A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Thursday, July 04, 2019

What Does It Mean for the Church to Change its Values to Match the Culture? Confusing Authority with Interpretation

You may have seen this meme posted on social media:
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It is most often posted by Christians of a more conservative bent, but several of my more progressive friends have posted it or something close to it. When conservative Christians post it, it is directed at those Christians who accept gay marriage and are pro-choice on abortion. When progressive Christians appeal to it, it is pointed at those Christians who support militarism and border walls designed to exclude those seeking asylum. The problem with this meme, like most memes, is that it is simply a simplistic response to the complex problem of biblical interpretation. I ask you to consider the following.

One caveat: in this post I am not addressing those Christians who truly have a low view of the authority of Scripture who say such things as "The Bible does say thus and so, but the Bible is wrong," or "The Bible is not God's Word; Jesus is God's Word. (The latter is true; the former is not.-- that's another post for another time.) My concern is only with those who treat the authority of Scripture seriously.

First, when people accuse other Christians of not following the Bible and conforming to culture, what they in reality are stating is that those believers are not following their particular interpretation of Scripture. It really has nothing to do with the authority of Scripture per se, but one's reading of the Scripture. For example, in reference to gay marriage, there are certainly more than a few competent biblical scholars who have argued that the Bible offers a traditional understanding of Christian marriage. However, there are also competent biblical scholars who have read the Bible in support of gay marriage. What is at issue here is not Scripture itself, but a particular hermeneutic, a particular reading of what Scripture says about human sexuality. So, who is in reality conforming their values to match the culture? It may indeed be true that some are, but that is not so easily decided. Moreover, a good case can be made that Christians in general have accommodated their views of marriage to match the culture in reference to connecting marriage to sentimental and emotivist understandings of love. (Again, another blog post for another time.) It seems to me that a more fruitful discussion should center not on the question of biblical authority, but on whose reading of Scripture is the better one.

Second, another example has to do with creation. I have been told that I reject Scriptural authority because I believe in an evolutionary view of creation and humanity. I do not take Genesis 1 and 2 as providing a detailed account of the how of creation. Rather, it points more to the why of creation. Again, a little nuance is important. What is at debate here is not the authority of Scripture or primarily changing views to match the culture; it is how the first chapters of Genesis are to be read. There exists what I call a "pop history of creation" in the church that believes throughout the history of the faith, Genesis 1 and 2 were interpreted literally, and then when Charles Darwin came along in the nineteenth century, all of a sudden some Christians changed their interpretation. This is simply not true. Theologians over the last two thousand years have debated how to read the creation accounts--  for example, both Augustine and Calvin cautioned against literal readings, and no one will debate the seriousness with which they read Scripture. So, when someone says that I reject Scriptural authority because I think evolution is the way God has created, they mischaracterize my position. What I reject is their interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2, which is not authoritative. (Another important issue here is the often misused word "literal..." Yep... that's another blog post.) I can give more examples, but I hope you get my point. Again, the question here should focus on the better reading of Scripture, not whose interpretation is somehow authoritative as opposed to others.

Third, the biblical writers themselves were immersed in their cultures and that clearly comes through in the written texts. The church has never suggested, for example, that when Paul wrote his letters, he transcended his Jewish and Greco-Roman context in order to give us something inspired by God. Indeed, Paul and the other biblical writers wrote under inspiration from within their world, which is precisely why we need to know that world in order to competently read the Bible. To be sure, there were things about their culture they rejected, but just like us they lived in their culture and shared many of its values and embraced many of its presumptions about the world. If the biblical writers were not immune from their cultural influences how can we think we aren't susceptible? And is being culturally appropriated always a bad thing?

Fourth, when it comes to conforming to culture over what is biblical, no Christian is immune from picking and choosing what Scriptures to obey and what to ignore as we live in our culture. Are we biblical when it comes to our views of divorce? Not charging interests on loans? Lending to a neighbor without asking for what we lend to be returned? Not suing fellow believers? Forgiving debts and returning property bought every seven years? We must always remember that when we are accusing fellow Christians of conforming to culture, there are always matters where the accusers are just as guilty of embracing the culture over the Bible. It all depends upon whose ox is being gored.

Fifth, what it means to conform to culture is a complex reality and is not so easily separated from what it means to follow Scripture. Today is the Fourth of July and Christians of all political stripes are going to celebrate the freedoms we enjoy as Americans. No one can disagree with the fact that our celebrations are a cultural event, and Christians in America are up to their proverbial armpits in this cultural appropriation. In other words, today we are completely conforming ourselves to the cultural values of patriotism and nationalism and a secular understanding of freedom and liberty. Is such conformation a compromise of biblical faith? Some would say yes, others no, and still other would want to nuance their answer.

The point is that there is no sharp line between being biblical and conforming to the culture. The boundary is less a wall and more like a woven tapestry that must be carefully separated in some places and left intact in others. By the way, voting is clearly a huge cultural value in the United States, and nowhere in Scripture is voting ever mentioned in choosing leaders. (The closest we come to voting is the casting of lots, which actually may work better considering the results of recent elections.)

I am not suggesting that all biblical interpretations are created equal. They are not. Some are better than others and some are just plain wrong; but it does not advance the discussion for one side to accuse the other of rejecting the authority of Scripture and conforming to (i.e. compromising with) the culture. So, as we move forward with the all-important discussion of what it mean to live biblically, let's make sure we do not confuse the question of biblical authority with biblical interpretation. The Bible is authoritative; our interpretations are not.

This is not the Word of the Lord. It is my word, and you are free to take the Bible seriously and still disagree with me. Your comments are welcome.


Connie Gould said...

Exactly. Denominations and other ways to categorize people are all man made interpretations of the Bible. I have not seen anywhere in the Bible where it says if you interpret one way to go to this denomination or another way to go to another denomination and/or cause division because of interpretative disagreements.

Brooke said...

Dr. Bevere, I am a student of yours from long ago at Ashland. Having just graduated with my MDiv from Lexington Theological Seminary (finally!) and serving a UCC church in the Cleveland area, I appreciate your distinction between interpretation and authority. I - still - appreciate your voice.

Allan R. Bevere said...


Thank you for your kind words. If you are ever in the Ashland area, let me know. We can meet for coffee.