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Head Covering and Hermeneutics (An Excerpt from “Knowing Scripture” by R.C. Sproul)

Head Covering and Hermeneutics (An Excerpt from "Knowing Scripture" by R.C. Sproul)
Dr. R.C. Sproul (1939-2017) was the founder and chairman of Ligonier Ministries, an international Christian education ministry located near Orlando, Florida. His teaching can be heard on the program Renewing Your Mind, which is broadcast on hundreds of radio outlets in the United States and in 40 countries worldwide. He was the executive editor of Tabletalk magazine, general editor of The Reformation Study Bible, and the author of more than seventy books. Dr. Sproul also served as president of Ligonier Academy of Biblical and Theological Studies and Reformation Bible College. He served as senior minister of preaching and teaching at Saint Andrews Chapel in Sanford, FL.


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?

To see the complexities of the dilemma, let’s examine the famous hair-covering passage of 1 Corinthians 11. The New Revised Standard Version translates this to require a woman to cover her head with a veil when she prophesies. In applying this command to our culture we are faced with four distinct options:

1. It is entirely custom. The whole passage reflects a cultural custom that has no relevance today. The veil is local customary headgear; the uncovering of the head reflects a local sign of prostitution. The sign of the woman subordinating herself to the man is a Jewish custom that is outmoded in light of the overall teaching of the New Testament. Since we live in a different culture, it is no longer necessary for a woman to cover her head with a veil; it is no longer necessary for a woman to cover her head with anything; it is no longer necessary for a woman to be subordinate to a man.

2. It is entirely principle. In this case everything in the passage is regarded as culturally transcending principle. That would mean by way of application that (1) Women must be submissive to men during prayer. (2) Women must always give a sign of that submission by covering their heads. (3) Women must cover their heads with a veil as the only appropriate sign.

3. It is partly principle, partly custom (Option A). In this approach, part of the passage is regarded as principle and thus binding for all generations, and part is seen as custom that is no longer binding. The principle of female submission is transcultural, but the means of expressing it (covering the head with a veil) is customary and may be changed.

4. It is partly principle (Option B). In this final option the principle of female submission and the symbolic act of covering the head are to be perpetual. The article of covering may vary from culture to culture. A veil may be replaced by a babushka or a hat.

Which of these alternatives would be most pleasing to God? I certainly do not know the final answer to the question. Questions like these are usually exceedingly complex and do not yield to simplistic solutions. One thing is clear, however. We need some kind of practical guidelines to aid us in unraveling such problems. These questions are frequently of a type that require some sort of active decision and cannot be put on the theological back burner for future generations to figure out. The following practical guidelines should help us.


1. Examine the Bible itself for apparent areas of custom. By close scrutiny of the Scriptures themselves we can see that they display a certain latitude of custom. For example, divine principles from the Old Testament culture have been restated in a New Testament culture. By seeing Old Testament laws and principles restated in the New Testament, we see that some common core of principle transcends custom, culture and social convention. At the same time, we see some Old Testament principles (such as the dietary laws of the Pentateuch) abrogated in the New Testament. This is not to say that the dietary laws of the Old Testament were merely matters of Jewish custom. But we see a difference in the re demptive-historical situation in which Christ abrogates the old law. What we must be careful to note is that neither the idea of carrying all Old Testament principles over to the New Testament nor carrying none of them over can be justified by the Bible itself.

What kind of cultural customs are capable of reaculturation? Language is one obvious factor of cultural fluidity. The Old Testament laws were capable of being translated from Hebrew into Greek. This matter gives us at least a clue to the variable nature of verbal communication. That is, language is a cultural aspect that is open to change; not that the biblical content may be distorted linguistically, but that the gospel can be preached in English as well as Greek.

Second, we see that Old Testament styles of dress are not fixed perpetually for God’s people. Principles of modesty prevail, but local styles of dress may change. The Old Testament does not prescribe a godly uniform that must be worn by believers of all ages. Other normal cultural differences such as monetary systems are clearly open to change. Christians are not obligated to use the denarius instead of the dollar.

Such an analysis of cultural modes of expression may be simple with respect to clothes and money, but matters of cultural institutions are more difficult. For example, slavery has often been introduced into modern controversies over civil obedience as well as debates concerning marital structures of authority. In the same context that Paul calls women to be submissive to husbands he calls slaves to be submissive to their masters. Some have argued that since the seeds of the abolition of slavery are sown in the New Testament, so also are the seeds of the abolition of female subordination. Both represent institutional structures that are culturally conditioned, according to this line of reasoning.

