Jesus told the Sadducees that they understood neither Scripture nor the power of God. If “understanding Scripture” is defined as doctrine, then was Jesus putting doctrine not in opposition, but rather in juxtaposition, to the power of God? Was He saying that doctrine needs to be studied to be understood, whereas the power of God is a matter of revelation? We launched this study of doctrine several weeks ago, to try better to understand what Jesus meant.
We’ve learned that doctrine is a body of teachings or beliefs held by a group—a faith group, in our case. We’ve asked if doctrine is a tool of faith or of fear; if doctrine says more about God or more about us; if doctrine influences culture more, or vice versa; and how can we tell what parts of our doctrine—of our teaching, of our beliefs—result from God’s revelation or result from our cultural understanding. It depends on the looking glass through which we view these things.
Is it possible to see God in any way except through the looking glass of culture, to which we seem so inextricably linked? If not, is it possible that God uses culture to reveal Himself? If so, how do we distinguish between what is culture’s and what is God’s?—with respect to the food we may eat, for example:
The Lord spoke again to Moses and to Aaron, saying to them, “Speak to the sons of Israel, saying, ‘These are the creatures which you may eat from all the animals that are on the earth. Whatever divides a hoof, thus making split hoofs, and chews the cud, among the animals, that you may eat. Nevertheless, you are not to eat of these, among those which chew the cud, or among those which divide the hoof: the camel, for though it chews cud, it does not divide the hoof, it is unclean to you. Likewise, the shaphan, for though it chews cud, it does not divide the hoof, it is unclean to you; the rabbit also, for though it chews cud, it does not divide the hoof, it is unclean to you; and the pig, for though it divides the hoof, thus making a split hoof, it does not chew cud, it is unclean to you. You shall not eat of their flesh nor touch their carcasses; they are unclean to you.
‘These you may eat, whatever is in the water: all that have fins and scales, those in the water, in the seas or in the rivers, you may eat. But whatever is in the seas and in the rivers that does not have fins and scales among all the teeming life of the water, and among all the living creatures that are in the water, they are detestable things to you, and they shall be abhorrent to you; you may not eat of their flesh, and their carcasses you shall detest. Whatever in the water does not have fins and scales is abhorrent to you.
‘These, moreover, you shall detest among the birds; they are abhorrent, not to be eaten: the eagle and the vulture and the buzzard, and the kite and the falcon in its kind, every raven in its kind, and the ostrich and the owl and the sea gull and the hawk in its kind, and the little owl and the cormorant and the great owl, and the white owl and the pelican and the carrion vulture, and the stork, the heron in its kinds, and the hoopoe, and the bat.
‘All the winged insects that walk on all fours are detestable to you. Yet these you may eat among all the winged insects which walk on all fours: those which have above their feet jointed legs with which to jump on the earth. These of them you may eat: the locust in its kinds, and the devastating locust in its kinds, and the cricket in its kinds, and the grasshopper in its kinds. But all other winged insects which are four-footed are detestable to you.
‘By these, moreover, you will be made unclean: whoever touches their carcasses becomes unclean until evening, and whoever picks up any of their carcasses shall wash his clothes and be unclean until evening. Concerning all the animals which divide the hoof but do not make a split hoof, or which do not chew cud, they are unclean to you: whoever touches them becomes unclean. Also whatever walks on its paws, among all the creatures that walk on all fours, are unclean to you; whoever touches their carcasses becomes unclean until evening, and the one who picks up their carcasses shall wash his clothes and be unclean until evening; they are unclean to you.
‘Now these are to you the unclean among the swarming things which swarm on the earth: the mole, and the mouse, and the great lizard in its kinds, and the gecko, and the crocodile, and the lizard, and the sand reptile, and the chameleon. These are to you the unclean among all the swarming things; whoever touches them when they are dead becomes unclean until evening. Also anything on which one of them may fall when they are dead becomes unclean, including any wooden article, or clothing, or a skin, or a sack—any article of which use is made—it shall be put in the water and be unclean until evening, then it becomes clean. As for any earthenware vessel into which one of them may fall, whatever is in it becomes unclean and you shall break the vessel. Any of the food which may be eaten, on which water comes, shall become unclean, and any liquid which may be drunk in every vessel shall become unclean. Everything, moreover, on which part of their carcass may fall becomes unclean; an oven or a stove shall be smashed; they are unclean and shall continue as unclean to you. Nevertheless a spring or a cistern collecting water shall be clean, though the one who touches their carcass shall be unclean. If a part of their carcass falls on any seed for sowing which is to be sown, it is clean. Though if water is put on the seed and a part of their carcass falls on it, it is unclean to you.
