When God sets down a rule in Scripture, it's important to know who's obligated to obey that rule. To take a principle that He has set down, that He intends to be normative for Christians, and simply dismiss it, is to do violence to the authority of our Lord. And yet, to take something that was only meant to be of temporary custom and impose it upon all people in every age is to do violence to the people of God. People in ancient Israel live much differently than we live today. So, are we required to live under the rules listed in Deuteronomy, for example? Or, moving ahead to a New Testament practice, are we required to wash each other's feet in church?
This week on Renewing Your Mind, Dr. R.C. Sproul is giving us the basic guidelines for understanding, interpreting, and applying Scripture. And today, he'll help us determine the difference between social customs and biblical mandates. In this session of our study of principles of biblical interpretation, we're going to examine one of the most difficult problem areas that we face as Christians trying to understand the Bible, and that's the question of the relationship between the Bible and the culture in which it was written. At the very beginning of this class, we mentioned the fact that there is a problem of historical tension between the 20th century in which we live and the first century and before that in which the Bible was written. There is a time gap that separates us from the documents that function as the normative authority in the life of the church.
And as we seek to interpret the Scripture, we really have a two-fold problem. On the one hand, there's the simple problem of being able to understand things that were written in another culture 2,000 years and longer ago, and at the same time not only the problem of understanding it, but even more significantly perhaps is the problem of applying those things that were written centuries ago to our own time. This is the broad question of what we call the problem of transcultural communication. Every missionary who's ever had to function on a foreign field understands the problems of transcultural communication. I have a friend, for example, who was born and raised in the interior of Africa. His father was a pioneer missionary to tribal groups that were primitive in terms of their cultural background. And my friend himself on at least six occasions discovered tribes that heretofore were unknown, and he was the first white man that these tribes of natives had ever seen in their corporate history. And of course, my friend then went back to Africa and became a missionary to some of these tribes. And one of his most difficult tasks was to translate the Bible into their language. And it was difficult for him because they didn't have a concept of a God of love. All of their gods were evil spirits that were to be feared and to be appeased, and so he had a communication problem in translating the gospel into the language of those people.
We have it not only in the foreign mission enterprise, but we have it within our own nation. I've spoken on several occasions to children who live in ghettos in the inner city, and you talk to them about the parables from the New Testament, which highlight so often images and stories that are drawn and borrowed from an agricultural society in the first century. For example, how many times does Jesus talk about sheep and about shepherds? Try to communicate the meaning of that to a child who has been born and raised in the inner city in a very closed ghetto community. I was shocked to discover that the vast majority of these children had never in their lives seen a sheep.
They had never traveled outside the confines of the inner city, and so though they had seen picture books about sheep, they had never experienced life in an agricultural setting. And as our culture becomes more and more industrialized, we are that much further removed from the pastoral setting and agricultural setting in which the Bible comes to us. An example that we run into in New Testament interpretation that has troubled many readers of the Bible is the episode in the life and ministry of Jesus where Jesus curses a fig tree. And if you read the text there in the gospels where Jesus approaches this fig tree from a distance, we read that part of what the text says was that Jesus was hungry, and He saw a fig tree in bloom, and He approached the fig tree to gather figs, and then the author tells us, but it was not the season for figs. And Jesus goes to the tree. He doesn't find any figs, and so what does He do? He pronounces a curse upon the fig tree, and the next day as the disciples pass that tree, they notice that the tree has withered and died under the curse of Jesus.
And some commentators have looked at that and they say, what's going on here? What kind of a temper tantrum is Jesus displaying here that He would curse a poor innocent tree, a fig tree, for not bearing fruit when it wasn't even the season for figs? How do you understand that? How do you interpret that? I know it always puzzled me, and it bothered me that Jesus would seem here to be almost arbitrary and capricious in cursing a tree for not bearing figs when it wasn't the fig season.
