Questioning the "Two Bucket" Approach to Scripture (Guest Post: Dr. Ron Martoia)

Today, I am honored to have a bit of a ‘hero’ on the blog.  Dr. Ron Martoia has made a lasting impact on my spiritual journey.  The same comment has been said by pastors throughout the world who appreciate his work in calling the church to her mission (ultimately, God’s mission) in the 21st century.  He started asking questions about reshaping our understanding of the Bible as narrative, before it was en vogue, as he invited pastors and leaders to begin challenging our paradigms and assumptions; even introducing us to prolific thinkers like N.T. Wright!  Read his article, join his “tribe,” and read his books!  You are bound to be challenged and grow if you do so!


Deciding what to apply and what to discard might be the fundamental question when reading the biblical text.  I think it is fair to say that whatever system, church, denomination, or exposure you have had to biblical material the guiding question always has been, “which things in this passage apply and what things don’t.”

To phrase it with a bit more sophistication; what truths in the scripture are eternal and therefore relevant and what in the text is cultural and therefore no longer applicable? This is the two bucket theory: there is an eternal and ever relevant bucket and a cultural and irrelevant-to-my-life bucket.  If I am correct this is and has been the guiding question in college and seminary hermeneutics classes for a long long time, probably the last couple centuries.  So the academy continues to come up with theories about how to more carefully discern what stuff goes in which bucket.

Sound academic? Well on that technical level it might be but it is profoundly practical and affects every single bible reader today.  Should women be forbidden to wear gold, pearls and braid their hair, because that is what I Timothy 2 literally says.  Or pray only when their head is covered because that is what I Corinthians 11 says? It’s easy to say those are in the cultural bucket and therefore irrelevant.  But when did they get put in that bucket?  Who decided?  When did they stop being eternal, applicable and inspired truth?

What about genocide in Numbers 31, which bucket?

What about selling all we have and holding it in common Acts 2.42-47? Which bucket?

The two bucket theory is built on a far too modern metaphor for this new world in which we live.  My guess is most of us have not only heard this metaphor or something like it, but actually have it as the operating set of lenses with which we view our bible reading. Metaphors are images we use to give us insight. But we have to remember the limits of metaphors. They are merely illustrative. Metaphors work because there is a an element of truth that connects and clarifies. But metaphors breakdown and are culture specific. Metaphors that work today may not work tomorrow. We have been referring to the Bible as an “Owners Manual for Life,” and that is a metaphor has outlasted it’s welcome. Life simply can’t be negotiated with an owners manual. Life is too dynamic and too situational to yield to simple looked up entries in an index that refers us to a page for “the answer.”

And when I say “we” have been using the bible this way, I mean me and a host of other pastoral and professorial friends and colleagues. Guilty as charged we have propagated this messy myth. First let’s just admit that the idea of an owners manual implies a widget or gadget that needs a manual. That is distinctly modern. I just don’t see Justin Martyr or Origen, Thomas Aquinas of Martin Luther using this metaphor. I am not thinking they would have known what an owner’s manual was. Second, let’s admit that the metaphor implies a comprehensiveness in the manual that it simply can’t support. What do I mean?

When we make ridiculous and outlandish claims that if you have questions, the Bible has answers, that if you have issues the Bible has a way through it; we are placing on the good book a burden it can’t begin to carry nor was it written to do so. There are numerous things the bible doesn’t address and because of it’s historical location couldn’t begin to address. Third, let’s admit part of our love of using the metaphor of the owner’s manual is because it reduces the wild, inconsistent text (yes it is inconsistent – more on that later) and a difficult and hard to understand text into something that is as easy to use as the little manual I got with my toaster oven.

Let’s lay aside the old question that leads us to the two bucket approach. And instead of asking what is cultural and irrelevant and what is eternal and applicable how about if we acknowledge the entire text is cultural and that none of it is written to an audience in 2010 and in spite of what we are often told, inspiration does not make it universally applicable. So what about this as a new possibility?…

How does an inspired text exert or exercise a shaping influence on the life of the reader(s)? The key word is “how?” In the past it was through extracting what we thought were timeless truths from a time bound text, sort of trying to figure out the eternal kernel in the culture bound husk. But what if we admit the obvious, it is all cultural and it can’t be otherwise.

When we acknowledge it is all cultural that is not he same thing as saying it is all irrelevant. That would be to attach this new question to the previous two bucket question where what is cultural is considered irrelevant. What we are doing here is saying the two bucket question was a manufactured polarity or duality. The whole biblical text was written by people in very particular cultures, to people within very particular cultures making EVERTHING that was said very particular. So how does a text with cultural particularity or specificity exercise influence and shaping authority…a generation later, a culture away, a millennium or two later?

