Mind the Gap ...

I don’t believe most evangelicals self-consciously think about how they interpret Scripture. We often don’t have to consider how and why we do what we do.This means it’s always interesting when you’re forced to re-think your own assumptions. How can two people with a professed commitment to the Scriptures read the same material and come up with contradictory explanations? I recently wrote a critical review of a book penned by a gay Episcopal priest who advocates for loving, monogamous same-sex relationships in the Church. Here he is, arguing his case from Leviticus:1

The prohibitions in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 were not about sex and sexual relations as we understand them in the 21st Century. These prohibitions had to do with keeping a rigid and male-dominated society distinct from that which surrounded it: to clearly delineate roles and societal rules.

Much of sex and sexual relations as we understand them in the 21st Century are different from what was experienced and understood when Leviticus was written. Much of the sexual conduct was about taking, power, and what we would consider, in most instances today, rape. To utilize these verses as weapons of condemnation against people who have been made in God’s image is a disservice to the text, a misuse of the Torah and an insult to God’s word as it is made known to us. God’s word is not meant to be frozen in time [echoes of Webb, here], but heard anew today and looked at with fresh perspective and understanding based on the world that is hearing these words anew.

At the moment, I’m not interested in arguing with Dwyer. I’m interested in a conversation about why his approach is incorrect. I believe most evangelicals use some form of the principlizing approach advocated by Walter Kaiser, Henry Virkler, and J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays. It looks like this:2

Our question here hinges on what to do with Step 2, above. How much should background context color our “principlizing bridge?” You see, the crux of the revisionist argument is that culture is the controlling factor in interpretation. If we understand the background culture, we can understand Leviticus. If we miss the context, we miss the point of the text. This is how Dwyer and others like him argue. Is Dwyer wrong? If so, why?

This is the question.

It’s hardly controversial that Scripture was given in a culture-bound context. The Chicago Statement on Biblical Application says:3

Universal truths about God and men in relation to each other have to be unshelled from the applications in which we find them encased when first we meet them, and reapplied in cultural contexts and within a flow of history quite different from anything exhibited by the biblical text.

The question is how to legitimately “unshell” this meaning. This leads to another intriguing question; where exactly is God’s revelation situated – in the words or in the ideas these words convey? Millard Erickson goes for the latter option and advocates a dynamic equivalent approach to cultural translation:4

The very words of Scripture are those intended by God to be written by the writer in order to convey the message He wished. The real locus of that revelation, however, is the ideas or concepts that the written words convey.5

He explains:

It is important to bear in mind that the biblical passages were written to definite audiences at definite times and places. In other words, the expression of the message is already contextualized. It is therefore not enough to determine just what was said in the original passage. We must determine the lasting or uncontextualized version of that message.6

This makes good sense. If we believe God moved men to write exactly what He wanted, using a writer’s own unique style and personality on particular occasions in specific contexts, then there must be a difference between culture-bound expression,7 objective meaning,8 and interpretation.9

The question, again, is how to rightly “unshell” this objective meaning. How far is too far? Why, exactly, is Dwyer wrong to import secular culture into Moses’ mind and interpret Leviticus the way he does? This is not only a problem among so-called progressive Christians; conservatives do it all the time.

  • Some interpreters, such as Walter Kaiser10 and William Webb,11 believe 1 Timothy 2:11-15 does not teach a role-based hierarchy by an appeal to the created order. Rather, Paul was accommodating to a culture where women were poorly educated. So, Paul was issuing a temporary command for an era when women were not equipped to be leaders. But, things are different now.
  • Other commentators discount the traditional interpretation of 1 Corinthians 8 that there is a conflict between “weak” and “strong” Christians,12 and believe Paul was actually writing a polemic against syncretism with pagan idols.13 The traditional approach has a clear basis in the text and does some reasonable “mirror reading” of quotations. The other arguably goes beyond mirror reading to mind reading, relying heavily on Paul’s Jewish background, Acts 15:19, and (in Fee’s words) Paul’s “vigorous, combative” tone.

I suspect any interpreter (conservative or otherwise), if she looks hard enough, can analyze both Greco-Roman and Ancient Near-East culture and find “support” for anything she wants. Most rebuttals will degenerate into dueling historical citations from dead people few believers have ever read.

So, what to do? What are the guardrails? I won’t attempt to fully resolve these questions now. But, I’ll offer with some general observations to think about.

Scripture is clear

It’s important to understand the context that shaped Scripture. Not long ago, I read Michael Grant’s Herod the Great.14 It was a good book. Very helpful. I also recently read A.T. Robertson’s The Pharisees and Jesus.15 Great stuff.

But, if Scripture is sufficiently clear, then an ordinary person can understand it without help. We do not need a caste of interpretative priests to unveil the real meaning. As Robert Lethem has argued, “[i]f some other principle than Scripture were the key to its interpretation, it would not be the ultimate authority.”16 One confession proclaims, rightly (WCF 1.7):

All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.

