The Gospel Coalition

Even in a nation long saturated with Christian resources, Americans love their study Bibles. By juxtaposing the inspired text with informed commentary, readers quickly grow in their knowledge and depth of insight into God's Word. So imagine the good that could come from a study Bible produced by Africans for Africa, where 200 million Christians don't have a Bible at all.

Oasis International, which aims to establish a Christian book industry across Africa, has assembled an 11-person editorial team leading hundreds of contributors across the continent to produce the Africa Study Bible. To learn more about this exciting project I corresponded with Oasis president and Africa Study Bible project manager Matthew Elliott, who has been working for more than 15 years to supply books and Bibles to Africa's poor majority. Elliott earned his PhD in New Testament from the University of Aberdeen and has written two books, Feel: The Power of Listening to Your Heart and Faithful Feelings: Rethinking Emotion in the New Testament. He explained how the study Bible idea originated, how they selected the contributors, and how we can help. 

How did this idea come together?

As early as 2002, we were talking about ways to make the Bible come alive for African readers. In Jos, Nigeria, one of our partners did a study for English-speaking Christians on how they understood the language of the Bible. Many millions across the continent go to school in English. We found that many words familiar to us in the United States are not so clear to the average African. We began thinking and dreaming of ways to increase understanding of the Bible. Then in 2010 I spent about two months traveling Africa asking questions of pastors, denominational presidents and bishops, and seminary residents. Is this a good idea? If so, what does this look like? What are the features and topics that will grow Christians deep in Africa? Every single conversation ended something like this: "Africa needs this Bible, what can I do to help?" We had a green light to stop dreaming and start working on the project.

Help us understand the need for an Africa study Bible and how it would contrast with the many study Bibles produced in the West.

We just received an article on "God's People in Transition." It starts like this:
The sun was rising when the first gunshot and bombardment were heard in the town of Dolisie. Everyone tried to find shelter or get to safety amid the cries of children, wailing, shouts, and heavy bombardments. War had come to our town, and we did not know what to do. After two days of trying to hide in our house we were driven out by lack of food and an encounter with angry and greedy soldiers.

It goes on to talk about the biblical basis for taking care of refugees. Our author has lived it. AIDS orphans, female circumcision, slavery---these are just some of the most obvious examples of the African context that would never appear in an application targeted to readers in America. This study Bible will equip Africans to live out the gospel in their context, to be disciples of Jesus.

The ASB will also capture the wonders and blessings of the African church and culture, their spirit of celebration, community, and faith. In many ways, African culture is closer to that of the Bible than ours. Africans understand things we cannot see. The ASB will bring African insights about the Scripture to the world as well.

Every feature has one simple purpose---growing disciples deep in the African context.

How did you select the various contributors?

Our editorial committee came to Accra, Ghana, from every major region and language group---English, French, Arabic, Portuguese (the Bible will be published in multiple languages). They set the direction for the project and made every major editorial decision. It was probably the most amazing week of my working life, to see these men and women come together from all these different denominations and cultures and have such unity of purpose and vision. All were highly educated, having a doctorate in one field or another; a number were seminary presidents or denominations presidents. One man was the president of an association representing probably 50 million African Christians. Most had never met each other. Can you imagine a greater possibility for conflict and disagreement? Yet all were strong believers in the authority and power of the Bible. From the first moment, we were on task and working as true brothers and sisters in Christ.

They had a pastor's heart to grow the church in every discussion. Our editors, directed by John Jusu from African International University (formerly NEGST), are now working with hundreds of writers across the continent to see their vision accomplished.

Previous African theological projects have been criticized for essentially offering the same Western perspective, since so many African leaders were educated in the West. Are you concerned with that critique on the Africa Study Bible?

Great question. That was a topic in about every conversation in my travels in 2010, and many, many conversations since. I wish you could see the notes coming in to see the results. We have designed whole feature criteria to set an authentic African tone for the project. In the stories and proverbs, writers are comparing their sayings and stories with the truth of Scripture. What wise sayings fit the truth of the Bible, and which ones contradict biblical truth and need to be changed or modified? In another feature, authors are working to draw parallels between passages of Scripture and practices in a part of African culture. I think the ASB may set a new precedent for this kind of project. That is our hope, anyway. All this is being run through a very strong filter of historical, biblical, orthodox Christianity. We have defined a very rigorous, African-led review process that will ensure this outcome. So the final result should be strong in both sound theology and cultural context.


