Interpretation is, in the words of David Bosch, always a creative tension between text and context. There are no neutral or abstract interpretations of Scripture. There is no way in which we may stand outside of context in order to study Scripture. Whenever we approach Scripture we always bring with us our own background, presuppositions and contextual location. As a result any interpretation of Scripture is always an intricate dance between text and context. Hermeneutics, whether intentionally or unintentionally, always has dirty feet, and is deeply rooted in our context and influenced by where we stand.
How then do we read and interpret Scripture in the context of a county like South Africa, with such a rigidly racialised past and a vastly unequal economic and racial present? Too often our evangelical reading of Scripture rightly pays close attention to the Scriptural context but very little attention to our current contemporary or historical context. Consequently we often end up with overly generalised interpretations of Scripture which never speak with enough particularly to the sin and brokenness of our context. As a result we end up with a call a too-narrow call to repentance and discipleship often targeting only a very narrow range of individualistic sins and issues of personal discipleship.
What would happen if we not only recognised the role in which our contextual location and history plays in our interpretation of Scripture but actually saw it as a valuable tool in the interpretative process? A tool which when correctly used will not only allow Scripture to speak but to allow it to speak with a particularity to our time and context.
In this post we will explore the doctrine of Creation, grounding our theology in the Creation narratives of Genesis 1 and 2, we will reflect contextually on the doctrine of Creation, in a manner which I hope proves faithful to both the text of Scripture and the context in which the contemporary South African reader is located.
1. What we name something matters:
What we name something matters (Genesis 1:5, 8, 10; 2:19-20, 23). Because God puts great significance and value into the act of naming things in the Genesis accounts (1:5, 8, 10; 2:19-20, 23) we may correctly infer that what we name something matters. Names carry significance and value. Learning people’s names and how to correctly pronounce those names becomes in this context not merely a pragmatic act to aid relationship or communication, but a theological act which affirms and recognizes the inherent dignity of one who is made in the image of God.
My white brothers and sisters if we can learn how to pronounce Tchaikovsky, Dostoevsky, Novak Djokovic or Zlatan Ibrahimovic we can certainly learn how to say Nqobile, Nkosinathi, Beke Cele or Kgalema Motlanthe.
A failure to even attempt somebody’s name correctly, never mind the act of giving them an easier to pronounce for us English name, is not simply a language issue but it is a worth issue. It communicates a theological position which demeans all people as made in the image of God.
In a similar vein to “name” grown men and woman using titles such as “garden boy” or “the girl who cleans for us” betrays an unbiblical theology which fails to affirm the humanity of those equally created in the image of God.
2. God values diversity and not uniformity:
It is clear within the creation story that God values diversity and not uniformity (Genesis 1:11-12, 20-21, 24-25; 27, 29-30, 31; 2:9). He does not create simply one type of food but an abundance of different, diverse trees providing a diversity and a richness of tastes, smells and textures. This same diversity is repeated in the creation of the birds, fish and animals. God creates diversity because he delights in the richness and the variety of his creativity. Diversity is not an evil to be overcome but a joyous, creative beauty built into God’s creation.
There is no normative story that defines us all and similarly, without negating biblical ethics, there is no right or wrong universally applicable culture. We must beware of importing and normalizing one particular set of cultural values as the correct or “normal” way of doing things. This is as applicable to our methods of interpretation, our ways of singing or what we value in culture. We have often, in both church and society, allowed a type of western cultural imperialism to flourish and to dictate what is both right and normal in society. The white experience is only one of many perspectives on the world, theology, culture and church, and even here there is no singular white experience. We must resist allowing it to be the normative experience for how we do our theology, the shape our churches take or the values which we cherish.
This normalizing of white or Western values is often subtle, unquestioned and insidiously accepted by all cultures. This can a simple reference to “normal hair” or the crayon which is labelled “skin colour”. It can effect how we shape our church, who we elect as leaders, what criteria we are using to identify and train leaders or how we understand and value issues of time and punctuality. Western culture for instance is time orientated and places great stress on punctuality and time -keeping whilst African culture for instance is event orientated and places greater stress on inclusion and allowing the event to start when everybody has arrived. We may attribute similar values to the mastery of English as a measure for intelligence or theological acumen.
As the very name itself suggests, one of the cornerstones of the Apartheid policy was to keep us separate from each other and therefore, ignorant of the very different realities within which we were forced to live. This ignorance is perpetuated today through the continuing legacy of apartheid spatial planning. For many of us seeing our city, our history, our church or our childhood through the eyes of another can be a significant moment of understanding or awakening on the journey to living more justly.