Culture adds color and depth to Scripture’s words, but it isn’t the lexicon that assigns meanings to those words. Teaching is either explicit or may “by good and necessary consequence … be deduced from Scripture,” (WCF 1.6). If the words themselves aren’t enough to give us the basic thrust of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 and 1 Corinthians 8, then Scripture is not clear. But, God says it is clear and it is useful for every Christian (1 Tim 3:16-17). If that means anything; it must at least mean that awareness of historical context is not the controlling factor in interpretation. 

Tradition is important

Christians have lived and died for a long time. Many of them were smarter than you. Many of them have wrestled with the same questions. Think carefully before you dismiss the weight of the Church’s sustained interpretation on an issue. It’s true that sometimes the barnacles of tradition threaten the Church. In such times, God has raised up men like the prophets, Athanasius, Augustine, Luther, Calvin and Zwingli.

But, let’s be honest - you probably aren’t Zwingli.

Too many evangelicals live lives of faith divorced from the great tradition of the Church. Like cut flowers, they and their congregations sometimes exist as stagnant ponds separated from the river of Christian intellectual and devotional thought. They don’t know what they don’t know. They learn about the Trinity from YouTube, not from Gregory of Nazianzus or even Millard Erickson.

The Scriptures aren’t the only rule of faith and practice; they’re the only infallible rule – the “supreme standard,” (NHCF 1). Tradition is the soft guardrail that keeps us on the road. These guardrails should be a perichoresis of Spirit-led interpretive grids with Scripture as the norming norm, in descending order:

  1. Scripture
  2. The first six ecumenical creeds, from Nicaea to Constantinople III
  3. Ecclesiastical creeds and confessions
  4. Theologians and teachers of the church

We’re part of a great tradition, and we should be frightened if our interpretations often lead us to jettison the tradition of the Church.

Interpret Scripture with Scripture

Cultural context is helpful. But, some Christians are too quick to give this background context a controlling influence – even if the text is otherwise clear! And we have seen, even conservatives do it when it suits them. As Thomas Watson explained, “[t]he Scripture is to be its own interpreter, or rather the Spirit speaking in it.”17 When you’re faced with a difficult passage whose meaning is obscure, interpret it in light of similar passages (WCF 1.9):

The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself; and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly

And, very importantly, form your doctrine from teaching passages about the issue in question. You shouldn’t hang your doctrine of atonement on 1 John 2:2; you should hang it on the Book of Hebrews.

Sometimes culture can’t be translated

God chose to use object lessons from a particular place and time to teach us about Christ through the sacrificial and ceremonial laws (cf. Heb 9:8-9). We can’t “translate” these motifs away. In a culture with no sheep, we aren’t free to recast Jesus as, say, “the pig of God that takes away the sins of the world.” Nor are we allowed to reimagine Christ as “dying for us in the electric chair.” David did not shoot Goliath in the head; he used a sling and a stone.

Sometimes we just shouldn’t translate the Bible into our culture; we must hop into the DeLorean and go back ourselves.   

Of course, my remarks don’t answer the question of how to properly “unshell” the text. I leave that to the comment section! But, hopefully my brief reflections will spur some good discussion here.


1 John Dwyer, Those 7 References: A Study of 7 References to Homosexuality in the Bible (CreateSpace, 2007; Kindle ed.), pgs. 39-40, 40.

2 J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays, Grasping God’s Word: A Hands-on Approach to Reading, Interpreting and Applying the Bible, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 196.  

3 Chicago Statement on Biblical Application (Dallas: DTS, 1986), pg. 9. Retrieved from  https://library.dts.edu/Pages/TL/Special/ICBI_3.pdf. Emphases added.

4 Millard J. Erickson, Evangelical Interpretation: Perspectives on Hermeneutical Issues (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), 63-64. He fleshes this out in Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 122, 126-134. 

5 Erickson, Evangelical Interpretation, 117. Emphasis added. 

6 Erickson, Evangelical Interpretation, 68. Emphasis added. 

7 That is, the culture-locked shape of the meaning.

8 That is, the truth intention of the Biblical writer. 

9 That is, one’s understanding of the truth intention. 

10  Walter Kaiser, “A Principalizing Model,” in Four Views on Moving beyond the Bible to Theology, ed. Gary Meadors (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009; Kindle ed.), pg. 35.

11 “The best solution, then, is not to discount the historical teaching of the church but to say that the social data has changed from Paul’s day to ours. The degree to which one is deceivable or gullible relates primarily to a combination of factors such as upbringing (sheltered or broad exposure), age, experience, intelligence, education, development of critical thinking, economic conditions and personality. Spanning centuries, whether in Paul’s or Isaiah’s culture, many of these factors functioned in an associative way to make women more easily deceived than men. In our culture, however, gender is simply not a viable explanation for this ‘greater deception’ phenomenon,” (William J. Webb, Slaves, Women and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis [Downers Grove: IVP, 2001; Kindle ed.], pg. 292).

