Argument from Culture

Argument from Culture

There is an argument, not exactly new, that has been making its way through the church today. The argument from culture, let’s call it the argumentam ad culturam, is an attempt to undermine the legitimacy and primacy of Scripture for Christian living, while claiming to honor the Scripture for what “it really says.” It is the basic hermeneutical assumption of the culturalists.

This argument states that since Christ (or Peter, or John, or Paul, etc.) addressed people bound by a certain place, time, and culture, the message’s proscriptions and prescriptions are likewise bound by a certain place, time, and culture.  Scripture does not utter statements once and for all authoritative; rather, it records statements held to be authoritative once upon a time. Following proper and sometimes extensive adjustments, some authority may still hold for us (e.g., support orphans and widows); largely, however, that authority is now gone with the wind--as are the place, time, and culture in which they were uttered.

In full, the argument is as follows:

(1)    Since the Bible is bound by place, time, and culture, its commandments

are bound by place, time, and culture

(2)    We are bound by place, time, and culture

(3)    Our place, time, and culture are not the Bible’s

(4)    Therefore, we are not bound by the Bible’s commandments

As stated, this argument is valid (no logical errors).  If there’s something wrong with it, the problem is in one of its premises.

There’s nothing wrong with (2) and (3).  If there’s a problem with the conclusion (4), and the argument is valid, there’s only one place left to look: premise (1).

The since part of premise (1) is correct. Christians can and should read Scripture in context. Understand the audience in Rome to whom Paul wrote; know the Pharisees Christ condemned, and why their religious obligations were superfluous to requirements; see the various cultures presented in the book of Acts.

The then part of premise (1) is not correct. Though they preached to various people in different cultures, their message cannot be “culturized,” that is, their content cannot be explained entirely in terms of their culture and, in this way, accepted or rejected insofar as the culture of the audience is accepted or rejected.  

The problem with argumentum ad culturum is those who use it miss the scriptural context they try to gloss. For them, misapprehension of the scripture hinges on a failure to understand a preposition.  That is, they are blind to the difference between making an argument to a culture and arguing from one. Christ, Paul, and others took the former route. Progressive Christians take the latter.

Test Case: Homosexuality

Exhibit A for this hermeneutic, of course, is homosexual unions, and unrepentant homosexuality in the church as a whole.

There are three oft-used passages by the progressive crowd we shall look at: Matthew 19:3-9, Romans 1:24-27, and 1 Timothy 1:9-11.

These passages have been used by the new homosexual movement to show that Christ, Paul, etc., used arguments speaking to a specific culture and should be left in that culture, considering this culture is more wise, knowledgeable, and progressive. But, upon further inspection of the text, did Paul and Christ intend for their words to be strictly followed in that culture, only to be cast aside in this?

Consider the first text:

Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, ‘Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?' He answered, 'Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh”? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.’

They said to him, ‘Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.’ – Matthew 19:3-9

Christ cites Genesis 2:24 in response to the Pharisees question. Here is no cultural argument; the appeal is to an original order, which precedes culture.

Then they responded by saying "Why then did Moses …?" and by doing so they introduced the cultural argument. Christ then refuted, and once again returned them to the original created order. “He said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.’”

It was the Pharisees, not Christ, who made the cultural argument. Again, by stating “from the beginning it was not so,” Christ responded to the culture by stating the original good created order.

Jesus’ response is clear: this was never the plan.  God had other ideas entirely: the important words were “in the beginning.”  To any Jew, this would suggest other words: “God created.”  God created marriage, and he did so with a purpose.  Divorce is entirely against that original purpose.

At first glance, this looks to fall in line with the progressive argument that Christ never mentioned homosexual unions. And since the Son of God Himself never mentioned this union, it must follow that as long as homosexual unions are monogamous, then it is deemed right.

But here we see the first flaw. Why must it be a monogamous relationship? The argument from monogamy comes from this very text.

What reasons do we have for following the implication of Christ’s words to the Pharisees about the monogamy of marriage, and not follow the other: that it must be between one man and one woman?

Christ’s response about God’s intention for marriage not only answers their question on divorce, but also answers our question as to why pornography, why pedophilic marriage, why polygamy, why premarital sex, and why homosexual unions are sin; and why any other sexual unions outside the bounds of a man leaving his father and mother and holding fast to his wife.

Anything outside of God’s design is sin, for it rejects the Creator and worships the creature.

Paul, in our next text, wrote against it as well, along with other sexual sins in Romans 1:24-27.

The text:

God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.

Some argue that when Paul compares it to going against nature, that is a cultural argument. Literary context shows, to the contrary, that he argues from God’s good created nature: the argument doesn’t make the appeal to culture. Paul could not have made a cultural appeal, considering homosexuality was not only accepted in the broader Roman culture, it was more celebrated and encouraged than it is in our current zeitgeist. This Scripture cannot be “culturized” to allow Christians to disobey the teaching on homosexuality.

Paul lists homosexual sin alongside other sins in his first letter to Timothy by saying,

understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine

To claim homosexual relations are no longer deemed sinful because of the culture, then logically, Christians must include "the sexually immoral, liars, perjurers, enslavers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine" in with the sins that are no longer sins because we have "culturized" Scripture.

That is absurd prima facie. Liars, perjurers, and people who enslave others are always in sin, no matter the culture. On this progressives and conservatives are not only in unsurprising but fast agreement.  So, then: why did Paul include sexually immoral and homosexuality in with these other sins, stating they are against sound doctrine?

Sound doctrine, which must be read as much more though not less than theologically correct opinion, conforms the Christian to Christ, who makes all things new. In this new created order, to be consummated in the New Heaven and New Earth, there is no room for what is contrary to God’s Law, to God’s good created order.

The audience of the three main sections of New Testament where Paul mentions homosexuality as clear sin must also be noted. The church in Rome, which was of Jews and Gentiles, and the church in Ephesus, where Timothy ministered as an elder, and Corinth.

Jewish culture was of course against homosexuality because it broke God's law. Every Jew raised in the Torah would see homosexuality and know it as an “abomination.” But it wasn't against Roman culture. It is interesting, then, that it's one of the main ways Paul showed how God judged the Gentiles: He gave them up to their unnatural desires.

For Paul to go against homosexuality in both letters as such is more astounding, not less, than when a preacher today preaches against homosexuality. If America is accepting of homosexuality, then Greece was doubly so. Pederasty among the elites was rampant.

The “culturized” argument holds no weight in Paul’s argument to Timothy and the church in Corinth because he wrote to a church and pastor in the middle of cities that were even more accepting of homosexuality than Americans are.

Scripture Alone

As has been argued, Paul’s words, and Christ’s, are not merely cultural arguments, they are more. They are the very word of God, which cannot change.

Culture cannot, and must not, dictate the word of God.

Joseph Hamrick serves as a deacon at Commerce Community Church (C3) in Commerce, Texas. He lives in Commerce and writes a weekly column, “Something to Consider,” for the Greenville Herald-Banner newspaper.

Joseph Hamrick