CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Scripture, Authority, Inspiration and Culture

May 1, 2017

Some recent articles I did on the role of women in leadership (in the church and at home), and on head coverings, not surprisingly unleashed a torrent of heated debate. While such issues are certainly important, they are, in a sense, secondary matters, not matters of salvation.

I tried to argue that there may be a bit of room to move in some of these debates, and good Christians can and do differ on these matters. I also said I would need to write much more on such topics before proper debate could ensue. But despite such pleas, sure enough, the pro and con camps started to weigh in straight away!

Some folks just love to enter into debates about their pet topics it seems, no matter how much you ask for them to wait until a proper introductory piece is written to allow for proper discussion! Anyway, I want to address some of the comments made there, and some broader considerations.

bible 17Some of the comments were rather worrying indeed, since they reflected a rather poor view of Scripture and our understanding of inspiration. So here I want to briefly discuss some of these rather large topics. Again, with whole libraries already out there on such complex issues, a short article like this can barely do it justice.

But I want to look at how the issue of cultural accommodation fits into our view of Scripture, the authority of the Bible, and the doctrine of inspiration. That the 66 books of the Bible are divinely inspired is a given for all biblical Christians.

Yet plenty of questions arise, including the role of the human authors. Yes, God used fallible men to pen the books, but he also used them in such a way to ensure that the result was the true, authoritative word of God. Thus the Bible has both human and divine authorship, but God’s intentions in conveying real truth is fully realised with the end product.

In the light of all this, let me just mention two somewhat worrying comments made on my earlier articles about women. One comment spoke of Paul’s apparent chauvinism and culture-bound status:

“The Apostle Paul was a mighty man of God who undoubtedly was key in assisting the spread of the message of Christ BUT although mostly free from but stemmed from Pharisaical mindset, was also a single unmarried man who lived in a culture that oppressed women. No doubt Paul was an imperfect human spreading the perfect gospel.”

The other comment was also rather concerning:

“The letters Paul wrote to the churches in Asia Minor were not written to us, even though there is a lot we can learn from them. Had he realised that his letters would become part of the Canon of Scripture he may have taken a little more care explaining things or making his theological points clearer. Even though he was inspired by the Holy Spirit I don’t believe God sat him down and specifically dictated letters that would have universal application throughout the ages.”

He went on to say how influenced Paul would have been by the culture and worldview of his day, and how so much of his thinking is ill-fitted to our 21st century culture and worldview. So what are we to make of all this? It seems to me that both comments reflect a rather poor understanding of the doctrine of Scripture and how divine inspiration works. Indeed, the remarks of both writers (whether intended or not) reflect in part the typical theological liberal and feminist spin on things.

The inspiration and authority of Scripture

The doctrines of the authority and reliability of Scripture (and I won’t even directly enter into here another important matter: the inerrancy of Scripture), have been thought about and discussed thoroughly and extensively over the centuries. Let me just offer a few summary quotes from some recent authors on the position that I – and most evangelicals – hold to.

“By the inspiration of Scripture we mean that supernatural influence of the Holy Spirit upon the Scripture writers which rendered their writings an accurate record of the revelation of which resulted in what they wrote actually being the Word of God.” Millard Erickson

“By the authority of the Bible we mean that the Bible as an expression of God’s will to us, possesses the right supremely to define what we are to believe and how we are to conduct ourselves.” Millard Erickson

“The authority of Scripture means that all the words in Scripture are God’s words in such a way that to disbelieve any word of Scripture is to disbelieve or disobey God.” Wayne Grudem

“The sufficiency of Scripture means that Scripture contained all the words of God he intended his people to have at each stage of redemptive history, and that it now contains all the words of God we need for salvation, for trusting him perfectly, and for obeying him perfectly.” Wayne Grudem

“Inspiration encompasses the mysterious process by which divine causality on the prophetic agency resulted in scriptural authority, the Bible. Revelation is the fact of divine communication, inspiration is the means by which that communication is brought to the written record, and interpretation is the understanding of that communication. The total process of inspiration includes both the writer and the writing, although the product of inspiration is the authoritative writing and not the man. . . . There are no degrees of inspiration; all the Bible is equally inspired, that is, equally authoritative and true.” Norman Geisler and William Nix

“The divine nature of Scripture does not rule out the fact that it is also a human book, manifesting the variety of literary styles, figures of speech, and individual personalities of its authors. However, like Christ, the Bible is theanthropic, having both the divine and human elements united in one expression. As a result, God adapted His truth to finite understanding, but He did not accommodate it to human misunderstanding.” Norman Geisler and William Nix

“Verbal-plenary inspiration affirms, with Peter, that revelation does not arise within the prophet or apostle or within the community more generally but has its source in the triune God (2 Pe. 1:21). The biblical writers were moved to say certain things. God acted upon them, interrupting the ordinary course of their lives, thoughts, and expectations by his external communication. And yet, God was also acting by his Spirit within them to prepare them throughout their lives for their vocation and to make his Word fruitful in their own minds.” Michael Horton

