The issue of cultural relativity—of how we are to resolve the differences between first and 20th-century culture—is an important aspect of the whole hermeneutical debate.
It is frequently claimed that the very process of translation is culturally determined. In the process of translating a particular language (written in a particular time and society) into our own language, everything changes. It is argued that how we apply the Scriptures will depend a great deal on a study of the different cultures and how they relate. For the Eskimos, Christ is the good seal-keeper.
While it may be necessary for novices in the Christian faith to be taught the truths in their own language and context, serious Bible students need to come to terms with the biblical language and context. We may never have seen a shepherd rounding up sheep, yet the imagery of the good shepherd is not terribly difficult to understand.
Furthermore, the eccentricities of biblical culture are all set out for us within the Bible itself. While extra-biblical background material can be helpful in giving us colour and feel for the text, it is not essential for understanding the word of God. Very little of the New Testament is dependent on understanding non-biblical first-century culture. All the information we need is in one spot.
Others point to cultural differences on issues such as slavery, homosexuality and the role of women. Unfortunately, these protestations usually have more to do with the desire to avoid the first-century pattern than with a concern for the truth of God’s word. We can be grateful that we do not have a system of slavery like that of first-century Rome or 18th-century America. However, the Christian cannot believe that slavery is inherently evil and simultaneously accept the Bible’s teaching: in the Old Testament, God not only accepts slavery, but enjoins, establishes and approves of it. Similarly, we may not like war, but the Bible has little support for the pacifist. A Christian may work towards the overthrow of slavery and the cessation of war, but he cannot argue that they are inherently wrong or against the mind and character of God. The Bible often turns our contemporary values and perspectives upside down.
However, the chief area of argument on this subject of culture centres on the inconsistencies of some who seek to live as ‘first-century people’. GD Fee and D Stuart set up this straw man for us:
Frequently there have been some who have tried to reject the idea of cultural relativity altogether, which has led them more or less to argue for a wholesale adoption of First Century culture as the divine norm. But such a rejection is usually only moderately successful. They may keep their daughters at home, deny them advanced education, and have their father arrange for their marriage, but they usually allow them to learn to read and to go out into public without a veil. The point is that it is extremely difficult to be consistent, precisely because there is no such thing as a divinely ordained culture; cultures are in fact different, not only from the first to the twentieth century, but in every conceivable way in the twentieth century itself.
To say we are first-century people is not classify first-century culture as the divine norm. Only certain aspects of first-century culture represent the divine norm—namely, those aspects which the Scriptures teach as the norm. The Bible allows freedom in the area of weddings and marriage contracts, nor does it prohibit women from reading or advanced education. The illustrations don’t come from the New Testament.
In what sense should we be first-century people? The word of God which came to them is the word of God to us, and we must mould our culture and our lifestyle in accordance with it. Within that word there is enormous cultural flexibility and freedom, but we must be flexible where it is flexible, and obedient to its clear commands.