About: this paper was delivered to Dr. Libby Vincent at Fuller Theological Seminary during my first year for a class in systematic theology.
Sadly, the Bible has been a source of grief throughout certain points in history, such as the American slave trade. James Evans pointed out this unfortunate problem in United States’ history in his book, We Have Been Believers. Evans noted that the church has been guilty of eisogetically studying the Bible so as to use it for its own benefit at certain points in history, and the American slave trade is no exception. He perceives that there are four things a preacher or theologian must take into account before properly ministering to African-American theologians, which are as follows: one, cultural influences cannot be escaped; two, the Bible must be allowed to speak to today; three, the biblical story is more important that the individual words that comprise the story; and four, the Bible’s authority must be understood within the history of its acceptance, which was during a struggle for liberation. These four perceptions have impacted my philosophy for ministry and me by forcing me to realize that I need to be sensitive when utilizing the Bible, by urging me to be cautious of cultural influences, and by challenging me to make Scripture relevant. Let us begin by quickly examining the four perceptions that Evans presented in his book and then briefly look at the three ways his perceptions have had an impact on my ministry philosophy and on me.
Evans’ four perceptions are an answer to a simple question that asks, “What does the history of African-American biblical interpretation mean for systematic theology?” For Evans, it is a four-fold answer. He wrote, “First, it means that social location conditions biblical interpretation. . . . Second, what the Bible means takes priority over what the Bible meant. . . . Third, the story takes priority over the text. . . . Fourth, the African-American theologian must articulate the liberating hermeneutic that grants authority to Scripture in the experience of black Christians.”1 It must be admitted that cultural influence cannot be escaped in biblical interpretation. The Bible must continue to speak to today and not to the past. The meaning behind the words is more valuable than the words themselves. In speaking to black people, the black Christian tradition concerning the Bible must be utilized. These four perceptions have had an impact on my ministry philosophy and on me in three ways.
First, Evans’ four perceptions have brought me to the realization that I need to be sensitive when referring to the Bible. The Bible has been a source of grief in many people’s lives, so to refer to the authority of Scripture is not always helpful and is sometimes harmful. I need to be sensitive to this possibility at all times if I am to effectively minister as a church leader and even as a person. If I do not, then not only will people not want to hear me at the pulpit or in the front of a classroom, but even more broadly I will be disdained as an individual.
Second, Evans’ four perceptions have urged me to be cautious of cultural influences. I cannot be irresponsible and eisogetically interpret the Bible. I would make myself unworthy of anyone’s trust should I do so. However, I must be mindful that I cannot fully escape my cultural influences, but at the very least I must try to allow Scripture to speak to me and to my contemporaries without allowing my own culturally influenced perceptions speak to Scripture.
Third, Evans’ four perceptions have challenged me to make Scripture relevant. Although exegetical and historical studies are exhilarating and fruitful, they are not enough. Scripture must be spoken in such a way that it ministers to today’s people. It spoke in the past and it should speak to today. The challenge is how I will allow for Scripture to speak to today in my teaching, preaching and writing? I must find a way to allow Scripture its own place to speak to today.
I believe Evans is correct in his perceptions, that culture influences biblical interpretation, the Bible must speak to today, the story behind the words is more valuable than the words, and black Christian tradition must be utilized for ministering to African-Americans. These perceptions have persuaded me to realize that I need to be sensitive when referring to the Bible, to be cautious of my own cultural influences as well as others’, and to be a vessel for which Scripture can speak to today. My ministry is impacted through these three persuasions because all my preaching, teaching and writing must pass these three types of tests—relative (Am I relating well or turning people off by using Scripture in this way?), cultural (Am I pulling this idea out of or placing it into Scripture?), practical (Am I allowing Scripture to be relevant or am I making it an archaic book that is irrelevant?). Personally, Evans’ four perceptions speak to me entirely in relational terms. It is helpful to be reminded to be cautious of eisogesis and to make Scripture relevant, but most of all to be mindful of others’ feelings. How can I make an impact as a person and as a teacher, preacher or writer? Evans makes it clear. I can have an impact in my life by be responsible with the Bible and by making the message of the Bible relevant.
1 James Evans, We Have Been Believers: an African-American Systematic Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 51-2.