There is a dangerous method of Bible interpretation that pops up regularly, and it’s the constant whipping boy of Buzzfeed-type Christians. The quip is, “Why do you think that passage is culturally confined, but not this one?” Christians accuse one another of picking and choosing which passages still apply. The accusation is well-founded, in my opinion.
The problem is that both the smart-aleck college student and their baby boomer parents agree on this basic presupposition: “Some passages are culturally confined.” The argument then boils down to whose Jefferson Bible is more appropriate for today’s Christian. If everyone is cutting at least some passages out of their Bibles, who’s to say which ones get the snip and which ones don’t?
This is why we should reject the presupposition altogether. When it comes to Scripture, there is no passage, no sentence, no word, no letter that is completely culturally confined. Every single passage in the Bible from Genesis to maps is meant for your life today. Not a single part can be tossed out. In a world of Jeffersons going at the Bible with their favorite pair of scissors, I say we throw them [the scissors, that is!] in the trash and do the hard work of trying to understand the Bible.
What we must realize as Christians is that the ultimate context of every passage of Scripture is Christ. If we are in Christ, then we have all the context we need to apply every single verse. Every promise, every command, every law, every word written in the Bible is made new in Christ.
Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 1, “For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory. And it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has anointed us, and who has also put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee.” God has contextualized us as believers in Christ. He has given us the Spirit to help us to comprehend his Word together in light of Jesus.
Here are three basic reasons why Christians might be tempted to join the Jefferson school of hermeneutics–taking scissors to their Bibles:
Ever since the Garden, men have struggled to trust the basic commands of God. The Serpent sets us at odds with God by telling us that we know better than Him. The moment you feel the temptation to ignore a passage of Scripture or to write it off as culturally confined, check your heart. In that moment you have the opportunity to submit in humility to the Holy Spirit’s conviction or to pridefully wander your own way.
Sometimes, this will mean admitting you don’t understand a passage. This is good and good for you. In moments where Scripture seems confounding, impossible, and difficult, may it inspire the same humble worship it did in the Apostle Paul: “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” (Romans 11:33-34).
2. Chronological Distance
It’s hard to fight the temptation to think, But that was so long ago! Here is what the writer of Ecclesiastes has to say: “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, ‘See, this is new’? It has been already in the ages before us.” What he means is that people are people. The world is the world. The struggles of people in Bible times are the same struggles of the 21st century.
People love to emphasize chronological distance: “But families were different back then. Marriage was different back then. Sexuality was different back then. Alcohol was different back then.“ Don’t buy it. People are people and always will be people. Read the Bible assuming that there is nothing new under the sun. It will shrink the chronological distance.
The impulse to turn the Bible into a craft-time cut and paste project shrinks with every page of the Bible you actually read. Rather than writing off a passage as culturally confined, keep reading. Read the rest of the book. Then read the Bible from cover to cover. Read it again. Then read it some more. The more you read the Bible, the more you will realize that every single passage of Scripture is essential. Every piece has its place. Every part fits perfectly into the magnificent portrait of our Savior King Jesus.
Here is an obvious truth: The biggest stumbling block to believers understanding the Bible is not reading the Bible. We have a tendency to want to ignore or discard what we don’t understand, but our comprehension of the Bible cannot grow if we do not spend time in it.
I couldn’t sum things up better than Paul has in 2 Timothy: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”