The words of Satan, “Did God really say…?,” to Eve are perfectly tempting. They do not directly challenge the commands of God or appear to contain any malice. These innocent-sounding words, however, contain an obvious counter to the wisdom of God. Rather than challenge God directly, which Satan knows to be foolish, the words undermine the God’s credibility. Or, perhaps, the words aim at altering Eve’s understandings of the commands of God; it becomes a debate over that God meant by “do not eat of the fruit of the Tree of Good and Evil.” Satan’s words manage to place a doubt in the mind of Eve. It is a doubt not of God, but of her own reliable understanding of the command. Eve, fully aware of the command, lets her mind be darkened by an insidious inquiry. Thus, the human race fell — not because of an abrasive rejection of God and His holy will, but by an ignorance prompted by unrighteous questioning of God’s will.
Under the guise of contextualization, Satan has managed to throw a shadow over people attempting to understand God. Contextualization, to an extent, is a good practice: by placing a work in its historical and cultural context, it is possible to gain certain insights. The Aeneid, for example, caries a different meaning when one learns that it was commissioned by Augustus Caesar after he assumed sole control of Roman Republic. The Comedy of Dante has a different meaning if one recalls mid-14th century Italian politics. It is important to remember, however, that 14th-century Italian politics are not The Comedy. The most important parts of The Comedy, and within the Aeneid, are not understood solely through context. Scholars and students are aware of how 14th-century Italian politics inform The Comedy but are not foolish enough to place the context above the text. When it comes to the Holy Bible, however, the reverse is often true.
Biblical studies love to emphasize the historical context of the New Testament writers. Surface-level contextualization is largely benign: St. Paul’s refusal to necessarily condemn the practice of eating meat from the market might be difficult to understand in 21st-century America. Or, properly speaking, the example itself is difficult to understand. Underlying messages — the question of scandal — are easily understood. What modern scholars are wont to do, however, is to deny the underlying message and to focus upon the context itself.
A recent article published on patheos.com claims to prove the “The Myth of Redemptive Suffering.” Essentially, the author rejects the traditional understanding of Christ’s famous words, “Take up your cross and follow me.” Instead, the author suggests that Christ actually meant to create a movement opposed to Roman oppression and to emphasize social justice. Evidence in support of this position ranges from Roman social tendencies to the general contextualization of the time period. This author overlooks the part of the Gospels where Jesus Christ does not resist oppression and willingly accepts to suffer for the redemption of the many. Regardless, the author falls into the interpretive mistake of contextualizing the surface reading until he gets to the message he wants.
The most obvious case comes from the letters of St. Paul. Recent pushes to legitimize homosexual relations and sexual acts within the Catholic Church must reckon with the Levitical Laws and St. Paul’s condemnation. Recent efforts have found a way to snake around the traditional understanding of St. Paul. Just like Satan, these new attempts do not expressly deny the words of Scripture; rather, these attempts provide “context” that will accomplish two ends.
First, the context will show what St. Paul “really meant.” The basic argument functions as such: “Did St. Paul really say all homosexual acts are bad or just those done while being consumed by lust? If you examine the context behind his words, you will see St. Paul really speaks against lust and not the homosexual union intrinsically.” Second, the traditional interpretation ignores the true message of St. Paul. The argument concludes like this: “We accept that St. Paul is condemning lust amid a culture that embraces sexual licentiousness. St. Paul rejects lustful sexual acts, of course, between heterosexual and homosexual couples. Especially between male-male sexual relations, the culture of the time had no concept of a mutual declaration of a monogamous relationship where the sexual act was reserved between the two. St. Paul would not condemn the 21st-century homosexual couple who act as a monogamous couple. By looking at the context behind St. Paul and his words, the Catholic Church no longer needs to hold onto an archaic, xenophobic teaching and can, therefore, become more open and accepting.”
Obviously, this procedure has its flaws. For one, those who propose it deny the actual words of Scripture in favor of what they want Scripture to tell them. If St. Paul truly and honestly meant to condemn lust and not disordered sexual acts, why did he condemn disordered sexual acts?
“Did God really say…?” and the above kind of contextualization are nothing more than a rejection of the infallible Word of God and Divine Law. If Scripture is understood infallibly, as the Catholic Church traditionally has done, then such attempts are rendered impotent. Their strength, if it can be called that, rests upon an assumption that Scripture is not necessarily meant to teach us morals. The idea that a people, so rigid and old, could teach us anything repulses the modern progressive. Only by turning Jesus Christ into a 1960s flower child and turning His message into one of unconditional acceptance can they use the New Testament.
If we embrace the kind of contextualization parroted by progressives as a valid means of theological interpretation, morality becomes nothing more than a changing expression of culture at best and an expression of rhetorical brilliance at worst. Morality as cultural expression is exactly what progressive minded prelates of The Church are interested in. They are more interested in correctly aligning with the trends of modernity than honestly reflecting on the eternal word of God. It is an attack on the authority of Scripture.
Ultimately, this sort of contextualization is a rejection of natural law, authoritative teaching, and the Divine Law. Attempts to “dialogue” with the progressive fail for this reason — because the basic assumptions of the Catholic Church, our dependence on God and how He is our end, is disregarded by the modern progressive. How can I discuss the purpose of sex, and thus its proper expression, with someone who denies purpose in general? In the same way, how can I discuss Scripture, what I consider to be the inerrant, eternal Word of God, with someone who denies that words have meaning past the culture they were written in?
Image: Cornelis van Haarlem (1562–1638), The Fall of Man (1592).
Lucas is a recent graduate from Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina with a degree in history and classical language. His focus is on early medieval Byzantine history, with an emphasis on East-West relations. He is interested in pursuing further studies with the intention of one day getting a graduate degree.