I remember when I was in seminary and had an opportunity to ask one of our professors about that particular problem, and our professor did shed light on the question. He was noted for his work in Palestine in the study of archaeology, and he was an expert in the customs of the land of Palestine, and he explained to us that there are several varieties of fig trees that are growing indigenously to Palestine. And of these different varieties of figs, some are hybrids and the like, there are late bloomers and early bloomers and so on, and that there is one special variety of fig tree in Palestine that has a most delectable fruit and it is preferred above the other fig trees. And one of the characteristics of it is that this particular variety of fig-bearing tree brings its fruit at a different time of the year than the rest of the varieties of fig trees. And so there is a fig season, and in that season is when one would normally expect to find figs growing on the trees. But in addition to the fig season, there is this one variety of fig tree that does bring forth its fruit in a different time period out of fig season, and its fruit is particularly desirable not only because of the sweetness of the taste of it, but because it's so rare and because it produces that fruit when the other trees don't.
And so it's like getting strawberries in January, that's a treat even though they're commonplace at different times of the summer in the country. And so the professor went on to say, but the real test of whether or not one is going to find figs then in Palestine is not whether it's the fig season because it's possible that you can come upon a variety of fig tree that gets its fruit out of season. He said, but whenever the tree is in blossom, that is the sure sign that figs will be present. So Jesus is walking out of the city, and He sees this tree in the distance, and He sees that it is in blossom, and that tells Him what? That figs will be there.
So He goes out of His way, He goes up eagerly anticipating the presence of figs. All the external signs of the presence of figs are there, but when Jesus gets there, no figs. And what Jesus does in cursing the tree is to use a technique that was commonplace among Old Testament prophets. The Old Testament prophets didn't just speak with their mouths or write with their pens, but when they were communicating prophetic truths, they would often use object lessons. They would take utensils, a boiling pot, and make significance out of it.
They would run naked through the streets to communicate a point. They did what we call make use of the object lesson, and that's what Jesus does here. And it was an object lesson about hypocrisy, where one has the external outward signs of the fruit of righteousness, but upon careful scrutiny and close examination, one finds barrenness and emptiness. And so Jesus exploits the hypocrisy of the fig tree and pronounces His curse upon it and indicates thereby God's response to hypocrisy, God's response to those who have the outward trappings of religion, the external signs of godliness but whose lives bear no fruit.
They are arid, they are dry, they are like waterless clouds that give promise of refreshment but never deliver the goods. Alright, you see there's an example of our reading of that text unless we knew something about the fig tree growing season and the varieties of fig trees, we read that and we will just sit there in puzzlement and consternation. That's why it's important for us to study the geography, the customs, and the background of the biblical lands and the biblical times. But that of course, the matter of the fig tree, is a problem of interpretation, understanding the meaning of the text.
But as I said at the beginning, that's only half the problem. In fact, in certain respects it's the lesser half of the problem because so much study has been done, so much information is at our fingertips in Bible dictionaries, in lexicons and so on that give to us the information we need to interpret the Bible by careful examination of the ancient records and the ancient customs and so on. But the real trick is how do we know what is written in the Bible centuries ago is still to be applied across the ages, across the culture? Do we find anything in the Scripture that is merely an expression of the customs that are local and temporary, applied only to the age and times in which they are given? Or are the principles that we find in Scripture able in every case to be transposed across the centuries and carried down and applied to the life of the church today?
Now, to move this out of the abstract and into the concrete, let me refer to one example. Today in the 20th century, in fact in the last 10 years, what Christian community, what Christian church has not experienced great pain, great conflict and seemingly endless turmoil over one burning question, and that question is, what is the role of women in the home and in the church? Yes, there have been some who argue that the Bible nowhere restricts the function of women in the church and that it really doesn't teach that the wife is called to be subordinate to the husband in the marriage relationship.
