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.