How can readers participate in and support this project?

They can go online to www.africastudybible.com, give, and post a dedication or encouragement for our writers. That is a start. However, it is a $500,000 project just for the editorial process, and additional funds are needed for translation and to start printing Bibles. Our hope is that the ASB will affect many millions in the years to come. Many of these African Christians---even pastors---do not have a single book to equip their spiritual growth. The Africa Study Bible will be one volume that has the words of Scripture, defines the basic truths of Christianity, and teaches them to apply it in their lives. If they can own one single book to grow their faith, this should be it.

We need churches and other groups to come alongside the project as well. We have defined the cost of every book of the Bible. A congregation can give by underwriting the Gospel of Mark, or maybe a smaller group wold like to raise the funds for Jude---we all can do something. The editorial cost and printing the first 200,000 copies will cost about $50 per verse.

Last, pray for us! Africa is a place of intense spiritual warfare. The church is growing so quickly, but can you imagine a continent where more than 200 million Christians do not have a Bible, where many if not most pastors have two, three, or more churches to oversee? How do you learn what it means to be a Christian? What does the church become in this context? What kind of false teachings can arise when people do not have a way to learn what the Bible is really saying? Pray with us that God supplies the resources to complete the Africa Study Bible so it can be a tool to grow believers deep!


Comments:

Matthew Elliott

September 14, 2012 at 06:35 PM

Thanks for your lively discussions and enthusiasm for the ASB. There are several issues we all need to keep in mind. First, the Bible is not a western book, and this is not a western Study Bible. Our perspectives are different. If the ASB is a success it should make us in the USA a little uncomfortable from time to time, as we evaluate if what we believe is truly biblical or is also colored by our own world view. Then the ASB is doing its job to speak to Africans and to express an African viewpoint. And yes, I am not in any way a relativists especially when evaluating cultures. Culture Matters (Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress - a good read). Our committee, Gladys our writer for parenting was a part, was very strong that the ASB was both to celebrate and critique culture based on biblical truth. Also, have you listened to Gladys' DVD sessions on biblical counseling in Africa, or read her books? She has a beautiful way of taking the Bible as ultimate truth and integrating that with her own culture. As my friend, I know the Bible is her final authority. Remember, the Africans are leading the fight for orthodoxy in many of our denominations.

So, this is my request. Before you evaluate the fine points of a few sample articles from a demo on the ASB, join us in prayer and urgency that God would provide for this project. How many Study Bibles do you have on your shelf written by your culture's scholars? Realize, the 400 million or so protestant Africans must answer "none." So pray for our able African editors and reviewers, that they will have God's wisdom and help as they seek to be both biblical and relevant in applying God's truth to their own culture, teaching and heritage. Pray for our review committee on the campus of Africa Christian University (NEGST) as they think together about the issues you have raised for every note, line by line.

Crystal

October 17, 2012 at 02:21 PM

I'm reading "Africa Study Bible" but are there any consideration for the fact that Africa is a vast continent, with scores of countries with their own particular issues? Northern Africa is heavily Muslim an so are significant pockets of western Africa. Eastern Africa is Orthodox Christian. Central and Southern Africa have their own indigenous and tribal religions. Certain African countries are relatively more politically stable than others (Nigeria, Ghana for example) while others are mired in civil war and strife so much that there is no "government." Some cities in African countries are just a metropolitan (Accra, Lagos) as any east coast American city with their inhabitants buying clothes straight off a Paris runaway, while others have no electricity.

It seems difficult to me to say a universal "Africa Study Bible", that doesn't address these concerns. Something about the man in the who is being interviewed conceives of Africa is rubbing me the wrong way. I repeatedly read the author referring to Africa with no distinctions between the nations, countries, and ethnic groups. This is troubling to me and I'm not quite sure why. It feels like lip service.

I do commend the effort because you have to start somewhere.

