The general aim of the Africa Bible Commentary (ABC) is ‘to make the Word of God speak relevantly to African realities today’ and certainly that is the case. The editor has done a remarkable job of bringing great diversity generally within sound Scriptural parameters. In addition to biblical commentary, ABC covers issues ranging from Christian education in Africa to HIV/AIDS and initiation rites.
The greatest strengths of ABC are its African character and its many excellent articles and commentaries. However, its Africanisation is also its most problematic area. Syncretism is a constant potential threat to the integrity of both the Bible and the church. Another allied challenge is the need to guard against interpreting the Bible from the current cultural context.
ABC does not demonstrate a consistent policy concerning these issues. For example, in the article entitled ‘The role of the ancestors’, the author says that ‘the best approach may be … [to say] that Jesus has come to fulfil our African ancestral cult’.
This approach is fraught with difficulties and dangers, as it assumes that most traditional African religions are both ‘of God’ and generally similar to the religion of the ancient Hebrews. I do not believe that either of these assumptions can reasonably be supported from Scripture or from an analysis of many forms of traditional African religion.
The article on ‘syncretism’ is well reasoned and helpful. Here the author argues for the legitimacy of ‘adapting any traditional elements that make one’s faith more culturally relevant’.
He goes on to caution Evangelicals not to ‘allow their fear of syncretism to prevent them from contextualizing their faith to allow for meaningful local expression of it’. Then he makes the all important observation that ‘such contextualization must be accompanied by a firm stand for the absolutes or cores of the gospel message. We need to be rigorous in guarding against any form of Christo-paganism, but there is nothing wrong theologically and missiologically with integrating culture and the gospel – as long as the finality and supremacy of Jesus Christ alone as our Lord and Saviour is not sacrificed at the altar of multicultural and religious relativism’. Well put indeed!
The lead article ‘Scripture as the interpreter of culture and tradition’ contains a number of questionable statements. Contextualisation and enculturation are complex issues and perhaps a longer and deeper article would have more adequately presented the author’s ideas. As it stands, however, I found the article contentious and potentially misleading.
For instance, the author states that ‘we should not focus on extracting principles from the Bible and applying these to culture’. In my opinion, that is exactly what we should be doing. Our culture certainly influences the way we read doctrine, but the general direction of interpretation should be from Scripture to culture and not from culture to Scripture.
ABC is a valuable contribution to the body of commentaries available and has a unique range of Africanised comments and applications. However, parts of it need to be read with discretion.
While it provides valuable background and African contextual material, it is lacking in its treatment of several key issues and doctrines. A careful re-editing could greatly improve this work. The commentary will most likely continue through several reprints and we should regard it as a work in progress.