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How does Culture Influence the Interpretation of Scripture?

Updated on April 8, 2012

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.


Interpret Carefully

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?


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    • tajman profile image
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      tajman 5 years ago from Trinidad

      Thanks for your feedback Bruce.

      I agree that the writer is not focused primarily on clothing but on the manner of lifestyle these women portrayed - this is given. I think though their is a very practical aspect to attire that the writer is alluding to that can't be ignored. The fact is, that a heart focused on God will desire to please him in all aspects of life. Shouldn't this also include our physical appearance including how we dress? Is this too trivial an area for God to be concerned about?

      So, even though we have an emphasis on transforming the inner man, the writers seem to (in both passages you have referenced), be concerned about outward appearance. The writers in 1 Tim 2:9 and 1 Pet 3:3 both seem to suggest that the "inner self" should be such that it's influence should extend and be reflected in the outward appearance, which includes attire.

      It is within this context I presented my illustration. Let me know your thoughts.

    • Bruce A. Beaudet profile image

      Bruce A. Beaudet 5 years ago from Canada

      Interesting hub. I think many Christians do not have an interpretive method and often impose their own "cultural influences" to render a meaning that differs from what the biblical writer intended.

      The writer of 1 Timothy 2:9 (NIV) gives an example of how not to dress: "not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes" and then, contrasts it with "good deeds appropriate for women who profess to worship God." The writer is contrasting the outer(appearance) and inner self(see 1 Peter 3:3 for the same theme)with an emphasis on "good deeds."

      In my opinion, the reader who tries to figure out what is modest and what is not has missed the the writer's intent.

    • Rina Pinto profile image

      Rina Pinto 5 years ago from Dubai - UAE

      Well said my bro!.. Appreciate to learn a lot from an another bro!. An Act of confession is important (Book of Act) to one another in order to set an example to other Gentiles! We who have been given the Word must Act with His Word. I know its difficult for every Believer these last days. We must pray for each other and the weaknesses we see in each one of us. It is important we become a Watchman over the Lost Sheep (Gentiles/Backsliders). I am not ashamed to say i am one of the backslider too. Lost my way like a Prodigal daughter. My father in Heaven rescued me and Now i am in search of those Lost sheep/backsliders as Our Lord God Father says in Mathew 13:30 Gather my wheat into My barn" i am glad that our Father Lord Jesus Loved us first and this must be our Priority towards Him .. Love Him first and His works... Am sure our Father in Heaven would be happy enough to say to us " Well done my son/daughter" or like Paul " I have fought the Good Race" Therefore i very much treasure the Question Jesus asked Simon Peter " Simon Peter, son of Jonah, do you Love me thrice. Although Peter was hurt as this question it was for Peter's own good and indeed Peter won the race as God wanted him to win! .. Hallelujah and God Bless u my brother .. continue to witness His Word.. No other Name but the name of Jesus - Emmauael - God with us!

    • tajman profile image
      Author

      tajman 5 years ago from Trinidad

      Thanks for your comment Rina. The emphasis of the illustration I made of a woman's attire isn't focused on the outward effect it may or may not have on individuals but more so on how we can be subjective in interpreting the scripture because of our own cultural influences. I can use the same illustration in a different manner. A woman, or man for that matter, may be accustomed to wearing several items of large and flashy despite being fully covered from neck to ankles. However some may consider this immodest while others may not.

      Regarding your specific comment on lust, while I agree that control of lust lies in the eyes of the beholder, there is still a responsibility on all of us, as believers, to not ourselves be stumbling blocks. Men are very visual creatures and it is one of the bases for having an attraction to the opposite sex. There may be certain modes of female dress that may be a temptation to sin lustfully. In my other hub, http://tajman.hubpages.com/hub/Temptations-are-nec... I show how God is not pleased with the actions of the temptor and will punish severely.

      Having said that though, I agree with you and want to emphasize that, it is still the responsibility of the man who is tempted in this manner to exercise self-control and not yield to the temptation. It may mean averting his eyes (Job 31:1) or excusing himself or even avoiding the situation completely! The more he yields to the Spirit and indulges in the words of our Lord, the more God will strengthen and make him aware of how, to ignore the temptation.

      So there's a double responsibility to both the men and women in this scenario, especially as believers, to both guard ourselves from becoming a snare to someone else and falling into the trap!

    • Rina Pinto profile image

      Rina Pinto 5 years ago from Dubai - UAE

      Dear Brother in Lord Jesus Christ! Greeting to you from Dubai - UAE. The 7th Commandment " Do not commit Adultery " it is a serious command indeed and must be obeyed! God created Adam & Eve and were placed in the garden of Eden. They were naked and walked before God. There was no lust as such. But when they committed the sin they knew of shame and tried to cover themselves with the next availability of dress in their surroundings. The control of lust lies within the eyes of the beholder. Regardless of the woman dressing why do we look at her with such a lustful manner? Isn't she God's own creation? Why do we need to look at the woman with lust? Why cant we appreciate the beauty God has designed her into and thank God for it? Why cant we just simply thank God for her beauty? We must not look into her in a sinful manner! She is God's creation and so are men! Are we all not created into the image & likeness of Yahweh our creator? We must teach our brothers & sisters to come out of this serious mistake of looking woman and their dressing sense. We are called to please God in every sense even in this sense without a threat. I know some woman dress only for wrong reason but if men see them too in the right manner that would be good to their souls! Women & Men reading this Hub must come to the same position of not committing the sin of Adultery! Its an Act of shame & sin before God. We must ask the Holy Spirit for help when we come to such a position. Our Father Lord Jesus taught us a beautiful prayer " Our Father" it teaches us to say " Do not lead me to temptation but deliver us from every evil" ahaa.. we so well say this prayer but we forget to ask the Lord Jesus to help us. Dear brothers and sisters get under the shadows of the Almighty Wings for He is sure gonna deliver you from All evil.. !

      Remain Blessed all who strive with this sin of Adultery!, The Battle is the Lord's the Victory is Ours in the name of Jesus the enemy flees! Hallelujah!