What We Mean When We Talk About…Being Biblical

If the titles of blogs, books, and seminary classes are any indication than one of the top concerns of those in and those training for “the ministry” is being biblical. I among the courses I took during my formal theological education were “Biblical Interpretation”, “Biblical Discipleship”, “Biblical Theology”, and “Biblical Psychology and Spiritual Formation”. The trouble can be, as it often is when disciplines overlap, that the word ‘biblical’ can be used in so many different ways. In this post I want to take some time to outline the three most frequent meanings of the word ‘biblical’ and understand why the differences are important. That is, I want to define what we mean when we talk about being biblical.

As far as I see it there are three main ways we use the word biblical:

  • Derived from the teachings of the Bible.

Often when someone asks the question “is that biblical though?” what they are asking is “can you justify that from the Bible. We might then think of psychology in these terms. The Bible does not specifically mention psychology, after all psychology was not a scientific discipline until fairly recently. However there are verses in scripture which lead us to develop an understanding of the human mind and how we are to steward it. For example, Romans 12:2 tells us that we ought to be ‘renewed in our minds’ rather than being conformed to the patter of this world. Listening to theologians and pastors discuss how we are to follow this command can sound a lot like cognitive behavioral psychology. Is psychology biblical then? Yes, if we understand that the Bible makes room for and encourages the study of the human mind.

  • Taught explicitly in the Bible.

Some, however, have a narrower view of the word ‘biblical’ and often use it to ask if something is explicitly mentioned in the Bible. Now the prototypical example here is the Trinity. Some argue that the Trinity is not explicitly taught in the Bible because it does not show up in name in the Bible. However this method of argumentation is similar to saying that Morgan Freeman is not in the documentary film The March of the Penguins because he never appears on screen. Ephesians 1 clearly teaches the Trinity without using the word and once you see the Trinity in motion you cannot help but begin to see the threeness of the one God all over scripture.

  • Not contrary to the Bible’s teaching.

The final way I have heard the word biblical used, though less often compared to the previous two, is to declare something is not contrary to the Bible’s teaching. We might see this use pop-up in discussions of ministry philosophy. Is video-preaching  biblical? It is kind of a strange question, and it is probably best understood to mean: is there anything in the Bible that would make video-streaming sermons for church ill-advised or illegitimate? If we understand this question to be rightly interpreted as such then to answer yes is to affirm that there are no teachings that when contextualized outlaw video-fed sermons.

Having laid out the three primary ways in which the term biblical is used we can start to see the landscape of theological debates taking shape. Essentially the question ‘is X biblical?’ boils down to either ones interpretation of scripture (whether something is explicitly addressed), theological method (whether it is possible to derive the concept), or personal freedom (is it an open possibility). Consider the question “is it biblical to support same-sex marriage?” As an evangelical I can say no almost without consideration of the meaning of biblical because specific texts in the Bible forbade homosexual acts, a theology of marriage proves to show that heterosexuality is critical to how God designed and what God intended for marriage, and the commands of scripture clearly set homosexual activity outside the bounds of personal-freedom for the believer. However, if we return to the question of video-preaching, we see a need for considerable theological reflection in order to answer the question. The Bible does not explicitly teach against video-sermons, so we must consider whether developing a robust theology of the pastoral office would present issue that would undermine the legitimacy of doing so.

Thanks for reading,

t.d.h

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