Does Culture Influence Theology?
Updated: Jul 3, 2021
Back in Mark 7 Jesus debated with the Pharisees and scribes about tradition and what actually made a person “unclean.” Jesus redefined clean and unclean saying that it was not external contagion that they should worry about, but an internal contagion – contagion of the heart called sin. Therefore, mere external separation from things that defiled a person were ineffective in cleansing a person.
As though to illustrate this truth, Mark then records a number of events that illustrate how faith in God (not separation from anything unclean) cleansed people – even Gentiles – and brought them from being outsiders with no hope, to insiders with hope. Naturally, those at the lowest segment of society (like Gentiles, women, the blind, mute and children) had the most to gain from this radical departure from traditional Pharisaical teaching of Clean and Unclean. And likewise, it was the Pharisees at the top of the power structures of society that had the most to lose.
The disciples were in the middle – confused as ever. At the heart of their misunderstanding was the thought that Jesus was aiming for a political/military kingdom. They wanted to share in his power and authority (and prestige too I’m sure). So, when Jesus announced three times that he’s going to suffer, be killed and then rise from the dead – they literally have no ability to comprehend what he is saying (Mark 8-10). Such a statement went against everything they had ever read and everything they had ever been taught. That’s why Peter actually rebukes Jesus!
Even after Jesus clearly told the disciples 3 times that he would suffer, be killed, and rise from the dead, they didn’t get it.
When did they figure it out? When Jesus was hanging on the cross? Nope. After Jesus was crucified what does Peter do? Does he, in anticipation of the resurrection, gather the disciples and eagerly review the multiple miracles and other evidence that Jesus was the Messiah, review the multiple statements that Jesus would be killed and rise from the dead? No, Peter went home sad, and locked the door (John 20).
So, when did they finally figure it out? The resurrection. When Jesus rose from the dead, they finally figured it out. At least most of them. Matthew records that “some doubted.” I secretly wonder if they were still hoping for a political kingdom, even after the resurrection, but that’s for another time.
I’m so intrigued by the inability of the disciples to see what was literally right in front of them. How did that happen? Their culture shaped their vision of who Jesus was and what he was aiming to accomplish more than an unbiased reading of the OT did. They read OT passages of the Messiah in their context of political oppression. They didn’t need to look far to find a fulfillment of Messianic passages that promised reunification, national independence and victory over Jewish oppressors.
Of course, this makes me wonder about how we read scripture. Have you ever wondered how our culture has influenced our interpretation of scripture? Or, of all people in all places are we the ones to finally get it all right? I don’t think so.
Objectivity may be ultimately elusive, but we are still responsible to pursue it in our study of scripture.
How? Study scripture. Don’t just fly through it. Slow down, dig into it. Look stuff up. Ask questions. Struggle. Wonder. Wrestle. Grow in truth. And Grace.