CULTURAL CONDITIONING AND THE BIBLE
An ecclesiastical controversy in the 1960s illustrates the problem of culture. In 1967 the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. adopted a new confession with the following statement concerning the Bible:
The Scriptures, given under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, are nevertheless the words of men, conditioned by the language, thought forms, and literary fashions of the places and times at which they were written. They reflect views of life, history, and the cosmos which were then current. The church therefore, has an obligation to approach the Scriptures with literary and historical understanding. As God has spoken his word in diverse cultural situations, the church is confident that he will continue to speak through the Scriptures in a changing world and in every form of human culture.
Does conditioned mean we have to determine how the person at the time of writing understood it or does it mean that those passages are bound and limited by an unscientific and primitive culture?
Does reflect mean that the Bible teaches as true outmoded and incorrect views of life, history and cosmos? Is this cultural perspective part of the essence of the message of Scripture? Or does reflect mean that we can read between the lines of Scripture, noting such things as phenomenal language and see a cultural setting in which a culture-transcending message is given?
Our understanding of the nature of Scripture will affect our interpretation of it. The ultimate issue here is this: to what extent is the Bible’s relevance and authority limited by changing human structures and perspectives in the biblical text?
In order to produce an accurate exegesis of a biblical text and understand what was said and what was meant, a student must be involved with questions of language (Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic), style, syntax, historical and geographical context, author, destination and literary genre. In a word, the better I understand the original language and setting, the easier it becomes for me to have an accurate understanding of what was being said.
CULTURAL CONDITIONING AND THE READER
The problem becomes more acute when I realize that not only is the Bible conditioned by its cultural setting, but I am conditioned by my cultural setting as well. It often becomes difficult for me to hear and understand what the Bible is saying because I bring to it a host of extra-biblical assumptions.
No one of us ever totally escapes being a child of our age. If I knew which of my ideas were out of harmony with Scripture, I would try to change them. Our blind spots are so called because we are oblivious to them.
That is how we often come to Scripture. We must be slow in criticizing Scripture by allowing Scripture to criticize us: we need to become aware that the perspective we bring to the Word may be a distortion of truth. The influence of the twenty-first-century mindset is a far more formidable obstacle to accurate biblical interpretation than is the problem of the conditioning of ancient culture.
The interpreter is expected to strive as hard as possible for an objective reading of the text through the grammatical-historical approach. This means he is supposed to let the grammar and the historical setting guide him to the original intent of the writing to avoid bringing in his extra-biblical baggage.
In recent years new approaches to biblical interpretation have arisen from modernist thinking:
1. Existential approaches: because the Bible was written in a prescientific age and is substantially the result of the formative influence of the life situation of the early Christian community, it must be modernized before it can be relevant to us. If contemporary people want to get valid answers to their questions from the Bible, they must first come to the Bible with the right questions. The Bible does not challenge us but we come to it with questions grounded in the proper philosophical approach.
2. Reader response: The final meaning depends on the reader’s subjective response to the text and not upon what the author intended to communicate. The Bible becomes completely subjective and the first-century message is swallowed up and absorbed by the twenty-first century mentality.
3. Deconstruction: There is no absolute truth and no absolute meaning. The text is a playground upon which a reader may decide whatever meaning he determines.
These methods arise by making man the measure of truth and meaning. The Scriptures testify of a world that God has created and men He has revealed Himself clearly unto. Meaning may be impossible if man is the measure but that is not the universe that God has created.
Even after we agree that the Bible is inspired by God and not merely the product of prescientific authors, we are still faced with questions of application. Does what the Bible commands first-century Christians to do apply to us? In what sense do the Scriptures bind our consciences today?