Students have Bibles on hand at a KGK Japan Conference.

The sacred task of the Bible interpreter: the method of a Chinese Christian

I am a second generation Chinese in Malaysia, raised in a Confucian family, and I came to know the lordship of Christ in an Anglican high school where the Scripture Union sponsored a Christian fellowship on campus. Since then my affiliation with student campus ministry has emerged in various forms, mostly involving teaching the Bible for university students. I believe in the dynamic and mutually edifying biblical readings held in tension between the academia and the church as they answer my question as a young Christian: What has the Bible to do with the Chinese people and their cultures? For the last thirty years of searching for a Chinese expression of the gospel and a biblical reading of the Chinese cultures, I have come to realize how crucial this cross-cultural enterprise is not only for the sake of Chinese Christians. It is also crucial for the robust faith of the global church which needs to hear and learn from brothers and sisters in the Majority World.

In my 1998 book, What Has Jerusalem to Do with Beijing?, I show two ways to do Chinese biblical interpretation:*

  1. Indigenous reading: I use biblical texts to dialogue with perennial themes in Chinese cultures such as the language of yin-yang philosophy and the Confucian moral understanding of Tian Ming (Mandate of Heaven) as well as li (law/ propriety) and ren (love) to convey the biblical notions of God, humanity, rest, the will of God, and so forth. Nobody can communicate intelligibly in culture-free theological axioms; nor can Christian faith be meaningful in a cultural vacuum. So, I seek to express biblical truth in the language of my people.
  2. Contextual reading: I use the biblical texts to read Chinese cultures. For example, Paul’s preaching in Athens can be heard as speaking to Athenian philosophers as well as Chinese philosophers, and the message of hope in the book of Revelation speaks to the Chinese Christians who lived through the Cultural Revolution.

My reading of the Bible has evolved from a Chinese Christian interpretation to a Christian Chinese interpretation. Both terms pay attention to the dynamic relationship between interpretation and Chineseness (culture, philosophy, text, ways of life, and so on), but the former seeks to express Christian theology culturally and indigenously, while the latter also commits to that task yet ultimately reads cultures biblically.

To illustrate a cross-cultural interpretation, I have formulated three interactive rhetorical planes of meaning that are contained and carried through nine media (angles) of writing, writer, reader, etc.*

The first rhetorical plane (triangle) of meaning concerns the linguistic world of the reality signified in relation to the biblical author as language user:

As an interpreter I find this plane complex because I am constantly translating between Greek, Hebrew, and Chinese as I read the Bible. The way to translate God’s name in Exodus 3 or logos in John 1 into Chinese has long been a thorny issue. The challenge can be overcome as we pay attention to how potential meanings in the biblical texts are emerging as the biblical language interacts with the language of the biblical readers and as the biblical world interacts with the world of the readers.* For example, does logos in John 1 refer to Greek understandings of logic, speech, argument, structure of the universe, or all the above and more? Did the author of John’s Gospel mean by logos the Hebraic understanding of wisdom (hokmah) as Yahweh’s creative and redemptive wisdom (Proverbs 8)? In what sense does the word logos in John 1 take on both the Greek and Jewish understandings of personified wisdom and truth?

The second plane is traditionally understood as biblical exegesis, meaning a Bible reader’s concern with the historical meaning of the text:

My method here is to expand the traditional understanding of exegesis in light of rhetorical method. That is, the biblical writer as rhetorical addresses the audience’s contextual issues and/or expresses the good news of God in the indigenous language of the audience.

Because there is a fluidity of meaning between the historical meaning and the contemporary meaning of the sacred text, the third plane of meaning is needed to strike a homerun and achieve a complete interpretation of the Bible. The third plane involves interaction among the modern interpreter’s understanding of the first two triangles and her modern audience:

Behind the human writers of the biblical texts is the divine author whose meaning is so rich, multilayered, and expansive that only his Spirit can 1) incarnate linguistically in the first languages as well as in the translated vernaculars and 2) enlighten modern interpreters in our languages and understandings so that the biblical text continues to show its sacred power to speak God’s message across space and time.

