Every generation seeks to understand the Word of God as accurately as possible. The implications of a right understanding of God’s Word is critical. In an attempt to grasp as clearly as possible the meaning of God’s Word, a historical and cultural interpretation has become popular, especially in academic and evangelical circles. According to this system of interpretation, the historical and cultural background of a passage must be understood before the clear and exact meaning of it is known.
There are many things to commend a thorough understanding of the times and cultures present when a particular portion of Scripture was penned. There are, however, some glaring dangers as well.
This form of interpretation has been applied to many passages in Scripture. Some of the more important for the sake of our discussion include: the ministry of women, the head covering and long hair of the sister, baptism and church order. We are informed that a right understanding of 1 Corinthians 11 requires us to understand that Paul is really referring to the temple prostitutes who did not cover their heads. Corinthian immorality made it necessary for the sisters to distinguish themselves in some way from others. Apparently, the only way that Paul could address this issue was to tell the women to cover their heads.
This may sound plausible except for one glaring fact. Nowhere in the passage does Paul appeal to this as a reason. He gives many reasons, but never even hints at the historical-cultural. He appeals to creatorial order, the doctrine of Headship and the order of the churches. He does not warn the sisters that the neighbors are looking on, but rather that the angels are looking on at the company.
Rather than look at each section of Scripture which has been subjected to a historical cultural interpretation, it will suffice to simply underline three problems inherent in this type of interpretation. The first is the bias of the historian. Two reporters writing about a recent event rarely give the same account or stress the same reason or background. Transpose that to an event or culture which is two thousand years old and it is obvious that absolute certainty is difficult to attain. Linked closely with this is the tendency for “revisionism,” or the rewriting of history by each generation, proving or stressing what that generation deems important.
This means that if you don’t like the present historical-cultural interpretation, simply wait a generation for history to be rewritten and with it the interpretation.
But perhaps most serious is the demand made by this form of exegesis that we must go outside the Word of God to understand the Word of God. Isn’t that contrary to the Word of God itself (1 Cor 2; 2 Peter 1:20,21)? We appreciate all the helps which are available to understand the Scriptures. We do not despise scholarship. We would not presume to have the corner on Scriptural interpretation, but we can be confident that with the Word of God before us and the Spirit of God indwelling us, we have all the tools which are needed to understand the clear teaching of Scripture.