Towards a missional hermeneutic informing missional ecclesiology and transformative theological education in Africa.

Pieter Hendrik Johannes Labuschagne


Towards a missional hermeneutic informing missional ecclesiology and transformative theological education in Africa.

The Southern African Missiological Society (SAMS) invited papers for the January 2019 conference, dealing with the decolonisation and Africanisation of theological education, missiology and mission in the 21st century Africa. This represents a twofold goal: (i) to encourage missional churches to take part in transforming theological education and (ii) to allow transformative theological education to contribute to a missional ecclesiology that will bring about socioeconomic, political and religious transformation. This paper sets out to demonstrate that we will achieve neither of these without a fitting missional hermeneutic.

This article deals with Africanisation and decolonisation as two sides of the same coin and not as separate, either-or options. The reason for this is that Africanisation and decolonisation inherently represent opposing methodologies: (i) Africanisation implies transformation by cultural incorporation and assimilation. In a positive way one focusses on- and seeks African attributes that can strengthen and contextualise the curriculum. The end-product displays a rich African-ness. (ii) Decolonisation, could point toward separation, destruction and forceful removal, brought on by of the addition of the prefix de-.[1] This targets the colonial curriculum and its abolition and eradication. The focus is on what we must dispose of, do away with, discard, root out. The end-product is a curriculum that is purged from colonialism, without necessarily suggesting an African alternative.

It is therefore essential that the two concepts above are applied in tandem, working together, to bring about a give-and-take result, with a balanced outcome.

We propose a transformative missional hermeneutic that promotes mutualism[2] between the theological curriculum, missiology, Scripture, and the African context, built on the contributions of Gerhard von Rad’s Traditionsgeschichte,[3] Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Wirkungsgeschichte[4], and JNJ (Klippies) Kritzinger’s Encounterology[5].

Gerhard Von Rad emphasized the importance of the final form of the text. For him this had to be the starting point and the end point of Old Testament scholarship. He was, however, interested in how the text developed. This led him to the discovery of the Credo in Deuteronomy 26:5-9, which he identified as the basic confession of faith of God’s people.[6] In searching for the theological maximum, he discovered the historical minimum: the Credo. From this nucleus he traced the development of Israel’s traditions to the final form of the text. This not only helped him to understand the historical development of the text, but it helped him to grasp Israel’s theological self-understanding. This was the starting point of his theology and the basis for his Traditionsgeschichte.[7]

He studied how the Credo was interpreted in different eras and how it was applied to different historical contexts. Significant time passed between the first biblical record of the Credo and the last. Where interpreters often see this historical gap as an awful abyss, Von Rad was conscious of the wealth of historical tradition contained in the gulf that separated people and events in time; he used this to understand the Credo better. Instead of bridging the gap, or bypassing the gap, he highlighted its value. What seems to be a dividing gap, is in fact what binds us together across time and history.

According to Von Rad the Credo was open-ended, which enabled people to apply it afresh in every situation.[8] Von Rad points out that each new generation understood God’s promise to them within their own context. The unique application of the Credo to their own context should not be seen as an alteration of it, but rather as a confirmation of its importance for them. They understood that God was with them just as He has been with their forefathers. Just as God worked then, He was working now. Kritzinger echoes this when he says: “The life of a Christian community should therefore be a faithful and impactful performance of the Christian message in a particular context.”[9]

Understanding for yourself is what gives humans hope and security; we are interpreting beings who cannot understand independently of ourselves. Understanding is a core aspect of our existence; it is a process that we are part of continuously.

Gadamer points out that the distance that lies between the ancient text and the modern interpreter seems like an awful abyss that cannot be overcome. This is not an abyss to be feared, but that must rather be approached with expectation: it is filled with historical interpretations that are essential for our own understanding. It serves as a bridge between the text and the interpreter, which are both historical entities. Every historical interpretation is a basis that we can build on; it is in the sum-total of these interpretations that the present is anchored. This continuous process of historical understanding and interpretation is what Gadamer calls Wirkungsgeschichte.

To understand historically entails a fusion of horizons between our horizon and the one from the past. We must understand from the outset that Gadamer’s reference to different horizons does not mean that there are closed horizons that exist in isolation from one another. When we engage a horizon from the past, we are not entering completely unknown territory. There is one broad comprehensive horizon that we all form part of: that of history itself.[10] Every horizon is historically determined. The fusion of horizons is not the creation of a new horizon; it is rather a discovery of the broader historical horizon that all humanity belongs to.