Now there might be other questions that could be asked and I am all ears to hear some of the ideas out there. So please fire away. But let’s at least start with this new question.

This new question opens us up to some challenging but very fruitful possibilities. Here is how. The old two bucket question broke down because we realized as cultures evolve values change. Now I know to a Christian that sounds like heresy…but that is simply our poor training we have unreflectively engaged. We all would agree the cultural value placed on the institution of slavery has changed or the value place on woman being silent or the institution of child sacrifice (God literally asking Abraham to kill his first born son in the inspired text). These have all changed through time. That observation, and the reason the bucket theory breaks down, is part of our way forward…I think.

What happens when we start to call out that each culture being written to and each author writing is at a particular stage of development or stage of cultural progress and we HAVE to take THAT into consideration as we think about the bible?

If we ponder this new question what other possible metaphors emerge that we might consider successors to the “owner’s manual?”  How about a jazz score? A drama script? A classic?

This is the question and the potential metaphors I explore in the my Zondervan published “The Bible As Improv: Seeing and Living the Script in New Ways.”

— My biggest interest currently is in the edge of awareness based formation.  My next book in process is based upon this manifesto you can download here. If you would like to learn about how a growing group of international revolutionaries from 6 countries are meeting in an online learning community doing transformation and spirituality in ways sensible to the postmodern world in which we live think about joining the Transformational Trek Tribe, you can get more information here.

You can find me at and on twitter at rsmartoia


BIO: Dr. Ron Martoia is a transformational architect…What in the world is that you ask?  Ron helps people and the organisms they serve, design and then journey through the experience of deep change.  He consults with executive teams in corporate settings, but specializes in churches. Ron currently serves as a distance staff member for a number of churches in the United States, South Africa, and the Bahamas.

The landscape of ministry is undergoing quantum changes.  Many of these changes are theological and cultural shifts that in turn change the way churches see and then intersect their communities.  Author of numerous periodical articles, his first book project was entitled Morph!, a volume helping leaders do good self leadership as they foster creative and compelling environments.  Ron’s second book came out in May of 2007. Static: Tuning out the “Christian Noise” to Experience the Real Message of Jesus, addresses how the words we use are containers, which engender or endanger genuine dialogue.  The sequel to Static, Transformational Architecture: Reshaping Our Lives as Narrative released in November 2008 and probes the core yearnings within the heart of every human being and how those longings open the way for spiritual conversation.  His fourth book, The Bible as Improv:  Seeing and Living the Script in New Ways, was released in March of 2010 by Zondervan.

In addition to his consulting and writing, he has created a global spiritual formation container the Transformational Trek Tribe.  The tribe meets online daily where videos, monthly book reads, forum discussions, and most of all formative practices are engaged.  More information can be found on his website

Ron’s doctorate is in the area of leadership and culture. In addition to having served on adjunct faculty at several Universities, Ron has provided leadership training and organizational development in 15 countries of the world.

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  • When I started reading I was thinking "no, the 2 bucket approach doesn't work" but of course the author doesn't either. The idea of the whole Bible being culturally based makes so much sense and effectively tears ownership out of our hands so we come to it as outsiders needing to learn a new language, new way of thinking; it's we who must make the adjustments.

    I would like to think of it as a book of recipes by a master chef who is using ingredients that don't grow in our gardens. Some recipes we can't follow because we don't have equivalent ingredients, others because the appropriate ingredients are out of season. Sometimes we simply read how lovingly and passionately he prepares a dish, it being enough to share the moment.

  • Though the Bible comes with very little "metadata", i.e. no disclaimer or dust jacket explaining just what and who the book is for, there are some pointers. We read that all Scripture (presumably the Law and the Prophets) is useful for correction and training us up in virtue. This is one of the few specific claims we have in Scripture about Scripture despite some thinking every page is about Jesus or atonement or salvation.

    But we also read universal ideas and claims within or proceeding from the particular events. Jesus rose from the dead at one point in time (particular) but this implies, given Jewish eschatology and theology, that he is the chosen one of God, the firstborn of new creation. Because of this singular event, everything Jesus said takes on a new light…

    Suddenly Jesus' commands become a summons to the obedience of faithfulness to all hearers from the Lord of all creation, God's own Son. Indeed you cannot believe in the resurrection and not submit to Jesus command and authority – his Lordship (evidenced by the empty tomb and appearances) implies your subjection.

