Cultural vs. Universal: Basic Biblical Interpretation for a Skeptical Culture, Part 2

Cultural vs. Universal: Basic Biblical Interpretation for a Skeptical Culture, Part 2

There are two principal concerns brought against Scripture in the secular marketplace of ideas. Forget whether it’s true or not, that’s not the biggest issue in their minds.

It’s whether it’s relevant.

Culturally relevant, to be precise.

If you bring up the Bible’s teaching on a moral issue of the day, such as homosexuality or premarital sex, and you will often get a pushback from the Old Testament’s many prohibitions about diet or Sabbath breaking.

Such things are absurd to our thinking, so all of the ethical mandates become subject to choice.

The New Testament is equally vulnerable, but in a different way and for a different reason. There the teaching isn’t absurd to our sensibilities as much as it is impractical and, to many, culturally offensive.

So when you bring up the gospels, the counter move is to the apostle Paul, and specifically his writings about women. This is delivered with a clear roll of the eyes, an assumption of misogyny, and clear cultural disdain.

How can you take anything in the New Testament seriously that is so tied to the culture of its day?  It’s obviously wrong about women, so why cling to its outdated declarations about such things as sexuality?

In the last blog, part one of “Basic Biblical Interpretation for a Skeptical Culture,” we touched on the Old Testament challenge.

Now let’s take up the New Testament challenge.  

(And like the first blog, this doesn’t need to be a tome; the principle, which is an easy one, is what is important to get across.)

When you come to any text, ancient or modern, there are certain rules that must be applied for proper interpretation. These rules of interpretation are often called the science of “hermeneutics.” 

One of the most important of those rules, particularly when dealing with a sacred text such as the Bible, is determining what was part of the culture of the day and what was meant to be an eternal principle for everyone at all times to follow.

For Christians, the Bible is God's Word for all time, and is to be applied to our lives as God's Word for all time. But it was also written during a particular era of history, and reflects the ancient culture of its origin. That cultural “stuff” is unavoidably woven into the text.

And we have to weave along with it.

Here’s the actual dance: First, don’t let the cultural trappings and applications become confused with the timeless application of the principle. Second, don’t dismiss what was meant by the Holy Spirit to be a timeless principle as little more than cultural baggage.

The goal is to seek out what the Holy Spirit has for us that is eternal, while being mindful of what was a particular cultural application of that principle for its day.

Let’s take an example. When we read that Jesus washed the disciple's feet, and He commanded us to do the same, the point was not to go around and wash people's feet but to embrace the mind and heart of a servant.

Another example is from I Timothy, where Paul writes: "I also want women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God (I Tim. 2:9-10, NIV).

Here, he is obviously writing about modesty.

It would be mistaken to take it in a wooden, literalistic way that Paul didn't intend, failing to see anything cultural about it at all. If you make that mistake, you would think that the Bible says you can’t braid your hair and come to church.

The second mistake would be to say, "Well, that's entirely cultural, so I don't have to take any of it to heart.”

That would be just as wrong.

Let’s apply our hermeneutical principle of the cultural and the universal. For this passage, what is to be lifted out for all time is the pursuit of a modest appearance; the unique application for Paul's day was the gold, jewelry and braided hair.

Digging deeper into the cultural background of the text, you quickly discover that the reason Paul gave such specific examples was due to the temple prostitutes at the goddess Diana's temple in Ephesus. These women were known to dress in the very way he describes in order to entice men to sleep with them.

So the specifics that Paul gives are clearly part of the culture of his day, but the point that he is making is not: women (and men!) are not to dress in ways that draw spiritual attention away from God or that draw sexual attention toward themselves. Further, if a woman came dressed like a prostitute, it would weaken the witness of the church in regard to holding to different values than the temple. 

The universal? Modesty. The cultural? Braids.

Now, without a doubt, I have oversimplified the ease by which this might be employed to any and every verse throughout the 27 books of the New Testament. Entire commentaries have been written to make variant cases for what is cultural, and what is universal. 

But it isn’t overly simplistic to say that these sub-disagreements are exceptions to the rule, and are usually rather inconsequential.

In truth, there is wide consensus on how to apply the New Testament to our day in light of the culture of its own. 

The reason? 

The heart of all good interpretation is “authorial intent.” 

And when it comes to the New Testament, the Holy Spirit didn’t exactly inspire a guessing game. 

James Emery White



Henry A. Virkler, Hermeneutics: Principles and Processes of Biblical Interpretation.

Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth.

R.C. Sproul, Knowing Scripture.

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, N.C., and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is The Church in an Age of Crisis: 25 New Realities Facing Christianity (Baker Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log on to, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.