There are a few Late-Modern bromides that people repeat as if they were self-evidently true that are really quite nonsensical. One of these is: everything is relative. Well, if everything is relative, then your claim that everything is relative is also relative. By definition “everything” is all encompassing. If by that claim one is really saying, “I may therefore ignore a particular truth claim, e.g., Jesus is Lord, then on your own reasoning we may all ignore the claim that everything is relative. It is a self-defeating claim and therefore silly.
Another such claim is that all human interpretations of Scripture are culturally situated. What do people mean by this? They mean that no one reads Scripture outside of a culture. What is a culture? We could spend the rest of our lives trying to answer this question but a very short answer would include language, assumptions about the nature of things, agreements (implicit or explicit) about how we are going to be governed, food, the arts, and even sport. The astute reader may notice that I did not mention religion (cultus) or convictions about ultimate questions. Obviously, we can see the close relation between the words cult (religion, worship) and culture. In some ways it seems impossible to distinguish them since every culture has a cult, an object of religion (a god of some sort) and an approved way of worshipping that God (religion). Let it be enough for this discussion to say that culture is what is common to all of us and cult is what is sacred, and holy to a given culture.
The pagans had a religion. They worshiped gods made with hands and gods they had fashioned in their hearts and minds rather than the God who spoke in the beginning. Paganism seems to have developed rather quickly after the fall. I suppose we should not be surprised. Yahweh Elohim (the Lord God) did not say that serpent was going away but only that one day his head would be crushed. By the time we get to Noah, paganism has come to predominate in the world. When Noah announced the coming judgement, called for repentance and faith, he had few takers. Only 8 people were on the ark before the judgment waters came and took the rest of the world away (Matt 24:39). So it will be when the Son of Man returns to judge the world (2 Pet 3:1–13).
Are all interpretations of Scripture culturally conditioned? How could they not be? After Yahweh Elohim spoke into nothing and out of nothing and created all that is (see Genesis 1–2) all we creatures were in a culture. The garden was a culture. It was a small society but it was a culture. After the fall we were all in various fallen cultures. Genesis chapters 4–11 chronicle for us the rise of a variety of competing cultures, as we witness, in Scripture, the development of two classes of people in the world, those who belong spiritually to the seed of the woman and those who belong to the serpent. Those chapters give us as Meredith Kline wrote, the Kingdom Prologue.
As we move through the history of redemption, as the story gradually unfolds, through the Abraham cycle, through Moses and David, through the expansion of the Davidic-Solomonic kingdom and through the exile and return of the people, we are witnessing the raise and fall of various cultures and the persistence of the two spiritual people, those who, by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), are united to the promised Seed (Gal 3:16).
In short, since Adam named the animals and the two of them cultivated the garden, there has been a culture of some kind. There has also always been a cult, a religion of some kind. Whereas culture is common to all humans—we all have some language, clothing, agreed rules about governance, a language, art, and sport—religion, though a universal fact of human life has not been common. There has always been a distinction between those who worship Yahweh Elohim and those who will not. So, biblically and historically considered, as close as cult and culture may be, there is a distinction to be made.
When Christians interpret the Bible they do so in the midst of a culture, a set of assumptions, behaviors, and a way of looking at things. This is unavoidable. Does this mean that every interpretation of Scripture is necessarily false? This seems to be what some imply when they say that all interpretations of Scripture are culturally conditioned but it is not true. Those of us who live in the post-Enlightenment, late-Modern West do live in a different culture than those that existed when Scripture was first given but Scripture is not just any text. It is a text with a divine author who is able to preserve and express his truth, to make his Word understood with sufficient clarity (despite our sins and whatever blinders we may inherit from our culture) so that what we may know what we must know for salvation and the Christian life. The churches of the Protestant Reformation confess the sufficiency of Scripture, i.e., that it is enough to govern our Christian faith (theology and piety) and life (practice). We also confess that it is perspicuous, i.e., that it is clear enough. God the Holy Spirit, who inspired the writers of Scripture (2 Peter 1:21; 2 Tim 3:16), who preserved it, works through it (Rom 10:14–17) to accomplish his purposes.
