Friday, November 10, 2006

How Cultural is Scripture?

I've been thinking a lot about the subject of Scripture recently and the culturalness of it.

I grew up in the Church of Christ which has a pretty defined way of interpreting Scripture or hermeneutic. The method says that God's will for our lives is revealed completely through Scripture and that a rational person can figure it out. Through looking at the Scripture, we can see the direct commands, the approved apostolic examples, and the necessary inferences that can be drawn to give us the things that we need to do to become remain saved. For those of you who didn't know that, that little explanation might explain much about the Churches of Christ. There's not much room in that hermeneutic for the culturalness of an idea.

If you notice from the title of this post, there is an underlying assumption that Scripture is cultural. I don't really think that can be denied. It was written in a different time from us, directed to different people who lived with all sorts of basic assumptions about life.

For instance, the idea of a resting Sabbath is very hard for some of us to take in due to the busyness of our lives, but for a culture that had just spent 400 years as slaves, working every day, the idea of having a day off to rest must have been as much a salvation as just leaving Egypt. Or the phrase "Jesus is Lord." To us, this is a phrase that has some significance, depending on how much we actually allow Jesus to be Lord of our lives, but in the Roman Empire 2,000 years ago, that was an extremely dangerous political statement, because the idea behind it is that Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not.

So I think that it's apparent that Scripture is cultural. The question is How Cultural is it? In most Christian traditions, the Bible is the Word of God handed down to us through the ages, but as readers of it we have to recognize its culturalness and then the natural question has to flow down: are there parts of it that are cultural to its time and not applicable to us?

An example. Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians 16:20, 2 Corinthians 13:12, and 2 Thessalonians 5:26 all talk about greeting each other with a "holy kiss." I don't know of many congregations that follow this direct command of the Scripture. We've culturalized it into a hug or a handshake or high five.

Another example would be slavery (and I know about the book Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals by William Webb, which I haven't read but might one day) and how it's treated in Scripture (not condemned, but not condoned in the NT anyway) versus the modern mindset that we have about its unacceptability.

So question 1, how cultural is Scripture?

Question 2, does the culturalness of a Scriptural passage give us license to ignore, disregard, or alter it?

Question 3, are there general principles in the Bible that are revealed through cultural eyes which give us the principals we should follow while maybe not following the exact rule/regulation?

Or are all of these questions invalid and Scripture should be followed, no matter its culturality?


Elizabeth S said...

I think this is hard because I personally feel like we are always supposed to follow Scripture, even when it goes against our culture. We just have to be careful that when we are sharing our faith with others, we don't come across as judgemental, but as loving people who want others to have the gift of grace that we have. It is likely that what we share with them is going against their culture. (The thoughts sounded clearer in my head.)

JMG said...

I think that we have to always keep in mind that scripture was written to people that lived in an entirely different culture from us today, and that in order to interpret that scripture and correctly apply it to our lives, we need to attain at least some basic understanding of the culture to which it was written. You used the example of saying "Jesus is Lord." Paul says that in order to be saved we must confess with our mouth that Jesus is Lord--say it out loud so that others can hear. Of course, that had really serious ramifications for people back in Paul's day, as you mentioned. In order to confess Jesus as Lord today, we must find the cultural equivalent--something just as radical and dangerous. (Just what that is is what I am currently trying to figure out.)

However, some of the things said in the scriptures transcend cultural boundaries, for example, "Love your enemies and do good to those who persecute you." No matter whether I'm a first century or twenty-first century Christian, the saying means the same thing.

I don't think we (we as in us today) are meant to follow every little thing written in scripture. If we did, no Christain man could have long hair, for example.

We are told to "rightly divide the word of truth." I think that kind of implies that it takes some effort to understand it in its context so that we can apply it to our own context.

Sam Davidson said...

Great questions, Phil.

As the risk of over-simplification, let me say: ALL scripture is cultural.

Langauge is a cultural construct and is the tool. we use to write and tell stories.

Because Scripture uses language, it is a cultural production, both in terms of audience and author.

Like I heard a professor say about the OT, "I don't know what God said. But I know what the Israelites said God said."