I attribute the continuity of meaning from the second plane to the third plane to the Holy Spirit. Of course, the divine author can still work without a human interpreter. But since the Holy Spirit is pervasive and blows as it wills, the biblical interpreter is called to this sacred task. Though the Union Version of the Chinese Bible is not a perfect translation, and we have revisions made over the years, this translation has spoken words of life and salvation and hope to the Chinese readers.

In real life situations one’s reading of the Bible is a complex process that constitutes at least three of these planes, which confluence and interact among each other:

Thus, to pursue a complete interpretive process, one should envision the nine triangles in three planes interacting among each other. Every biblical text is simultaneously rhetorical (in the sense of aiming at persuasion), interactive (in the sense of communicative), hermeneutical (in the sense of meaningfully uttering to new audiences), and theological (in the sense of its substantive theological content in God’s speech-act in the world, from ancient to modern).

Returning to our John 1 example, can I as a modern Bible interpreter adequately translate logos as the Chinese word dao? Does the word dao in the Chinese Bible Union Version mean the Daoist cosmic dao, the Confucian personhood/ character dao, or a combination of both and more? Has the Chinese translation restricted the original meaning from John’s Gospel, thereby betraying that meaning? And, is there a real possibility that the Chinese dao translation — despite its limitation and its differences from Greek and Hebrew — in fact represents a richer rendition of logos than the English translation “Word”? In advocating cross-cultural interpretation, the answer to the last question is “yes.” The robust meaning of dao in Chinese cultures allows us to appreciate the multi-dimensional aspects of Jesus the logos/dao in the Gospel:

  1. Jesus is the Creator of the cosmos, the primordial Truth that holds the universe together;
  2. Jesus is the personified wisdom whose character or incarnated personhood becomes the life and light of humanity and created world;
  3. Jesus is the rhetorical logos whose speaking and dialogue reveals God (I am that “I AM”) and provides communication between God and human beings.

Living in the liminal spaces of the “in-between” has not been comfortable to many Chinese Christians. Nevertheless, they are not called to inerrant readings of the Bible, though that is one goal, but to biblical faithfulness. This requires a trust in God that his Spirit will “work all [interpretations] for the good” (cf. Rom 8:28) as we humbly listen to each other, becoming a global church. “Now we know only in part, then we will know fully, even as we have been fully known” (1 Cor 13:12). We need to study the Bible using all the exegetical and hermeneutical resources at our disposal, in ecumenical humility and hospitality.

Published under a Creative Commons (Attributions — No Derivatives) licence.


Respond:

  • What do you think? You can highlight text from the article to make a comment on it or add your response below.
  • Why not get together a group and talk through this issue of Word & World with our discussion questions?

Discussion questions

The Bible, cultural lenses, and the Holy spirit 

Readings: 

  • John 1:1-18 
  • K Yeo, “The Sacred Task of the Bible Interpreter: The Method of a Chinese Christian” 

K K Yeo talks about how we read the Bible through our cultural lens – and how the Bible reads or interprets our culture.

1. How do you understand the logos in John 1 in your language and culture?

2. In what ways do you read the Bible through the lens of your culture? As you read the Bible, how do you carry with you your culture’s assumptions and practices?

3. In what ways do you let the Bible interpret your culture? As you read the Bible, how does it affirm what is good in your culture and challenge what is not good?

K K Yeo also says that the complicated process of transferring meaning from the Bible to the reader happens thanks to the Holy Spirit.

4. How does the Holy Spirit enable us to read the Bible?

Hearing the Bible read aloud
Listening:
• Have one person read a Bible passage while the others listen without looking at a Bible.

Through much of the history of the church – and in much of the world today – the Bible is heard more often than it is read. The public reading of the Bible in church was and often is the main way that the Bible is received.

1. How does hearing this passage read aloud change the way that you receive it?

Have the passage read aloud at least once again.

2. What do you notice as you hear the passage repeated?

Hearing the Bible through audio and new media
Listening:
• Listen to a Bible passage on an audio recording or through another technology.

Hearing the Bible is not just an experience from the past. It is growing today through audio recordings and other technologies in what some call a return to orality.

1. Which do you do more often, hear the Bible or read the Bible?
2. When you hear this passage on audio or through another technology, how does this change the way that you hear God’s word?

