Culture is everything, everywhere, all the time. It is “the world of human meaning, the sum total of a people’s works . . . their vision of what it is to be fully human.”1 Biblical hermeneutics (interpretation) and human culture are often intertwined and almost inseparable competitors. Despite the transcendent authority of faith, we read and live the Bible within human and social contexts. However, it is reasonable and necessary that we have a proper understanding of the culture-hermeneutics nexus so that the interaction of the two does not undermine the authority of the Word, but rather yields adequate salvific outcomes, with the end result that a valid interpretation of God’s Word is accessed and effectively transmitted across cultures.
Illustrating the issue
The issue demands serious attention, as illustrated by a look at global Seventh-day Adventism. In 209 countries across the world, nearly 19 million Seventh-day Adventists and visitors attend church Sabbath mornings. As a general rule, the church’s scripturally founded fundamental beliefs dictate Adventist belief, lifestyle, and worship. But because culture is “the world of human meaning,”2 faith in Scripture’s transcendence, in Guyana for example, is itself only part of a Guyanese overall social milieu. Australian interpretation is hard pressed to prescribe for Zimbabwean Adventist dress or music. And how can criteria from New Delhi best define the greetings or architecture typical of New Guinea’s Adventism? Whose theorizing determines orthodoxy among the baptized members worldwide?
These questions, stated in three words, actually ask, Whose biblical hermeneutics? As Huston Smith states, the world comes to us, and we go to it—with inbuilt sensors, concepts, beliefs, and desires that filter its incoming signals in ways that differ in every species, social class, and individual.3 Set over against Adventism’s global character is the truth acknowledged by C. Ellis Nelson that the individual congregation is “the primary society of Christians.”4 “Individuals sharing a common outlook or behavioral style increasingly cluster around those institutions . . . of which they approve.”5 The local congregation, rather than dictation from some global headquarters, most accurately reflects the theology, perceptions, conscience, and cultural identity of most of the millions numbered in the church’s global reckoning. Perhaps reverently worshiping “conservatives” may be geographically close to, yet practically widely separated from “progressives” or “liberals” in another congregation fifteen miles away. Today, neither racial nor ethnic nor chronological homogeneity guarantees any similarity between congregations within the same city or village.
But human differences and variations of perception and behavior do not mean that the gospel is either inaccessible or incomprehensible. Human objectivity, more so than biblical intelligibility, remains perpetually open to question. As Smith states, “our concepts, beliefs, and desires affect worldviews.”6 This simply means that, as humans, we permit ideas we already hold, prejudices not always so labeled, to determine our attitudes to new ideas. Our reality “is mediated by . . . a meaning we give it in the context of our culture or our historical period, interpreted from our own particular horizon and in our own particular thought forms.”7 Hence reliable data transfer from mind to mind, school to school, or culture to culture, must be acknowledged as a real challenge. Nevertheless, despite the multitude of interpretive roadblocks set up along the hermeneutical road, comprehension and its attendant behavior may yet be possible between radically disagreeing parties.
Grant R. Osborne has thrown a hermeneutical challenge to the theology faculty of the University of Marburg. Osborne acknowledges that many of them will approach his writing from quite different presuppositional8 perspectives than his own, but insists:
The question is not whether they will agree but whether they can understand my arguments. I will not be around to clarify my points, so certainly this written communication lacks the dynamic of oral speech. Moreover, those readers without the necessary philosophical background will definitely struggle with the concepts herein.
However, does this mean that no amount of clarification can impart the meaning that I seek to communicate in these paragraphs? I think not.9
Osborne’s Marburg colleagues do not share his faith in the Bible’s historicity. They all know this. They disagree because one side does not believe the other has correctly stated the facts, or properly interpreted the data. Sometimes disagreement occurs because of misunderstanding. But even those misunderstandings are grounded in a sense that things have not been put the way they should. Most amazing then, in all this, is the divine success in communicating to earthlings the gospel of grace. For no two human societies, whether separated by epoch, science, age, or faith, can ever be as far apart as the distance between heaven and fallen humanity. And yet the Bible testifies that God has succeeded in revealing the truth about Himself to us in a way that saves us from ourselves to Himself.
Bible stories of human beings who successfully grasp and practice divine truth testify to this most dramatic of all transcultural communications. We shall review two of them from the life of Abraham, the father of all who believe (Rom. 4:11), and note some of their implications for our topic.
Story 1: Abraham answers the call
The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran, and said to him, “LEAVE YOUR COUNTRY AND YOUR RELATIVES, AND COME INTO THE LAND THAT I WILL SHOW YOU.” Then he left the land of the Chaldeans and settled in Haran. From there, after his father died, God had him move to this country in which you are now living (Acts 7:2–4).10
Interestingly enough, Terah, not Abraham, heads up the caravan that set out from Ur (Gen. 11:31).
Terah’s move to Haran in the north seems quite compatible with Joshua’s statement that he served other gods (Josh. 24:2). The cities of Ur and Haran shared the same deity, the moon god, Sin. As head of the family, Terah may have opted for Haran’s superior economic prospects—fertile pastureland, wheat and barley farming unaffected by gulf salt water, and the chance to provide services for caravaneers traveling between Mesopotamia and the Levant or the Hittite territory. Abraham stays with his father, not journeying to Canaan until after his death (Gen. 12:5).
