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How does Culture Influence the Interpretation of Scripture?
People and Culture
Our world is filled with a great many peoples, each with their own peculiarities and persuasions, shaped by unique and localized knowledge, traditions and behavioral norms. Call this the people's culture. Cultural influences therefore form a great part of a person's interpretation, perception and ultimately their conveyance of ideas. When the concepts under consideration are those revealed in the Bible, there may be a need to consider the cultural context surrounding scripture.
The Cultural Context
The significance of cultural perceptions is easily illustrated. Consider a simple instance of burping. It is a perfectly natural act that can come after a sumptuous meal. However it is well known that in some cultures burping loudly is considered a compliment to the chef since it expresses great satisfaction with the meal. In other cultures (like those in North America) this viewed through and through as rude.
Now with let's look at 1 Timothy 2:9 in this context. Paul provides instructional guidelines on attire for women of faith and their behavior within the body of believers. While the focus here is on worship, the instruction on dress becomes somewhat subjective simply because of the word 'modest'. The definition of modest that's most appropriate in analyzing the apostle's request is "having or showing regard for the decencies of behavior, speech, dress, etc.; decent: a modest neckline on a dress. (NIV)" There's no problem in interpreting this, right? Or is there?
The problem comes from the fact that women (and men!) will have different perceptions of what kind of attire is actually modest. One may consider a skirt two inches below the knee as modest while another, in the same congregation even, may believe one inch above is more stylish but quite satisfactorily within the confines of modesty.
General Influence of Modern Society
There have been many changes in the way society is structured and operate now, compared to biblical times. The changes are reflected in many aspects of daily lives - family structures, roles within families, governance, and the list goes on. For example, women's role in the early Christian church were primarily, if not exclusively, supportive. Today many women have risen to leadership roles. Ancient Israel and, to a large extent, the Jewish people during the Lord Jesus' time on earth, were governed and ruled by the spiritual leaders of the time - the High Priest. Today spiritual leaders, in democratic nations at least, have influence on governance only as far as the effect their followers have on the populous vote.
We can illustrate how modern societal norms can affect scriptural interpretation with Prov 13:24 (NIV) which states, "Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them." The scripture traditionally has referred to corporal punishment. Modern societies however tend to generally associate spanking with child abuse, a view, I must admit, I oppose (more on that in another article). The development though of this modern stance has led believers to re-examine the scriptural interpretation of "sparing the rod" by applying factors that may not have been considered previously such as, is the "rod" an actual device to strike with or is it used figuratively?
The Culture of Biblical Peoples
Obviously the Bible, written by men under the influence of the Holy Spirit, will relate biblical concepts through the perception of the author. This is apparent in the differences in prose used by the various authors of the Bible, even through the lens of translators and biblical scholars that produce the modern versions we rely on today.
Societal norms in the Bible can influence scriptural expression and even take on the structure of biblical principles. The scripture that comes most readily to mind is 1Cor 11: 2-16. Head covering, at least in my local assembly, has been some source of controversy. It has been postulated that the custom of head covering was practiced even out of the church. In fact, for women in Biblical times, it may have been used as a style by certain women. An interesting and informative discussion of the use of head coverings in biblical times can be found at here.
It is true there are several aspects to culture that can influence how scripture is interpreted. From the discussion above these include the culture within which the reader lives or to which they are accustomed, the influence in general of modern societal norms and finally the context of biblical societal customs.
However Biblical principles themselves should never be compromised to accommodate cultural customs. There can be no justification for this. Referencing the Old Testament, we see that ancient Israel was warned that any foreigner that chose to congregate with the nation, had to practice the customs held by Israel. This precept holds true for the Christian church today. The conundrum we face with some portions of scripture, however, comes with the lack of details that assist in clarifying the meaning.
In order to interpret scripture accurately therefore, there can be no substitute for proper research but even more so there can be no excuse for the child of God, who does not seek divine assistance from the Holy Spirit, sent by the Lord to teach us all things, John 14:26 (NIV). God wants all his children to be of one mind, 1 Corinthians 1:10 (NIV), and has provided instructor led classes in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ and continual retraining through the Holy Spirit - God within us.
So whether culture does or doesn't influence scripture's interpretation, we can be sure that pursuing God will reveal where this line is drawn.
What are your thoughts? Do you think that culture influences how scripture should be interpreted?