Listen to the passage at least once more.

3. What do you notice as you hear the passage repeated?

Further reading

Works on reading the Bible in context include the following. The authors in this issue of Word & World suggested most of these titles. The works come from a range of Christian traditions.

English

AdeyemoTokunboh, ed. Africa Bible Commentary. Nairobi, Kenya: WordAlive Publishers; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2006. 

Brueggemann, Walter. “Futures in Old Testament Theology: Dialogic Engagement.” Horizons in Biblical Theology 37, no. 1 (2015): 32–49. 

Coffey, John. Exodus and Liberation: Deliverance Politics from John Calvin to Martin Luther King Jr. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. 

Davis, Ellen F. Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. 

Dykstra, Laurel. Set Them Free: The Other Side of Exodus. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2002. 

Ekblad, Bob. Reading the Bible with the Damned. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005. 

Escobar, Samuel. A Time for Mission: The Challenge for Global Christianity. New ed. Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2011. 

———. “Doing Theology on Christ’s Road.” In Global Theology in Evangelical Perspective: Exploring the Contextual Nature of Theology and Mission, edited by Jeffrey P Greenman and Gene L Green. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2012. 

———. The New Global Mission: The Gospel from Everywhere to Everyone. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2003. 

———. “The Social Impact of the Gospel.” In Is Revolution Change?, edited by Brian Griffiths. London: Inter-Varsity Press, 1972. 

Green, Gene L, Stephen T Pardue, and K K Yeo, eds. Jesus without Borders: Christology in the Majority World. Majority World Theology Series 1. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; Carlisle: Langham Global Library, 2015. 

———, eds. The Trinity among the Nations: The Doctrine of God in the Majority World. Majority World Theology Series 2. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans; Carlisle, Cumbria: Langham Global Library, 2015. 

Greenman, Jeffrey P, and Gene L Green, eds. Global Theology in Evangelical Perspective: Exploring the Contextual Nature of Theology and Mission. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2012. 

Griffiths, Brian, ed. Is Revolution Change? London: Inter-Varsity Press, 1972. 

Judge, E A. The Social Pattern of the Christian Groups in the First Century: Some Prolegomena to the Study of New Testament Ideas of Social Obligation. London: Tyndale Press, 1960. 

McLean, Bradley H. Biblical Interpretation and Philosophical Hermeneutics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. 

Neville, Robert C, Amos Yong, and Peter Heltzel, eds. Theology in Global Context: Essays in Honour of Robert Cummings Neville. London: T&T Clark, 2004. 

Oden, Thomas C. A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2014. 

———, ed. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1998-. 

———. How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the African Seedbed of Western Christianity. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP, 2007. 

Ott, Craig. “Globalization and Contextualization: Reframing the Task of Contextualization in the Twenty-First Century.” Missiology 43, no. 1 (2015): 43–58. 

Padilla, C René. “My Theological Pilgrimage.” Journal of Latin American Theology 2 (2009). 

———. “Revolution and Revelation.” In Is Revolution Change?, edited by Brian Griffiths. London: Inter-Varsity Press, 1972. 

Parratt, John, ed. An Introduction to Third World Theologies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. 

Patte, Daniel, ed. Global Bible Commentary. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2004. 

Richards, E Randolph, and Brandon J O’Brien. Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Books, 2012. 

Ritzer, George. The McDonaldization of Society. 8th ed. Los Angeles: SAGE, 2015. 

Schmid, Konrad. “What Is the Difference Between Historical and Theological Exegesis?” Translated by Peter Altmann, 2011. 

Selby, Gary S. Martin Luther King and the Rhetoric of Freedom: The Exodus Narrative in America’s Struggle for Civil Rights. Studies in Rhetoric and Religion 5. Waco, Tex.: Baylor University Press, 2008. 

Stott, John. “Culture and the Bible.” InterVarsity Christian Fellowship: International Student Ministry, December 16, 2013. http://ism.intervarsity.org/resource/culture-and-bible. 

Sweeney, Marvin A. Tanak: A Theological and Critical Introduction to the Jewish Bible. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012. 

Tennent, Timothy C. Theology in the Context of World Christianity: How the Global Church Is Influencing the Way We Think about and Discuss Theology. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2007. 