Christians confess and believe the same Yahweh Elohim who spoke creation into and out of nothing, who saved Noah and his family, who called Abraham to new life and true faith, who delivered Israel through the Red Sea (on dry ground), who gave Goliath into David’s hands, and who raised our Lord Jesus from the dead. We confess and believe the same holy catholic (universal) faith confessed in the Apostles’ Creed, in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (AD 325, 381), the Definition of Chalcedon (451) and Athanasian Creed (5th century). The same Christian faith that was confessed by believers in North Africa (e.g., Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustine), in Alexandria, and in Jerusalem is confessed today in Heidelberg, the Sudan, South Korea, and in the West. It transcends cultures. There is one holy catholic faith. There is one triune God. There is one baptism (Eph 4:5).
The claim that all interpretations of Scripture are “culturally conditioned” is, of course, itself “culturally conditioned.” Insofar as it intends not merely to inform us of our finitude but to suggest that none of us really knows what Scripture really means, it is arguably the product of a religion that is alien and hostile to Christianity. Indeed, this way of talking about the holy catholic faith is very much the product of the Narcissistic, late-Modern turn to the self, to the subjective. It is a kind of nihilism—which is the religion of destruction, the logical end of “Deconstructionism.” Of course all interpretations of Scripture are conditioned to some degree by the culture in which they occur. We should recognize that our forefathers interpreted Scripture in their own culture and we do as well. Nevertheless, there is no need for despair nor for skepticism. Because the Holy Spirit, who hovered over the face of the deep, not only gave us Scripture but helps us to understand it. He is still leading us into all the truth (John 16:13).
The ancient, ecumenical faith is still the Christian faith. The Reformed faith confessed in the 16th and 17th centuries against the corruptions of the Romanists and the Remonstrants is still true. Nothing about God’s truth has changed.
Our cultures do change over time. A few people in the world still go about in something like a toga or a robe but most of us dress more like the barbarian hordes who conquered the Roman Empire. Most men wear trousers rather than a robe. The English we speak would be unintelligible to those who wrote our ecumenical creeds but we confess the same faith with them. I suppose we could communicate well enough with the Westminster Divines and those of who know Latin could muddle through the delegates to the Synod of Dort, but we confess the same faith.
Yes, some cultural assumptions have changed (e.g., very few of us think that the sun revolves around the earth) and so have some interpretations of Scripture (e.g., few Reformed Christians today believe that the Virgin Mary never had any children after Jesus) but none of these is material to our confession. This is because God the Son took on true humanity. Jesus was born into a culture. He was (and remains) a Jew. He learned a language (Aramaic) but as God the Son incarnate he also transcended that culture. He broke cultural taboos (e.g., in the way he interacted with Gentiles and females) but he always obeyed the holy law of God. He is the Word of God: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God…and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld his glory, glory as the only-begotten of the Father full of grace and truth…the only begotten God…” (John 1:1, 14, 18).
God the Word saves us from skepticism. He saves us from relativism. He saves us from nihilism. He saves us from sin and judgment. He took on true humanity in a given time and place and yet as God the Son, the only begotten God, he also transcends that particular time and place. So his revealed Word to us transcends that particular time and place and our time and place.
We can know the truth. We have the truth, in Christ who is the truth, and in his Word.
Thanks for this article. It seems to me that one of the latest attempts to introduce another gospel is the argument that we have to contextualize the gospel to make it relative to the culture so that people will accept it.
On searching the HB resources under the tag, “emergent church” I came across your essay, On Being Truly Postmodern. I think you really nailed down the essential issue that is the root of current controversies in the churches. That is the question, “What has God said?” or as the serpent asked Eve, “Has God really said?” The answer that the churches are increasingly giving to these questions is that Scripture alone isn’t it! The Scripture must be subjectively interpreted according to your perception of what is true and according to your culture. What it comes down to is that, there is no objective truth about God, only YOUR subjective truth. As you write in this article, “The great unifying theme of modernity, whether early or late, has always been human autonomy.” It seems to me that is always the same old lie of Satan, to deny he objectivity and authority of the Word of God.