There are some who argue that, but those are few and far between, and I think we can say that their interpretations of Scripture are acts of pure despair. Liberals and conservatives agree for the most part that the Bible does teach the subordination of the wife to the husband in the home, and the liberals and the conservatives do agree that the Apostle Paul, for example, did set down certain restrictions about the functions of women in the church. The question is, however, do those restrictions and do those positions that are ascribed to women apply to today? And you know how much controversy has been engendered by that debate. Churches have been split, people have been hurt, a lot of people have become very angry about the whole question. I think it would be a gross oversimplification, indeed simplistic in the extreme, to assume that those who have resisted the ordination of women, for example, in certain denominations, do so merely out of a sinful disposition of chauvinistic prejudice. There are those who look around and they say, we see women, and according to us, they have all the gifts, all of the ability, all of the skill necessary to hold any office in the church.
That's what it seems like. In fact, I'll have to say frankly, if I look around and see and watch women perform and see the gifts and talents and particularly the contribution that women are making to the church in the 20th century, the only conclusion I could ever come to by examining it that way would be that women are eminently qualified to be in any role you want to put them in in the church. But then we go to the New Testament and we do find Paul making certain restrictions about women that they are not to have some kind of authority in the church, and so we scratch our head. Some look at that and become enraged and they say, well that's the Apostle Paul's prejudice, that's his chauvinism showing and so on, and they say so.
We can disregard them. But then there are others who have a higher view of Scripture who say that Paul isn't doing this simply out of personal prejudice, but that he is an agent of revelation, that this is the Bible, that this is the Word of God, and we can't just dismiss it because we don't like the personality of the Apostle Paul. See, a person who has a view of Scripture like that really has a sticky problem. He has to choose and if the Bible isn't in fact saying that women have certain restrictions upon him, on the one hand if he stands with the Apostle Paul, he's going to alienate the women. On the other hand, if he stands with the women, he's in danger of violating certain principles of Scripture, and that becomes an acute question of conscience for which many have suffered in our own day. Now again, my purpose here is not to open up that very controversial question about women in the church and so on. That you're going to have to work out in your own churches and your own communities and so on. Part of the problem is complicated by the fact that every denomination has different concepts of what church authority is and different concepts of what church offices are and different concepts of what ordination means.
And so in some communities there's no problem with the ordination of women. In other communities there are major problems connected with it. And I'm not going to try to resolve those problems here. I'm only pointing this out as an example of the problem of application of biblical mandates to the present day.
That's the purpose of this illustration, so that you will be aware that the problem at times is severe. Now if we can sharpen the question and sharpen the problem, we can boil it down I think to this. The issue focuses on one critical matter and that is, are there parts of the Bible that merely express local customs and are there also parts of the Bible that communicate enduring principle? That's the question, the question of principle and custom, principle and custom.
Now, let me give some definitions to those. What we mean by a principle, a biblical principle is a teaching or an admonition or a precept that is transcultural. That is, it applies to all people in all places in all ages. For example, we have a biblical principle that we ought not to be engaged in idolatry, the worship of idols. Now if you go in one culture their idols are made out of wood, in another culture they're made out of stone, in another culture they're made out of silver or gold. They're all different kinds of idols, and the idols will change from culture to culture. But the principle remains intact to all men everywhere at all times.
God abhors the worship of idols. That's what we're talking about when we refer to a principle, that which transcends geographic and temporal differences. It goes across cultural boundaries.
But then there's also what we call customs, local customs that reflect principles necessary for a certain people at a certain time in a certain locality. Now, some will argue that everything in the Bible is a matter of custom, that there aren't any absolutes, there aren't any transcultural principles, that everything that we find in Scripture is nothing more and nothing less than the expression of the attitudes and the values and the ideas of first century or earlier primitive Christian people. Now that reflects, of course, a particular view of the Bible. That view assumes that the Bible is merely the opinions of people who lived a long time ago. It doesn't carry the weight of a divinely inspired book that gives us transcendent revelation from the mind of God.
