A cultural command is like the one found in the Deuteronomy passage above. Since our culture does not engage in parties and dinners on the roof of our houses, there is no need for a parapet (essentially a safety rail). When we see these commands, we realize that obedience is not to the letter of the law but to the spirit. The spirit of the law is that we should strive to make our houses safe. Today this might take the form of a fence around a swimming pool or a “danger” sign around a sinkhole. The reader looks behind the command, understands the reason and obeys in a culturally responsible manner.
A trans-cultural command is one that transcends culture and must be obeyed no matter in what culture one lives. For example, the command that one should not commit adultery (Ex. 20:13) transcends all cultures and must be obeyed by all Christians, not just in spirit but also in the letter of the law.
Having laid out these two kinds of commands, the real question presents itself: how does one tell? That is, how can a reader be sure that a command is either cultural or trans-cultural? This hermeneutical question is at the heart of much debate about the Scripture today.
For example, no one would deny that the apostle Paul asks for the silence of females in the church (1 Cor. 14:34). The question is whether or not that command deals specifically with the Corinthian women because they were unable to obtain the same education as males, or whether it is a trans-cultural command that should apply across the board to all churches today.
There are no easy answers to these kinds of questions, but a serious study of hermeneutics (the art of interpreting written documents) will help a reader to frame arguments for one side or the other (i.e. cultural or trans-cultural) in good faith. To learn more about hermeneutics, pick up a book like How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth (a good beginning text) or The Hermeneutical Spiral (an advanced text) and read them carefully.
In an advanced hermeneutics class in which I was a student, my professor told us something that is good to remember. He stated, “If there are good, godly men or women on both sides of the issue, be careful about taking too harsh a stance.” That is, there are some things that we realize we might not be 100 percent correct about (for example, eschatology or predestination) and we hold those views carefully, always ready to be educated by God’s word.
Of course if you would like advanced (graduate school) theological training in the field of hermeneutics, there is no better place to go than Knox Seminary. In the Knox classroom students wrestle with such questions as the ones raised above and under the guidance of a professor who is fully committed to the truth of God’s word.
Dr. Sam Lamerson is president and professor of New Testament at Knox Theological Seminary. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.