How can the Bible be accepted as universal when certain aspects of it are obsolete by reason of the ancient cultures out of which it arose? In view of its historical setting, how can it be practical? How can it function as a guide for man today?
There are several factors that must be taken into consideration in addressing this question.
Change Is Inevitable
To be consistent, the person making this objection would be forced to argue that God could never give a written revelation to mankind because history never stands still. Cultural conditions always have been in a state of constant change. And they always will be so.
Thus, according to this argument, any written communication from Heaven would be obsolete in a few years.
The fact of the matter is that if this reasoning were true, all historical documents would be worthless because the modern reader would be unable to understand them due to evolving circumstances.
The question, therefore, has a built-in presumption that reflects upon the very nature of God.
Who Is God?
In order to correctly answer the alleged problem, we must recognize the following facts.
- God exists.
- He is the Creator of humankind.
- He has always had an ideal goal for Adam’s offspring, but humanity, irresponsibly exercising its freedom of choice, rejected that ideal and plunged itself into a state of sin and suffering.
- Out of divine love, a plan for man’s redemption was initiated.
- That plan was revealed progressively across the ages of time.
- From the nature of the case, the record of that purpose has been embedded in human history.
- By his infinite power, the Lord was able to adapt the facts and conditions of his purpose to a universal mode of communication capable of being understood in any era, in spite of the fluctuations of historical circumstances.
Historical Background of the Bible
Much of the Bible has its roots in the land of Canaan. God gave that special parcel of real estate to Abraham and his offspring in preparation for the coming Messiah.
One of the remarkable characteristics of this small territory is its versatility. Palestine has a broad variety of geographical features. There are high mountains like the snowcapped mount Hermon rising almost 10,000 feet. And there is the sweltering Dead Sea area some 1,300 feet below sea level.
The land also hosted a large variety of forests, plants, and animals — both wild and domestic.
This unusual diversity provided a rich library of literary imagery that served to illustrate many spiritual truths. This formed an ideal means of communicating to a wide range of cultures — both ancient and modern.
It is hardly a coincidence that Jehovah chose this region as a preparatory arena for the unfolding of his revelation by means of the Scriptures.
God’s Expectations for Human Understanding
Jesus expected the people of his generation to understand the requirements of Moses’ law, even though that religious system had been initiated fifteen centuries earlier.
For instance, Christ rebuked the Sadducees, charging that they were ignorant of the Scriptures. Then, in establishing his case for the resurrection of the dead, he anchored his argument from a text in the book of Exodus (see Mt. 22:29-30).
It is obvious that the Lord did not endorse the notion that the clarity of the Old Testament documents had been shrouded in obscurity by virtue of the passing of some fifteen centuries. They had not become obsolete by virtue of passing time.
Similarly, Paul declared that:
“Whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that through patience and through the comfort of the scriptures we might have hope” (Rom. 15:4).
He too was oblivious to the modern notion that divine revelation is made obsolete by different cultures and ages. His letter was written to the Romans, not ancient Jews.
Many truths are timelessly transparent, in spite of the culturally grounded language in which they are clustered.
When the Pharisees and scribes saw Jesus extending friendship to sinners and tax collectors, they harshly criticized him (Lk. 15:1-2). And so, in one of his parables the Savior told of a man who had a hundred sheep, one of which wandered into the wilderness and became lost.
With loving concern, the shepherd went after the imperiled creature and tenderly brought it home.
Though most of us are not in the sheep business today, it does not require an advanced degree in animal science to understand the lesson being conveyed.
Who can miss the spiritual point in the parable of the “Good Samaritan” (Lk. 10:25ff), in spite of the fact that the imagery in which the lesson is nestled arises from an environment of twenty centuries ago?
Are the common truths enshrined in Aesop’s fables without value today merely because (presumably) a Greek slave who lived more than 2,500 years ago wrote the composition? Who has so argued?
The charge that the Bible cannot be understood, and therefore is irrelevant today, is without merit. This is but another of those shallow rationalizations that take their rise from the flawed logic of those who seek to avoid responsibility to the Creator.
Such is but a thinly-veiled attempt to fashion a religious system of human flexibility that permits a man to “direct his own steps” (Jer. 10:23).