The current world despises authority and worships relevance. So, to bracket these two terms in connection to the Bible is to claim for it one attribute (authority) that people fear but wish it didn't have, and another (relevance) that people wish it didn't have.
Our Christian perspective is that the Bible holds exceptional power and relevance in such an ancient book—and that the solution to both is found in Jesus Christ. We must never isolate Christ from the Bible. "The Scriptures... give witness to me," he said (John 5:39), and in doing so, he also bore witness to them. The key to our Christian understanding of the Bible is the reciprocal testimony between the Living Word and the written Word. Because his witness to it establishes its authority, and it establishes its significance via his testimony.
It is his authority and significance that he wields. His rule, on the other hand, is freeing rather than oppressive, for his yoke is light, and the hand that fits it is gentle, and beneath it we find rest. In terms of importance, Jesus Christ transcends time. He belongs to all civilizations while being born in a first-century Palestinian culture. He is not in a romantic relationship. He converses with everyone in their own tongue. Christ is our contemporary counterpart. Let us look at the link between Scripture and culture in this piece.
The link between Scripture and culture
What do we do when a biblical verse contradicts a deeply held cultural value? Christians have always had to deal with this issue, and it continues to be a challenging one for them today. What, for example, do we do with the Bible's teaching that sex outside of marriage is immoral, while contemporary culture values sexual freedom and casual sex?
Or, what do we do when the Bible teaches that only those who embrace Jesus are saved, yet we live in a culture that values a diverse approach to religion and faith? When confronted with this contradiction, those of us who do not wish to renounce the Bible have two alternatives. The first alternative is to simply determine that what the Bible teaches was excellent for its initial audience and is still good for us now. The second option is to conclude that what the Bible teaches was beneficial to the first hearers but is no longer beneficial to us.
In other words, the first choice would lead us to conclude, "It was good for the Israelites and first-century Christians to save sex for marriage, and it is still good for us now." The second alternative would be to remark, "Saving sex for marriage was excellent for the Israelites and first-century Christians, but it is no longer required for Christians today." Those who argue that there are elements of the Bible that, while they may have been excellent and useful when they were written, are no longer good and helpful now usually base their case on two primary points. The rest of this post will go through these two points.
Parts of the Bible are already being ignored by Christians
Others will argue, "What's the problem with saying we should ignore the Bible's message on homosexuality?" Aren't there already a number of aspects of the Bible that we ignore?" Some may interpret this to simply mean that we no longer obey many of the Old Testament commandments for Israelites. While we no longer follow these laws, this is not because we have gotten more enlightened and moved beyond them. It is because Jesus came to fulfill these commandments that their usefulness has passed.
Others, however, will use slavery as an example when arguing this. "The Bible promoted dehumanization through slavery, and yet we today reject this," the reasoning goes. As a result, we will now reject the dehumanization of arguing that homosexuality is inherently flawed." While this appears to be a solid statement on the surface, it overlooks certain critical qualifications.
To begin with, slavery is presumed rather than required in the Bible. True, there is no unambiguous condemnation of the system of slavery in the Bible, but slavery was not founded by the Bible. Slavery, like polygamy, simply appears and is tolerated. While neither is criticized, there is bad consequences from each of these situations.
Secondly, not all slavery is created equal. One of the reasons many of us are perplexed by the Bible's lack of condemnation of slavery is that we tend to view about slavery through the prism of how it was implemented in the United States. Tim Keller provides some valuable insight on this topic in his book Every Good Endeavor. "There were many' slaveries' in the ancient world," he writes. There is evidence that much of slavery was cruel and terrible, but there is also evidence that many slaves were not treated like African slaves, but had normal lives and were paid the going rate, but were not permitted to resign or change employers, and were in servitude for an average of 10 years."
"To our surprise, slaves could own slaves, and many slaves were doctors, professors, administrators, and civil servants," he continues. (See Andrew T. Lincoln's Word commentary on Ephesians, 415-420, for a study of early slavery.) According to Lincoln's assessment, no one in ancient times could imagine an economic or labor organization without it.
While there were terrible kinds of slavery, the notion of indentured servitude, in which the employee was not free to market his abilities to other employers, was accepted. According to another academic, this was not acknowledged, and "one cannot rightly talk of the slave "problem" in antiquity." (Lincoln, 415, quoting Westerman.) In other words, no one, not even slaves, believed the institution should be abolished."
This version of slavery is considerably different from the one found in the United States, which included abduction and race-based servitude. In reality, the Old Testament forbids kidnapping as a type of slavery. While we could wish that the biblical authors had denounced slavery, much of our desire stems from a far more contemporary notion of slavery.
Furthermore, the abolition of slavery did not occur as a result of people saying, "The Bible has taught us to do this, but let us go on to a more enlightened perspective of the world." Abolition occurred when Bible-believing Christians used the principles of Scripture to advocate for the institution's abolition. They contended that an organization built on abduction, racism, and oppression could never be reconciled with the biblical teaching that all humans are created in the image of God.
The Holy Bible Simply Potrays the Viewpoint of Its Time
Some would argue that we should disregard certain Bible teachings since they are just reflections of what people thought at the time the Bible was written. For example, they assert that the reason homosexual conduct is prohibited and male headship is taught is because people in earlier days simply felt homosexuality was repulsive and that men were superior to women. This argument may appear persuasive in several respects. After all, we are all impacted by the ideals of our own eras. But first, a quick note. How can we know that our values are not time-bound if we reject the Bible's time-bound values since we now have new ones? Indeed, how can we be sure that our culture's values aren't much worse? These are important questions to consider.
To suggest that the Bible simply represents the ideas of the period is to completely misinterpret the Bible. Far from being merely a product of its period, the Bible's teachings regularly confront readers with counter-cultural truths. Even the origin story itself contrasts with other ancient creation myths.
While other cultures thought that the world was formed as a result of a conflict between many different gods, the Bible teaches that the world is a good creation of the one and only God. Furthermore, Israel was not advised to just fit in with the neighboring nations. Quite the contrary! They were given orders that caused them to stand out as a strange people.
Throughout his life, but notably in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is subversive to his culture. He criticizes his era's practices. And he does so not by dismissing the Bible, but by emphasizing not just the letter of the law, but also its spirit. The core message of the Bible is Jesus' gospel. "Jews expect miracles, and Greeks seek knowledge," Paul writes about the gospel in 1 Corinthians 1:22-25, "But we preach Christ crucified: a major hurdle to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but Christ the power of God and the knowledge of God only to those who God has called, both Jews and Greeks." God's folly is wiser than human intelligence, and God's frailty is stronger than human might.
The fact is that the Bible has always been at odds with civilization. The Bible does not oppose civilization. However, God's lessons in Scripture are intended to confront each of us and invite us to a new way of thinking, experiencing, and living. Its objective was never to make us feel at ease with its teachings.
The goal was to compare our assumptions against what God says, allowing us to choose whether to follow our cultural norms or God's revealed principles. When we raise our cultural values above the plain precepts of Scripture, we are saying to God, "I will embrace what you say only if it agrees with what I already think." When we allow Scripture to reprimand us, we are saying to God, "I think you are smarter than I am, and I am prepared to embrace a message that appears dumb to many because I know your wisdom will be vindicated in the end."