Knowing Scripture: Chapter 5

Sproul has us consider the difference between principle and custom in the Bible.

5.    Culture and the Bible

Is Scripture insufficient for guiding us today?

Cultural conditioning and the Bible

To what degree is the Bible influenced by culture? Is there any part of the Bible that is bound by its cultural setting and thus limited in its application to its own cultural setting?

Cultural conditioning and the reader

We bring a host of extra-biblical assumptions to the Bible, and these may cloud our understanding of God’s word. Our blind spots are so called because we’re oblivious to them. We need to be aware that the perspective we bring to the Word may well be a distortion of the truth.

That said, we’re still left with questions of application and relevance. Does what the Bible command first-century Christians to do apply to us today?

Principle and custom

One conclusion we can come to is that all of Scripture is principle and is therefore binding to all people everywhere at every time. Taken consistently that would mean that we may have to change our mode of evangelism to conform to what Jesus said in Luke 10:4 (take no purse, no bag, no shoes, no greeting people). Many would no doubt disagree.

A less clear example is that of foot-washing. Did Jesus intend for it to be a perpetual mandate or an illustration of humble servanthood? Also in the unclear category is the head-covering issue  (1 Cor 11). In regard to the latter, we have the following options:

  • It is entirely custom, and has no relevance today. The uncovering of the head was a local sign of prostitution; the covered head was a sign of submission to one’s husband. It is no longer necessary for a woman to cover her head with anything.
  • It is entirely principle, meaning that by way of application (1) Women must be submissive to men during prayer, (2) Women must always give a sign of submission by covering their heads, (3) the only appropriate sign is that of a woman with a covered head.
  • It is partly principle-partly custom (A), meaning that the principle of female submission is transcultural, but the means of expressing it may be changed.
  • It is partly principle (B), meaning the principle of female submission and covering of the head are perpetual. The article used to cover the head may vary from culture to culture, e.g. a hat instead of a veil.

Which of these is most pleasing to God? We don’t know. Some practical guidelines are in order.

Practical guidelines

  • Examine the Bible itself for apparent areas of custom. Neither the idea of carrying all of the OT principles over to the NT nor carrying none of them can be justified by the Bible.

Some difficult cases do exist though: (a) slavery (b) civil obedience (c) marital structures of authority. In the same context that Paul calls women to be submissive to their husbands, he calls slaves to be submissive to their masters. It is therefore argued that since the NT supports the abolition of slavery, the same should go for female subordination.

To explain this, Sproul draws our attention to the difference between institutions that the Bible recognises as existing and those which it positively institutes, endorses and ordains. God may ordain that there be a Caesar without endorsing Caesar as a model of virtue. On the other hand, the institution of the structures and authority patterns of marriage are positively  instituted and endorsed in both testaments.

  • Allow for Christian distinctives in the first century. For example, concerning the head-covering issue in Corinth, some commentators have said that the local sign of a prostitute was an uncovered head. To avoid Christian women being mistaken for prostitutes, the Apostle Paul urges them to cover their heads.

The problem with this is that nowhere did Paul give this as his motivation; he instead appealed to creation. We must not let our desire for knowledge of cultural customs to cloud our interpretation of the Bible.

  • The creation ordinances are indicators of the transcultural principle. The laws of creation are rooted in basic human responsibility to God. For example, the Pharisees tested Jesus by asking if divorce was lawful. Jesus answered by taking the matter back to creation (Matthew 19:4-6). The inference we can draw is that creation ordinances are normative unless explicitly modified by later biblical revelation.
  • In areas of uncertainty use the principle of humility. When faced with an inconclusive decision, we should ask ourselves the following: “Would it be better to treat a possible custom as a principle and be guilty of being over-scrupulous? Or would it be better to treat a possible principle as a custom and be guilty of demoting a requirement of God to the level of human convention?”

This last principle cannot be isolated form the other guidelines mentioned, as this would lead to legalism. The principle applies where we have biblical mandates whose nature remains uncertain after all the laborious effort of exegesis has been exhausted.