Sandra

May 30, 2012 at 07:02 AM

Sorry for the length of this comment but we feel it is important to comment on this project a little more deeply. I was cautiously excited to hear of the idea and efforts to produce an Africa Study Bible. My husband and I are in our twelfth year of missionary service in southern Africa (although my husband also spent much of his growing up years in Africa as well as an ‘MK’ – missionary’s kid). We are certainly keen to have the Word of God relevantly applied to the African’s daily life, which of course American commentary in American produced study bibles often falls short of.
We can identify with Matthew Elliot’s comment above that “We found that many words familiar to us in the United States are not so clear to the average African.”
We have had quite a bit to do with providing literature (printed and audio) to locals as part of our ministry, including managing a Christian bookshop and a library at different times. We also, as “Louis” in his comment mentions, have most often provided the MacArthur Study Bible and the Life Application Bible to folk here and have found much need to clarify and explain words ‘on the fly’ as we lead Bible studies and mentoring/discipleship times. So ‘Africa appropriate’ literature is an issue very close to our heart.
I eagerly went to the links mentioned.
I was particularly interested in the light of the research we, together with local Africans, are doing into the impact of Shame and Honour in African life and it’s flow on impact and implications for evangelism and discipleship that reaches to the heart of the African’s motivations and priorities. The West comes at these two tasks from a primarily ‘guilt culture’ emphasis which is a very different way of thinking from the ‘shame culture’ emphasis prevalent in Africa. One of the Africans we are working with has been disappointed to find that the “African Bible Commentary” published some years ago now, is very much lacking in addressing this issue. Yet the Scripture is full of references to the issue of Shame and full of the context of a ‘Shame culture’ environment.
Even though I was unable to see any reference to the Shame/Honour issue in this new Africa Study Bible project, there was not enough on the website to ascertain if they have taken this into account or not.
I was really encouraged as I began to read of some of what was written and the ideas and layout of the Bible. It was also good to note the way the use of English would be friendly for those who have English as their second language. I was disappointed however that it doesn’t seem to be a ‘study Bible’ as I would understand it with notes and commentary on key verses all the way through and at the bottom of every page. Rather there are short ‘articles’ interspersed throughout on various topics, including linking up African proverbs with Biblical parallels.
However, sadly, some of what I read was actually more than disappointing, it was disturbing and I feel should be mentioned so as to allow others to understand more about this project. I could say a great deal but instead I will comment on one point in particular which was in the last page of the ‘sample’ on the topic of “Parenting in Africa” since it refers to Bantu culture and we are working amongst Bantu people.
Instead of the section of commentary focusing hard in on what Scripture says, it didn’t refer directly to Scripture at all and only briefly referred to Biblical principles. The commentary article talked about the traditional view of “moyo” or soul that comes from being a descendant of previous generations and the need to be “linked to the collective and the need to continue life through birth and child rearing’. The article immediately went on saying “In the spirit of this community the parents should not favour one child above another”. Although mention was later made that each child has unique God-given gifts, the starting point was based on an African traditional cultural belief, rather than Scripture and the need as Christians to be living for God’s glory, as members of His Kingdom. While I applaud the fact that this issue is raised, since there is much favouritism of the first-born/eldest child in an African home, it should be God’s purposes and design for us that are the motivation for life and why we don’t favour one child above another, not the spirit of the community. Sadly I instead see here an emphasis on keeping African culture as a basis for life, rather than use a wonderful opportunity to give African’s a grounding in how God’s word can equip them to live as Christians first and foremost for God’s glory alone.
I was even more disturbed to read a later statement “Our parenting is our assignment from the Creator, himself. For_us, it is also a_charge from our ancestors. With this consideration, we value our children as God’s gifts, celebrating each newborn as a fresh continuity of life.. “ I am very concerned about the way this statement is worded as it gives the idea that an African Christian doesn’t or shouldn’t or cannot live only by what our Creator says, but also by what the ancestors say. The biggest issue of conflict in an African’s life is when what God’s Word says differs from what the traditional beliefs handed down by the ancestors say. Traditionally it is imperative that an African honour the ancestors and bring no shame upon themselves, their family, their tribe and its handed down cultural mores, by ever going against those mores or questioning them – to do so is to risk your own wellbeing and that of the community as well as being put in a position of great shame in the eyes of your community in whom you have your identity. We feel it is imperative that foundational to African evangelism and discipleship is that it is clearly taught that in actual fact we are to follow what God says above all, not what the ancestors say. The ancestors are not on equal footing to God and His Word as the statement in the Africa Study Bible strongly implies. African Christians are not under any ‘charge by the ancestors’, rather in Christ they have been freed from being under any such ‘charge’. Even if what the ancestors say happened to be the same as Scripture, an African should never do that thing because the ancestors said to, but their ‘authority’ should always be Scripture alone.
Instead of finding ourselves rejoicing over this Africa Study Bible, sadly we find ourselves weeping, because yet again, if the content of the Bible is accurately reflected in the sample on the website, Africans are still being held back from the true liberty and fullness of life in Christ that the true gospel brings.
Continue to pray for the true gospel to reach and penetrate African hearts for God’s glory, and for those who minister in Africa for this purpose.