Here we must be careful to distinguish between institutions the Bible merely recognizes as existing, such as “the powers that be” (Rom 13:1 KJV), and those the Bible positively institutes, endorses and ordains. The principle of submission to existing authority structures (such as the Roman government) does not carry with it a necessary implication of God’s endorsement of those structures but merely a call to humility and civil obedience. God, in his ultimate secret providence may ordain that there be a Caesar Augustus without endorsing Caesar as a model of Christian virtue. Yet the institution of the structures and authority patterns of marriage are given in the context of positive institution and endorsement in both Testaments. To put the biblical structures of the home on a par with the slavery question is to obscure the many differences between the two. Thus the Scriptures provide a basis for Christian behavior in the midst of oppressive or evil situations as well as ordaining structures that are to mirror the good designs of creation.

2. Allow for Christian distinctives in the first century. It is one thing to seek a more lucid understanding of the biblical content by investigating the cultural situation of the first century; it is quite another to interpret the New Testament as if it were merely an echo of the first-century culture. To do so would be to fail to account for the serious conflict the church experienced as it confronted the first-century world. Christians were not thrown to the lions for their penchant for conformity.

Some very subtle means of relativizing the text occur when we read into the text cultural considerations that ought not to be there. For example, with respect to the hair-covering issue in Corinth, numerous commentators on the epistle point out that the local sign of the prostitute in Corinth was the uncovered head. Therefore, the argument runs, the reason why Paul wanted women to cover their heads was to avoid a scandalous appearance of Christian women in the external guise of prostitutes.

What is wrong with this kind of speculation? The basic problem here is that our reconstructed knowledge of first-century Corinth has led us to supply Paul with a rationale that is foreign to the one he gives himself. In a word, we are not only putting words into the apostle’s mouth, but we are ignoring words that are there. If Paul merely told women in Corinth to cover their heads and gave no rationale for such instruction, we would be strongly inclined to supply it via our cultural knowledge. In this case, however, Paul provides a rationale that is based on an appeal to creation, not to the custom of Corinthian harlots. We must be careful not to let our zeal for knowledge of the culture obscure what is actually said. To subordinate Paul’s stated reason to our speculatively conceived reason is to slander the apostle and turn exegesis into eisegesis.

3. The creation ordinances are indicators of the transcultural principle. If any biblical principles transcend local customary limits, they are the appeals drawn from creation. Appeals to creation ordinances reflect stipulations a covenant God makes with humanity. The laws of creation are not given to a Hebrew person or a Christian person or a Corinthian person, but are rooted in basic human responsibility to God. To set principles of creation aside as mere local custom is the worst kind of relativizing and dehistoricizing of the biblical content. Yet it is precisely at this point that many scholars have relativized scriptural principles.

To illustrate the importance of creation ordinances we can examine Jesus’ treatment of divorce. When the Pharisees tested Jesus by asking if divorce were lawful for any cause, Jesus responded by citing the creation ordinance of marriage: “Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning MADE THEM MALE AND FEMALE, and said, ‘FOR THIS REASON A MAN SHALL LEAVE . . . ?’ What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate” (Mt 19:4-6).

By reconstructing the life situation of this narrative, it is easy to see that the Pharisees’ test involved getting Jesus’ opinion on an issue that sharply divided the rabbinic schools of Shammai and Hillel. Rather than siding with either side completely, Jesus took the matter back to creation to get the norms of marriage in perspective. To be sure, he acknowledged the Mosaic modification of the law of creation, but he refused to weaken the norm further by yielding to public pressure or the cultural opinions of his contemporaries. The inference to be drawn is that the creation ordinances are normative unless explicitly modified by later biblical revelation.

4. In areas of uncertainty use the principle of humility. What if, after careful consideration of a biblical mandate, we remain uncertain as to its character as principle or custom? If we must decide to treat it one way or the other but have no conclusive means to make the decision, what can we do? Here the biblical principle of humility can be helpful. The issue is simple. Would it be better to treat a possible custom as a principle and be guilty of being overscrupulous in our design to obey God? Or would it be better to treat a possible principle as a custom and be guilty of being unscrupulous in demoting a transcendent requirement of God to the level of a mere human convention? I hope the answer is obvious. If the principle of humility is isolated from the other guidelines mentioned, it can easily be misconstrued as a basis for legalism. We do not have the right to legislate the consciences of Christians where God has left them free. It cannot be applied in an absolutistic way where Scripture is silent. The principle applies where we have biblical mandates whose nature remains uncertain (as to custom and principle) after all the arduous labor of exegesis has been exhausted.

To short-circuit such labor by a blanket scrupulosity would obscure the distinction between custom and principle. This is a guideline of last resort and would be destructive if used as a first resort.

The problem of cultural conditioning is a real one. Barriers of time, place and language frequently make communication difficult. Still, the barriers of culture are not so severe as to drive us to skepticism or despair of understanding God’s Word. It is comforting that this Book has indeed manifested a peculiar ability to speak to the deepest needs and communicate the gospel effectively to people of all different times, places and customs. The obstacle of culture cannot make void the power of this Word.

Taken from Knowing Scripture by R.C. Sproul (affiliate). Copyright (c) 2009 by R. C. Sproul. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, PO Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515. www.ivpress.com
Jeremy G.

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