    And just as suddenly for children of the Reformation, Paul's teachings recede into the background as specific commands given to specific communities by a fallible and flawed human who never claimed to have the authority or status of Jesus.

  • JM

    Glad to see someone else teaching that the "instruction manual" approach is nonsense.

    I think that the biggest flaw in the "two-bucket" approach is in its very formulation: "This is the two bucket theory: there is an eternal and ever relevant bucket and a cultural ***and irrelevant-to-my-life*** bucket."

    Just because something in Scripture is not culturally binding universally does not mean it is in any way "irrelevant" to one's life. It is precisely the culturally-bound nature of many passages which communicate the underlying eternal value of them to the reader. "All Scripture is profitable…" for the training up of the saints, regardless of what "bucket" one attempts to place it in.

  • jason

    Excellent, thought-provoking post… Curious to read the book… or maybe have Kurt read it and then summarize it for me! 😉

  • Bobby Lane

    A very instructive article, especially for those of us unwittingly raised in the "two bucket theory" environment. As for a metaphor of what the Bible may be like, why don't we just go back to what it was when we were children? The ancient saints would not have known of a jazz improv either. A drama script comes closer, and the Bible is definitely a classic if we consider its timelessness – that is, that what it has to say is true of God and people no matter where or when they live(d). What I think fits best is that the Bible is a collection of true-life stories. It's a story book. People have been telling stories, whether orally or written.. Story-telling is timeless and universal. It is also the best way to communicate lessons to children; and we are, in comparison to God, children. We are His children, and the story He is telling is about Himself and us.

    In this regard, I think we could learn a lot from JRR Tolkien and his Lord of the Rings series. Tolkien talks about an ongoing story, in which character takes their turn in their part of the story. Now, if we set aside the fact that the story as told in LOTR is fictional, we can also imagine that there are a background cast of thousands upon thousands who stories (i.e. their lives) never make into the fabric of the story we are reading. We only get glimpses of them at best. What does get written down, however, is the story that the Author wanted to tell. So what is written down is part of the overall story that the Author wants to tell. What is left out is not as if it never happened, but simply was not part of what the Author wanted to tell us. God reserves certain things for us to discover later (e.g. scientific progress, etc.) and certain things we will never find out because He reserves them to His own counsel.

    The spiritual realm and the physical realm are connected irrevocably for us as people, but they are like "stories" of a house. The spiritual realm is foundational; it is the first floor of life. If something happens to the foundation, then the whole house will be affected. Scripture tells us that. Well, something DID happen to the foundation, as it affects human beings, and the Bible is the story-book about that. It is how God, the Author, chose to tell the story; the story of God and His family. Because, fundamentally, all of life is about relationships, which is exactly what the Bible is all about too.

  • Jonathan B.

    Who says cultural doesn't mean relevant? Consider 1st Corinthians, the passage on women. There is an extremely limited situation which is fully grounded in, dependent on, and beholden to the culture of Corinth which is relevant to today. Paul is writing to answer questions that the church asked him in a letter, so we're not even sure what questions they asked, just that whatever question they asked, they were doing it wrong.

    But, if we know a little about culture, the prohibitions make sense. For instance, the prohibition against wearing your hair down. Culturally, the women who wore their hair down were prostitutes. So, what Paul is saying is "Don't come to church looking like a prostitute! There's no steel pole in the center of the sanctuary!" That's perfectly relevant to today, good Christian women shouldn't look like prostitutes, certainly not a church, lest non-Christians get the wrong impression of church.

  • How does an inspired text exert or exercise a shaping influence on the life of the reader(s)? The key word is “how?”

    I appreciate this post, but I suggest the "how" is not the only question we need to be asking. We also need to re-examine the meaning of "inspired." I've just been doing some ruminating on the Holy Spirit, and I offer an alternative here: perhaps the "theopneustos" we've always translated "inspired" actually refers, not to the source of the written word, but rather to God's act of infusing the written word with his Breath of Life. In addition to rendering moot the Bible-thumping arguments over inspiration, I think this concept might allow us to consider the dynamism with which God's Wind may blow through us in fresh ways.

