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When Does the Bible Speak Culturally?

by Dr. Tom Woodward

Tom Woodward, Ph.D., University of Florida, is a college professor, founder and director of the C.S. Lewis Society (see, and has been an AIIA Resource Associate for Bible & Theology since 2002. Dr. Woodward lives with his wife in Tampa Bay FL. His book, Doubts About Darwin, won the Christianity & Culture book award. What follows is an original article.

Should believers observe the Sabbath literally, worshiping on Saturday in-stead of Sunday? If not, in what way is this commandment still binding?

Should Christians strictly obey Paul’s command to “Greet one another with a holy kiss,” i.e. Romans 16:16a? Or should we practice some equivalent greeting-act in our culture? Perhaps we should just ignore Paul’s exhortation altogether, since this command appears in his personal closing and not in the body of his teaching.

Questions of contemporary application are not trivial. The Bible was written with the intent of being taken seriously and applied consistently. The epistles overflow with rich teaching and bristle with dozens
of instructions. In the gospels, the works of Christ are interspersed with His words, including many key commands. Likewise, the Old Testament, apart from narrative, is interwoven with “instructions for living,” often appearing as stipulations in the Mosaic Law.

The exciting task of decoding the Bible’s “teaching-sections” is that of biblical hermeneutics – interpreting and applying scripture.

As with the Sabbath and “holy kiss” questions, often the greatest threat is not cloudy interpretation, but uncertain application. A problem with Old Testament instructions is why and how they apply today. If Christ came to fulfill the law (and render its provisions inoperative), then what elements of the Old Testament are still relevant? To tackle this challenge, let’s focus on three principles:

Dispensational Distinctions
This has nothing to do with the dialogue of Dispensationalism with Covenant Theology. The existence of biblical dispensations is accepted by all orthodox Christian theologians. A “dispensation” can be defined as an administrative system established by God, with institutions, human roles and relationships, responsibilities and duties, along with penalties and rewards.

When God replaces one such system with another, previous guidelines and commands generally become moot – they are non-binding. For example, the legal requirements that fill Leviticus, including the five prescribed offerings, no longer apply to followers of Yahweh today. The same goes for the rest of the Mosaic code in Exodus 20-40, parts of Numbers, and virtually all of Deuteronomy. The New Testament makes clear that Mosaic laws are no longer binding on any believer in Jesus Christ. One purpose of the law was to serve as a “tutor” to lead Jews to Christ – to show them their utter lack of moral perfection, which then prepares them to embrace the mercy and grace offered by God.

Discoverable Underlying Principles
The fact that the Mosaic law is no longer binding does not mean that these commands have no application at all today. Ceremonial instructions regarding the construction and function of the tabernacle are rich with symbolic meaning and principles. These, in turn, feed into our understanding of God and our devotion to Him. A different example of a practical principle comes from Paul, who found that the command not to “muzzle the ox while he is threshing” (Deuteronomy 25:4) can be applied as a principle or parallel to the financial support of a pastor.(1)

Timeless Binding Principles
New Testament books frequently repeat and reaffirm laws in the Old Testament. Nine of the Ten Commandments are clearly still binding as timeless moral laws, e.g. Ephesians 4-5! Such laws are confirmed as timeless, being affirmed (a) before the Mosaic Law, in Genesis; (b) in the New Testament; and even (c) universally, across the span of diverse human cultures through the ages.(2)

To return to where we started, perhaps the “kiss” can be best seen as the basis for a “greeting principle”- that we should enthusiastically welcome one another in the fellowship of the church in terms of what would be the norm for our own culture.

And the Sabbath? At the very least, it is affirmed as a “timeless principle” because of the practice of the early church – worshiping initially on the Sabbath, and later on Sunday. Even the wording of the Sabbath law in Deuteronomy 5 shows God’s purpose is for the human good of “rest” from work – truly a timeless principle! Some Christians further argue that the Fourth Commandment actually isĀ  a timeless “moral law.”

With such diversity of viewpoints, we should remember – in essential things, unity; in doubtful things, liberty; in all things, charity.

And that is a timeless principle that we can build on!

(1) See I Timothy 5:18. We must realize that Paul’s interpretation, though an underlying principle, is authoritative, since he wrote as an apostle, in a scriptural flow of revelation.

(2) This mass of objective moral value is called the ‘Tao’ in C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man.