From The Church of God, Seventh Day, Denver, CO, USA
CULTURE AND THE BIBLE
"Greet one another with a holy kiss" (Romans 16:16a). These
are the words of Apostle Paul to fellow Christians at Rome. Are
Paul's words to be understood as a command for all Christians of
all time? Or as a cultural reference applicable in a literal
sense only to those of Paul's day?
A literalist might insist that the holy kiss is obligatory
even today, but most of us would regard the principle behind
Paul's statement as being universally applicable and not the
means itself. We in our culture feel no violation of Scripture
when we substitute a handshake or a hug for Paul's holy kiss.
Yet the real questions before us are: How do we decide such
matters? How should we interpret verses and passages which seem
to draw on the cultural setting of the time? Does the Bible in
fact teach universal principles in the context of ancient
As interpreters of the Bible, we would do well to follow A.
Berkeley Mickelsen's advice: "In communicating any message from
one culture to another, we seek not to alter the message but to
make it understandable." We must be careful therefore not to
mistake a universal norm for a local custom, and vice versa. But
this is easier said than done.
Start by asking yourself some questions about a passage
under consideration. Is it entirely a reflection of cultural
practice that has no relevance for today? Is it entirely a
principle that goes beyond any cultural practice? Or, is it
partly principle and partly custom? As helpful as these questions
may be in many cases, they will not always provide the black and
white picture you may be looking for. You may still be left with
some grey areas. Then what are you to do?
A CASE STUDY
The Corinthian Church in the first century faced just such
an issue that was loaded with cultural overtones and a few grey
areas. The issue concerned whether or not it was proper far a
Christian to purchase or eat meat from the marketplace which had
been ritually slain in a pagan temple in honor of a pagan deity.
(For the apostle Paul's full discussion of the matter, see 1
Corinthians 8 and 10:14-11:1.)
The eating of food that had been sacrificed to idols can not
be considered without also considering the culture of the pagans
who inhabited the city. The controversy was part of a much
broader problem of idolatrous associations. Some members of the
Corinthian Church insisted that food from an animal sacrificed in
a pagan temple was neither better nor worse than food that hadn't
been so sacrificed. No doubt Paul agreed, but he expressed
sympathy with those he considered to be weaker in the faith
(1 Corinthians 8:7-13). In their eyes, the food was contaminated
by its association with the pagan temple service.
Paul did not forbid the buying of meats sold in the
Corinthian meat markets, nor did he insist that Christians should
ask their unbelieving hosts whether or not the food they were
serving had first been offered in sacrifice to a pagan idol (
1 Corinthians 10;25, 27). If, however, the Christians' attention
were drawn to the meat, Paul thought it best to ask to be excused
from eating it due to any offenses or misunderstandings that
could develop (I Corinthians 10:28,29,32).
The exact cultural situation of 1 Corinthians 8 and 10 no
longer exists in modern society. When was the last time you went
to Safeway and there at the meat counter, right next to the fish
and chicken parts, you saw: "Meats Offered to Idols - Choice Cuts
- $1.89 lb."?
Yet, the universal principle of being considerate of the
conscience and faith of others when dealing with grey areas is
just as real for us today as it was for the Corinthians. So too
is the principle of deliberately entering into idolatrous
associations which compromise our Christianity. Paul considered
such deliberate associations both foolish and inconsistent with
the Christian faith (1 Corinthians 10:7-21).
The meats issue of I Corinthians 8 and 10 illustrates how a
local cultural problem can be used to address a broader
principle. It also illustrates that even though the exact
cultural situation has no precise equivalence in our modern
setting, the underlying truth of the passage still has validity.
Author of "The Apostles," Donald Guthrie, sums it up this
way: "The problem was local to Corinth and its people, but the
principle involved in Paul's answer is universal in cases where
sensitive consciences are likely to lead to misunderstanding."
To help determine how culture colors scriptural passages,
here are a few points to consider.
1. Notice obvious cultural references. References to clothes and
money are good examples. For instance, the point of 1 Timothy
2:9,10 and Mark 12:41-44 is not that Christians throughout
history must wear the same dress styles and use the same monetary
system as those of the first century, but rather that the
principles of modesty and sacrificial giving should prevail.
2. Recognize creation ordinances. R.C. Sproul in his book,
"Knowing Scripture," writes, "If any biblical principles
transcend local customary limits, they are the appeals drawn from
creation." In other words, the decrees of God at creation reflect
His perpetual intent and abiding will for the whole of mankind
down through the ages. Creation ordinances are not limited to man
as Hebrew or man as Christian or man as Corinthian. They are for
all peoples and stand apart from cultural trappings.
Consider Jesus' treatment of the Sabbath in this regard.
When the Pharisees questioned the Sabbathkeeping of Jesus'
disciples in comparison to their own Sabbathkeeping customs,
Jesus appealed to the creation origin of the Sabbath: "The
Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath" (Mark
Literally, the Sabbath came into being for the sake of man.
Thus, the creation ordinance of the Sabbath transcends the
legalistic Sabbathkeeping customs of the Pharisees, while
preserving the Sabbath's original intent as a benefit to all
3. Know something of the people or peoples who are involved in
the section of Scripture you are studying. Are they Jews?
Gentiles? Are they believers or not? What are their social and
4. Determine the historical setting of the text as far as
possible. It is more important to your understanding to know the
historical situation than the precise historical date.
5. Focus on the principle of the text, the truth that is being
taught. Don't become so burdened down with cultural objects and
references that the actual teaching of the text becomes secondary
to its cultural background.