The term encounterology described by Kritzinger[11], is an essensial prerequisite for missional ecclesiology and transformative theological education. Missional ecclesiology implies reaching out and making God known. We have random, spontanious encounters with people on a daily basis, but our mission involvement also asks for intentional encounters. These encounters need to be reciprocal, where we converse as equal partners. Superior, colonial attitudes of a higher order instructing a lower order is out of place. “Too often we create the impression that Christians are the only actors on the stage, by describing only the praxis of the change agents who “go out” or “reach out” to bring about change.”[12]

A mature encounter cannot take place where one interlocutor thinks they know things that must be taught to the other. Instead of identifying our interlocuters as objects, they need to become co-subjects in the conversation. As much as we have something to give, our interlocuters should have the freedom to either receive or reject it; in return we need to allow them to offer something to us – irrespective of the fact that we receive it or reject it. “Mission “objects” are in fact subjects, active agents, deciding on the basis of their interaction with us whether (or to what extent) they wish to accept what we have presented to them.”[13]

“Mission as praxis is about concrete transformation; it is specifically about transformative encounters: among people, and between the living God and people, leading to people being called, sent, healed, and empowered...God’s mission, the arriving of the reign of God, is about transformative encounters.”[14] If we are serious about transformative theological education we will need a new approach for doing theology. This approach should encourage interactive encounters between theology and praxis, between ourselves and the other; between what we believe and who we are – leading to a discovery of the other and of ourselves. Transformative theological education can only take place in a milieu of encountering people and communities.[15]

Hermeneutics calls for intentional encounters, where a fusion of horizons can take place; it is a neccesary requirement for human interaction and mutual understanding. One way in which apartheid estranged cultures in South Africa was through separate education systems and separate geographical areas of habitation. Separate but equal sounded like a balanced multicultural society, but in reality whites enjoyed privileges that others did not have. A proper hermeneutical understanding between cultures was made difficult.

Apartheid affected all South Africans; it is part of the world we know – no matter on which side of the divide we find ourselves. What we need is a honest examination of who we are collectively and as individuals; we must ask Jesus questions and allow Him to ask us questions; we must seek deliberate encounters with Scripture, different contexts, and people who are different from us; we must give and be willing to process what we receive – with the sole purpose of drawing closer to God and to one another in a way that honours Him and that gives birth to a truly indiginous missional ecclesiology and transformative African theology.

We need new voices – non-colonial, African voices – to make us aware of our existing biases, which influence our view of other’s cultures. “It will also reveal to practitioners of theologies how myoptic and insensitive they often are in the way they perceive their own religious traditions – and those of their neighbours.”[16] A need to decolonise theology (and eradication its evils) is understandable, but when conducted without the right encounters it could be as harmful to theology as colonialism itself.


This article emphasises the inherent methodological difference between Africanisation and decolonisation, and stresses the importance of them operating in tandem – not as either-or activities. Colonial curricula need to be addresses, but if its eradication is our only agenda, without offering a valid African alternative, we have failed. If decolonisation elevates one party over the other and only focuses on rooting out the colonial curriculm, encounterology suffers. If de-colonisation is the driving force behind the transformation of theology, we run the risk of “reacting against” colonial elements in a way that is surpringly similar to the colonial approach that we are trying to eradicate. It is then just another system that is forced down from the top without a fusion of horizons: a reversed-colonialism.


We would do much better to adopt a positive missional hermeneutic; one where colonial theology is engaged as an interlocutor. Intentional encounters should take place; encounters of listening and sharing; of interaction and participation. If these encounters result in the discovery and formulation of who all the role players are and how their theologies work, then an Africanised curriculum can emerge.


We are proposing a missional hermeneutic that reaches further than an encounter between two partners. A hermeneutic that underlies the Africanisation of theology involves not only Africans, but also the existing (colonial) theology curriculum, Scripture, context and missiological facilitators. If these roleplayers deal with their respective prejudices and allow for a kind of encounterology like what Kritzinger proposes in his Praxis Matrix, we will succeed in producing an Africanised theology and ecclesiology that can hold its ground internationally.


[1] “a prefix occurring in loanwords from Latin (decide); also used to indicate privation, removal, and separation (dehumidify), negation (demerit; derange), descent (degrade; deduce ), reversal (detract), intensity (decompound).”

“De- is added to a verb in order to change the meaning of the verb to its opposite… De- is added to a noun in order to make it a verb referring to the removal of the thing described by the noun… removal of or from something specified… reversal of something… departure from.”

[2] “Symbiosis comes from two Greek words that mean "with" and "living." It describes a close relationship between two organisms from different species. It is sometimes, but not always, beneficial to both parties…There are several kinds of symbiosis to consider when looking for examples of symbiosis: Commensalism, Parasitism, Mutualism, Endosymbiosis and Ectosymbiosis”


[3] Von Rad 2001:xxxiii-xxxiv.

[4] Gadamer 2013:310-317.

[5] Kritzinger 2008:764–790.

[6] Von Rad 2001:xiv-xxv, 122, 136, 296; Deuteronomy 26:5-9.

[7] Lohfink 1994:266.

[8] Von Rad 2001:xvi.

[9] Kritzinger 2015:3.

[10] Gadamer 2013:315.

[11] Kritzinger 2008:764-790.

[12] Kritzinger 2011:14.

[13] Ibid., p. 14.

[14] Kritzinger 2011:13.

[15] Kritzinger 2008:4, 16.

[16] Kritzinger 2008:2.


Missional hermeneutics; africanisation; decolonisation; transformative theological education

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