Limits Of Cultural Interpretation -- By: J. Robertson Mcquilkin

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 23:2 (Jun 1980)
Article: Limits Of Cultural Interpretation
Author: J. Robertson Mcquilkin


Limits Of Cultural Interpretation

J. Robertson Mcquilkin*

The task of bridging the gap between the distant world of the Biblical writers and the contemporary world is not new. It has always been important for any who would understand the meaning of the Bible to study the context in which a passage was written. With the exception of many who seek a mystical meaning other than the natural meaning of the text, all interpreters seek a clear understanding of the Bible by studying the context of the author. Not only the historic or physical setting but study into the cultural and the religious context of the author and that of those whom he addressed has always been of great importance in understanding the author’s meaning.

Again, the purpose of all authentic interpreters of Scripture has been to apply the meaning to the present situation. In order to do this effectively it has been necessary to understand the context of the contemporary reader or hearer. For the one who seeks to communicate Biblical truth to people in a culture other than his own, a study of the cultural context of the recipient is of utmost importance.

The study of culture is in this way very important to both interpreting and applying Scripture. But since there is a variety of approaches to the use of culture, the end result varies greatly from interpreter to interpreter. Are there guidelines for the use of cultural “tools”? Before addressing this question, let me begin with some definitions of terms as I will be using them.

“Culture” may be defined as follows:

An integrated system of learned behavior patterns that are characteristic of the members of any given society. Culture refers to the total way of life of particular groups of people. It includes everything that a group of people thinks, says, does, and makes—its customs, language, material artifacts and shared systems of attitudes and feelings. Culture is learned and transmitted from generation to generation. By this definition, we can see that a particular culture would consist of at least the following: Manners, customs, beliefs, ceremonies, rituals, laws (written and unwritten), ideas and thought patterns, language, arts and artifacts, tools, social institutions, religious beliefs, myths and legends, knowledge, values, concept of self, morals, ideals and accepted ways of behaving. In short, culture is the total way of life of any group of people.1

It is apparent that this broad definition of culture includes the language used to express meaning. Therefore some knowledge of the other elements of a culture is necessary to understand the meaning of the words themselves. It is impossible to interpret the meaning of words, then, apart from the cultural context in which they are spoken...

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