The Applicability of God’s Word
How can we as Christians ascertain when God’s Word was applicable only to a certain culture and therefore may not be applicable to us today?
The real question here is, Is everything that is set forth in Scripture to be applied to all people of all time and of all cultures? I don’t know any biblical scholar who would argue that everything set forth in Scripture applies to all people at all times. Since Jesus sent out the seventy and he told them not to wear shoes, does that mean that evangelists today would be disobedient unless they preached in their bare feet? Obviously that is an example of something practiced in the first-century culture that has no real application in our culture today.
When we come to the matter of understanding and applying Scripture, we have two problems. First, there is understanding the historical context in which the Scripture was first given. That means we have to go back and try to get into the skins and into the minds and languages of the first-century people who wrote down the Scriptures. We have to study the ancient languages—Greek and Hebrew—so that we can, as best as we know how, reconstruct the original meaning and intent of the Word of God.
The second difficulty is that we live in the twentieth century, and words that we use every day are conditioned and shaped by how they are used in our here and now. There’s a sense in which I’m tethered to the twentieth century, yet the Bible speaks to me from the first century and before. How do I bridge that gap?
I also think we need to study church history so that we can see those principles and precepts that the church has understood as applying across the centuries and speaking to Christians of all ages. It helps to have a historical perspective. You’ve heard the cliché that those who ignore the past are doomed to repeat it. There is much to be learned through a serious study of the history of the world and the history of the Christian faith, and how other generations and other societies have understood the Word of God and its application to their life situation. By doing that, we’ll readily see elements of scriptural instruction that the church of all ages has understood not to be limited to the immediate hearers of the biblical message but to have principle application down through the ages.
We certainly don’t want to relativize or historicize an eternal truth of God. My rule of thumb: We are to study to try to discern a difference between principle and custom. But if after having studied we can’t discern, I would rather treat something that may be a first-century custom as an eternal principle than risk being guilty of taking an eternal principle of God and treating it as a first-century custom.