Jeffrey said...

ditto to sam's comment. another question for consideration in this same vein: why does the majority of Christendom (which is dead, btw ;-)) today worship the Bible, rather than the Christ

John records Jesus chastising the the Pharisees for this very thing in chapter 5:36-40, "I have testimony weightier than that of John. For the very work that the Father has given me to finish, and which I am doing, testifies that the Father has sent me. And the Father who sent me has himself testified concerning me. You have never heard his voice nor seen his form, nor does his word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent. You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life."

great question phil

Matt said...

Good questions. I guess I will take a shot.
1) Scripture was written from a particular perspective that we cannot ignore. Culture is part of context. The author's culture certainly adds meaning to what is written.

That doesn't mean we can ignore passages we don't like and call them scripture. Our likes or dislikes are not the grounds for which is binding and which is not with the good old "that was just cultural" copout.

2) The culturalness of a passage does not mean we can ignore it. If we no longer practice what they are talking about we need to ask ourselves, "Why not?" We may have developed culturally parallel practices that catch the meaning of what was being done just as well today. When we no longer practice something through cultural change I think it is at least important to ask how can we practice what their practice was all about - not necessarily the same practice but something in the same spirit.

3)That is a tough one. I think it goes hand-in-hand with #2. I think it is quite possible there are things we do in principle but not in practice that are ok. Other things need to be held on to - baptism for instance. When you look at baptism there is a high degree of significance in the action being done. God is trying to show us something and do something through that practice that is not done through any other practice in scripture. Therefore we hold onto it. But there may be other things that are not so deeply significant that we probably could do other ways and just be fine.

Jonathan said...

To say in a different way what others have already said, my process of reading scripture is:

a-figure out what the scripture meant to its original author and audience

b-figure out what the principle is

c-figure out how the principle applies to me

All scripture is cultural because the culture of the author and audience are critical to step a and my culture is critical to step c.

No scripture is cultural because the principles of step b are the essence of scripture and the principles transcend culture.

Kevin B. said...

The bigger question is, "How cultural is our approach to interpreting Scripture?" Scripture will always be an enigma when a group attempts to interpret it outside of the mind of the Church, the Body of Christ which St. Paul terms, "The Pillar and Ground of the Truth." Any group attempting to "just follow the Bible" will be forever either (1) mired in controversy amongst themselves, or (2) sinking into some sectarian position based on a distinct reading of some random text, or (3) so "tolerant" that anything and everything becomes a legitimate "reading of the text."

After the Reformation began, Martin Luther remarked that we now had 10,000 popes, whereas before we had only one. Movements like ours (Restorationists) have long needed to step back and realize the futility of "going it alone." We need the historical Church.

G. Brandon Hoyt said...

I don't think it's fair to ask the question without understanding the thing everyone forgets:

The world of the New Testament was different than the world of the Old Testament.

The world of the Gentiles was different than the world of the Jews.

The world of Abraham was different than the world of Moses.

The world of Moses was different than the world of David.

In short, while we tend to think of scripture as having taken place within the same time, in the same culture, and with all the same rules in place.
But that isn't the case is it?

The Bible is a cross cultural document, something most religious books cannot boast of, as they mostly focus around one figure in point in time.

Where is Christianity's "Mohammed", "Buhdda", or "Zeus"?

I don't buy the these argument because scripture is cross-cultural (*and remember 2 Tim 3:16, told to someone NOT WHOLLY OF the scripture producing culture...*)and because many of the things that Christians (and even Jews) are commanded are against the culture of their day...
There is something to learn about that.

We after all, are no better than Barabbas.

Thomas+ said...

Too big to answer in a quick post after a terrible day. But, let me say one thing that I am not sure has been said (and much good has been said).

Scripture is not just cultural, it is incarnational. It is incarnate in a specific space and time. And that is a good thing. Christianity is incarnational, not dualistic (matter vs. spirit, story vs. principle). Christ is incarnate, and so are we (in different ways, obviously).

It is not a book of principles, it is the story of God. My task is to sign up with God through His story. I think it is dangerous to sift the principles out of the stories. Rather, I would like to live in the tension and mystery and messy-ness of the story.

And Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals is a great book.

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