The Problem of Cultural Relativity in Exegesis

The Problem of Cultural Relativity in Exegesis

Steps to determine whether a Scripture passage still applies today

This is the area where most present-day difficulties—and differences—lie. It is the place where the problem of God's eternal word having been given in historical particularity comes most sharply into focus. The problem has the following steps: (1) Epistles are occasionally documents of the first century, which spoke to specific situations in the first-century church. (2) Many of the specific situations in the Epistles are so completely conditioned by their first-century setting that all recognize that they have little or no personal application as a word for today, except perhaps in the most distant sense of one's deriving some principle from them (e.g., bringing Paul's cloak from Carpus' house in Troas). (3) Other passages are also thoroughly conditioned by their first-century settings, but the word contained in them may be "translated" into new but comparable settings. (4) Is it not possible, therefore, that still other texts, although they appear to have comparable particulars, are also conditioned by their first-century setting and need to be translated into new settings, or simply left in the first century?

Nearly all Christians, at least to a limited degree, do translate biblical texts into new settings. Without articulating it in precisely this way, twenty-first-century evangelicals use this principle to leave "a little wine for thy stomach's sake" in the first century, to not insist on head coverings or long hair for women today, and to not practice the "holy kiss." Many of the same evangelicals, however, wince when a woman's teaching in the church (when men are present) is also defended on these grounds, and they become downright indignant when someone tries to defend same-sex partnerships on the same grounds.

We Can't Reject Cultural Relativity

Frequently there have been some who have tried to reject the idea of cultural relativity altogether, which has led them more or less to argue for a wholesale adoption of first-century culture as the divine norm. But such a rejection is usually only moderately successful. They may keep their daughters home, deny them an education, and have the father arrange for their marriage, but they usually allow them to learn to read and go out in public. The point is that it is extremely difficult to be consistent here, precisely because there is no such thing as a divinely ordained culture; cultures are in fact different, not only from the first to the twenty-first century, but in every conceivable way in the twenty-first century itself.

Rather than rejection, we suggest that the recognition of a degree of cultural relativity is a valid hermeneutical procedure and is an inevitable corollary of the occasional nature of the Epistles. But we also believe that to be valid, one's hermeneutics must operate within recognizable guidelines.

How to Determine Cultural Relativity

We suggest the following guidelines, therefore, for distinguishing between items that are culturally relative on the one hand and those that transcend their original setting on the other hand and are thus normative for all Christians of all times. We do not contend for these guidelines as "once for all given to the saints," but they do reflect our current thinking, and we should encourage further discussion and interaction (many of these have been worked out in conjunction with our former colleague, David M. Scholer).

1. One should first distinguish between the central core of the message of the Bible and what is dependent on or peripheral to it. This is not to argue for a canon within the canon (i.e., to elevate certain parts of the New Testament as the norm for reading other parts); it is to safeguard the gospel from being turned into law through culture or religious custom on the one hand and to keep the gospel itself from changing to reflect every conceivable cultural expression on the other hand.

Thus the fallenness of all humanity, redemption from that fallenness of God's gracious activity through Christ's death and resurrection, the consummation of that redemptive work by the return of Christ, etc., are clearly part of this central core. But the holy kiss, women's head coverings, and charismatic ministries and gifts would seem to be less so.

2. Similarly, one should be prepared to distinguish between what the New Testament itself sees as inherently moral and what is not. Those items that are inherently moral are therefore absolute and abide for every culture; those that are not inherently moral are therefore cultural expressions and may change from culture to culture.

Paul's sin lists, for example, never contain cultural items. Some of the sins may indeed be more prevalent in one culture than another, but there are never situations in which they may be considered Christian attitudes or actions. Thus sexual immorality, adultery, idolatry, drunkenness, homosexual practice, thievery, greed, and the like (1 Corinthians 6:9–10) are always wrong. This does not mean that Christians have not from time to time been guilty of any of these. But they are not viable moral choices. After all, Paul goes on to say, "That is what some of you were. But you were washed . . ." (v. 11, emphasis added).

