I wrote yesterday that Christianity is cross-cultural and cross-linguistic (see also my follow-up post). This evening, for a quite separate reason, I found myself reviewing the series I wrote last year on The Scholarly and Fundamentalist Approaches to the Bible. In Part 5 of that series I quoted several times from How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart (this link is to the current edition, not the one I quote). I note now that these quotations, and the explanation I wrote of them, show how the cross-cultural nature of Christianity has important implications for understanding and applying the Bible. So I repeat here part of what I wrote there.
Fee then turns to the problem of cultural relativity. He notes that some Christians do not seem to recognise cultural relativity but
argue for a wholesale adoption of first-century culture as the divine norm (p.71).
My own take on this is that whereas many Muslims take this approach, with the 7th century Arabian culture of Mohammed as the norm, in practice the culture which Christians take as normative is something from the 19th or early 20th century, which they read back into the New Testament. As an example, I would cite John Piper’s Vision of Biblical Complementarity, discussed on the Better Bibles Blog; it seems to me that Piper is not so much Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood as recovering Victorian manhood and womanhood. But my position is the same as Fee’s, that
there is no such thing as a divinely ordained culture… the recognition of a degree of cultural relativity is a valid hermeneutical procedure (p.71).
Fee notes that there are basic lists of sins concerning which the New Testament witness is consistent and unambiguous, and that these prohibitions should be considered applicable to all. But in other matters such as women’s ministry and the retention of wealth there is more variation, and this suggests that these are cultural rather than moral matters. He also writes that
The degree to which a New Testament writer agrees with a cultural situation in which there is only one option increases the possibility of the cultural relativity of such a position (p.73).
Thus slavery is accepted in the Bible because it was accepted by all in the cultural context, but this does not imply that it is normative for Christians.
I might suggest that the fundamentalist approach to the Bible, which I discussed and rejected in Part 2 of the series, is typically associated with a failure to understand properly the cross-cultural nature of Christianity, and how this implies a certain degree of cultural relativity in how the Bible should be applied.
By contrast, the scholarly approach to the Bible is quite often associated with unrestricted cultural relativism in applying the Bible, if not to a complete rejection of its authority. Fee and Stuart’s version of the scholarly approach avoids this thorough relativism by offering guidelines on when biblical positions should be taken as culturally relative.
But, as I note in Part 6 of the series, what is missing in Fee and Stuart’s presentation (although probably implicit in Fee’s personal position) is the important role of the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It is, I remain convinced, only by this guidance that Christians today can learn to distinguish what is culturally relative from the fundamental and unchangeable principles of the Christian faith.