An Exploration of Interpretative Methods
Recently, I read through Dr. Esau McCaulley’s book entitled Reading While Black (I know I am a bit late to the party). Dr. McCaulley writes for the purpose of explaining the history of what he labels the “Black ecclesiastical interpretation” and explores its emphasis and unique elements.1 If you are like me, you will immediately begin to wonder what exactly Dr. McCaulley is referencing when he mentions this particular method of interpretation? Thankfully, he tells us explicitly:
What do I mean when I refer to Black ecclesial interpreters? I have in mind Black scholars and pastors formed by the faith found in the foundational and ongoing doctrinal commitments, sermons, public witness, and ethos of the Black church. For a variety of reasons, this ecclesial tradition rarely appears in print. It lives in the pulpits, sermon manuscripts, CDs, tape ministries, and videos of the African American Christian tradition.2
Dr. McCaulley attempts to show the difference between progressives on the one hand and “white evangelicals” on the other thereby trying to put the Black ecclesiastical interpretation somewhere in the middle. He readily admits there is no “monolithic” Black Christian tradition.3 Consequently, when launching into a review of this book it is important that we take off from the launch pad of understanding the aim for which the author took up his pen. He is wanting to write primarily about the Black tradition which does not delve into the far side of radical progressivism on the one hand (i.e. James Cone and the rejection of a biblical Gospel). However, it does not always follow conservative evangelicalism either. He is trying to demonstrate this specific interpretive methodology.
The Application of The Method
Whenever considering Dr. McCaulley’s ideas for interpreting Scripture we need to get specific with concrete examples. Once again, he provides that for us in his book. He says:
What I have in mind then is a unified mission in which our varied cultures turn to the text in dialogue with one another to discern the mind of Christ. That means in the providence of God, I need Ugandan biblical interpretation, because the experiences of Ugandans mean they are able to bring their unique insights to the conversation. African American exegesis, then, precisely because it is informed by the Black experience, has the potential to be universal when added to the chorus of believers through time and across cultures.4
Here is where the rubber meets the road and we begin to understand what Reading While Black is advocating. Dr. McCaulley holds to the idea that different cultures, genders, ethnicities, and so forth must come together and consult each other in order to ultimately understand the proper biblical interpretation. In his view, experience is the driving force of interpretation, a subject I will address in more detail later. Here is another case of Dr. McCaulley advocating such a principle in his book. In the Bonus Track portion of his book he states the following:
“Womanist interpretation involves, ‘discover[ing] the significance and validity of the biblical text for Black women who today experience the ‘tridimensional reality’ of racism, sexism, and classism.’ Womanism is not the whole of the Black female exegetical enterprise. Some Black women identify as womanist, and some do not. By whatever name they go, the voices of black women are vital if the whole people of God are to join in the interpretative process.”5
What is Dr. McCaulley advocating? He is saying that black women are vital in the interpretive process. Dr. McCaulley has also proclaimed his support elsewhere for diverse committees translating the New Testament.6 Basically, Dr. McCaulley believes a committee of all men might not be able to translate the Scripture as well as a committee of both men and women. Different races are also “needed” in order to obtain translation accuracy. I use this example to demonstrate what McCaulley means when talking about different cultures, genders, and races needing to come together in order to know truth. It is not about finding the best 5 translators in the world, even if they are all black, white, or whatever else. Rather, Dr. McCaulley is trying to assert an idea that promotes diversity in a group is more valuable than necessarily gathering the most skilled individuals.
The Root Problem of This Interpretive Method
Now that I have laid out Dr. McCaulley’s viewpoint regarding an interpretative method that needs all cultures, I will turn to critique some of his conclusions. The first mistake which I believe Dr. McCaulley makes in his book is to assume an amount of consistency amongst cultures which is not there. He clearly asserts there is not a monolithic black tradition, but then he says we need the voice of black women for interpretation. Certainly, black women such as Candace Owens on the one hand and Kamala Harris on the other will disagree on many issues. Dr. McCaulley seems to try to recognize that fact, but I don’t believe he works it out consistently in the applications of his method. Another example is in his assertion that black interpretation is informed by black experience. Once again, is there a uniform black experience? Are the theological differences between black men like Dr. Voddie Baucham and Dr. Esau McCaulley due to distinctions in their experience? Dr. Baucham grew up in a fatherless home and was even falsely accosted by police officers just as Dr. McCaulley was in his life. The point being, they have similar life experiences in many ways and I am sure they have different experiences as well. I don’t believe the differences in their opinions are due to experience, but rather their foundational interpretation of Scripture. Dr. McCaulley’s application of his approach does not seem to account for these issues.
It is also with his approach that I differ, however, even if it were consistently applied I would still find it to be faulty. Paul did not urge the Jews to go and seek a Gentile opinion about the law of Moses before they could know what was true. Abraham was not commanded to ask Sarah’s opinion about what God had said in order to ensure he understood correctly. The Apostle Paul did not tell the church in Colossae to go to a congregation in a different culture to try to understand his letters. These examples are foreign to the Bible. In the Scripture, we do not see the advocacy of the hermeneutical approach which Dr. McCaulley promotes. He asserts Scripture has the final authority, but he proposes a view that says we need diverse experiences in order to understand the Bible thereby he cuts the heart out of biblical authority with his method. While there are some points of agreement within Dr. McCaulley’s work, I cannot commend the book as its interpretive method is not in alignment with the teaching of Scripture.
1 McCaulley, Reading While Black, p. 164-167.
2 McCaulley, Reading While Black, p. 4.
3 McCaulley, Reading While Black, p. 4.
4 McCaulley, Reading While Black, p. 21.
5 McCaulley, Reading While Black, p. 180.