6. Be aware of your own cultural conditioning. This is often more
of an obstacle to accurate interpretation than trying to
reconstruct and understand ancient culture. Instead of
scrutinizing Scripture to fit your own cultural perspectives,
allow yourself to come under its scrutiny. The power of God's
Word will penetrate across time, place, and culture, if you have
a receptive ear.
Perhaps a quote from "Knowing Scripture" best expresses the
role of culture in biblical interpretation:
Unless we maintain that the Bible fell down from heaven on a
parachute, inscribed by a celestial pen in a peculiar
heavenly language uniquely suited as a vehicle for divine
revelation, or that the Bible was dictated directly and
immediately by God without reference to any local custom,
style, or perspective, we are going to have to face the
cultural gap. That is, the Bible reflects the culture of its
To understand just that much can make your Bible study come
alive. It will bring new meaning to the life and times of those
portrayed in Scripture and will aid in your own search for the
relevancy of God's Word for your life today.
Scripture quotations were taken from the New King lames Version.
BRINGING IT ALL TOGETHER
A. Berkeley Mickelsen and Alvera M. Mickelsen
"Why should the Bible be so complex?" you maybe asking. "Why
should I need to study history, culture, language problems,
non-Western kinds of poetry, and ancient figures of speech to
understand God's message to me?"
You don't necessarily have to. You can read the Bible like
any other book, in any version you choose, and much of God's
message will come through to you if you read with an open mind,
seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Realistically, however, the Bible is NOT like any other book
that has ever been written. It involves many writers, spanning
many hundreds of years, writing in languages unknown to us, with
thought patterns, customs, and historical situations far removed
Even more important, the Bible is not like any other book
because the Bible brings us the voice of God. God is far beyond
our most profound thoughts, larger than our most emancipated
imaginations, more holy than our sinful minds can comprehend,
more loving than we have the capacity to experience.
Even the most devoted student will only scratch the surface
of the Bible and its revelations about God and God's dealings
with people. The Bible speaks about men and women living and
dying, of their tragedies, joys, sins, rebellions against God,
and reconciliations with God. It speaks of Jesus Christ, God's
Son, His life and ministry on this earth, His death,
resurrection, and His present work on behalf of His people.
Because the Bible is so rich, we want to be able to absorb
and comprehend as much as possible, so that we can grow in our
love for God, our obedience to Him, and our understanding of
ourselves and of the world in which we live. There are other
reasons to be diligent, careful students of the Bible. In our
times, sects are multiplying, and many are aggressively
propagating their beliefs.
Most make some use of the Bible in approaching prospective
converts. They have a well-designed platter of Bible verses that
is served up instantly in response to certain questions. But most
of them have little solid knowledge of the Bible - the kind of
knowledge based on the principles [of hermeneutics]. The
Christian who knows only a few scattered Bible verses memorized
in childhood is hard-pressed to defend his faith in the face of
the many pressures of today.
Actually, the Bible itself does not need to be defended; it
only needs to be read and understood and applied by the reader. A
genuine, solid knowledge of the Bible and how to interpret it
frees the Christian from any fears that some new finding will
destroy his faith. The truth is not destructible.
PRACTICE IS MORE DIFFICULT THAN THEORY
It is easier to talk about good principles of interpreting
the Bible than it is to practice such principles. This is true of
most skills. We can read a text on swimming and learn exactly
what our arms and legs are supposed to do in the water. We can
even memorize this information. But that does not mean we will be
able to swim when we get into the water. Once in the water we
discover that mastering the skill is quite different from
memorizing the rules.
It takes time and effort to learn to coordinate elements of
biblical interpretation involving language, historical
backgrounds, culture patterns, figurative language, etc., to
arrive at the original meaning of the passage we are studying. It
takes additional effort to determine its rightful meaning for us
today. We soon find that understanding the Bible, like swimming,
is a personal matter. There is no impersonal way to get at its
meaning. There me only guidelines to help persons discover
It often helps to discuss our findings and our methods with
fellow Christians from different backgrounds. We may see other
views which teach us that our own view is not as absolute as we
If we have already developed bad habits of Bible study, we
may feel that it is too difficult to change - too much effort is
required. But there is too much at stake to permit us to take the
line of least resistance. The Holy Spirit will help our honest
efforts, reprove our faltering will-power, and help us discipline
our thinking as we should.
WE MUST ACCOUNT TO GOD FOR OUR USE OF THE BIBLE
God has given us the Bible as a means through which we may
know Him, and we must account to God for our use of it. Jesus
said that people will give account on the day of judgment for
every idle and useless word (Matthew 12:36). This surely applies
to our use of the Bible. Sincerity will not be an adequate excuse
for poor habits when the real problem is laziness or
How we understand the Bible influences not only our lives
but also the lives of many around us. If we are aware that we
must give account to God for how we interpret His Word, then we
must be honest and diligent in our study of it.
God has given us His Word for our growth and for our witness
for Him in the world. He has set us free from the domination and
penalty of sin. This good news must be brought to every man,
woman, and child. To do this, we must understand it.
"The unfolding of thy words gives light; it imparts understanding
to the simple (inexperienced]" (Psalm 119:130).
Taken from "Understanding Scripture" by A. Berkeley and Alvera M.
Mickelsen, Copyright @ 1981 by Regal Books, a division of GL
Publications, Ventura, CA 93006 Used by permission.
So ends this study on MAKING SENSE OF SCRIPTURE
Entered on this Website July 2004