Formative, Normative, and Cultural Doctrines

In the introduction of my book, The Homemade Atheist, I asked, “Why are there so many different doctrines on the same subject from the same book? It has been an enigma to me for years that if God exists and is perfect, and if he indeed has a standard by which all should live, why doesn’t everyone understand the truth he apparently meant to convey in the same way?

Wide variations in belief exist in all religious systems partly because of three main methods of scripture interpretations: (1) formative; (2) normative; (3) cultural.

  • The Formative Method, according to some Biblical scholars, includes glossalalia which was not intended to be used throughout the life of the church. Speaking in tongues is only addressed at any length in the Book of Acts (where actual languages seem to have been spoken somewhere on earth to establish the legitimacy of the church) and the first epistle to the Corinthians where “unknown” languages were spoken and interpretation had to be given. These “spiritual gifts” might have been given because there was yet no New Testament. The Formative Method is also sometimes used to explain the deaths of Ananias and Saphira after they lied to the Holy Spirit in the person of Peter. Their deaths, also, may have been recorded to give the new religion God’s sanction. And even though lying still goes on in the church worldwide (no pun intended), I don’t see wholesale death occuring in “holy” sanctuaries today because of deceit and lying.
  • The Normative Method of interpretation establishes an unchangeable standard or pattern for believers everywhere and at all times. Examples in this case would be proper Christian conduct (especially for women) at home and in communal worship, prophesying and preaching (which many believe are quite different), and the Lord’s Supper. (References: 1 Corinthians 11 and Galations 3.)
  • The Cultural Method is used by denominations claiming that the entire Bible was influenced by cultural conditions at the time of its writing such as length of hair for both sexes. And especially concerning women, since females today are most often as educated as males are, it is, therefore, so say some scholars, appropriate now for women to teach, pray, and preach in worship assemblies. But this argument from cultural bias could be used to dismiss anything in the Bible if it does not suit someone’s sensibilities in the modern world.

I am not lobbying for either the formative, normative, or cultural methods of interpreting scripture. To me, the real question is whether the Bible is the inerrant Word of God and how one can tell. As I read it, there are many unfulfilled prophecies, scientific inaccuracies including the mention of mythical beasts and the belief that the earth has corners and is flat in this revered work. And a perfect God is its author?

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