Preunderstanding is the same as presuppositions or preconceptions: they are the cultural assumptions that we make about people or places - or passages of scripture.
Take Genesis 2:24: ‘a man shall leave his father and mother and be united to his wife.’ My cultural preunderstanding of this passage is that newlyweds will physically leave the homes of their parents. But, as I’ve recently learnt, this is not necessarily what those in non-western cultures will assume. In Chinese cultures, men don’t leave their father and mother when he marries, and neither did those in bible (cultures) times. So the Chinese reader might see Genesis 2:24 as referring to a change in ultimate allegiances. This cultural interpretation pulled the rug of preunderstanding from under my feet.
Now, in my western culture, it may still be the case that the right way to apply the verse is physical separation. But, as I am now in a society where many generations often live under the same roof, I must be careful not to impose my cultural preunderstanding of the verse onto others. I must first check my preunderstandings to see if they are cultural assumptions or universal truths. If when we open the Bible all we see is a list of verses confirming various beliefs that we already hold, then we might be cutting ourselves off from listening to God and growing in our knowledge of him.
When Jane, our delightful house-help, got ill, she paid just over £2 for an appointment with a ‘doctor’ and received a woefully inadequate diagnosis. We considered Jane’s communications with us at that time to be dishonest and our preunderstandings about her symptoms led us to assume a radically different diagnosis. In the end, after taking her to see a very professional Kenyan doctor, we found that the previous doctor’s and our own diagnoses were both wrong. And we learnt that our preunderstanding of Jane’s communications being dishonest was wrong too.
We all approach Scripture with preunderstandings - we all come to a passage of the Bible holding our own cherished preconceptions of the meaning. These preunderstandings may be correct, but I am coming to see that whether right or wrong they can stop us properly reading and learning from God’s word.
One of the joys of living and studying in a diverse cultural context here at Africa International University is the privilege of hearing different cultural voices speak about God and his word. One of our teachers is an Ethiopian lecturer called Yohannas Sahile. It’s great to have his voice as an Ethiopian scholar feeding our minds and helping us see God’s word with a different set of preunderstandings.
This is not to say that we should loosen our hold on the core doctrines of the Christian faith - these are preunderstandings which are correct. But even they must not get in the way of us reading Scripture carefully and with new eyes. It might be the case that although the doctrine we hold is correct, the passage that we are reading has in store for us some other truth that we are at present blinded from seeing by our own preunderstanding.
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