I feel that most of the statements made in the Bible have a very strong historical context and it is hard to know how to apply them to today’s setting. Which Bible passages are for us and which are culturally bound? How can we tell?
The number of passages that disturb our modern sensibilities—whether they be passages on holy war, slavery or the stoning of disobedient children—attest to a distance between the contexts of the biblical texts and our own. It is not always clear how we should understand or apply them. In some cases, it seems immoral to follow them. These reveal how important it is for us to ask these more fundamental questions about interpretation.
You asked at the end, “Which Bible passages are for us, and which are culturally bound?” To this, I want to answer, “Yes!” What I mean is that, for Christians who receive the Bible as the Word of God to humankind, the whole of the Bible is the Word of God. In this sense, they are all “for us.”
I also want to affirm that all Scriptures are culturally embedded texts. If the Bible is the Word of God, it is so in human language, originally written to humans living in historical and cultural contexts. The very nature of language and communication demands we recognize the context is fundamental to meaning.
It seems to me these two affirmations make two demands. First, we must read in a spirit of humility, looking to understand the texts rightly and ready to follow them as God’s Word. Otherwise, we may accept or dismiss passages selectively based on our own biases.
Second, we must think deeply and carefully about the meaning of these texts in their contexts and how we stand in relationship to them. Otherwise, we may be overly confident about what is obvious based on our biases.
This is simply the long set up for your real question, which is about reading and living the Scriptures today. There are a few things that I find helpful to start:
Seek the God of the text. Some commands are impossible to follow directly in our contexts. Consider Jesus’ command to abandon your offering at the altar to reconcile with “your brother” (Matthew 5:23-24). For those of us who live in a culture without temple, altar or sacrificial system, we understand that obeying this will look differently.
In this passage, we learn something about the nature and will of God. We learn something of God’s heart and his concern for reconciliation. Knowing this God shapes and motivates our way of life in our own context (whatever it may look like).
Seek the logic of the text. Some commands are simply too foreign to follow directly in our contexts. Consider Paul’s commands to the Corinthians concerning eating meat sacrificed idols (1 Corinthians 8-10). These commands are difficult to understand and to apply because we do not live in a culture where eating meat ties to idolatrous worship. For the Corinthians leaving idolatrous worship to follow Christ, eating meat sacrificed to pagan deities created a crisis between those who felt liberated and ate with a clear conscience and those whose consciences stumbled over the connection with pagan worship.
If we are careful to discern the logic of Paul’s teaching, we can see how he commands the “liberated” to suspend their rights out of love for the other. We can begin to see a logic that may apply in contemporary situations where a similar crisis of conscience may exist.
Understand where the text and where you stand within the story. Throughout the varied texts of the Bible, there is a single narrative weaving throughout. While the whole story is the Word of God for us, how a particular passage applies to us may depend on where the text stands and where we stand within this story.
Consider questions about commands in the Mosaic Law. Within the story of the Bible, God calls Abraham out from among the nations to create a people for himself and promises a land. God eventually delivers that people out of slavery in Egypt to bring them to that land. God makes a covenant with them, giving them a Law that would govern life in that land. The Law was to set them apart among the nations as a kingdom of priests (Exodus 19:1-7) and included rules over every aspect of their life.
Fast forward through the story to the years after Christ’s death and resurrection. As Gentiles from other nations began to turn toward Christ, a crisis arose in the early church as to whether the Gentiles must follow Mosaic commands, especially those concerning circumcision and kosher eating.
The apostles, by recognizing where these commands and where these Gentiles stood in the story, decided that such Laws did not rule over them directly. These believers stood in a different part of the story than the texts, and so the commands about circumcision and kosher eating did not govern over them.
So, while these do not answer all questions, nor will they give an obvious answer to all our interpretive challenges, they help us think carefully about the text. Sometimes we will have to do our best to understand and resolve to follow our convictions in faith. The Apostle Paul, while mediating a similar dispute about food for the Jews and Gentiles in Rome concluded, “For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23). Whatever you do, do from faith!
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