Should we imagine the Bible to be outside of culture?

Authority is neither outside of Biblical authors, or their historical context, nor does it bequeath them with omniscience. (BTW Jesus is not a Biblical author. He IS the word of God already.)

In Christian theology part of canon is related to apostolicity and inspiration is organic, not mechanical.

Maybe it’s helpful to ask the question, is universal applicability possible in human speech?

This quest, or expectation I think is a huge stumbling block for people in terms of embracing an idea of an authoritative text. It goes something like this.

If God were to write a book it would have to be culture and context neutral, otherwise it would not be worthy of God or it would reveal an exclusivism on the part of God. For God to tie himself down to one people, or even start with one people, he would be unfair. Because by definition God can’t be unfair, therefore the Bible can’t be from God.

Look at the Mormon and Muslim approach to scripture. The Quran can’t be translated because it is the words of God. If you want to hear God talk, learn ancient Arabic.

I have two problems with this, one philosophical and the other theological.


If God communicated with us outside of culture, we couldn’t understand it anyway. Look at the nature of culture and the nature of what it means to be human. You laugh at jokes within your culture. You cry at movies within your culture. You can only understand, or have meaning within your culture.

Culture then seems like a huge barrier. OK, read the OT. One way to understand the great transition between Gen 1-11 and 12 onward is God’s approach to working with people. In Gen 5-9 God deals with people in the abstract except for Noah who gets obvious preferential treatment. It is a failure. In Genesis 12 God moves in close.

What God wants from creation (Gen 1:26f, Isa 60) is culture. He is the creator and we are his image bearing stewards and he shares culture making with us. That is what it means to be human. (I don’t know if apes make culture, definitely not on our level though.)

Deep within our modern love of science is the idolatrous hope of transcending culture via science. Ever see the movie “Contact” where we try to communicate with extra terrestrials by means of math and science? Science does help us transcend culture but it can never pay out according to the depth of human culture that even small children enjoy. Science is a wonderful tool but it’s range is limited (by definition) to the empirical world. As long as we’ve had human culture we’ve been playing far outside of those lines and we’re not going to stop.


Incarnation is deep within Christianity. God with us is the means of our rescue and the goal of our rescue. Unlike pantheism, we are not identical with God (good thing!). God better than that and our hearts yearn for communion with God (Augustine).

God writes himself into his story and to do so culture and language are his vehicle. This is the only way God could do it and still be with us. John Calvin notes repeatedly that God must accommodate himself to us and for us.

Why is this so good for us? Our capacity to enjoy culture is magnified by our knowledge of it (you need awareness of at least 2 cultures to know of culture) and as we learn that God is both above our culture but also comes to us within it we get a greater vision of how great this culture making God is. (Read Richard Mouw’s “When the Kings come Marching In).

The cultural particularism of the Bible is clearly a challenge for us, because no one reading this blog is part of the original cultures of the intended audience of the Bible. What we must grow up into then (as individuals and communities) is learning how to relate cross-culturally, and therefore learn a new skill from God.

Plato was wrong and so were the Greeks. This God is a gardener that likes getting his hands dirty, enjoys getting to know his children one by one, puts the pictures and poems of his kids on the fridge, and talks to them in terms we can understand. In fact, he sometimes talks to us through us even when we don’t know it’s happening.

Lots of things can be communicated across a span of cultures, but culture is one of God’s richest gifts and our capacity for culture making one of his chief ambitions for us. Just like with a parent, as God speaks to us, we’re learning, bonding, relating, growing, glorifying and enjoying all he while, we hope. pvk

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
This entry was posted in philosophical reflection, Saved Blog Comments, Understanding the Bible. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Should we imagine the Bible to be outside of culture?

  1. Pingback: More on the Women at Classis Conversation |

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