Tiénou, Tite, and John Jusu, eds. Africa Study Bible. Wheaton, Ill.: Oasis International, 2017. 

Volf, Miroslav. Captive to the Word of God: Engaging the Scriptures for Contemporary Theological Reflection. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2010. 

Walzer, Michael. Exodus and Revolution. New York: Basic Books, 1984. 

Warrior, Robert. “Canaanites, Cowboys, and Indians: Deliverance, Conquest, and Liberation Theology Today.” Christianity & Crisis 49, no. 12 (September 11, 1989): 261–65. 

Wintle, Brian C, ed. South Asia Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2015. 

Yeo, K K. “Chinese Christologies: Images of Christ and Chinese Cultures.” In The Oxford Handbook of Christology, edited by Francesca Aran Murphy, 393–407. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. 

———. “Culture and Intersubjectivity as Criteria of Negotiating Meanings in Cross-Cultural Interpretations.” In The Meanings We Choose: Hermeneutical Ethics, Indeterminacy and the Conflict of Interpretations, edited by Charles H Cosgrove, 81–100. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament. Supplement Series 411. London: T&T Clark, 2004. 

———. “Introduction: Trinity 101: Kaleidoscopic Views of God in the Majority World.” In The Trinity among the Nations: The Doctrine of God in the Majority World, edited by Gene L Green, Stephen T Pardue, and K K Yeo, 1–17. Majority World Theology Series 2. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans; Carlisle, Cumbria: Langham Global Library, 2015. 

———. Musing with Confucius and Paul: Toward a Chinese Christian Theology. Eugene, Ore.: Cascade Books, 2008. 

———. What Has Jerusalem to Do with Beijing? Biblical Interpretation from a Chinese Perspective. Harrisburg, Penn.: Trinity Press International, 1998. 

French

Adeyemo, Tokunboh, and Solomon Andria, eds. Commentaire biblique contemporain. Marne-la-Vallée : Éd. Farel, 2008. 

Angers, Dominique. La méditation biblique à l’ère numérique. Marne-la-Vallée : Farel éd., 2012. 

Berthoud, Pierre, and Paul Wells, eds. Texte et historicité: récit biblique et histoire. Cléon-d’Andran: Éd. Excelsis, 2006. 

Blandenier, Patrick. Les pauvres avec nous: la lutte contre la pauvreté selon la Bible et dans lhistoire de lEglise. Valence : Ligue pour la lecture de la Bible, 2006. 

Blocher, Henri. La Bible au microscope. Vol. 2. Vaux-sur-Seine : Édifac, 2010. 

———. La Bible au microscopeexég̀ese et théologie biblique. Vaux-sur-Seine : Editions Édifac, 2006. 

Brisebois, Mireille. Des méthodes pour mieux lire la Bible: lexégèse historico-critique. Montréal : Société catholique de la Bible, 1983. 

Courthial, Pierre, and Paul Wells, eds. Dieu parle! études sur la Bible et son interprétation en hommage à Pierre Courthial. Aix-en-Provence : Éd. Kerygma, 1984. 

Escobar, Samuel. La mission. Marne-la-vallée : Farel, 2006. 

Fee, Gordon D., and Douglas K. Stuart. Un nouveau regard sur la Bible. Deerfield, Fla. : Editions Vida, 1990. 

Hoggarth, Pauline. La graine et le sol: une parole qui libère. Champs-sur-Marne (Seine-et-Marne) : Farel, 2012. 

Imbert, Yannick. “L’instrumentalisation Des Ecritures Par Les Idéologies.” La Revue Réformée 268, no. 44 (2013). 

Kuen, Alfred. Comment étudier la BibleMarpent : Éditions BLF, 2001. 

———. Comment interpréter la Bible. Saint-Légier, Suisse : Emmäus, 1991. 

———. Comment lire la BibleVennes sur Lausanne : Ligue pour la lecture de la Bible, 1978. 

Marguerat, Daniel, Yvan Bourquin, Marcel Durrer, and Florence Clerc. Pour lire les récits bibliques: initiation à lanalyse narrative. Paris : Les Éd. du Cerf; Genève : Labor et fides, 2009. 

