Reinterpreting Scripture through Cultural Context


Earlier this year four representatives from the Canadian Reformed Churches (CanRC) visited Synod Meppel 2017 of the Dutch RCN sister churches. Synod Meppel had received, and was discussing, an extensive report with recommendations about women in office. As we now know, that synod has decided that the offices of deacon, elder and minister be opened to women, despite concerns raised by the FRCA, CanRC and other sister churches of the RCN. It’s worth noting the following concerns (in italics) raised by the CanRC delegates[i] in relation to the report tabled at synod:

  1. The report has come with a new interpretation of passages such as 1 Timothy 2 which historically have always been plainly read as forbidding women to have authority of office and to preach. The reply was that these passages were interpreted from the point of view of a male-oriented culture, and in our more egalitarian age eyes have been opened to other ways of interpreting those passages.
  2. Who determines what the culture was at the time the New Testament letters in particular were written? The response was that this is a matter of ongoing research.
  3. The report was selective in the passages it interpreted, for instance not dealing with some Scripture passages which obviously deal with the matter of offices. For instance, 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 outline the qualifications for office and both speak of the need for elders and deacons to be the husband of one wife. There was no substantive reply to this.
  4. The four layers of meaning which the deputies applied to the Bible in their report is a self-made system which they have imposed on Scripture and various passages in the Bible can arbitrarily be assigned to one or other layer, depending on how one wishes to see such passages. The response was that the Bible lends itself to such a system of four layers and the (cultural) context determines which layer is suitable for each passage.
  5. Could the same contextual approach to Scripture when applied to other contemporary ethical matters (e.g. homosexual relations) not end up emptying the Bible of its normative quality? The reply was that each ethical issue needs to be examined in the light of Scripture on its own.

Observe how these concerns relate particularly to the interpretation of Scripture on the basis of cultural context. In other words, the emphasis is on understanding the context in which the text was written and then looking at the context in which we find ourselves today, and allowing our context to help determine the meaning of the text. For example, one could argue, as has been done, that in the days of the Apostle Paul women were not given positions of authority. Therefore Paul did not allow women to be in office as elder, minister or deacon. Today’s culture with its feminist influences, however, does have women in various positions of authority. It follows, according to this reasoning, that in our ‘egalitarian age’ Scripture would approve of women in the church’s offices.

It is also possible to present a case for women in office by emphasising certain parts of Scripture and silencing others, as we read of in point 3. For example, one can focus on passages which show where women such as Deborah and Miriam have shown leadership, and elevate these exceptions to a normative position. At the same time passages that clearly forbid women in office are avoided or minimised or reinterpreted to a degree where they lose their clear normative character.

To be sure, understanding the culture in which a text is produced helps in understanding the meaning of texts. But the whole idea of establishing a text’s meaning through an interplay between the cultural context in which a text is produced, and the context in which a text is read, in effect leads to the worldly context determining the meaning of the text. To change the clear meaning of a text is wrong, particularly when applied to Scripture. Reading texts in this way is characteristic of post-modern deconstructionist literary theory, and this is what seems to be influencing views on issues such as women in office and homosexual relations.  It posits the idea that there is no absolute truth but that the text’s meaning is always ‘socially constructed’ relative to the context.

The other thing this way of reading does is to put power in the hands of theologians. Ordinary folks cannot understand Scripture anymore. You need theologians who can determine the culture of the text’s production, and the culture of today, and provide church members with the most likely meaning of a Bible passage. This is reminiscent of the Roman Catholic clergy of the Middle Ages keeping the Bible in Latin so that only the clergy could explain the meaning of the Bible.

J Numan

[i] CanRC delegates were Rev J DeGelder, Rev J Moesker, G Nordeman and Dr C Van Dam. Their report is published in Clarion V 66 N 22 November 3 2017.