Intercultural Hermeneutics

Written by Henning Wrogemann Reviewed By Will Brooks

With the growth of the church in the Majority World and the center of Christianity shifting to the Global South, it has become imperative for scholars to devote more attention to issues of contextual theology and intercultural theological dialogue. Wrogemann’s book attempts to do just that by examining the various ways culture and history affect theological development in a specific context. As the head of the Institute for Intercultural Theology and Interreligious Studies at the Protestant University Wuppertal, Wrogemann is well suited to address this issue.

Wrogemann’s primary thesis in this book is that theology is fleshed out in the everyday issues of life. Thus, the study of intercultural theology is concerned with examining the media of different cultural settings and how that affects the theology manifested in those contexts. To accomplish this purpose, he defines intercultural theology and intercultural hermeneutics in Part I. He then considers the concept of culture, the history of hermeneutics in the West, and the question of globalization in Part II.

In Part III, he looks at African theology as an example to show how some contextual theologies in Africa relate to their specific cultural milieu. In the fourth section, Wrogemann examines historical approaches to Christian mission. These various approaches illustrate how intercultural interaction has taken place in the past. Finally, in Part V, he answers key questions related to interculturality, including inculturation, syncretism, postcolonialism, and ecumenism.

One strength of this work is its thoroughness. Wrogemann covers a wide range of issues related to culture, contextual theology, and mission studies. For example, his section on Christian mission and intercultural interaction covers five centuries of mission work. Organized into five separate models of intercultural interaction, these models not only recount different historical mission strategies, but they also display the ways that missionaries interpreted and interacted with the worldviews they encountered.

At the same time, though, while Wrogemann covers a wide range of topics, readers might at times find it difficult to discern an overall structure or flow to the book. After defining basic terms in Part I, he deals extensively with the idea of culture and cultural semiotics in Part II. At this point, one would expect him to build on those ideas by showing how culture affects theological development. Instead, he deals with examples of contextual theologies in Africa. More confusing still are Parts IV and V, which seem disconnected from the overall theme of the book as though something of an afterthought.

Another strength of the book is its exploration of the interaction between culture and theology. He explains that a hermeneutics of culture aims to “identify those cultural patterns that members of a certain culture perceive as signs and to interpret them” (p. 153). He goes on to state, “It is an attempt to decode other, foreign cultures using the medium of their own conceptions and terminology” (p. 154). The difficulty here, Wrogemann explains elsewhere, is remaining neutral while one uncovers the cultural issues that lie beneath certain theological distinctives of the church in that specific context. He explains that “the task of intercultural theology is to remain hermeneutically sensitive even (and especially) over against those forms of expression of Christian life and doctrine in a given context which an observer might consider to be offensive” (p. 166). His explanation of these complex issues is incredibly valuable.

When it comes to the book’s overall theme, the strongest section is the one on contextual theology in Africa. In this section, Wrogemann looks at specific manifestations of theology in various African contexts. He examines Pentecostal approaches, more contextual approaches that explain Jesus as ancestor, African women’s theology, and more evangelical approaches. He explains that within this spectrum some groups have allowed context to have more emphasis on theology, while other groups, like evangelical ones, attempt to allow the Scriptures to have more authority in shaping doctrine. This section is a fascinating study of the interplay between text and context, and the specific examples help to flesh out the philosophical arguments of Part II.

The most significant weakness of the book is the fact that when one picks up a book with the word “hermeneutics” in the title, one anticipates that the author will deal with theories for interpreting the Bible. In fact, the book starts off that way by stating that hermeneutics is concerned with answering the question, “What did the author intend to say with the text?” (p. 31). It is only later on that the reader realizes that the “texts” Wrogemann refers to are specific cultural settings around the world. This book is less about biblical interpretation and more about interpreting the relationship between theology and culture in any given context.

Will Brooks

Will Brooks
Malaysia Baptist Theological Seminary
Penang, Malaysia

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