Analyzing story 1
This story identifies at least five different groups of individuals. Two of them exhibit the radical alteration from their contemporary cultural norms to Abraham’s divinely instituted ways of behavior. Abraham’s relatives remaining in Ur when he moves constitute the first group (vv. 1, 2). Then there are those relatives left in Haran when he leaves that city.
Jacob returns to them to find a wife among his mother’s relatives in the house of Nahor, Abraham’s brother (28:4; 29:1–6). Then there are people Abraham meets in Haran, who join him whether as household slaves or otherwise (v. 5). A fourth group does not join Abraham’s household when he leaves Haran. The fifth group is, of course, the primary one: Abraham and his companions who leave Ur together and continue all the way, via Haran, to the land of Canaan.
The groups’ varied behaviors again help us focus on two questions Osborne raises about understanding. Osborne wonders (1) if it is possible for readers to know what a written document means; and (2) if it is important to know what the document means.11 Barring total mindlessness, the varied responses show how dissimilar people’s mental and practical responses to revelation can be. Many contradictory behaviors follow Bible study. But acceptance of the difference between divinely revealed truth and human nature means openness to the miraculous as we seek ways of sharing the gospel with humanity.
The Bible speaks with unequivocal consistency about people. Its binary thinking dismays those who would integrate hell and heaven into coherent oneness: “ ‘The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?’ ” (Jer. 17:9). “The carnal mind,” the natural human being, “is enmity against God” (Rom. 8:7, KJV). The Bible also denounces hermeneutical mischief, reversing bitter and sweet, darkness and light, evil and good, making each latter its former (Isa. 5:20). This constitutes no mere disagreement over how to put things on which all are agreed. It is disagreement over what is truth. Whatever our reasoning, ignoring real contrast or seeking to circumvent it confuses the purpose of God’s biblical self-revelation. That revelation is designed to expose the chasm between God’s purity and our shame, His goodness and our corruption, His gift of everlasting life and our works of death. “Jesus” means Savior from sin (Matt. 1:21), not harmonizer of sin and righteousness.
Story 2: Abraham’s covenant with God
A second story from Abraham’s life involves his longing for an heir. In keeping with his times, the childless Abraham recommends to God his servant Eliezer, born in his house (Gen. 15:2, 3). Continuing the family’s name and wealth were imperatives in his day, accomplished, if necessary, through adoption. The adoption guaranteed an heir and the parents’ long-term care to the day of their burial.12
God is not persuaded. He redirects Abraham’s thoughts and reeducates his thinking on the principle of faith. Abraham catches on, and God reckons his faith in Him “as righteousness” (v. 6). Later (vv. 7–21), God complements and expands the teaching, once again, within the context of the interaction between familiar local culture and the phenomenological exception of divine revelation. The account features God as suzerain, engaged in a treaty-making action with His vassal people in the person of Abraham. In the ritual that normally established the treaty, animals were slaughtered, cut in pieces, and the portions arranged in two rows with an aisle between. Parties to the treaty or covenant passed down the aisle between the rows “while taking an oath invoking similar dismemberment on each other should they not keep their part of the covenant.”13 But in Genesis 15, God, rather than Abraham, passes, alone, between the pieces, turning on its head the cultural expectation. God’s pledge of dismemberment at the covenant’s violation confirms the promise of Calvary where He pays for our treachery, that He might bring us to Himself.
Learning from our stories: Seven principles
We have said that the Bible’s salvation message (1 Cor. 10:11; 2 Tim. 3:15) is about a divine culture, alien to earth. Its truths reach us because God’s communication is comprehensible and alters our previous beliefs and behaviors. I now propose seven principles, drawn from our two stories that may greatly assist in spreading heaven’s culture to other humans, much as God Himself shared it long ago with Abraham. A consistent message of these stories that we have reviewed is that God’s intervention into the existing culture makes the place of His coming the locus of a new, otherworldly culture. Here are the seven principles that we may apply to the culture-hermeneutics nexus:
1. Otherness. God is not the same as Abraham. He is different, unmistakably and even disconcertingly so, whether to Abraham or anyone else of his culture. And God’s messengers to all human cultures, fallen as humans are, must be other: “A CHOSEN RACE, A royal PRIESTHOOD, A HOLY NATION, A PEOPLE FOR God’s OWN POSSESSION” (1 Pet. 2:9). Apology about this otherness embarrasses God, our Commissioner.
2. Mutuality. When God as missionary approaches Abraham, He engages Abraham, acknowledging his intelligence (Gen. 12:1). God assumes a certain compatibility with His subject. His otherness is not necessarily alienating, though some may seize upon it as a reason for rejection. God works to eliminate any aspect of His otherness peripheral to His essence. So must we. Nothing dispensable must persist if this will prove inimical to missionary purpose. So the Word becomes flesh and lives in a tent among us (John 1:14). God’s representatives will not work from perspectives of superiority. They will acknowledge native people’s intelligence and operate on the basis of mutuality.