Now, on the other hand, there are those who believe that the Bible is the Word of God as I do, that it is a transcendent book that comes ultimately from the mind of God that is revelation and that goes beyond the mere opinions and insights of primitive people, but that comes to us from the mind of God Himself. Now, those who hold that position, some of them take the tack that because this all comes from the mind of God, there's no room for customs in the Bible, that everything that is in the Scripture is to be applied everywhere all the time to all people. And so there's no room at all for distinction between principle and custom. That creates real serious problems because I think we can find within the Bible a certain indication that the Bible itself recognizes the difference between principles and customs. Alright, if we grant that there are portions of Scripture that are principles, portions of Scripture that do apply to every age and to every cultural situation, but at the same time try to be responsible and say, but we also grant that there are passages in the Scriptures that are of local significance only that are customary rather than principial, which I personally think is the only responsible thing we can do with coming to the Scripture.
I think it's simplistic to say it's all principle or to say it's all custom that we would err in either direction. We have to face the fact that there are portions of Scripture that transpose over culture, and there are those that don't have any particular bearing on our culture today. But once we make that statement that part of Scripture is principle, part of Scripture is custom, we're left with a really sticky problem, aren't we?
The problem is this. How do we know what is principle, and how do we know what is custom? It would be a very serious offense against God to take a principle that He has set down that He intends to be normative for Christians of all ages and all places and simply dismiss it as a local custom, have no bearing upon us today. To treat a principle of God as something of only having temporary significance is to do violence to the authority of our Lord, and yet at the same time to take something that was only meant to be of temporary custom and impose it upon all people in every age is to do violence to the people of God.
And it's not easy to solve it. And so what I want to do in our next time together is to look at these problems and see if we can discern any principles that we may be able to use that will give us guidelines so that we may be able to determine and do it responsibly what is principle and what is custom, for we know both exist. Luke tells us, for example, in chapter 10 as Jesus sends out the seventy on the mission, He says, carry no purse, carry no bag, no shoes, etc., on this mission.
How are we to apply that to the twentieth century? Does that mean that the only kind of evangelism that's valid in the sight of God is that which is done in bare feet? Does that principle mean that Billy Graham is negligent and derelict and disobedient when he takes a suitcase with him when he goes on a mission? Or was there a specific reason for that specific time and that specific place why Jesus put those restrictions upon His disciples? What about foot washing? Is foot washing something that is only meaningful in a culture where people walk around in bare feet or in open sandals where their feet are constantly being covered with dust and it's a matter of custom and practice to wash the feet as soon as you come into a house? Or did Jesus establish the process of foot washing as a perpetual practice of the church?
Those are the kinds of things that we wrestle with when we touch on the Bible and culture. That's Dr. R.C. Sproul from his series, Knowing Scripture. I'm glad you've joined us today for Renewing Your Mind.
I'm Lee Webb. In Twelve Messages, Dr. Sproul provides the basic guidelines for correctly understanding, interpreting, and applying Scripture. We will send you this four-DVD set when you give a donation of any amount to Ligonier Ministries.
You can make your request online at renewingyourmind.org or when you call us at 800-435-4343. Before we go today, let me encourage you to explore the many podcasts we're producing here at Ligonier. For example, I think you'll enjoy Open Book with Dr. Stephen Nichols. It's a podcast about the power of books and the people they've shaped.
In Season 3, special guest Dr. Joel Beekie invites Dr. Nichols on a tour of his library, a place filled with literary treasures that have influenced Dr. Beekie's life and ministry. From discussions on classics like The Pilgrim's Progress to reflections on writings by the Dutch Reformers, you'll benefit from each episode. You can find out more when you go to Ligonier.org slash podcasts. I hope you'll listen to Open Book along with the other podcasts that we produce here at Ligonier. You can find out more at Ligonier.org slash podcasts. Next week Dr. Sproul will help us learn how to think critically. What does it take to build a strong Christian worldview? Join us beginning Monday for his series Blueprint for Thinking, here on Renewing Your Mind. you
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