The Voices of Other Cultures and Biblical Interpretation

One of the books that  I am currently reading through is Timothy Keller’s book Preaching. In his chapter Preaching Christ to the Culture he discusses the idea that the Bible, as God’s revelation of himself, transcends all fallible human cultures and therefore it is expected that every culture is going to be offended by something that the Bible teaches as true.1 He then brings up an example, Christian philosopher Miroslav Volf who is a Croatian who has witnessed his people suffer an ethnic cleansing. Volf is arguing for the necessity of a God, not just of love, but also of judgement that is required for the ultimate practice of nonviolence in a society and his conclusion stings the comfortable American sentiment a bit. He states, “It takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence is a result of a God who refuses to judge.”2 Ouch. What a different perspective from most of us, or at least from some of the thoughts we harbor or even fight against, but I for one believe that there is a sure truth to Volf’s claim.

Reading this brought back to mind the debate within the United Methodist Church regarding their denominations stance on gay marriage. In particular, I was reminded of a statement made by a Liberian dean at Gbarnga School of Theology that struck a similar blow to the cultural snobbery, if you will, that encompasses far too much thought within the cross-denominational American Christian church. (that includes you non-denominational folks too!) While taking a stand for the historical orthodox position on sexuality Dr. Kulah stated, ““And then please hear me when I say as graciously as I can: we Africans are not children in need of western enlightenment when it comes to the church’s sexual ethics. We do not need to hear a progressive U.S. bishop lecture us about our need to ‘grow up.’”3 Ouch. But what a statement and oh how it applies to far more than just the church’s positions on sexuality. We as Western Christians need to listen to our brothers and sisters in Christ across both time and culture, especially in light of the growing secular social pressures that can and have influenced historical understandings of God’s Word.

Simply put, the Bible was not written for Americans. It was written for Christians. That means Christians of the past, so listen to them. Christians from distant cultures, so listen to them. Christians that do not look like you, talk like you, dress like you, read like you, think like you, or even interpret like you. Therefore, if you’re anything like me, you need their perspective to help you interact with and interpret God’s Word aright.

When we collectively consider this fact, there is an intrinsic weight and value (may I go so far as authority?) placed upon any Biblical interpretation that transcends culture and time. When the corporate body of believers past, and a large, yet removed, body present, have extrapolated a certain doctrine throughout the course of the church’s history and only now, within a present cultural climate in which that doctrine is under assault and the “church” sees fit to rapidly discard that doctrine, it is only a snobbish cultural attitude that essentially scoffs at the global confession of brothers and sisters in Christ that allows one to reinterpret Scripture based on pressures outside of Scripture which are influencing ones interpretation.

This applies to many areas of interpretation. Beware of nationalistic patriotism driving your eschatological (end times) interpretations. Watch out for the deep seated cultural pressures of sexual identity and freedom seeping into the historic understanding of God’s design and commands for human sexuality. Pray with the saints of the past for they are part of our family. Heed the saints of the present despite their geographical distance, perhaps because of that distance!

My fellow American Christians, we are Christians from a relatively short national identity and culture who worship a God who, in the person of his Son, took on a fully human (except for a sinful nature) Jewish identity two-thousand years ago, who himself is the fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures, whose message then rapidly spread to a culturally diverse Greek community, which was then molded over centuries through a Catholic heritage (which we Protestants are a part of! Reformation not Restoration!), was reformed by German, French, Swiss, English and many others and then melted together into a pot of various theological traditions in what is the Untied States which is saved by the same Gospel message that is currently and exponentially increasing over Africa, Asia and the Middle-East. One day we will stand with “a great multitude which no one could count from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Rev. 7:9) and we will worship God as one great congregation, let it not be the case that such a moment in time shall be the first time that we have ever listened to the voices of our diverse brothers and sisters in Christ. We are one family of redeemed humanity consisting of many nations and I certainly think that many of those nations, both past and present, have much to say to believers in our temporal nation in regards to both our faithfulness to Christ and our Biblical interpretation. May their eyes be added to our own as we all gaze upon God’s revealed Word (which for good measure was written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek and not English!), and plead in many languages for God to open all of our minds, giving us all eyes to see and ears to hear what he has proclaimed to all of humanity. No Christian is their cultural identity (Gal. 3:28), yet all are influenced by their culture in ways seen and unseen, it takes all of us working together, united under the banner of Christ, to handle God’s Word faithfully as one body. 

Citations:

  1. Timothy Keller, Preaching: Communicating Faith in Age of Skepticism (New York, New York: Viking, 2015), 114-115
  2. Ibid. 114, 278; quote taken from: Miroslav Volf, Exclusion Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1996), 303-4
  3. https://juicyecumenism.com/2019/02/23/african-united-methodists-wont-trade-bible-for-dollars/ (accessed September 1, 2019)

Culture pic

Photo by Larm Rmah on Unsplash

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