[...] is tricky because the article I read was merely a gateway to another idea.  See, when I read Why Africa Needs a Study Bible, at Gospel Coalition, I was immediately distracted by the fact that the interviewee, Matthew [...]

Louis

May 29, 2012 at 04:42 PM

I help run a children's home in southern Africa. Often even in public Bible readings and Bible studies I have to "retranslate" certain things on the fly. To have a study Bible directed at addressing specific challenges to African cultures would be amazing. Things like male/female relationships, ancestor worship, biblical family structure, etc...are a constant challenge to try to communicate to people who often have no background otherwise. I currently have provided both the Macarthur Study Bible and The Life Application Study Bible to young African men training for African ministry. Can't wait to see how this comes out.

Basilius M. Kasera

May 27, 2012 at 08:52 AM

This is a great idea and I fully support it. I would like to encourage that such publication should contact Evangelical/Reformed scholars on the continent to contribute. Unlike the Africa Bible Commentary which had a liberal from my country write the commentary on Luke with no relevant gospel message.

I received an email on this subject from the University of Stellenbosch, I'm not sure if this is the same project. Our seminary has not heard anything against since.

sunita

May 27, 2012 at 02:28 AM

How about a Study Bible written exclusively for India/Indian subcontinent (India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh) and the issues relevant to that area...

All the best with the African Study Bible.. Great effort.

God bless you.

[...] Africa Needs a Study Bible: “AIDS orphans, female circumcision, slavery—these are just some of the most obvious examples of the African context that would never appear in an application targeted to readers in America. This study Bible will equip Africans to live out the gospel in their context, to be disciples of Jesus.” If you are interested in helping visit their site at www.africastudybible.com. [...]

Lamar Carnes

May 25, 2012 at 01:51 PM

I am for any publication of a Bible which will maintain and present the actual "word for word" translation of the manuscripts used in order to get to us in English the word of God. However, to present a commentary type book and call it a Bible (HOLY) is not the word of God but a commentary on the word of God. So, I am not sure what your project will be doing. If it is just "notes" which reflect cultural matters and present ideas better for the African culture, as long as no ideas go against clear Biblical precepts, I am fine with that. So, what tribal language is used for bringing over Greek and Hebrew to African language is another department altogether. For me, personally, I hold to the Textus Receptus manuscripts for a Holy Bible which would be considered as close as possible to the originals', but "notes" must maintain the integrity of the word over cultural ideas in any nation.

South African observer

June 12, 2012 at 03:09 PM

As a South African, I concur with Sandra's concerns. Some of the biggest church groupings in Africa are churches that are variously syncretistic (incorporating African Traditional Religion beliefs and practices) or prosperity gospel proponents, the latter being an import from the USA, and the associated local "Bible schools" perpetuate it. There are also many independent church-leaders who have no solid Biblical training.
Whether all of these would be open to a study-Bible for Africa could be open to question, as there are spiritual strongholds involved.
One of the biggest strongholds in Africa is ancestral spiritism, whereby the ancestors are consulted, (in South Africa via "sangomas", the African version of shamans), and even witchdoctors. All this accompanies superstition and witchcraft.
The other major stronghold is Liberation theology, which teaches worldly liberation from political and economic oppression. Certain mainline denominations also adopted this theology and preach it, along with a social gospel, rather than the Biblical Gospel. Desmond Tutu is one of the most well-known proponents.
As I have networked with various churches, I have noticed that doctrine, hermeneutics and exegesis are weak in many churches, and Scripture is twisted to say what was not intended.
Any study Bible for Africa would need to be able to provide a corrective Biblical perspective to the false doctrine and distortions that people have been taught or thought up.
In addition to the spiritual issues, there are the practical daily-living ones, e.g. sex outside of marriage and cohabitation is widespread, which has exacerbated the spread of HIV/Aids, and polygamy is also practised as a cultural custom, especially amongst Zulus.
African Enterprise is a South African based evangelism organisation that has networked across Africa, and they have considerable experience and understanding regarding churches in Africa. The website is at http://aeinternational.org/southafrica/