Millard Erickson says that when we seek the Bible truth, it is important "to identify the timeless truths, the essence of the doctrines, and to separate them from the temporal form in which they were expressed, so that a new form may be created." (Christian Theology, vol.1)
To identify the criteria of permanence and to separate it from the temporal form is indeed crucial. However, the problem which I am facing is, then; how can I do that?
For example, when I was reading the history of Moravian Brethren, I realized that they had been practicing the practice of foot-washing in John 13 as a binding command for all Christians. (*The Moravian Church practiced Foot Washing until 1818. source)
And until today, different denominations interpret this practice in different ways. Some think that it involves the criteria of permanence but others think that it does not so we don't need to practice it today.
Though I am both convinced and advocating the teaching of headcovering in 1 Corinthians 11, I've come to be more aware that the issue of "principle" and "custom" is not so simplistic as I used to think.
And thus, I've come to have much more understanding and deeper sympathy for our brothers and sisters who do not take the same position as I do. Now I can imagine that the hesitancy or carefulness which our "cultural-view" brethren possess is something similar to my hesitancy or carefulness toward the foot-washing teaching and practice.
Dr. R.C. Sproul, an advocate of headcovering for Christian women today, also admits that this issue of "principle" and "custom" is not so simple and says as follow;
"Unless we conclude that all of Scripture is principle and thus binding on all people of all ages, or that all Scripture is local custom with no relevance beyond its immediate historical context, we are forced to establish some categories and guidelines for discerning the difference.
To illustrate the problem let’s see what happens when we hold that everything in Scripture is principle and nothing merely a reflection of local custom. If that is the case, then some radical changes must be made in evangelism if we are going to be obedient to Scripture. Jesus says, “Carry no money belt, no bag, no shoes; and greet no one on the way” (Lk 10:4). If we make this text a transcultural principle, then it is time for all evangelists to start preaching in their bare feet! Obviously, the point of this text is not to set down a perennial requirement of barefooted evangelism.
Other matters, however, are not so obvious. Christians remain divided, for example, on the foot-washing rite (see Jn 13:3-17). Is this a perpetual mandate for the church of all ages or a local custom illustrating a principle of humble servanthood? Does the principle remain and the custom vanish in a shoe-wearing culture? Or does the custom remain with the principle regardless of foot apparel?"
Head Covering and Hermeneutics (An Excerpt from “Knowing Scripture” by R.C. Sproul)
So, how can we locate and identify this permanent element or essence? M. Erickson suggests that there are a number of criteria by which the permanent factors or the essence of the doctrine may be identified: (1) constancy across cultures, (2) universal setting, (3) a recognized permanent factor as a base, (4) indissoluble link with an experience regarded as essential, and (5) final position within progressive revelation (p.121)
When we look around our Christian world and see the varieties and differences among ourselves in terms of teaching and practice, we realize that a part of the causes is due to our different stance/view toward the above criteria which Erickson refers.
He also mentions something which made me pause and think.
"In doing all of this, we must be careful to recognize that our understanding and interpretation are influenced by our own circumstances in history, lest we mistakenly identify the form in which we state a biblical teaching with its permanent essence. If we fail to recognize this, we will absolutize our form, and be unable to update it when the situation changes." (p124)
Yes, there is a certain gulf or gap between our culture /language and biblical times. In this sense, I don't really oppose Rachel Held Evans who says;
"...often, when we say that something is “biblical” (meaning “what God wants”), we will find that our conclusions reflect a blending of biblical content, conscience, cultural assumptions and theological commitments. And that’s OK—as long as we admit it."
-Rachel Held Evans, What Does"Biblical" Really Mean?
However, I am quite cautious about this kind of postmodern Christian thinking as well. That's because if we start to push forward our thinking like she does, where does it lead us eventually? Yes, sooner or later, we would find ourselves in a swamp of moderate agnosticism, skepticism, relativism and the denial of absolute truth.
So, in this skeptic postmodern climate, we need to seek the biblical understanding of "knowing." Regarding this subject, D.A. Carson remarks as follow;
"A recent book by Esther Meek offers thoughtful criticism of both merely rationalist approaches to knowledge, and of the postmodern drift toward skepticism, but ends up with a complex epistemology that is full of hope and joyful knowing.
On the other hand, she critiques the common Western stance in which "people think that knowledge has to be something you are sure of, that can't be wrong, or it isn't knowledge," which finally makes the verb "know" and its cognates "a success word: when we use it we imply that we were successful at getting the truth right." The quest for truth rapidly becomes a quest for infallibility and absolute certainty.
The result, as Talbot puts it in his useful review of Meek, is this: "Classical and modern philosophy both cycle from an initial state of skepticism through some proposal for attaining certainty back to skepticism as the result of the proposal's failure to deliver."
In this light, postmodernism is merely the "newest capitulation to skepticism" when it claims there is "no absolute truth, no metanarrative, no single grand story, no single way-things-are."
But by adopting a more modest stance regarding what is required to speak of the human capacity to know, and by recognizing the plethora of faculties, sensibilities, integrations, and cultural realities that go into all human knowing, it remains entirely appropriate to speak of human knowing." (D.A. Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited, p.92-93)
M.Erickson also illustrates the constancy across cultures;
"One illustration of constancy across cultures is the principle of sacrificial atonement, and with it the rejection of any type of works-righteousness. We find this principle present in the Old Testament sacrificial system. We also find it in the New Testament teaching regarding the atoning death of Christ. Another example is the centrality of belief in Jesus Christ, which spans any gap between Jew and Gentile. Peter preached it at Pentecost in Jerusalem to Jews from various cultures. Paul declared it in a Gentile setting to the Philippian jailer (Acts 16:3 1)" (Millard. J. Erickson, Christian Theology, p.121)
So, if then, there is a constancy of biblical teaching across several settings, we may well be in possession of a genuine cultural constant or the essence of the doctrine and that, though imperfectly, we can know it and cherish it by His merciful help!
FAR in the Heavens my God retires:
My God, the mark of my desires,
And hides his lovely face;
When he descends within my view,
He charms my reason to pursue,
But leaves it tir'd and fainting in th' unequal chase.
Or if I reach unusual height
Till near his presence brought,
There floods of glory check my flight,
Cramp the bold pinions of my wit,
And all untune my thought;
Plunged in a sea of light I roll,
Where wisdom, justice, mercy, shines;
Infinite rays in crossing lines
Beat thick confusion on my sight, and overwhelm my soul....
Great God! behold my reason lies
Adoring: yet my love would rise
On pinions not her own:
Faith shall direct her humble flight,
Through all the trackless seas of light,
To Thee, th' Eternal Fair, the infinite Unknown.
--Isaac Watts, The Incomprehensible