Note: This article was written before my conversion to Orthodoxy.
For this commandment which I command you today is not too difficult for you, nor is it out of reach. (Deut 30:11)
A Simple and Consistent Hermeneutic
A topic of great interest to me is how we should read Scripture, a topic I touched on before. I don’t think interpreting the Bible is overly complicated or something that needs a background in epistemology or philosophy. Most importantly, everyone needs guidance from the Holy Spirit to do so properly.
It stands to reason that the way we should read the Bible, presuming that it is really God breathed, should be internally consistent. This means that whatever conclusion we come to, it must not contradict something else expressed in Scripture. Better yet, whatever is expressed in Scripture, it should all be in support of our conclusions that we derive from one passage or another.
Not coincidentally, when we stick to this path, very different people can come to identical conclusions over a period of two thousand years. Further, when we stray from this tried and true approach, we get divisions and disagreements.
Applying this to 1 Corinthians chapters 11 to 14, and the topic of head coverings more specifically
While some parts of Scripture are poetry (Song of Solomon), allegory (apocalyptic literature), or apply to strict historical contexts (God’s command to kill all the Canaanites), others are much plainer. The ten commandments, for example, are stuff that people should do. Psalm 14:3, when it says, “There is none who does good, not even one,” means what it says. Inconsistent exegetes give themselves the task of taking plain passages, such as 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 (which plainly say that those who make a lifestyle of things such as drunkenness, perversion, theft, and the like will not inherit the Kingdom of God) and trying to argue that they apply only to the Corinthian church or a peculiar historical context.
Whenever we make such an exegesis, we have to be very careful, because first and foremost the Bible speaks in generalities that tend to be applicable to all people and second, there are often clues in the text that make it specific if a narrow or wide audience is intended.
For example, in Titus 1:12 Paul states, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” Clearly, we know of the audience he is speaking of. Whether or not the rest of mankind meets this criteria, for Paul’s opinion read Romans 3:10.
Now, an astute exegete will notice that 1 Corinthians 11 to 14 has several indications that Paul, though addressing the Corinthians, intends his directions here to apply to everyone.
First, he starts the whole section saying, “Now I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you” (1 Cor 11:2). For something to be a “tradition” delivered to a third party, we already know that the “tradition” is a body of knowledge that exists outside of, and therefore is applicable to, those outside that third party. Further, “tradition” connotes a large degree of importance, especially that it is praiseworthy to “hold firmly” to it.
Second, if the implications inherent in the language pertaining to holding firm to traditions is not convincing enough, Paul makes it even more explicit in verse 16: “But if one is inclined to be contentious, we have no other practice, nor have the churches of God.” Paul does not say “nor have the churches of God for now” or “in Greece” or any other qualifying phrase or context in which the commandment is given. If this is the case, how can we not interpret the command to be important and to be followed as a matter of obedience?
When Paul moves on to discuss the Lord’s Supper, he does this not only building upon what he just said about head coverings, he makes clear that what he is teaching is received directly from God: “For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you…” (1 Cor 11:23). Not coincidentally, Christians not only quote Paul word-for-word when doing this church ordinance, they also stick to using bread and some sort of “wine.”
You don’t see churches using nachos and Pepsi, because the simple interpretation is if that’s the way Jesus done it then, that’s how we should do it now. Further, there is no indication in the text that this is supposed to change. Lastly, we just have a few verses before telling us to “hold firm” to “traditions,” so we know Paul had in mind more than one.
So, it is praiseworthy to hold to the Lord’s Supper in its traditional sense. However, I find it quite odd that we use such a heremeneutic and apply the necessity of holding firm to traditions such as the Lord’s Supper that were universal in the churches of God during the Apostolic Era, but ignore the whole issue of head coverings, which is ordained with an identical, if not more explicit, reasoning. There is no other conclusion that we can reach other than the exegete who presumes head coverings don’t apply anymore is employing an inconsistent heremeneutic, contradicting himself within the same chapter.
When we move on to chapters 12 to 14 when Paul talks about spiritual gifts and their role in church order, most people would agree that people should not be speaking in different languages over each other without interpreters and that there should be a strong emphasis on church order. Very few would argue this was applicable only to the Corinthian church.
There is good reason for this. First, the chapter follows up a discussion where Paul praised the church for holding firm to traditions. So, that likely applies here. Further, Paul states, “Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it” (1 Cor 12:27). Christ’s body does not end in Corinth or in the first century, so we know that what Paul is saying here applies to all of Christ’s body.
Again, I find it very curious that we can look at 1 Corinthians 11, see that Paul says that the traditions there apply to the whole household of God, which is Christ’s body, but then arbitrarily make one ordinance universally applicable at all times and the other not.
