Missiological Hermeneutics: Biblical Interpretation for the Global Church

Written by Shawn B. Redford Reviewed By Jerry Hwang

The demise of modernism has brought the realization that truth and culture are intertwined to a greater extent than previously realized. In this regard, recent decades have witnessed a rapprochement between missiologists and biblical scholars—Richard Bauckham, Chris Wright, Michael Goheen, and others have written on the importance of the symbiosis between missiology and biblical scholarship. Adding to this growing body of literature is the present volume by Shawn Redford, a professor of missiology at Africa International University in Nairobi, Kenya. Redford undertakes to define a “missiological hermeneutic,” namely, an account of the proper relationship between missiology and biblical studies.

Redford’s book is structured as six chapters. After a brief exploration of how others have defined missiological hermeneutics (used interchangeably by Redford with “missional hermeneutics”), chapter 1 concludes with the research question to be addressed in the rest of the book: “How does [sic] the Bible and mission inform missiologists and missionaries in our hermeneutical practice today?” (p. 6). Redford proposes that any answer to this question needs first to identify Scripture’s own missiological hermeneutic and then to overcome barriers which modern interpreters face in applying such a hermeneutic.

Chapter 2 explores the missiological hermeneutics found in the Bible itself. Through an analysis of God’s promises to Abraham (Gen 12:1–3) and repetitions of these promises in the OT and NT, Redford argues that “correct interpretations of Scripture are most often surrounded by correct understandings and practices of God’s mission . . . while obscured interpretation occurs precisely when mission is obscured” (p. 8). Biblical figures such as Jacob, Daniel, and the Apostle Paul receive greater understanding of the Abrahamic promises when their own lives participate in God’s mission. This conclusion paves the way for Redford’s argument in subsequent chapters that missionaries and missiologists play an essential role in the hermeneutical enterprise.

Chapter 3 takes a polemical turn by critiquing Western hermeneutics from a missiologist’s perspective. Redford focuses his critique on three hermeneutical schools: (1) liberal scholarship; (2) evangelical scholarship; and (3) Protestant fundamentalism. While Redford’s analyses of liberal scholarship and Protestant fundamentalism are largely accurate, it should be noted that his treatment of evangelical hermeneutics relies on a questionable caricature. Among several examples that could be adduced, Redford claims that evangelical scholars have blindly followed liberals in their use of the historical-critical method. The putative result is that “God is excluded from the hermeneutical process even though evangelical scholars most often profess profound faith in God and inspiration of the Scriptures” (p. 91). Redford later clarifies that he is not denying the importance of the historical-critical method (p. 117), but the outworking of his hermeneutical practice in the book tends to favor the “cultural lenses of the missiologist” (pp. 95–114) as explicitly contrasted with “Western” hermeneutical lenses (pp. 92–94).

Chapter 4 takes the book in a more practical direction by applying a missiological hermeneutic to case studies in African polygamy. This section is particularly notable for demonstrating how Western missionaries imported their cultural presuppositions regarding marriage into their restrictions on African converts from a polygamous background. Not all will agree with Redford’s conclusion that polygamous Christians should be allowed to keep their wives and serve as leaders in the church. Even so, Redford deserves a hearing for showing how a lack of hermeneutical self-awareness on the part of Western missionaries often led them to exchange the lesser sin of polygamy for the greater sin of forcing new Christians to divorce their other wives and thereby destroy traditional family structures.

Chapters 5 and 6 conclude the book by emphasizing the priority of cross-cultural ministry experience in understanding the Bible rightly. On several occasions in these chapters (e.g., pp. 246, 289, 296), Redford goes beyond his earlier argument for balancing missiology and biblical studies by impugning conventional hermeneutics as being devoid of spiritual or missional insight. By implying that only missionaries or multicultural Christians are able to interpret the Bible effectively, Redford undermines his case for partnership among missiologists and biblical scholars by reverting to the same polarization between disciplines that he sought to avoid.

In conclusion, the overarching weakness in Redford’s book appears to be the ambiguity over what a “missiological hermeneutic” actually is. Redford frequently uses the terms “missiological” and “missional” interchangeably, yet this tendency to conflate distinct terms while simultaneously using them in a maximalist way (i.e., anything to do with cross-cultural ministry, missiology, the Abrahamic blessing, or a deeper awareness of God’s international purposes) fails to bring clarity to the ongoing debate over what is entailed by the terms mission, the missio Dei, and missiological/missional/missionary hermeneutics. In this regard, it would have been helpful if Redford had interacted with George Hunsberger’s taxonomy of the various ways in which scholars have defined “missional hermeneutics” (presented at the SBL 2008 National Meeting, available on the Internet at www.gocn.org, and published in a 2011 issue of the journal Missiology). Though it may seem trivial to argue over definitions, the history of mission in the twentieth century has shown that confusion over the scope of the missio Dei results in paralyzing disagreements over the missio ecclesiae in the world. Redford’s proposal to bring a missiological hermeneutic to bear on biblical-theological reflection and missionary praxis deserves a wide audience, but his book will prove insufficient on its own in bridging the gap between missiology and biblical studies.

Jerry Hwang

Jerry Hwang
Singapore Bible College
Republic of Singapore

Other Articles in this Issue

Carl Ferdinand Howard Henry (1913–2003) was an American theologian in the conservative evangelical tradition...

Will everyone one day be saved? Is hell only temporary, if it exists at all? If the answer is yes to either of these questions, the historic Christian commitment to the conversion of the world to Christ would appear to be somewhat silly...

People rightly note the way Christians in English-speaking Western culture have moved in a generation from being ‘moral majority’ to ‘immoral minority’...

In recent years a number of stances have arisen that have set themselves over against traditional evangelicalism and traditional Reformed thought, not a few of them arguing, in part, on the basis of a particular understanding of the kingdom...

One of the deepest impacts of the Reformation on Western Culture arose from the robust rearticulation of the biblical doctrines of creation and vocation...