Thursday, March 07, 2013

Bible Interpretation and Culture

It is impossible to distinguish 'timeless truth' from 'culturally conditioned elements' in the New Testament.

With these words Richard Hays strikes at an Achilles heel of contemporary evangelical Bible interpretation.

We rightly recognize that we must interpret the Bible in the context of history. This is why we talk about grammatical-historical interpretation. All the words of the Bible were written in specific historical contexts, and these contexts help us to understand what God is saying. We must not divorce God's Word from God's works.

However, there is a trap which we must avoid at this point. Moderns are conditioned to think of history as an automatic process that simply happens. It generates meaning autonomously. But the reality is that history is the outworking of God's decree, which he accomplishes in the works of creation and providence. He made the world what it is, and he directs it in the ways he wants it to go. Therefore, we do not first take history as a "fact" to which we must conform the Bible. Instead, we take the Bible as the authoritative revelation for understanding history. God's Word authoritatively interprets God's works.

History is not ultimate reality. God is, and he has revealed himself to us supremely in the Son, Jesus Christ. In the last analysis, therefore, the meaning of all of creation and providence must be seen in light of Jesus and God's uniting all things in him as the head of all (Eph 1:10).

This perspective influences our interpretation of the Bible when it comes to the issue of "culture." Walter Kaiser provides a good example of the standard evangelical approach today: "The interpreter must bridge the gulf of explaining the cultural elements that are present in the text of Scripture, acknowledge his or her own cultural baggage as an interpreter, and then transcend both in order to communicate the original message of Scripture into the culture of the contemporary audience" (An Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics, 173-4 [page numbers refer to the first edition]). (Another example would be the widely used book How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart.)

Although I am a distinct minority, I contend that this approach is deeply flawed. I believe it is consistent with a relativistic, man-centered view of culture which fails to grasp the biblical teaching that culture and religion cannot be separated. I believe it assumes an uncritical form/substance dualism (the idea that the form something takes has no intrinsic connection with its true nature) characteristic of modern thought. In other words, it assumes that the way God created and governs his world has no real meaning. It opens up the real possibility of conforming everything the Bible says to what we want it to say.

Instead, we should recognize that all of the Bible is "cultural" but that this is not an impediment to our communion with God. It is not something we have to get out of the way in order to figure out what God really wants us to know. Rather, these cultural elements are precisely what God used to communicate with us. Just as God was in control of the precise text that the biblical authors wrote, so also he was in complete control of the cultural situation to which the text was addressed (see B. B. Warfield, The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, 154-5). God providentially set up the exact cultural situation he wanted in order to communicate his truth to mankind. God is in control of the receptor culture and all the people who produce it, the medium of communication itself, and even the effectiveness of the communication.

Here we must acknowledge that the doctrine of Scripture controls the interpretation of Scripture. Of course, many people object to this kind of circularity and seek to avoid it, but when we are dealing with ultimates, there is no way for humans to avoid circularity. We can, however, avoid vicious circularity (see John Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, 130-33).

Just as all of Scripture is divine and all of Scripture is human, so all of Scripture is cultural, and all of Scripture is transcultural. Just as we cannot decide what in Scripture is authoritative for us today by dividing up what came from God as opposed to what came from men, so also we cannot decide what in Scripture is authoritative for us today by dividing up what is cultural versus what is transcultural. The Bible itself must direct how we respond to the "cultural" issues raised by the Bible.


Scott Aniol said...

This is great, Jason. Thanks. Can you recommend other things to read/reference on this issue besides the Warfield you cited?

Jason Parker said...

That's a great question, Scott. I can't think of one book that put it all together for me, but over the course of the years several books have forced me to think about this topic. Here are some that come to mind.

Early church fathers. One sympathetic introduction to their hermeneutic is "Sanctified Vision" by O'Keefe and Reno.

"On Christian Doctrine" by Augustine. I was especially intrigued by the place that love occupies in his understanding of right interpretation.

"Lanuage is Sermonic" by Richard Weaver.

"Deep Exegesis" by Peter Liethart.

"In the Beginning Was the Word" by Vern Poythress.

A negative example, which I believe illustrates the wrong directions contemporary hermeneutics can go, is William Webb, "Slaves, Women, & Homosexuals."

Hope that is helpful!

By the way, I've been enjoying the good content on the RA site. Thanks for all the good work you are doing.

Scott Aniol said...