Learn to listen to different perspectives and stories. Particularly as you read Scripture and formulate your theology.
3. God Speaks: Language Matters:
The Genesis account very clearly portrays our God as a speaking God. (1:3, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, 14, 20, 22, 24, 26, 28, 29-30; 2:16-17, 18) Because our God is a speaking God language matters. The God who speaks automatically gives a value and a significance to language. Even Scripture itself, God’s chosen means of revelation, employs the use of very particular human languages. God humbles himself to communicate with us using our human languages. Jesus himself is referred to the Word, the one who speaks to us, who communicates to us what God is like.
Language is not only vital for communication but is itself a crucial factor in identity formation. When we take the time to learn and communicate with someone in their home language we are doing more than aiding communication, we are affirming their identity and value. In a context like ours learning an African language can go a long way towards building bridges of reconciliation. When you speak to another person in their mother tongue, even brokenly, you invite them into relationship. Not from a position of power but from a position of humility and service. This is especially true when your home language is a dominant language.
4. Place Matters:
The picture of Eden in Scripture is that of a very real place. Place is not periphery or incidental to the creation story, it is a significant part of the creation narratives. (Genesis 2:8-15) Place matters. Place matters for us how do our theology. matters for how we do our theology. Every place is simultaneously a place of power for some and of exclusion for others. Every place is likewise both a place of belonging and home to some and foreign and alien for others. Take careful note of the places in which you invest your time. Where we do our theology is critical to how we do our theology and what theology we ultimately create.
When we spend time with those who are not like us, in places not our own, we learn to do theology differently. We learn to read our Bible with the other in mind. We learn to ask different questions of the text and of our inherited theology. Theology is not neutral. Theology, as least in part, tells the stories of both those who write it and from where they write it. Too much of our inherited theology is done from places of wealth and privilege and at great distances from the poor and the marginalized.
Distance creates indifference and narratives of violence against the other., In the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sachs, we have been guilty of “creating insulated spaces in where the cries of the oppressed can no longer be heard.” 1 As a result we can only hear the oppressed when they shout with the voices of direct violence. We must bridge the relational and spatial gap so that we can hear the daily cries of structural and cultural violence. It is these cries which are desperately missing from most of our (evangelical) theology.
5. Image-Bearers not Issues:
The primary identity of men and women at creation is that they are made in the image of God (1:27) This simple but profound phrase means that every single man, woman and child has an inherent God-given and irreversible dignity and worth as an image-bearer of the sovereign God of the universe. We ought to put a bold full-stop at the end of that sentence because there is no exception to that statement no matter how broken, marred or damaged that image may become through sin and oppression, no human being may ever, through their own actions or those of others, forfeit their God-given dignity, value and worth as image-bearers of God.
As a result discussions about racism, violence or economic inequality are not primarily about issues but about image-bearers (1:27). Always treat people with dignity. Learn their name. Speak to everyone no matter how undeserving, arrogant, dirty, greedy or poor they are as someone who is made in the image of God. No matter what religion, culture, sexual orientation or race someone is they are made in the image of God. No matter what job they have or what value society attributes to them or their work or lack of work, they are made in the image of God. And nothing can ever change that. It is not a polite or politically correct thing to treat people with dignity it is a profound theological action, affirming the truth that all people, no exceptions, are made in the image of God and therefore worthy of dignity and value.
6. Work with Dignity:
Men and women in Genesis are created to work the garden, to join with God as co-creators and shapers of the world he has made. (2:15). We are made to engage in the dignifying, fulfilling work of creation care and culture making. Work which both extends God’s initial creation work and which reflects the character of God himself. What is most contextually significant in the beauty of the creation story has more to do with what is absent than with what is present. At creation we find neither the indignity of unemployment or the soul-destroying , drudgery of so much modern labour, where the worker is reduced to effectively simply a widget in a machine of supply and demand.
What would it take for a family to live comfortably without having to struggle for their basic needs to be met in South Africa today? It may surprise you to discover that figure is estimated to be more than double the minimum wage. Paying a living wage rather than merely what everyone else is paying or what is legally required can go a long way to breaking the cycle of poverty for particular families. A living wage can assist families in not failing prey to predatory debt, as well allow as opening up better options in terms of education and nutrition. This surely must be what James has in mind when he writes that “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress…” Seeking fair and equitable treatment for the most vulnerable among us is the measure of the gospel at work in us.