05.18.16

On Being “Biblical”

Christian circles take for granted that being “biblical” is a good thing. In fact, rare are the professing Christians who don’t think they’re “biblical” or at least trying to be.

But with the wide variety of professing Christians all claiming to be “biblical,” seems we should ask what the term means.

Here’s a very brief and very imperfect attempt at capturing what I think people sometimes mean when they say “biblical.”

The Abstractor 

Sometimes people seem to mean that a general idea or principle is “biblical.” They don’t have a text in mind. So something is “biblical” if it basically fits some general pattern or precept from the Bible and “unbiblical” if it doesn’t. It may be that we’re told, for example, that church discipline is not “biblical” because “it’s not loving.” Of course, our summaries of the Bible need to be tethered to properly interpreted texts.

The Proof Texter

Some people simply mean they have a particular text in the Bible that “makes their point.” A lot of proof-texting falls in this category. Often the text is taken out of context. At other times the text may be understood in a way that contradicts other passages of scripture. When we poorly proof text or make the scripture contradict itself, this is not truly a “biblical” position.

The Orthodox

There are times when “biblical” functions like a synonym for “orthodox.” Orthodox, meaning “correct belief,” often involves various traditions in addition to consideration of the Bible itself. Many “creedal” Christians typify what we mean by “biblical” and “orthodox.” Sometimes “orthodox” groups have competing views of what the Bible teaches. Take, for example, the 500-year debate about baptism. Both paedo- and credo-baptists may be regarded as “orthodox,” but they can’t both have “correct belief” about baptism. One or the other fails to be “orthodox” since one or the other gets the doctrine wrong.

The Exegete

In some conversations, “biblical” means something like “accurately interpreted from the text.” Where proof texting appeals to the Bible without proper regard for context and meaning, an exegetical approach begins with the scripture passage, its context and meaning. The idea not only fits a broad principle it also arises from the original meaning of the text itself. However, the exegete may sometimes view the text in an isolated way, not exegeting other relevant texts to round out their thinking.

The Systematizer

Another approach to being “biblical” requires we systematically compile many texts on a subject into a whole doctrine. This approach might also involve putting the texts into canonical or chronological order so that we have a sense of how a doctrine develops. So the systematizer uses “biblical” to mean something like systematic and biblical theology.

I’ve tried to arrange these informal definitions of “biblical” into an ascending order of robustness. The closer we get to being “systematizers,” the more “biblical” we are being.

Why does this defining the term matter? Well, it matters because some approaches to being “biblical” actually leave a lot of room for unbiblical and contra-biblical positions. I mean, Creflo claims to be “biblical.” So do liberal theologians and pastors who tell us they know the true meaning of the text—and it’s not what we think it is! So it’s not enough to say something is “biblical” without knowing what we mean by the term. And if we say someone is “biblical” when they are, in fact, disagreeing with what the Bible teaches at some point (say, election), then we both empty the term of any meaning and affirm people in error.

Maybe we should be more careful with using the term.

So, what do you mean when you say “biblical”?

Thabiti Anyabwile
Thabiti Anyabwile serves as a pastor of Anacostia River Church (Washington DC). He is the happy husband of Kristie and the adoring father of two daughters and one son. Holler at him on Twitter: @ThabitiAnyabwil

C’mon Up!

  • Kim Ransleben

    Yeah, far too often, we use it to justify ourselves rather than to search ourselves…to give authority to ourselves to make others yield to us rather to Christ.

    I love Spurgeon’s quote on being biblical: “…it is blessed to eat into the very soul of the Bible until, at last, you come to talk in Scriptural language, and your very style is fashioned upon Scripture models, and, what is better still, your spirit is flavored with the words of the Lord.”

    • Thabiti Anyabwile

      Amen! That’s a good word. We do use the term to justify ourselves rather than search ourselves. Boom. And love the Spurgeon quote!

      • Kim Ransleben

        It always strikes me that he says that better than speaking the bible or even looking like biblical models is having our spirits flavored with Christ’s words. Helps me to understand why I can speak truth and live truth, and still not be fully biblical…and why it also turns people away from me rather than Christ. The truth is there but not the grace.

  • ForFreedom

    Thanks for this article. It’s a great question, and I think you offered up a great start to establishing the basic categories of entering the discussion.

    I have begun to see being “biblical” as a healthy interplay between exegesis (narrow & broader) with systematic theology and biblical theology. Those are my “holy trinity” of interpreting the Scriptures.

    If one emphasized one over the others or focuses too narrowly on one or two at the expense of the others, it will create problems.

    Of course, all three of these things will be heavily influenced by our understanding of cultural lenses, philosophy, emotions, personal experience, our traditions, etc.

    Ooo, lastly, our understanding of “biblical” is going to be largely determined by our understanding of “authority” & how God has ordained to exercise that authority.

    My favorite quote on interpreting Scripture and holding doctrine is this gem from NT Wright:

    “The familiar phrase “the authority of scripture” thus turns out
    to be more complicated than it might at first sight appear. This hidden
    complication may perhaps be the reason why some current debates remain
    so sterile. This kind of problem, though, is endemic in many
    disciplines, and we ought to be grown-up enough to cope with it. Slogans
    and clichés are often shorthand ways of making more complex statements.
    In Christian theology, such phrases regularly act as “portable
    stories”—that is, ways of packing up longer narratives about God, Jesus,
    the church and the world, folding them away into convenient suitcases,
    and then carrying them about with us. (A good example is the phrase “the
    atonement.” This phrase is rare in the Bible itself; instead, we find
    things like “The Messiah died for our sins according to the scriptures”;
    “God so loved the world that he gave his only son,” and so on. But if
    we are to discuss the atonement, it is easier to do so with a single
    phrase, assumed to “contain” all these sentences, than by repeating one
    or more of them each time.) Shorthands, in other words, are useful in
    the same way that suitcases are. They enable us to pick up lots of
    complicated things and carry them around all together. But we should
    never forget that the point of doing so, like the point of carrying
    belongings in a suitcase, is that what has been packed away can then be
    unpacked and put to use in the new location. Too much debate about
    scriptural authority has had the form of people hitting one another with
    locked suitcases. It is time to unpack our shorthand doctrines, to lay
    them out and inspect them. Long years in a suitcase may have made some
    of the contents go moldy. They will benefit from fresh air, and perhaps a
    hot iron.”

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