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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 apologetics.org), 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
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:
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
Timeless Binding Principles
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 is 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.