Biblical Application and the Question of Cultural Relativity


            The goal of any reader of Scripture should be to determine the correct meaning of the text.  The correct meaning of the text, however, can be multifaceted.  The goal of interpretation is to determine what the original author intended for his original recipients to understand.  This, however, is only a part of the task for today’s reader, for we know that the Bible has eternal relevance, transcending historical and cultural distance.  Therefore, Christians in the 21st century must also determine how any given portion of Scripture might relate to us today.  This is the work of application. 


            While on the surface this may seem to be an easy task, further inquiry will reveal otherwise.  The Bible was inspired within the context of real historical events and is marked by cultural particularities.  Transferring principles of application from historical narrative and historically occasioned epistles will call into question the issue of normality and whether or not certain examples or prescriptions should be recognized as normative for today.  Furthermore, the cultural setting of Scripture will involve the modern reader of Scripture with questions of cultural relativity when seeking to understand how it is that the Bible functions as God’s Word to us today. 


Should our society and culture mirror the culture of the Bible times? 


Is there any room for adjustment in application? 


Are some commandments or exhortations in the Bible so far removed from us culturally that they have become completely irrelevant for the Christian today? 


These questions must be carefully considered by every reader of Scripture, so in this sense application may be the crux of the inductive method.


            There are no simple answers to the questions that have been posed.  Perhaps the best word of advice on this issue is to simply use the “sanctified common sense” that God has given to us through the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit (if indeed illumination is a work of appropriation more so than interpretation).  Beyond this most helpful tool, the Bible student should always remember that interpretation precedes application, and therefore proper interpretation will establish perimeters which should limit the possibilities and options for application.  Any application of the text should be based upon a truly parallel situation between how the text is being understood through interpretation and how the text is now being understood in the world of application.  Every point of application derived from the text should intersect with key elements describing the historical-cultural interpretation of the text.  In this way interpretation limits the scope of possible application, and protects the believer from misapplying the Word of God.


            When dealing with issues of historical normality or cultural relativity, it is helpful to remember the following four categories of application.  Typically any given point of application can be designated to one of these categories.  As is the case when recognizing the validity of application parallels, the task of designating a point of application to one of these categories is best guided through a prayerful dose of “sanctified common sense”.

1. Some commandments, exhortations, narrative examples, and instructive teachings found in the Bible are directly transferable to us today.  If the teaching is repeated throughout Scripture, never revoked in Scripture, or pertaining to moral or theological subjects, it may fit into this category.

2. Some commandments, exhortations, narrative examples, and instructive teachings found in Scripture are not transferable to us today.  Sometimes individual circumstances are in focus, and a situation will be so historically particular that it does not find transference by way of application to today.  In other examples commandments may pertain to a specific people group, a specific covenant, or a particular set of circumstances that obviously do not apply to all individuals.  At times certain commandments may be so particular so as to be later revoked in other portions of Scripture.

3. Some commandments, teachings and narrative examples are set within a culture that is foreign to our own, yet cultural equivalents are readily apparent.  In these situations we may apply the Scriptures with a cultural equivalent from today.  If the direct application of a biblical situation or directive would result in a cultural absurdity, or if that practice would mean something different in our culture than what it meant in their culture, then a cultural equivalent should be sought after in application.

4. Some commandments, teachings and narrative examples in Scripture pertain to individual circumstances or involve cultural practices foreign to our own which contain no real cultural equivalents.  In these situations, the student may find a principle which can be applied within the perimeters of what interpretation will allow.   

When principlizing takes place, the same process of finding parallel situations should dictate the extent of actual application permitted by the text.