Nisus, Alain, edL’amour de la sagesse: Hommage à Henri Blocher. Vaux-sur-Seine : Édifac, 2012. 

Padilla, C. René. “L’interprétation de la Parole.” In L’Évangile et le monde urbanisé, 5e édition. Montréal : Direction Chrétienne, 2009. 

Padilla, René, Samuel Escobar, and Hans Ferdinand BürkiÉvangile, culture et idéologies. Lausanne : Presses bibliques universitaires, 1977. 

Romerowski, Sylvain. Les sciences du langage et l’étude de la BibleCharols : Excelsis, 2011. 

Smith, Glenn. “La mission de Dieu et la vocation évolutive de l’Église au Québec.” In L’Évangile et le monde urbanisé, 5e édition. Montréal : Direction Chrétienne, 2009. 

Smith, Sandra, and Glenn Smith. La méthode inductive d’étude biblique. Montréal : Direction Chrétienne, 2014. 

Wiher, Hannes, edBible et mission. Vol. 2. Charols : Excelsis, 2012. 

———, edBible et mission: vers une théologie évangélique de la missionCharols : Excelsis, 2012. 

———, edLa mission de l’Église au XXIe siècle les nouveaux défisCharols : Excelsis, 2010. 

Wright, Christopher Joseph Herbert. La mission de Dieu: fil conducteur du récit bibliqueCharols : Excelsis, 2012. 

Spanish

Arana Quiroz, Pedro. Progreso, técnica y hombre: algunas reflexiones histórico-bíblicas pronunciadas en diversas universidades latinoamericanas. Barcelona: Ediciones Evangélicas Europeas, 1973. 

———. Providencia y revolución. Lima, Perú: El Estandarte de la Verdad, 1970. 

Atiencia, Jorge, Samuel Escobar, and John Stott. Así leo la Biblia: cómo se forman maestros de la Palabra. Barcelona; Buenos Aires: Certeza Unida, 1999. 

Escobar, Samuel. Cómo comprender la misión. Barcelona: Certeza Unida, 2008. 

———. Diálogo entre Cristo y Marx y otros ensayos. Ed. rev. Lima: AGEUP, 1969. 

Escobar, Samuel, C René Padilla, and Edwin Yamauchi¿Quién es Cristo hoy? Buenos Aires: Ediciones Certeza, 1971. 

Padilla, C René. Misión integral: ensayos sobre el Reino de Dios y la iglesia. Barcelona: Ediciones Kairós, 2015. 

Salinas, Daniel. Nuestra fe: Integrando la Palabra en la vida cotidiana. Certeza México, 2013. 

Wright, Christopher J H, and Jonathan Lamb. La versatilidad de la BibliaLima, Perú: Ediciones Puma, 2015. 

Other languages 

Schmid, Konrad. “Sind die Historisch-Kritischen kritischer geworden? Überlegungen zu Stellung und Potential der Bibelwissenschaften.” Jahrbuch für biblische Theologie, Schmid 25 (2011): 63–78. 

杨克勤 = K K Yeo. 庄子与雅各隐喻生命遨游天恩 = Zhuangzi and James上海市 = Shanghai: 华东师范大学出版社, 2012. 

Footnotes

[1] K. K. Yeo, What Has Jerusalem to Do with Beijing? Biblical Interpretation from a Chinese Perspective (Harrisburg, Penn.: Trinity Press International, 1998).

[2] See K. K. Yeo, “Culture and Intersubjectivity as Criteria of Negotiating Meanings in Cross-cultural Interpretations,” in The Meanings We Choose, edited by Charles H. Cosgrove (Edinburgh: Sheffield/T&T Clark International, 2004), 81–100.

[3] See my recent discussion of the name of God in “Introduction: Trinity 101: Kaleidoscopic Views of God in the Majority World,” in Gene Green, Steve Pardue, K. K. Yeo, eds., Trinity Among the Nations: Doctrine of God in the Majority World, Majority World Theology Series 2 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2015), 1-17; and the translation of logos into Chinese in “Chinese Christologies: Images of Christ and Chinese Cultures,” in Francesca Murphy, ed., The Oxford Handbook on Christology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 393-407

All Word & World Articles