“In contrast to mechanical inspiration, evangelical theology embraces a theory of organic inspiration. That is, God sanctifies the natural gifts, personalities, histories, languages, and cultural inheritance of the biblical writers. These are not blemishes on or obstacles to divine inspiration but the very means that God employs for accommodating his revelation to our creaturely capacity.” Michael Horton

“God communicates through the inspiration of authors who compose writings that transmit his message to people (1 Tim 3:16; 2 Pet 1:20-21). In Scripture, God invests himself in the written Word and he even identifies with it, to the point that Scripture becomes a mode of God’s own presence.” Michael Bird

“Scripture does not present itself as the recollections of religious people about God. Rather, Scripture is written as the words God spoke to and through human subjects. Scripture is not a report from persons who generated words about God; instead, Scripture is filled with the story of God giving words to people. That is why it is treated as an authoritative and trustworthy message, because it comes from God.” Michael Bird

The biblical authors and their culture

The two comments I offered above both seem to come from believers who want to run with the egalitarian view of women and their roles as opposed to the more traditional complementarian view. And as is sometimes the case with the former group, one way they can get around some of the more problematic Scriptures (for their case), is to stress the culture-bound nature of the New Testament writers.

‘Yes they were somehow inspired, but they were also the products of their times – times which were sexist, chauvinistic, patriarchal and misogynist. That is why they wrote what they did.’ But that is rather shaky ground to be running on, especially if one claims to be a biblical Christian.

The short story is this: the Bible, as mentioned, is the subject of dual authorship – human and divine. So of course we find plenty of cultural, historical and personal elements there. The various theological quotes I offered above already spoke to this a fair bit, but let me say a few more words about it.

Since we have mainly been dealing with Paul in this debate, let me confine myself to his 13 letters. Were some of his epistles occasional letters written to deal with specific issues in specific churches? Sure. Thus Paul had to combat divisions at Corinth, the Judaisers at Galatia, and forms of Gnosticism at Colossae.

But his epistles were also divinely inspired letters meant to convey eternal truths as well. Thus all the major, crucial Christian doctrines are spelled out in them: God, Christ, sin, salvation, the church, the end times, and so on. God conveyed true truths about all these matters, and we dare not suggest that all this is just a collection of cultural, time-bound thoughts.

Sure, there are some specifically cultural or personal remarks found therein, and we need some discernment and wisdom as to what is purely a local, time-bound issue and what is not. Consider Paul’s command to Timothy for example to bring his cloak and scrolls (2 Timothy 4:13).

That certainly was meant only for Timothy, and is not a universal command for all believers today. Understanding something like this should just be a matter of common sense. But other passages can be much more difficult to understand in terms of whether they are just temporal cultural accommodations or eternal biblical principles.

I would need to pen an entire piece on this, but in short, we need to be very careful about dismissing portions of Scripture that we happen to be uncomfortable with, and simply claim they are culture-bound and just human words which have no eternal relevance or application. Yes some particular portions of Scripture are purely occasional in nature, but most are not.

Sure, we need to decide which bits are which, but that must be done with great care. But it is too easy to give parts of the Bible the flick not because it is clearly seen as cultural-bound, but because we don’t happen to like what it is saying. So we really must proceed cautiously and reverentially here.

Much more can be said on all this of course. I have likely raised as many questions here as I have answered. Hopefully I will tease some of these matters out in greater detail in future articles. So stay tuned.

[1827 words]

8 Responses to Scripture, Authority, Inspiration and Culture

  • Thanks, again, Bill.
    I was just thinking about this topic this morning. I am glad that there are people out there who want to “argue” the point (meaning they want their own incorrect interpretation accepted, despite the facts). Perhaps, just perhaps, the truth will come through and the light will come on for them.

  • Blessings Bill,

    Nice work! This week we are in the Parables of Jesus and after reading from Strauss’ Four Portraits, One Jesus, I’m about to read Ladd Theology of The New Testament ch. 7, I entered into a discussion on Instagram about women Preaching and Teaching in the Church in particular which further refines thinking on the matter. It is, as you touch on in your article, about authority as I understand not just the inerrancy or inspiration of Scripture because basically our world belongs to God. In the beginning God created man to live on the earth and look after it, then God created woman to help the man and be a companion for him although it was the woman who was deceived who then gave the fruit of the tree about which they where commanded by God not to do so, so man also disobeyed/gave up his authority over the woman when he decided to disobey God’s command not to eat of the tree and blamed God and Eve for him having plunged the world into sin by his fall from grace. Do we really want to follow this pattern laid down for us by our misguided forefathers? Some of us do not! God intended for the man to be head of the woman and her offspring when he established his covenant with us humans in the beginning and nothing has changed, no matter how lame some men would still rather be by giving the woman the reigns; just so that he can have somebody else to blame when things go wrong, as God planned mankind to live very differently from the beginning of time.