12 Representative examples are F.W. Grosheide (Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians, in NICNT [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1953], 187f) and C.K. Barrett (A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians [New York: Harper & Row, 1968], 187f).

13 Both Gordon Fee (The First Epistle to the Corinthians, in NICNT [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987], 359f) and David Garland (1 Corinthians, in BECNT [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003], 353f) advocate this view.

14 Michael Grant, Herod the Great (New York: American Heritage, 1971). 

15 A. T. Robertson, The Pharisees and Jesus (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1920).

16 Robert Letham, Systematic Theology (Wheaton: Crossway, 2019), 247. 

17 Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity (reprint; Vestavia Hills: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2016), 23.  

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There are 7 Comments

G. N. Barkman's picture

Excellent food for thought.  Thanks, Tyler.

G. N. Barkman

Mark_Smith's picture

"Sometimes we just shouldn’t translate the Bible into our culture; we must hop into the DeLorean and go back ourselves. "

Great comment Tyler, with a little cultural content in there (ie DeLorean) to illustrate the point!

josh p's picture

Very good article Tyler. A few years back I had a position on John 15 that revolved around a sophisticated argument from ancient near eastern horticultural practices. Eventually I realized that I was relying on too much ancient culture in a passage that is fairly straightforward. Mark Minnick has recently (mostly) convinced me on 1 Cor. 11 for the same reason. Yes we should look at ancient history but we don’t get to cherry pick the parts that support our current practices while avoiding the ones that argue against it.

Your caution regarding jettisoning tradition is helpful. I honesty believe that most believers do not see any value in tradition. “What does it mean to me” is a pretty standard hermeneutical method. There is a certain cultural arrogance in the Information Age that makes people think we have it all figured out. The idea is that if something new comes along it’s probably right because everyone prior to twenty years ago were ignorant Neanderthals. I remember Paul H. making the comment once that the classic commentaries are still good and adequate. I love Logos as much as anyone but do I really need the next “groundbreaking”, “insightful” commentary on John or does Leon Morris cover it pretty well? As you say, the Trinity was well defended from the early church.

I would be interested to see a “Theology Thursday” that took a theological topic and charted the major works through church history on the subject and how the interpretation changed or stayed the same.

Aaron Blumer's picture


There's been a lot of work on "contextualization" over the last decade or so... At least, that's the term surfacing in my mind at the moment for "figuring out to what extent the context factors in to what a passage meant and what it means to us now." I'm sure I'm oversimplifying.

You run into a similar problem with women wearing head coverings in 1 Cor. 11.

I don't think dynamic equivalence/words vs. meaning actually helps. Once you accept that we're talking about "words in a historical (as well as grammatical) context" the difference disappears. There's no longer any distinction between "words" and "ideas and concepts."

Maybe "words in context" is just a different way to say it, but because we can't have "ideas and concepts" without words, and can't limit the interference of our own imagination without limiting ourselves to the words, it's a better way to say it.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

RajeshG's picture

josh p wrote:

Very good article Tyler. A few years back I had a position on John 15 that revolved around a sophisticated argument from ancient near eastern horticultural practices. Eventually I realized that I was relying on too much ancient culture in a passage that is fairly straightforward. Mark Minnick has recently (mostly) convinced me on 1 Cor. 11 for the same reason. Yes we should look at ancient history but we don’t get to cherry pick the parts that support our current practices while avoiding the ones that argue against it.

Good for you. A right handling of 1 Corinthians 11 plainly supports the use of an external head covering, just as used to be practiced by many more believers in years past than do so now.

TylerR's picture


I appreciate the comments. This article grew out of some interesting discussion in a DMin class. I am especially interested in some principles that would allow one to correctly contextualize the Bible's statements. Everyone agrees contextualization needs to happen, but the hermeneutics texts I've seen (and, to be sure, I certainly haven't seen all of them!) are all operating from the same evangelical playbook; that is, they don't have apologetics in their mind as they lay out principles.

On what basis do you say Dwyer is contextualizing incorrectly? This is the conversation I'm interested in having. How much weight do you give to background culture? My remarks in the article nibble around the edges of this question a bit, but I don't believe they really answer the question. Perhaps there is no real "answer." Dwyer and other revisionists assume the biblical authors cannot have a biblical worldview; they must be controlled by secular mores and their writings must be interpreted in that light. You'd have to show this is incorrect.

Is there more?

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government.

TylerR's picture


The only models I'm aware of that directly address my question are (1) Kaiser's principlizing approach, and (2) William Webb's redemptive-movement hermeneutic. They're both outstanding. Webb is usually considered ... edgy ... by most evangelical standards, but I have found his approach very thought-provoking.

Webb and Kaiser actually address how to contextualize. Other models, like Doriani's "redemptive-historical" and VanHoozer's "theodrama" methods, are content to exist at an abstract level. They seem oblivious to the apologetic and practical concerns of hermeneutics for real-life ministry. The ivory tower, and all that.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government.

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