Most of the posts in this series have focused on what in the Bible needs to be applied to us but the last leg in the journey of application requires us to move beyond “what” to “how”. Will our obedience to a command look the same or different from the original audience? Will applying the Bible in this instance look the same in every culture at every time? At the most basic level we need to answer the question, what will this look like in my life? We call this process contextualization.
When we apply the Bible, the best place to begin in contextualization is in recognizing if a possible application or command in scripture is Completely Permanent, Completely Temporary, Culturally Permanent or Principally permanent. Here are some basic definitions for these four categories:
- A command, situation or principal is Completely Permanent when it is repeatable, continuous and/or not revoked. They are often closely connected to the moral and theological center of the Bible. They are repeated elsewhere in scripture. Completely permanent means that it is directly and permanently transferrable to us. These commands are required of all people in all cultures at all times and will generally look the same in all cultures. An example would be You Shall not Murder (Exodus 20:13).
- A command, situation or principal is Completely Temporary when it refers to an individuals specific not repeatable circumstances. They are not closely connected to the moral and theological center of the Bible. They are not repeated elsewhere in scripture or are revoked at a later time. Completely Temporary means that it completely non-transferrable to us and are not required to be done by anyone else than the original audience. An example would be “Come to me before Winter” (2 Timothy 4:21).
- A command situation or principle is Culturally Permanent when our setting overlaps with the original audience in such a way that the principles will manifest in a similar way in our culture. Where our culture does not overlap only the principle is permanent and the expression will need to be culturally determined. An example of this may be headcoverings in cultures where that expresses submission (1 Corinthians 11:2-16).
- A command situation or principle is Principally Permanent if they pertain to cultural settings that have no overlap with our own but the principles are transferable. An example would be Pauls instructions for modesty in 1 Timothy 2:9.
One of the most important things to watch for as you ask these questions are supracultural indicators and cultural indicators. If the author roots his command deeply in the character of God or theological reasons or if his command transcends his own cultural biases that is a supracultural indicator, a sign that the command is not just to a specific audience but has permanency for all times and cultures. Remember that it may still need to be contextualized.
If the author is dealing with a application that involves a local custom or institution, or a audiences specific situation these may be cultural indicators that would limit the application to other times and audiences. Ask yourself if the command would be an issue today if it weren’t mentioned in the Bible.
Another helpful question is to try and measure the distance between the supracultural (a big theological reason for the command) and the cultural (the command itself). If the distance is great and the command he gives takes a form specific to his audience he may just be giving the cultural expression of a principally permanent command. In other words, it helps to observe the way Paul contextualizes the Bible for his audience.
This series has not provided a process for applying the Bible. Because of the complexities of human culture, as well as the Bible, most attempts at a process will be oversimplified and limiting. Instead I have tried make you a map that sketches out the major features involved in applying the Bible. The journey is one you will have to walk yourself (with the Holy Spirit, and the community of the church of course).
*Note* The four categories above and their definition I found in a book somewhere and I cannot currently remember which one. They’re not my concepts nor have I modified their definition and thus take no credit for their helpfulness.