Paul ends his discussion on church ordinances by saying, “But all things must be done properly and in an orderly manner” (1 Corinthians 14:40). It is not coincidental that prophesy and tongues were brought up within the context of the universally applicable church order, that things may be done in the proper place and the proper way. Further, the Lord’s Supper was discussed in such terms. Lastly, head coverings were also discussed in such a fashion!
So, my challenge is to the exegete who thinks that the head covering issue does not apply today: show to me how your hermeneutic is consistent in these passages. On what consistent basis do you differentiate the universality of these ordinances?
Why is this important?
Without a consistent hermeneutic, the Gospel at any point can be thrown into doubt.
“There is no one righteous, not one” so we need the righteousness available to us in Christ. “No,” someone responds. “Romans 3 only talks about unbelievers/atheists/Jews/gentiles/whatever.” I respond, “How can we make sense of Psalm 14:2 when it says, ‘The Lord has looked down from heaven upon the sons of men to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God.’ Aren’t we all sons of men?”
“Salvation comes only by faith in Christ and faith in Christ comes only from preaching,” I might say. “No,” someone responds. “Christ died for the sins of the whole world! That means everyone must be saved.” But I respond, “Doesn’t the Scripture say, ‘Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher?” This leaves no room to be saved apart from faith in Christ, especially when He says, ‘No one comes to the Father except through me.'”
Consistent hermenutics guarantee that we get the full message of God, which is the revelation of His righteousness to unrighteous men such as us, in His Son Jesus Christ. Get sloppy on one point, such as head coverings or the Lord’s Supper, and then we get sloppy on sin and ultimately the Fount of our salvation, Christ the Lord.
Personally, I use a relational hermeneutic when interpreting scripture. Particularly when examining commands (Old Covenant or New), I ask which relationship the command governs, what state the relationship is in when the command isn’t fulfilled, what state the relationship is in when the command is fulfilled, and how the command causes the fulfilled state to be closer to shalom than the unfulfilled state. In terms of applying it to modern life, I then examine which of my relationships are analogous to the ones being governed by the command, examine what states would be analogous to the unfulfilled and fulfilled commands of scripture, and what change would be required to achieve the same outcome as the scriptural command.
There are some commands that obviously apply without modification, because my current relationship is more than just analogous, it’s identical (e.g. my relationship with God pre-salvation requiring repentance and Baptism). In the case of head coverings for women, the reading I’ve done strongly suggests that this was culturally a way of indicating marital status in the era. For women today, because this cultural practice has lost its meaning, the command would be meaningless if applied directly (although not necessarily wrong if a woman felt her conscience demanded it, in the vein of Romans 14:13-23). However, I would say that in a modern context, this command could be considered binding in the sense that a woman should wear a wedding ring and take her husband’s surname, because they are the analogous societal indicators of marriage.
(I will add as a post-script that a relational hermeneutic sounds like something that could result in a liberal theology, but this need not be the case. Liberal theology would arise, for the most part, if one attempts to explain why there is no problem with the current state of one’s relationships, or at least the ones that would be uncomfortable to change. If one accepts that a lot of their relationships will be in a fallen state because of sin, and is prepared to see those relationships change, a relational hermeneutic will result in a theology that is very much orthodox)
I believe the key to hermenutics is internal consistency. If an interpretation at any point abrogates or contradicts something else is Scripture, it cannot be correct.
One historical detail worth bringing up:
“In the case of head coverings for women, the reading I’ve done strongly suggests that this was culturally a way of indicating marital status in the era.”
I am not sure what you are reading, because secular ancient historians, with no doctrinal bones to pick, are pretty unanimous that people in different cultures in ancient had different styles (imagine that!). I remember reading that even in Greece that though the dominant style was probably covering the head, it was not expected as a matter of proper decorum. Ancient Greek pottery, which shows plenty of women with uncovered heads in varying contexts, attests to this fact though like anything in ancient history with a very low degree of certainty.
One thing we can know for sure is in Greece people wore clothes and hair differently and there was no single discernible social expectation. And, if this is true in Greece, imagine how many social contexts head covering applied to in the early church: Rome, Greece, Crete, Armenia, Syria, Arabia, Ethiopia, Egypt, Judea, Libya, and probably more by the time of the writing of 1 Corinthians. While we can’t know anything for sure about the 1st century AD social contexts of all these places, it is really safe to say not all of them followed identical clothing and hairstyle customs. And if that is the case, it is impossible to abrogate what Paul says that is practice of all the churches of God because of “historical context.” Real historical context demolishes that contention.