By Jake Randolph
A question that often sits in people’s minds as they interact with the church goes something like, “Why hold on to the Bible as an ethical or philosophical authority? Haven’t we progressed as a society? Isn’t the Bible outdated?” Quite frankly, people sometimes try to put the Bible against the so-called forward-thinking of Western civilization. This post isn’t so much to systematically defend Scriptural authority or the usefulness of the Bible for today’s generation, but rather to guide that discussion around a few key observations (This is particularly important for Christians who may have their doubts about the Bible’s viability).
This is interesting because it betrays an assumption we all sort of live our lives by, that whatever age we are participating in is the height of social ethical understanding; that is, how we live our life right now in the public square is the most humane, the most morally impeccable—in short, the right way to live and behave. What we end up with is essentially white-tower gazing on a societal-ethical level. But history reveals over and over again that blind spots in society are different in every age, and that might (whether social, political, militaristic, technological, etc.) does not make right. Yet, we constantly compare ourselves to the generations before us and find them wanting, judging their assumptions, presuppositions and way of life by our own standard (which we ourselves only just agreed to five minutes ago!). C.S. Lewis famously dubbed this cultural phenomenon as “chronological snobbery;” it is “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate of our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that count discredited.” Cultural self-awareness demands that we be much more careful about making unqualified claims to ethical superiority based solely on what is popular or culturally relevant.
Yet, there is a certain level on which the question remains — ancient cultures did operate under their own cultural presuppositions which shaded their perspective on moral living. Knowing this, how can anyone living in the 21st century subscribe to the moral prescriptions of the Bible, a collection of ancient Jewish religious documents?
First, we can distinguish between three types of ethical statements made in the Bible. Truth is always true (and I confess the Bible’s truthfulness), and it’s useful for all people, but certain ethical statements in the Bible situate God’s truth in ways we must learn to discern. These historical situations in turn shape the way in which we apply these statements to our own lives and communities. For instance, Lev. 11:3 states, “Whatever parts the hoof and is cloven-footed and chews the cud, among the animals, you may eat.” This is an example of the first type of ethical statement: a cultural statement—command or proposition given which speaks to and is intended for a particular culture in a particular time and place.
There are also inter-cultural statements—commands or principles which come from a cultural context, but have application to all believers through the frame of their own culture(s). Paul says in 1 Tim. 2:8, “I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling”. The cultural context for unified prayer in Paul’s day was men gathering and lifting hands that are sanctified for prayer. But the heart of this command isn’t the necessity of raising hands when you pray, but the importance of unified prayer and peace among believers, so we see this as a universal command (pray together in a spirit of unity and peace) which will find broad applications in different cultures depending on what corporate prayer looks like in those churches.
Finally, we have what I call trans-cultural statements: these invoke universal acceptance and minimal contextualization; they shape the very nature of faith in God. Believing communities are beholden to believe to these statements no matter how much it negates their cultural context, because they reflect very directly the heart of God for all humanity. Statements such as “Hear O Israel: the Lord our God is One” (Deut. 6:4), “You shall not murder” (Ex. 20:13), or “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Mt. 5:44-45) are all examples of trans-cultural statements. God intends these types of statements to give the foundation for the other two types of statements.
Okay, so we have three kinds of statements. Who decides what is trans-cultural, what is inter-cultural, and what is cultural? We’ll look at that in part 2 of this post.
Jake Randolph is the Worship Director at Renewal Church