On the other hand, foot washing, exchanging the holy kiss, eating marketplace idol food, women having a head covering when praying or prophesying, Paul's personal preference for celibacy, or a woman's teaching in the church are not inherently moral matters. They become so only by their use or abuse in given contexts, when such use or abuse involves disobedience or lack of love.

3. One must make special note of items where the New Testament itself has a uniform and consistent witness and where it reflects differences. The following are examples of matters on which the New Testament bears uniform witness: love as the Christian's basic ethical response, a nonretaliation personal ethic, the wrongness of strife, hatred, murder, stealing, practicing homosexuality, drunkenness, and sexual immorality of all kinds.

On the other hand, the New Testament does not appear to be uniform on such matters as women's ministries in the church (see Romans 16:1–2, where Phoebe is a "deacon" in Cenchrea; Romans 16:7, where Junia—not Junias, which is an unknown masculine name—is named among the apostles; Romans 16:3, where Priscilla is Paul's coworker—the same word used of Apollos in 1 Corinthians 3:9; and 1 Corinthians 11:5 over against 1 Timothy 2:12 [and 1 Corinthians 14:34–35, which is suspect textually]); the political evaluation of Rome (see Romans 13:1-5 and 1 Peter 2:13-14 over against Revelation 13–18); the retention of one's wealth (Luke 12:33; 18:22 over against 1 Timothy 6:17–19); or eating food offered to idols (1 Corinthians 10:23–29 over against Acts 15:29; Revelation 2:14, 20). By the way, if any of these suggestions cause an emotional reaction on your part, you may ask yourself why, since in each case the New Testament evidence is not uniform, whether we like that or not.

Sound exegesis may cause us to see greater uniformity than appears to be the case now. For example, in the matter of food offered to idols, one can make a good exegetical case for the Greek word in Acts and Revelation to refer to going to the temple to eat such food. In this case, the attitude would be consistent with Paul's in 1 Corinthians 10:14–22. However, precisely because these other matters appear to be more cultural than moral, one should not be disturbed by the lack of uniformity. Likewise, one should not pursue exegesis only as a means of finding uniformity, even at the cost of common sense or the plain meaning of the text.

4. It is important to be able to distinguish within the New Testament itself between principle and specific application. It is possible for a New Testament writer to support a relative application by an absolute principle and in so doing not make the application absolute. Thus in 1 Corinthians 11:2–16, for example, Paul appeals (apparently) to the divine order of creation and redemption (v. 3) and establishes the principle that one should do nothing to distract from the glory of God (especially by breaking convention) when the community is at worship (vv. 7, 10). The specific application, however, seems to be relative, since Paul repeatedly appeals to "practice" or "nature" (vv. 6, 13–14, 16).

This leads us to suggest that one may legitimately ask at such specific applications: would this have been an issue for us had we never encountered it in the New Testament documents? In Western cultures, the failure to cover a woman's head (especially her hair) with a full-length veil would probably create no difficulties at all. In fact, if she were literally to obey the text in most American churches, she would thereby almost certainly abuse the spirit of the text by drawing attention to herself. But with a little thinking, one can imagine some kinds of dress—both male and female—that would be so out of place as to create the same kind of disruption of worship (a man in his swimsuit, for example, would be so noticeable as to distract others).

5. It might also be important, as much as one is able to do this with care, to determine the cultural options open to any New Testament writer. The degree to which a New Testament writer agrees with a cultural situation in which there is only one option increases the possibility of the cultural relativity of such a position. Thus, for example, homosexual activity was both affirmed and condemned by writers in antiquity, yet the New Testament takes a singular position against it. On the other hand, attitudes toward slavery as a system or toward the status and role of women were basically singular, no one denounced slavery as an evil, and women were consistently held to be basically inferior to men by the philosophers. The New Testament writers also do not denounce slavery as an evil—although they undercut it by urging that the householder and his slaves were brother and sister in Christ (see Philemon 16; cf. Ephesians 6:9). On the other hand, they generally move well beyond the attitudes toward women held by their contemporaries. But in either case, to the degree to which they reflect the prevalent cultural attitudes in these matters, they are thereby reflecting the only cultural option in the world around them.

