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!