  • I hit "post" too soon…I really should have affirmed your dispute with the idea of Bible-as-owner's-manual. You're quite right that it's simply a poor metaphor…unless, of course I think of some of the nearly unintelligible owners' manuals I've gotten in some foreign-made products…some of them need more parsing than Greek and Hebrew! ;{)

  • PaulAllenHunton

    I completely agree with Jonathan B. But would also like to add, what Dr. Ron is saying here is a terrifying view of Christianity. It strips away the necessity of the word, it puts the meaning of Jesus' teachings directly in the hands of people, who will do what they will with it. I have a question, what is the point of even being a Christian if you look at it's teachings as fodder for motivational speak, culturally irrelevant, and only intended to expand your mind? He says "but wait, I'm not saying it makes it irrelevant." Really? Then he goes on TO LAUGHABLY use slavery as something that's value has changed culturally! HA HA HA! you think the value of slavery changed FOR THE SLAVE (Or is that a culture Ron doesn't care about)? Or do you think the slave who cried out to heaven, and read the EXODUS, always saw that slavery NEVER had value in Christianity or humanity? Does Dr. Ron also think that women loved not voting, valued not working, and were happy being less than a man? When was child sacrifice EVER an "institution" and what important part of the Abraham story is Dr. Ron leaving out? No one finds it as hilarious as I do, haha? Dr. Ron's culture seems not to be Christianity, it is apparently middle class white people and apparently he is projecting that image on to Jesus. In the New Testament there are universal truths, universal morals, universal standards of how we treat each other with love and compassion, how we give more than we take, and we live lives of love and charity. I could go on…

    When we stop reading Jesus' teachings as literal, direct, commands on how to live, that is the day we stop being Christians. There is nothing in the sermon on the mount, or the beatitudes that is culturally irrelevant then or now, it's universal.

    Funny story, Dr. Ron and I engaged in discussions on the FaceBook thread this was posted in, he slowly disappeared from the discussion, maybe because he is a very busy man, which I understand. I left him my email in case he did actually want to have a back and forth on the issue. I also added him as a friend, because there is nothing like surrounding yourself with Christians who have different view points, it challenges, strengthen,s and grows faith. Since then he has added at least 30 people as his friend, I wasn't one of them. How culturally relevant of him.

    • Kurt

      Ok, Paul… this is quite rude way to go about conversation. And, you are putting words into Ron's mouth that are simply caricatures and unfair. You are assuming alot about his worldview from one post. he simply is asking questions about the problems with the two bucket approach. He is not throwing out the baby with the bathwater. You need to chill my friend and not assume the worst in someone if they simply challenge your common mode of speaking. You have revealed a lack of tact in this thread.

      As far as Ron not being in this thread, maybe you should also not assume the worst. he actually had a death in his family and has been dealing with funeral stuff this week. Again, there you go attacking the character of someone you don't know.

      Paul, you seem like an ok guy, but if this behavior continues I will not want you to be part of these conversations any more. Ball is in your court.

  • ron

    Paul, I am assuming this was posted before your inbox message to me on fb. But wow, this is really over the top my friend. I haven't disappeared from the discussion I just didn't realize it was still going on.

    This isn't a terrifying view of Christianity this is a challenge to a modern view of the bible.

    Jonathan and you seem to make some enormous assumptions which I am just trying to bring to the fore of the discussion. The teaching and meaning of Jesus' teaching IS ALWAYS in the hands of the listener. Interpretation is always an issue that is the point of this discussion. But the further point is sussing out what is "literal" and direct and what isn't. Paul you are making flaming comments and not engaging the argument. The issue is HOW do we know what is eternal, direct, always in play. Let's take your comment about child sacrifice. When was it an institution? In the late bronze age for instance. Surely you know that. We have lots and lots of examples. So let's get at the question. If the bible, inspired as it is (and I think it is) had God telling Abraham to go and kill his first born. I have a question. Can that happen again today? Is God in the business of telling people in their devotional time, go on a personal retreat and kill your first born son? And if he isn't then how do we explain it in Genesis 22? And if the answer is "it was just cultural" then we are finally to the issue I am raising…HOW do we know it was just cultural?

    Now this is no different than asking the question why do we employ Acts 2.42-27 as the standard of all small group ministry and say prayer, fellowship, breaking bread and the apostles teaching are all essential elements to a balance small group ministry, but leave out selling all we have and holding it in common, or meeting daily or having people saved daily. How are the first four in play and direct commands but the last three not just as important marks of being an "Acts 2" church?

    This is the issue…let's not vilify, flame and project and muddy the waters. It is just unnecessary and your credibility goes way down my friend. And it won't be a good enough answer to say print isn't a good forum for these kinds of discussions. Print is fine, but it requires civility and commitment to listening and learning from each other.

  • I like this post a lot. Thanks.