6. One must keep alert to possible cultural differences between the first and twenty-first centuries that are sometimes not immediately obvious. For example, to determine the role of women in the twenty-first century church, one should take into account that there were few educational opportunities for women in the first century, whereas such education is the expected norm in our society. This may affect our understanding of such moments as the one on women's dress and demeanor in Paul's first letter to Timothy (2:9–15). Likewise, a participatory democracy is radically different from the government of which Paul speaks in his admonition to the believers in Rome (13:1–7). It is expected in a participatory democracy that bad laws are to be changed and bad officials are to be ousted. These differences should surely affect how one brings such a moment into twenty-first-century English-speaking North America.

7. One must finally exercise Christian charity at this point. Christians need to recognize the difficulties, open the lines of principles, and above all else have love for and a willingness to ask forgiveness from those with whom they differ.

Some Examples

Before we conclude this discussion, it may be helpful to see how these guidelines apply to two current issues: the ministry of women and homosexual activity—especially since some who are arguing for women's ministries are using some of the same arguments to support same-sex partnerships as a valid Christian alternative.

We begin with the question of women's role in the church as teachers or proclaimers of the Word. This issue has basically focused on two unrelated passages (1 Corinthians 14:34–35 and 1 Timothy 2:11–12). But the first passage is highly suspect as being anything Paul wrote, since it is the only place in the entire transmission of Scripture that a passage like this occurs in two different places in the Greek manuscripts and was most likely brought in as a marginal gloss from someone who was not quite satisfied with Paul's affirmation of women both praying and prophesying in worship (as in 11:2–5). In the second case, silence and submission or a quiet demeanor are enjoined—although in neither case is the submission necessarily to her husband—and in 1 Timothy 2 she is not permitted to teach or to "assume authority over" a man. Full compliance with this text in the twenty-first century would seem to rule out not only a woman's preaching and teaching in the local church, but it also would seem to forbid her writing books on biblical subjects (including religious education) in Christian colleges or Bible institutes where men are in her classes, and teaching men in missionary situations. But those who argue against women teaching in the contemporary church seldom carry the interpretation this far. And almost always they make the matters about clothing in the preceding verse (1 Timothy 2:9) to be culturally relative.

On the other hand, that the passage in 1 Timothy might be culturally relative can be supported first of all by exegesis of all three of the Pastoral Epistles. Certain women were troublesome in the church at Ephesus (1 Timothy 5:11–15; 2 Timothy 3:6–9), and they appear to have been a major part of the cause of the false teachers making headway there. Since women are found teaching (Acts 18:26) and prophesying (Acts 21:9, 1 Corinthians 11:5) elsewhere in the New Testament, it is altogether likely that the 1 Timothy passage spoke to a local problem. In any case, the guidelines above support the possibility that this singular (uncertain) prohibition is culturally relative.

The question of homosexuality, however, is considerably different. In this case, the guidelines stand against its being culturally relative. The whole Bible has a consistent witness against homosexual activity as being morally wrong.

In recent years some people have argued that the homosexuality against which the New Testament speaks is that in which people abuse others, and that private monogamous homosexuality between consenting adults is a different matter. They argue that it cannot be proved on exegetical grounds that such homosexual behavior is forbidden. It is also argued that these are twenty-first-century cultural options not available in the first century. Therefore, they would propose that some of our guidelines (e.g., 5 and 6) open the possibility that the New Testament prohibitions against homosexuality are also culturally relative, and they would further argue that some of the guidelines are not true or not relevant.

The problem with this argument, however, is that it does not hold up either exegetically or historically. The homosexuality Paul had in view early on in his letter to the believers in Rome (1:24–28) is clearly not of the "abusive" type; it is homosexuality between males. Since the Bible as a whole witnesses against homosexuality and invariably includes it in moral contexts, and since it simply has not been proved that the options for homosexual practice differ today from those of the first century, there seem to be no valid grounds for seeing it as a culturally relative matter for Paul. One may not like what Paul says, but to re-create him to fit present culture is an infraction of the highest order.

—Taken from How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart. Copyright 1981, 1993, 2003, 2014 by Douglas Stuart and Gordon D. Fee. Use by permission of Zondervan.

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