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Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Culture and Authority

The Scriptures were completed nearly 2,000 years and 6,000 miles from here. Should that make a difference?

We speak a different language, in a different land, with different govermental systems.

We're all fallen, depraved and in need of redemption.

Culture can run along a grid. Must we still gird our loins? Should we actually buy a tunic so we can give it to others? Is the kiss still the proper way to greet fellow believers? Are women still restricted from teaching doctrine to men? Are Christians really to refrain from suing one another? Should a family still comprise of a mother and a father? Should churches still exercise discipline? Is there really only One Way to God?

Many people assume the way to discern a cultural issue in Scripture is to examine our own culture. If a passage is troubling, or its application seems backward, then it is probably a cultural issue. A typically conservative person may find this a non-threatening approach to obscure and periperal issues, yet they are baffled when another person uses the same approach with issues like hell and the atonement. But why be surprised? What one man considers orthodoxy another feels free for reinterpretation. Clearly, our current culture cannot be our gauge, for the authority must be the Word of God, not the society responding to it.

A casual glance at many denominations shows that when they gave ground to culture on "minor issues," major ones were short to follow. Therefore, some refuse to even acknowledge cultural differences. But if we read the Scriptures soley as a 2006 American audience the parables make little sense, issues of marriage and divorce become more clouded, and the Word of God seems silent on many (if not most) issues. Clearly we must take notice of culture.

Are we left alone to decide when to apply a cultural argument and when not to? Doesn't God's Word have something to say about our approach? Actually, God's Word is where we turn to answer our question. We should be hesitant to argue toward culture unless we see clues within the text. Similarly, we are not being accurate to the text if it gives us cultural clues and we choose to ignore them. We should check to see if other similar statements are made in other passages. As always, we should closely examine the words in their original language.

Allowing culture to determine our approach to Scripture removes the authority of the Word of God. Ignoring culture all together diminishes the power of the Word of God in our lives. But allowing the Scripture to determine how we interact with the text keeps the Word of God authoritative and understandable.

It is, afterall, the same book they had 2,000 years and 6,000 miles from here.


  • At 4:15 PM, Blogger ~d said…

    I agree that we shouldn't discern a cultural issue by making our own culture some kind of measuring stick.

    However, some cultural practices were basically a reflection of biblical principles, weren't they? So in many cases it's not the practice itself but the principle of the practice that is more important, right? I know this doesn't apply in all areas, though.

    I do find it helpful to study the culture of the period in which the passage is written to better understand the implications that are not obvious at first glance. After learning about the role and responsibility of the bridegroom and bride, for example, certain passages suddenly came alive with understanding - John 14:2-4, Matt. 24:36, John 3:29 and others.

  • At 4:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Great topic!

    You are so right about the gap between the original text and today. It is extremely "problematic" and perhaps more so for the OT, but it's still there for the NT.

    I'm going to take issue with your statement "We should be hesitant to argue toward culture unless we see clues within the text." Yes, I know that's pretty much party line in our circles (I assume you go in circles like I do :))

    I'd like to argue that it's ALL cultural!! Yikes! What sort of heretic am I? Actually I hope none at all, so please hear me out before you start the fire.

    I'm particularly comfortable with this position in the OT. We all struggle to know how to apply the OT to today, but we really don't know how. So we pick and choose stuff that makes sense in today's world (our culture??) and essentially leave the rest.

    Like "do not boil a kid in it's mother's milk". Now, we could cry, but that's the law and we are not under the law, but if we travel that road we pretty much can throw out the entire OT. I really don't want to do that.

    I believe that the Bible was written to a specific culture at a specific time. That is, it's God's Word applied to a specific culture. If we bring that cultural application straight across to today, we sometimes get good results, "Thou shalt not kill" but sometimes rather dubious results Thou shalt not "wear a garment upon you of two kinds of material mixed together".

    We need to look for the ETERNAL principle that was applied in that culture, and APPLY the same principle in our own.

    Like I said, I'm much more comfortable doing this in the OT, but I fear we should do it more in the NT, but I hesitate, because that makes me really look like a heretic. But I wonder.

    As for the kiss thing...that's EASY. Of course we should! We do it all the time here!

  • At 4:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Oh my goodness. While I was writing my comment, ~d posted! Well, at least I know there's another heretic running around! :)

    She's absolutely right that we really need to understand the original culture and context!!

  • At 8:55 PM, Blogger danny2 said…


    a) relax about the heretic usage. you didn't seem to use it as a good thing except maybe in your comment to ~d. my other article today had nothing to do with your comments.

    b) i like how alistair begg stated it once. first i must figure out the application for first century corinth before i can figure out the application of the passage to 21 century in cleveland. we often run to find application before we understand what the the author's intent.

    c) your ot model, however, seems to ignore the differences between moral law, social law and ceremonial law found in the ot. now i admit the lines can be fuzzy between them, but there has to be a distinction, doesn't there?

  • At 10:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    a) OK :)

    b)I totally agree. Although I would add that before we can understand the application in Corinth, we need to know what eternal principle is being applied.

    c)Actually, I don't believe that my model ignores the differences. I don't think they are there. I don't believe that they are found in the text.

    What you are proposing is certainly one of the traditional ways of dealing with the law, especially for those of us who take the Bible seriously. It allows us to pick and choose and feel comfortable doing so.

    However, I think in practice it is extremely difficult (not just fuzzy) to draw the lines, and I don't think the text itself does. You find things in all three categories all mixed together with no effort made to distinguish one from the other.

    I'm not sure how you use the moral, social (or civil) and ceremonial distinctions, but usually we say that the moral laws are still applicable to today, but the social and ceremonial aren't.

    Consider this quotation from Grasping God's Word by Duvall and Hayes:

    "In addition, it is often difficult to determine whether a law falls into the moral category or into one of the others. Because the law defined the covenant relationship between God and Israel, the law, by nature was theological. All of the Law had theological content. The question, then, becomes, "can a law be a theological law but not a moral law?"

    For example, consider the commandment in Leviticus 19:19, quotation mark Do not plan your field with two kinds of seed.do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material." One of the central theme is running throughout Leviticus is the holiness of God. Part of this theme is the teaching that holy things must be kept separate from profane or common things. While we may not understand all the nuances of the command against mixing cloth material or mixing seed, we do know that relates back to the holiness of God. Indeed, all of the laws relating to separation appear to connect to the overarching principle of God's holiness and separation. So what kind of law would Leviticus 19:19 be? Civil? Unlikely. It is unrelated to the needs of society. Ceremonial? Perhaps, although the law does not appear to apply to ceremonies or sacrifice. The way the Israelites planted seed in the way they wove cloth had theological significance to it. How can this not be a moral issue?"

    Well, I think that the principles behind (or above!) the "social" and "ceremonial" laws are still valid today! God's eternal principles are, well, eternal. What changes is that those principles are applied in different ways today.


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