‘Also if one of the animals dies which you have for food, the one who touches its carcass becomes unclean until evening. He too, who eats some of its carcass shall wash his clothes and be unclean until evening, and the one who picks up its carcass shall wash his clothes and be unclean until evening.
‘Now every swarming thing that swarms on the earth is detestable, not to be eaten. Whatever crawls on its belly, and whatever walks on all fours, whatever has many feet, in respect to every swarming thing that swarms on the earth, you shall not eat them, for they are detestable. Do not render yourselves detestable through any of the swarming things that swarm; and you shall not make yourselves unclean with them so that you become unclean. For I am the Lord your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy. And you shall not make yourselves unclean with any of the swarming things that swarm on the earth. For I am the Lord who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your God; thus you shall be holy, for I am holy.’”
This is the law regarding the animal and the bird, and every living thing that moves in the waters and everything that swarms on the earth, to make a distinction between the unclean and the clean, and between the edible creature and the creature which is not to be eaten. (Leviticus 11)
Against that, we have:
Then some Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do Your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.” And He answered and said to them, “Why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and, ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say, ‘Whoever says to his father or mother, “Whatever I have that would help you has been given to God,” he is not to honor his father or his mother.’ And by this you invalidated the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you:
‘This people honors Me with their lips,
But their heart is far away from Me.
‘But in vain do they worship Me,
Teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’”
After Jesus called the crowd to Him, He said to them, “Hear and understand. It is not what enters into the mouth that defiles the man, but what proceeds out of the mouth, this defiles the man.”
Then the disciples came and said to Him, “Do You know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this statement?” But He answered and said, “Every plant which My heavenly Father did not plant shall be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if a blind man guides a blind man, both will fall into a pit.” (Matthew 15:1-14)
So are prohibitions on the food we may eat cultural prohibitions or a revelation from God? What about prohibitions on sexual behavior?…
“If a man is found lying with a married woman, then both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman, and the woman; thus you shall purge the evil from Israel.
“If there is a girl who is a virgin engaged to a man, and another man finds her in the city and lies with her,then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city and you shall stone them to death; the girl, because she did not cry out in the city, and the man, because he has violated his neighbor’s wife. Thus you shall purge the evil from among you. (Deuteronomy 22:22-24)
On the other hand…
But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.Early in the morning He came again into the temple, and all the people were coming to Him; and He sat down and began to teach them.The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery, and having set her in the center of the court,they said to Him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in adultery, in the very act.Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women; what then do You say?”They were saying this, testing Him, so that they might have grounds for accusing Him. But Jesus stooped down and with His finger wrote on the ground.But when they persisted in asking Him, He straightened up, and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”Again He stooped down and wrote on the ground.When they heard it, they began to go out one by one, beginning with the older ones, and He was left alone, and the woman, where she was, in the center of the court.Straightening up, Jesus said to her, “Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?”She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more.”] (John 8:1-11)
Again, is this a matter of culture or of revelation? In Jesus’ response we see an interpretation apparently completely different from the teachings of the Old Testament. There are more examples, such as the matter of baptism by immersion—the ritual washing away of sin. How are desert-dwellers to be baptized by immersion in that rarest of desert commodities? Whence do Eskimos in the Arctic obtain the bread and wine for holy communion? Are baptism and communion matters of culture or of revelation?
The Maasai god Ngai exists in two forms. Ngai Narok, who represents the good. He is black. Ngai Nanyoke, the other form, represents evil, and is red. (The Maasai are said to have originated in the Nile delta, where the good god Osiris, who was black, battled the evil god Seth, who was red and white.)
“The Maasai have also built their spirituality around their pastoral way of life, through the omnipresence of their cows. For them, Ngai has gifted them with cows, which He-She sent from the sky, making them descend from a long rope. To the Maasai, therefore, cows are the link between them and God. Drinking the milk of a cow and eating its flesh is seen as a communion with the Creator, a highly spiritual act. Even though we will not believe in a descent of cows from the sky, it still shows the degree to which the pastoral way of life has deeply influenced the thoughts of the Maasai.” (The religion of the Maasai)
Is it troubling to face the possibility that much of our doctrine may be cultural, rather than divine, in origin? That much of what we believe, teach, and practice may not be right for all people of all times, everywhere? Is it possible? Is it even likely that it is God’s plan to reveal Himself to us through culture? How else can we hope to see God, if not through the lens of our individual cultural context? If doctrine should be timeless, then how do we make it so? What parts of our doctrines are timeless and not culture-bound?
