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Interpretation of Scripture 1: Is This Text Culturally Relative?

The contextual interpretation of Scripture is relevant for ministry, missions, ethics, and theology.  The present discussion particularly has in mind the use of Scripture in Christian ethics by orthodox and Evangelical Christians--those who desire to submit to Biblical authority but have to ask whether a text is transculturally normative or culturally relative.

Thirteen Criteria for Determining Transcultural Norms
Versus Culturally Relative Teaching in Scripture

The following criteria are suggested for consideration when trying to decide if a Biblical text is transculturally normative (speaks authoritatively to all cultures and people at all times) or culturally relative (speaks to a particular culture, people, and time).  This issue arises because the Church accepts Scripture as the supreme authority for faith and practice—it has not been and is not taken by orthodox Christians as an important document for a community because of its antiquity.  It is authoritative because it is ‘God-breathed’: ‘All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness’ (2 Timothy 3.16).  While stated as criteria, they really indicate the kinds of discussion we have about Biblical texts and their continuing relevance.

1.     Criterion of Exegesis.  A clear understanding of what the text was saying to the original audience may well indicate whether it is culturally relative or transculturally normative.  Ask questions such as: Who is saying What to Whom? Why? When? Where? How?

2.     Criterion of Contextual Dissimilarity and Traditional Consistency.  A Biblical norm that is dissimilar to its cultural context and consistent with its own tradition will more likely be transcultural than a norm that complies with the culture of the day.

3.     Criterion of Available AlternativesWhere no choice really exists for actions or perspectives in a culture or context, the point may be situational and not transcultural.

4.     Criterion of Repeatability. If something can be or was repeated in the same way under different circumstances, its authority may well be transcultural.

5.   Criterion of Multiple Attestation (‘Cloud of Witnesses’)The case for transcultural normativity is stronger the more we can demonstrate that there are multiple witnesses or proofs (different authors, different time periods, different types of literature [see next criterion]). 

6.   Criterion of Different Genre: The authority of a text is related to the genre, type of literature (e.g., narrative, laws, poetry, proverbs, history, prophecy, visions, apocalypses, letters, parables, etc.).  A point made in different genre may also be transculturally normative, and some genre are more likely transcultural than others (e.g., a narrative may simply describe a situation, whereas a law is meant to fit different contexts).

7.    Criterion of Uses of Scripture: There are different levels of appeal to Scripture.  The more levels of appeal that are evident in Scripture, the more likely the matter should be taken as transculturally normative.  (I would suggest four levels: specifying genre/use (norms, rules), warranting (virtues, values, principles), witnessing (stories, examples, characters), and worldview (basic understanding of the God, humanity, and the world).)

8. Criterion of Theological and Ethical Coherence.  An argument is more likely transcultural if it coheres with other theological and ethical ideas and practices and can be shown to cohere with both theology and ethics.

9. Criterion of Rhetorical Exigence or Contingency.  A response to a specific situation might be a culturally relative or situational response

10. Criterion of the Author's EmphasisThe more the point is emphasised by argument, authority,       and emotion, the more likely the conviction is crucial and therefore transcultural.

11. Criterion of Church HistoryThe Bible is foundational for the Church and the supreme authority for Christian faith and practice.  The history of the Church’s interpretation of Scripture should be studied to see how the Church has understood the text in different ages and cultures as a way to check present understandings and to hear the Biblical text clearly.

12. Criterion of Meaning, Implications, Significance, and ApplicationsThe greater the interpreter can establish a relationship between the meaning of Scriptural texts, their theological and ethical implications, and the significance they bear on a given situation, the greater one can argue that the application has transculturally normative authority.

13. Criterion of Central and PeripheralWhat is arguably central in Scripture is likely transculturally authoritative.  What we think might be peripheral may or may not be.