Scriptures must continue to inform the church’s response to the world

Kenneth Mtata. Photo: LWF/S. Gallay
Kenneth Mtata. Photo: LWF/S. Gallay

Interview with theologian Kenneth Mtata, coordinator of LWF’s hermeneutics process

GENEVA, 22 August 2016 (LWI) – Zimbabwean theologian Rev. Dr Kenneth Mtata has been coordinating study processes on biblical interpretation at The Lutheran World Federation (LWF) since 2010. As he prepares to take up new responsibility with churches in his home country, he spoke to Lutheran World Information about the LWF hermeneutics process and its contribution to renewal and transformation in the church.

What prompted the LWF to start the hermeneutics study process, why is it important?

The initial impulse to revisit interpretation of the Bible in the life of the communion came from the fact that The Lutheran World Federation as a communion of churches that trace their history back to the Reformation, has a special commitment to the scriptures. The 16th century reformation was premised on a new vitality of the church based on the interpretation of scriptures from some liberating perspectives. The movement to reform the church had resulted in translation of the scriptures into the vernacular, thereby making the Bible available to all people. As the LWF started to prepare how to commemorate 500 years of the Reformation, scriptural interpretation therefore became central.

The other reason for establishing the hermeneutics process was to address some of the emerging ethical challenges as these threatened the unity of the communion. The point was not to find the ‘right interpretation’ but to find ways that allowed Lutherans within the same family to find civilized ways of addressing differences in interpretation.

The force of the scriptures was the energy of the Reformation and therefore remains the fuel for ongoing renewal of the church today.
Rev. Dr Kenneth Mtata

Were these issues not already being addressed in other study processes?

These issues could have been addressed in other studies. For example, we had previous studies such as the “Witnessing to God’s faithfulness: Issues of Biblical Authority”, LWF Studies 02/2006, through which the place of the Bible in ethical decision making in the church had been alluded to. What made the hermeneutics process unique was the deliberate effort to understand the relationship between the biblical text, the Lutheran heritage as an interpretive lens and the lived experiences of the communities reading scriptures. The process sought to affirm but also refine this tri-polar relationship of meaning-making, namely the text, tradition and context of readers in the context of communion dialogue.

Was it possible to have a fairly representative participation in a global and diverse communion like the LWF?

The diversity of participants was not only geographical. Effort was made to ensure that there was gender balance and both young and more experienced scholars. The other diversity was the different theological disciplines of study group members and invited participants and working methods. We also made effort to have participants from the different theological disciplines. Learning from the shortcomings of the first conferences, we also made an effort in later conferences to have participants from other Christian denominations as well as having Jewish scholars in the conference on the Gospel of Matthew.

What aspects stood out in the five-year study of the Gospel of John, Psalms, the Gospel of Matthew, concluding with Paul’s letters?

The study of the Gospel of John in 2011 was the first study which resulted in a publication titled “You have the Words of Eternal Life” - Transformative Readings of the Gospel of John from a Lutheran Perspective.” Participants were not familiar with each other and the methodology was still being sharpened. It was the conference where so many differences were manifested as participants from different backgrounds asserted their views. But this was the conference at which the notion of context was highlighted with its complexities.

The Psalms study allowed participants to show how the experience of God in the vicissitudes of life can be common and shared across space and time. The way the Psalmist talks about God demonstrated the existential challenges experienced today. The study resulted also in a publication entitled, Singing the Songs of the Lord in Foreign Lands - Psalms in Contemporary Lutheran Interpretation.

The publication from the study of Matthew’s gospel was taken from the Great Commission in chapter 28 of the Gospel but also the running theme of invitation to all people: To All the Nations. Lutheran Hermeneutics and the Gospel of Matthew.. Our sessions on the Gospel of Matthew were an opportunity for Lutherans to appreciate the law as Luther himself embraced it. Even though Paul could be considered the “first Lutheran,” it was clear how much controversy he generates because of his sometimes direct but also apparent inconsistence on certain subjects. For example, if Paul says “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28), how come he suggests women cannot exercise certain ministries in the church? The conclusion was that one has to read the whole of Paul together with the whole church in order to hear the whole message of the gospel in Paul and indeed in the scriptures.

Lutheran and other churches are preparing to mark 500 years of the Reformation in 2017; how does the hermeneutics process contribute to this anniversary?

As the LWF commemorates 500 years of the Reformation, among other emphases, the scriptures should loom large. The force of the scriptures was the energy of the Reformation and therefore remains the fuel for ongoing renewal of the church today. Going forward; other dimensions of interpretation such as the place of the confessions could be interesting points of departure. The scriptures need to embolden the church to speak life and unity in the midst of death and scattering. While this confessing of the faith should fossilize and give stability to the church, it can also deteriorate into the rigidity of a confessionalism that is deprived of the spirit of ongoing renewal. Still, without such confessional integrity, the church slips into chasing flirting invitations of different fades and fashions.  

How can the good news of the gospel embolden the church to speak life and unity in today’s world?

The power of the scriptures lies in the fact that they offer alternative language for reality. In the scriptures we encounter a redefinition of status by saying, “It is not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant” (Mat 20:26). The scriptures redefine success by saying, “But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added to you (Mat 6:33). The scriptures redefine power when Paul says: “And when I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. And my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God” (1 Cor 2:1-5).

How has your leadership of the LWF hermeneutics process prepared you for your new role as General Secretary of the Zimbabwe Council of Churches?

I have learnt in this hermeneutics process that Scripture must continue to inform the church’s response to the world. God’s creative Word creates new realities out of hopeless situations if it works in the lives of those who believe and seek to live it. Further, God’s mysteries are only clearer when we discern them together with others. For me building teams of people with different gifts and diverse backgrounds is the key to transformation.