Friday, July 20, 2012

Bad Hermeneutics: Culture and Custom in Corinth

Because of my ongoing dealings about the book The Harbinger I've begun listening to an audio series on Reformed hermeneutics to be sure I'm not missing something. I've heard only the introductory lecture so far.

The reason I'm mentioning it here is that anong other principles of interpretation the speaker refers to the need to understand the cultural context in order to properly interpret some parts of the Bible, and two instances are mentioned, the Book of Ruth and the passage about the head covering in First Corinthians.

That's all that was said. Clearly the speaker accepts the interpretation of that passage by Thomas Schreiner, which is also accepted by John MacArthur and Alister Begg and others. Perhaps it will come up again in the course of the study but meanwhile I felt like responding briefly.

The Book of Ruth describes some customs that were practiced in Israel over three thousand years ago, concerning inheritance, kinship rights and proposal of marriage. To understand fully what is happening between Ruth and Naomi, Ruth and Boaz, and Boaz and other kinsmen to Ruth, it is good (but not essential to the significance of the story) to know something about these customs. We can understand the point of the story without knowing about the customs, we can get instruction in faithfulness for one thing, and we can understand that by marrying Boaz the Moabitess Ruth became one of the progenitors of Jesus Christ, which is the essential reason for the story's being included in the canon, all this without knowing anything about the customs. If we DO know something about them, however, then our understanding of the Messiah's kinship with the believer may be deepened.

But what does a knowledge of customs in Corinth some thousand-plus years later contribute to understanding 1 Corinthians 11:2-16? Supposedly it sheds light on Paul's exhortations that women are to cover their heads when praying and prophesying.

Unlike the Book of Ruth which describes certain customs of the time, no custom is identified in the head covering passage itself as a Corinthian custom. This is a notion that is imposed on it from completely extrabiblical sources.

But the idea that there is an identifiable Corinthian custom of head covering is false anyway (See page at top of this blog for a discussion of ancient dress customs by Michael Marlowe, or go to his site: The Bible Researcher)The interpretation about custom is a lot of mental conjuring really, not anything that deserves to be regarded as a valid hermeneutical approach. There simply was no consistent custom of head covering in Corinth among the Greeks or the Romans. Yet this completely made-up scheme is how the idea of the woman's covering the head became understood as a mere expression of the custom of the time and is supposed to be the basis of Paul's exhortation to cover the head. So because of this notion we get vague recommendations that women are merely to appear "feminine" according to our own customs, which in practical terms means nobody really takes Paul's teaching seriously at all. If all this nonsense derived from Thomas Schreiner's article/chapter on the subject, he's sadly guilty of misleading the churches.

(Just in case: When I find fault with some Christian leader's thinking on a particular subject I NEVER intend to imply anything against the man himself or his Christian character in relation to that topic. I have no reason to doubt that Dr. Schreiner is an excellent gospel teacher and a godly man. I'm only talking about this one article of his where things went very wrong. On this subject of the head covering I kept being amazed at how many of the best and best-known Christian teachers were getting it wrong, and yet that observation was never intended to cast doubt on them personally.)

I also find it interesting that this completely made-up tale about the meaning of the head covering may be preached in a church today in which many of the women, having come out of other churches, are practicing the other common misinterpretation of the passage, that long hair is the head covering, yet neither false idea is given up for the other.