Which came first – Scripture or culture?

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Yesterday I wrote about God, gender, pronouns and the church.  Now, the classic response of liberal theology is to argue that the language we use about God and the church with Christ as groom and church as bride is somewhat arbitrary so that we could reverse it.  Then, it is further suggested that the reason we have the language and imagery we do is because human writers attempting to describe God and religion employed the language and imagery they were familiar with. In other words, Scripture is a product of the cultures in which authors wrote. 

I want to make a couple of comments about the presuppositions we see there. The first is this.  Such views presume that the culture of ancient Israel, or even that in which the early church found itself in was one of many different cultural options of which contemporary western culture is the pinnacle and preferable option and those ancient cultures were inferior and primitive.  Yet, such an assumption is challengeable. Indeed, what we see is that there has been a fairly consistent culture throughout history and around the world geographically which the culture of ancient Israel of Gospel times has much in common and it is our Western culture that has been the aberration from the norm. This leads us to ask the question “on what basis do we assume that our culture is superior?”

Secondly, the presupposition that Scripture is a product of culture is often stated as fact but is itself theory.  Now, to be clear, the writers of Scripture do write from within their cultural contexts and so understanding historical contexts, customs, fashions and traditions can be helpful to our exegesis and application of it.  It is “transcultural” not “a-cultural” -Scripture was not written into a vacuum, although there may be one instance where we can say that God does speak into a vacuum. However, to suggest that this means Scripture is a product of culture is to make a highly questionable and indeed very simplistic claim.

Scripture itself posits an alternative theory. Rather than Scripture being shaped by the people and cultures in which it was written, we see God’s Word itself shaping cultures and peoples so that their laws, values and customs are a product of Revelation, not the other way round. The obvious example of this is seen in the book of Deuteronomy where the people are prepared for life in the land and instructed on what it means to live in God’s presence under his blessing before they go into the land. 

Tom Holland in Dominion and Glen Scrivener in “The Air that we breathe” have further shown how much of our history, civilisation and culture including the foundational values and rules on which our societies exist today is founded on the revelation of the Gospel in the New Testament. Even as people seek to challenge and overturn those aspects of our culture considered negative, they still rely on those foundations for their beliefs and arguments.

All of this is important because liberal theology permits us to discount and ignore, or even to believe the opposite of what Scripture teaches when it sits uncomfortably with our cultural preferences today. We can write it off as just cultural.  Whereas, if culture and people were shaped by God’s Word, then we are forced to engage more deeply with what Scripture says. We are confronted with those bits of the Bible that we find uncomfortable.

Incidentally, I think this often leads us to question some assumptions and come to a better understanding of what God is saying and doing. For example, much of the Old Testament is written off as “patriarchal” with the assumption that men got to rule unchallenged and treat women as chattels and sex objects. However, a careful reading of the texts and a willingness to wrestle with the uncomfortable bits leads to a different conclusion. We instead see Scripture offering a high view of women. We do not see a “patriarchal” society in a small “p” sense with men as the patriarchs rather we see a culture which is meant to point to God as “The Father” at the centre of everything in whom we all find our identity, value and purpose.

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