    In the first book of Timothy, God’s word records the way he intends for men to have authority, ordained to lead the church under Christ as Christ’s Undershepherds and nothing has changed, men are ordained to lead Christ’s church, men are given particular roles to enable the church of Christ to function the way God intended as the body of Christ in loving communion with Jesus as the head having ordained women and those also not in offices of leadership in the church for praise to give God the glory due him. Elders and deacons can even have relief from mundane tasks like serving morning tea as they have a higher calling and equipping from the Lord to preach and teach others in the church, building them up in the faith of Christ as well as their relationship with him most importantly, all one may come across though is grumpy old men who are impatient with others who are slow to drink coffee or onto their second cup just because they lack patience or any the evidence of the fruits of the spirit.

    This is a whole other topic of discussion and straying far from the case in point Bill but it is understood that these matters are all relevant in addressing our position at the moment, the church operating the way it is supposed to, edifies everyone present, the way the Lord intends them to be “in him” and there is much less room for errors like prayers asking God to be with us when he clearly says in his word the Bible, that he will be with us to the very end of the age or others calling the congregation of brothers and sisters gathered to glorify God, “guys” which is not very edifying or a mature way of speaking in the sanctuary of believers called to be his Holy chosen people but hey who cares when children are let run wild in the sanctuary even with adult supervision. An axe to grind sorry, in the understanding of this respondent though, a lot more care and thought can be given to the way in which we, God’s people, set apart for his purposes, love each other the way Christ loved us by giving his life over to the point of death for us because God loved us this much that he gave his own Son, particularly when we are in his presence eternally! Do you not agree Bill?

  • Hi Bill, many thanks for the clarification that you’ve offered here. From my own perspective, I’m not the sharpest pencil in the case by any means. A lot of your contributors have a far greater “handle on Theology than I ever will”. However these things I do know. (1) I am eternally grateful that The Lord Jesus Christ rescued me from a life that was self destructing. (2) There are more than enough folk willing to serve inside the church. I want to be one of HIS representatives out in THE MARKET PLACE. I want to be able to effectively communicate the Gospel Message to those folk out there who only know Christ as a swear word or an expletive. (3) Bill, I want to keep learning, and to keep an open mind. I’ve learnt so much since I’ve been following your Blog, and I want to keep on learning. So much of what you post has been intensely “hands on practical theology” which has given me fresh perspectives on what I do know and understand. God Bless you Bill for all the Hard Work and Dilligent care and detail that you put into each of your postings, regards, Kel.

  • For those who claim that Paul had a problem with women I think scriptures such as when Paul was complaining about not having support to live on from the churches, indicate otherwise:-

    1Co 9:5 We have the right to take a believing wife with us like the other apostles, the Lord’s brothers, and Cephas, don’t we?
    1Co 9:6 Or is it only Barnabas and I who have to keep on working for a living? (ISV)

    Clearly Paul was saying one of the main reasons the church should help support him was so he could take a wife instead of having to divide his time between making a living and planting churches with nothing left over to have a family. He chose to not have a wife for a time for the benefit of the church but it would appear that was not what he considered optimal in the longer term.

  • “we need to be very careful about dismissing portions of Scripture that we happen to be uncomfortable with, and simply claim they are culture-bound and just human words which have no eternal relevance or application.”

    It seems to me that dismissing portions on the grounds of cultural relevance exposes just how “culture bound” some are. Our culture must bend to God’s Holy Word, not vice versa.

    Thank you, Bill, for your labours and continued dedication to making these issues plain. Being relatively new to complementarianism and now holding to the 1689 Reformed Baptist Confession, I’m slowly examining issues in my own theology with the view to lining up with The Word. Your articles are of great benefit to me in that process.

    May The Lord richly bless you in your ongoing ministry here!

  • Hi Bill, my response to a previous post, which you have quoted in part above, was unfortunately penned in haste and not thought through carefully. Let me clarify my thoughts a little further and hopefully abate any real concerns you may have.
    Did Paul have us in mind when he penned his letters? We don’t know for sure, but he certainly had the various New Testament churches in mind. But God certainly knew, and planned that Paul’s letters would be included in our Holy Scriptures. Even though Paul’s letters dealt with problems and issues facing these early Christians, the same principles do apply to us today, especially if more difficult-to-understand passages are taken in context with local customs. Much of his teaching has universal application, yesterday, today and forever. No one should dispute that. However, other teaching seems to have a more cultural application especially in areas of faith not directly associated with salvation. In a number of areas where customs and personal behavior are addressed I believe Paul offers personal advice and not mandates from God. I think this is the case with women wearing hats, praying in church or preaching. But I also could be wrong so I won’t argue my case any further. I don’t believe our arguments will solve these issues any time soon.
    Having an understanding of the cultural, religious, political, educational and social standards of the early church times is a huge bonus when trying to understand the New Testament teachings. Let me illustrate. When I first read of Jesus teaching that it is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle I immediately thought of a sewing needle or a fish net repairing needle. Years later a preacher explained that the eye of a needle was a small gate in the city wall. A camel could only pass through it on its knees – a sign of humility. The disciples would have known this but I didn’t have a clue, especially without the benefit of a good reference book (or professor Google).
    If we understand the circumstances and mindset of these early Christians we can better relate to Paul’s teaching in these difficult areas. This is my opinion again, but I find this helps me when I try to apply Biblical teaching to my life. Hope I am a little clearer this time.

Leave a Reply