know Him in the light. God promised in the book of His word, the Bible, that He would save the world and all the nations and tribes.

We believe that God made good His promise by sending His Son, Jesus Christ, a man in the flesh, a Jew by tribe, born poor in a little village, who left His home and was always on safari doing good, curing people by the power of God, teaching about God and man, showing the meaning of religion is love. He was rejected by his people, tortured and nailed hands and feet to a cross, and died. He lay buried in the grave, but the hyenas did not touch him, and on the third day, He rose from the grave. He ascended to the skies. He is the Lord.

We believe that all our sins are forgiven through Him. All who have faith in Him must be sorry for their sins, be baptized in the Holy Spirit of God, live the rules of love and share the bread together in love, to announce the Good News to others until Jesus comes again. We are waiting for Him. He is alive. He lives. This we believe. Amen.

This is a beautiful statement of faith that reflects their beliefs and theology in a way that is culturally appropriate. What do you think about these words? Is anything missing?

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Hermeneutics is a tricky thing. Hermeneutics is “the theory of interpretation of a text for modern-day application.” (Fee and Stuart, 15). It is, in essence, the way we interpret what we read, the lens by which we understand and categorize what we encounter.

Most of us believe we don’t have a hermeneutic. We are simply reading the Bible and telling what is there. “This is simply the way it is; this isn’t my interpretation,” they might say. “This is who God is, what he is like, or what we should believe.” We believe that our hermeneutic is the correct one; that it isn’t “tainted” by culture or heritage or perception.

One example of this is our Western interpretation of texts like Mark 10:17-24 (the Rich Young Ruler.) We often listen to this passage and make statements like, “Jesus wasn’t telling this man that wealth was his problem.” Or “Sure, Jesus said this to him because he valued his wealth; but he might ask me to do something different.” Or “But money isn’t the root of evil; it’s the LOVE Of money that’s the root of all evil.” And all of those statements might be true. But it also ignores the fact that we are part of the richest nation in the history of the world, and we are part of a privileged generation. When we make statements like the ones above, they might just be tainted by our own culture, history, privilege, and perception. What might a middle-aged woman in Nigeria, or a Christian widow in India, or a convert in Nepal say about these verses? What might they teach us above love, generosity, care, and discipleship?

There is no such thing as a tabula rasa, a “blank slate.” None of us approaches scripture without inherent biases, thoughts, preconceptions, etc. Nor can we leave our own experience behind. Our biblical interpretation and our understanding about God is colored by our background, heritage, gender, status, socio-economic level, and other aspects of our character. Our experiences shape our interpretation.

Christianity is shifting in the world. In the past, theology was done in the North and West. Theology as studied and written in Europe and, later, North America. These were the predominant places that theologians went to train and learn. Even today, if you want to obtain a PhD in Old Testament, New Testament, or Theology, you have to read German and French in addition to the ancient biblical languages (Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic.)

Yet this system is outmoded and outdated, especially in light of the theological shift to the South and East. It is estimated that there are more Christians attending Church in China than in the US on a given Sunday. Theology is now being done in places like South Africa, Argentina, Nigeria, Sudan, China, and Thailand. Whose “theological perspective” is correct?

If it is true that “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28) or “Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all” (Col. 3:11), then we have to begin to take the perspectives of others seriously. We have as much to learn as we have to teach. If we are willing to listen to brothers and sisters in Christ around the world, then we will learn something new and fresh about God (and about ourselves.) Indeed, if we are ever blessed to read these stories with someone who has never heard them before, we will probably hear a new way of looking at these narratives that we have never considered. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it is right… That doesn’t necessarily mean that they are closer to God than we are… But it does mean that we can all listen, think, and be heard by another.