Donald: Do we ever try to appreciate cultures that are not ours? Do we ever consider blending our cultures?
Jay: How do we show obedience without doctrine, which tells us how to act in very specific ways? Is this culture-bound? Every culture has norms concerning obedience. How much does a culture’s desire to be obedient to God shape its doctrines?
Robin: The food laws given in Leviticus are presented as revelation from God, through Moses, not as culture.
David: Obedience is at the heart of Confucianism. Confucius extended the principle of filial piety (whereby the family is to follow the father in all decisions and look to him for guidance and wisdom) to the organization of government: The individual household owes obedience to the local ruler who must in turn obey those above him, all the way up to the emperor. Confucianism has been turned into a minor religion (and Confucius into a minor god), with temples dotted throughout China, but it remains in essence largely what it started out as: A philosophy. The same is true of Daoism.
Some people indeed can’t help but religionize philosophy, but as a whole, Chinese culture—representing a quarter of the world’s population—does not fundamentally have a tradition of obedience to a disembodied deity. Confucianism is not much concerned with spirit or spirituality. Other cultures around the world have commingled philosophy with spiritualism, but what is notable (in my observation, having lived among them for a decade and speaking their language) is that the Chinese on the whole are no better and no worse than anyone else, in terms of their propensities for love, mercy, and grace.
Therefore, I must question the need for a religion to provide doctrines telling us how to behave. I don’t question the need for a culture to build rules of obedience, simply but vitally to maintain order in society. But for an individual undertaking a spiritual journey, rules of behavior are stifling, and risk snuffing out the inner light—the only reliable source of rules of behavior.
Dr. Singh: Paul set an example for Christians. He tried to appeal to people’s social and cultural backgrounds. He held that Jewish culture was not binding on Gentiles who were willing followers of Christ. He wrote:
To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law;to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law.To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some. (1 Corinthians 9:20-22)
Donald: I know a young woman undertaking a spiritual journey in what she feels is a troubled world today. I was spared this as a young Adventist, growing up in a world and a set of behaviors we accepted as the norm. Whether it was cultural or religious, it was just the way we were, the way we practiced our faith. There were things we did do and things we didn’t do on Sabbath. They were clearly defined and well specified. To the outsider, they might not have made much sense. Some of us look back on those times and ways with a tender smile, but some (even Adventists) are beginning to question them as time-bound dogma. Time and Life magazines were our window on the world. We learned about other cultures through them and mission stories. That time has gone; its easy-to-navigate single-lane highway replaced by a dizzying multi-lane superhighway. It’s harder to stay in lane.
David: Of all the Scriptures quoted today, the story of the adulteress in John 8 seems to me to be the most telling. Jesus told the woman, after successfully convincing the murderous crowd to examine their own consciences, to “Go and sin no more.” He was saying: “It’s up to you. The sin is in you, and the knowledge that it contravenes God’s law, is in you.” The starkly clear implication, to both the woman and the crowd, was that Jewish law was wrong.
Dr. Singh: My father was shunned sometimes by his family and neighbors when he became a Christian. They expected him once, for example, as the village elder, to decide on which Hindu temple they should attend, and he refused.
Mikiko: In Japan, people don’t believe in resurrection. One of my relatives got angry when I became a Christian.
Jay: Has God said to specific people at specific times things that are not timeless and universal? For example, was the revelation to Moses about what foods to eat intended only for those people at that time? I am wondering because there are passages in the Bible where God told someone to go and kill entire populations—men, women, and children. If a prophet were to announce today that God had directed the slaughter of women and children, what is the likelihood that the prophet would be believed? We consider Paul to be one of the greatest evangelists of all time, who was prepared to compromise anything for the sake of spreading the Gospel—except the Gospel itself, wherein lay the true timeless, culture-free Word.
It’s easy to make doctrine out of something that supposedly comes from the mouth of God if it fits with our current cultural biases—such as diet, for example. But a vegetarian diet would hardly meet the cultural biases of the ice-bound Eskimo.
Dr. Singh: Once, an entire Hindu family was prepared to convert to Adventist. After months of preparation, the day of conversion arrived. The head of the family ask for one last cup of tea before the conversion ceremony, and was refused. He therefore withdrew his family from conversion, because of this narrow-minded strictness.