3. Authority. But setting aside the dispensables that inhibit mission does not mean that God is Abraham’s equal. His missionary enterprise requires authority: misery loves company. The coming of the missionary God must not lack authority or He has but come to accompany Abraham in his misery. God as missionary brings things unfamiliar, things that Abraham needs, and which, from God, he may draw full supply. God calls on Abraham to change, to leave the familiar and ease into the unknown (Gen. 12:1).
4. Respect. Respect, like the principle of mutuality, must be shared by both parties. God respects Abraham who returns the compliment; He does not force him. He offers the new, the promise, and the choice. Abraham’s action involves a choice to change, to be different from his father Terah, the idol worshiper (Josh. 24:2). But Abraham displays much respect for his father even in this choice for change. Despite God’s call, he follows Terah to Haran, stays with him there, and only leaves after his death (Acts 7:2–4). God speaks of leading Abraham all this way (Josh. 24:2, 3). Missionally speaking, respect is a general value, shown to all, not just to some. God respects Abraham. Abraham respects God. He also respects his father who does not understand his God. Tarrying with one’s unconverted family need not signify lack of conversion or indisposition to follow truth. We may understand from the example of the Father of all who believes that some who do not step out may be showing respect.
5. Sincerity. Our fifth principle is sincerity, a challenge to the judgmental. For sincerity is neither proved by conformity nor disproved by nonconformity, but is where and why the Holy Spirit must be allowed to direct conscience and office. God does not dissemble in His speaking. Neither may the missionary who goes in His name. Be aware: God is who He is because of how He acts as surely as how He speaks. The missionary and God are both presented this way. Respect for the individuality of the other and for the Holy Spirit’s work on conscience allows us to accept the other’s sincerity. As Peter expressed to the lying Ananias in the case of violation of conscience, that is a matter between the human and God (Acts 5:4). Sometimes God exposes hypocrisy, determining for Himself, when He is obligated to do so.
6. Integrity. A sixth missional principle derived from the Abraham stories is integrity. The God who promised greatness to Abraham (12:2, 3) gives most eloquent voice to this word when Abraham sees Him pass between the chopped up pieces (Gen. 15:17). We see, in His countercultural action, that there is no reserve about His commitment. Integrity is wholeness. God is wholly committed. He counted the cost before earth’s foundations were laid, before the first angel was formed. His representatives must count the cost. Or prepare for tragedy by going half committed, by easily dismissing changed mind or broken promise, by winning with bribery when earnestness cannot persuade. We prepare for personal and institutional tragedy, since who we are discloses to observers who is our Commissioner.
7. Trust. A seventh principle on salvation, hermeneutics, and culture, is trust. Trust may be defined as the willingness to believe rather than the sincere suspicion of all belief. Skepticism will not be manipulated. Trust may be abused, but trust lets us grow. God’s trust has been much abused by the cynical, but His love still gives to those who ask, and He will not turn away from those who wish to borrow (Matt. 5:42). If we are too afraid to trust, we will be too stunted to grow. All the rewards of His promises depend on trust that works by obedience. If we will not trust enough to surrender to His will and power, then He cannot act on our behalf. Trust counts as evidence of the things not seen. Without trust, it is impossible to please Him. Without trust, none of our exegetical genius matters. Whether we agree or disagree, understand or misunderstand, comprehendingly and comprehensively proclaim, or mutter and follow tangents, we are nowhere without trust. Nothing in God’s coming to us or our going for Him will work if we are skeptical.
If our hermeneutical excursions and cultural interventions demonstrate commitment to these seven principles, men and women will hear our expositions and see our good works and glorify our Father which is in heaven (Matt. 5:16).
1 Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “The World Well Staged?” in D. A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge, eds., God and Culture: Essays in Honor of Carl F. H. Henry (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 9.
3 Huston Smith, Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), 205.
4 Ellis Nelson, Where Faith Begins (Richmond, VA: John Knox, 1967), 183.
5 Wade Clark Roof and William McKinney, American Mainline Religion: Its Changing Shape and Future (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1987), 69.
6 Smith, 205.
7 Stephen B. Bevans, Models of Contextual Theology (New York: Orbis, 1992), 2.
8 “Presuppositions” refers to the mental framework within which we individually interpret our data. What we see, hear, feel, etc., how we access, and how we cognitively process what we think we have accessed is informed and controlled by our presuppositions. For more on presuppositions, see Lael Caesar, “Examining Validity: The Bible As Text of History,” in Humberto Rasi, ed., Christ in the Classroom: Adventist Approaches to the Integration of Faith and Learning (Silver Spring, MD: General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 1996), 1–20, 5; and Caesar, “Hermeneutics, Culture, and the Father of the Faithful,” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society 13/1 (Spring 2002): 91–114.
9 Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1991), 376, 377.
10 All Scripture passages are from the New American Standard Bible, except as otherwise stated.
11 Osborne, 401.
12 Alfred J. Hoerth, Archaeology and the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 102, 103.
13 Ibid., 103.