Don: Does God use culture? Must He use culture? Can the inner light be effective without culture?
David: That the Chinese are no different to the rest of the world in listening to the inner light—in being fundamentally good—strongly suggests that it can. Christians have a huge problem in having to put the law of Moses—dietary restrictions, murderous looting and pillaging, and all—ahead of the inner light. Yet Christ Himself implied—gently but firmly, to the adulteress and her persecutors—that the law of God revealed by the inner light, the conscience, is all that matters. So yes, it is not just possible but even, in my view, essential that a relationship with God and the ability to distinguish between right and wrong be entirely outside the trappings of culture.
Jesus gave us just two fundamental commandments to live by: Love God and love your neighbor. Since by loving your neighbor you automatically love God, there is really only one rule: The Golden Rule, which (Wikipedia tells me) was enshrined in the Code of Hammurabi nearly two thousand years before Christ. The God of Christ (as opposed to the Christian God) would surely be pleased for the Christian to participate in Moslem and Jewish and religious Daoist worship rituals as a way of expressing love for one’s Moslem and Jewish and Daoist neighbors.
Anonymous: Some cultural doctrines are close to the Bible. All must surely have roots in some ancient Scripture. The Bible has had a strong influence on Middle Eastern culture. Morality is a deeply held principle; its contravention punishable by death. Its roots are in the Bible. The Bible stresses that instruction about God should take place continually, all day long, as the only way to preserve God’s Word. We gave the job to churches and schools, and are not adhering to the rule. And the world is a mess.
So when God says to do something like kill others, however hard it may be for us to understand, we must accept that He has a purpose; that He wants to preserve the faith, to prevent dilution by idol worshipers. I am sure God is far more just and merciful than I am, and had we followed His words exactly, we would not be in this mess, There would be no other gods to confuse us, no modern Babylon such as we are now living in. His instructions are very simple, and specific, and to the point. Why don’t we follow them? It’s too late now. Thousands of years have elapsed. God set the base for us to be always with Him. That would be the easiest way: “Follow me. Do what I say.”
David: The absolutely critical question then becomes: “What does God say?” The terrorist sends out little girls with suicide vests strapped around them into the busy marketplace on the strength of what God purportedly said, of protecting and preserving the one true God. Is the terrorist doing nothing wrong? Would Jesus strap bombs on little girls to slaughter them and other innocents?
Anonymous: It does hinge on the belief of the individual. If a person believes a doctrine is from God, then s/he is guilty if s/he does not follow it. If I can pick and choose between the doctrines I like and those I don’t, then all is confused. It’s all or nothing. To make exceptions is to say that one is smarter or more merciful than God, or a better interpreter of God’s Word than the Bible. If we had obeyed God’s Word since the days of Moses then we would not be in this mess right now, getting further and further from God.
Robin: In Eden, there was one man and one woman. So how do men get around that? They said: “I will marry any woman for whom I have lust.” They ended up with hundreds of wives, plus a few concubines. Even Solomon and David. How is that not adultery? This is men interjecting what they thought God really meant.
Anonymous: But the Bible never said at that time: “Do not marry more than one.” It was OK, and what made it OK was our culture, going further and further from the word of God. Maybe it’s because we started paying attention to our feelings and how that hurts. We created another rule, according to our feelings and convenience and viewpoint. But the Bible is not like this at all. The Bible is very clear, specific, and easy to follow, if only we would do it. It says that if someone comes to you and tells you that there is another God, you must kill him and have no mercy. It could even be your son or your mother! But if it saves an entire congregation for eternity, is that not a sacrifice worth making? It would preserve the pure God.
David: It would preserve the cultural God that we have made. When it comes to clarity, is it likely that the adulteress whom Jesus saved from stoning was confused by what He said to her—that she had sinned, but not because of anything God told Moses? The message I get is that the woman was not in the least confused; that her eyes were opened.
Dr. Singh: Mohamed and Solomon had many wives. Ecclesiastes tells the story. God loves everyone, that’s why He sent Jesus to us.
Anonymous: Paul said that where sin abounds, grace abounds much more. Grace is not a cover-up for sin. It’s a way to bring people back from their sinful life. Otherwise there’s no point to it. He forgave the adulteress and from that point on she stopped being a prostitute.
David: We don’t know that. She was human.
Anonymous: We are always prone to sin.
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