What Does "Biblical" Really Mean?

Sorting out the difference between what the Bible says and what God really wants.

What does it mean to say something is "biblical"? We have grown so accustomed to using the word “biblical” prescriptively (to mean, “what God wants”) rather than descriptively (to mean, “that which is found in the Bible”). We have forgotten that behind every claim to a biblical lifestyle or ideology lies a complex set of assumptions regarding interpretation and application.

Somehow we’ve gotten stuck in the wrong conversation. When we turn the Bible into an adjective and stick it in front of another loaded word (like “womanhood,” “politics,” “economics” and “marriage”) more often than not, we end up more committed to what we want the Bible to say than what it actually says.

So how do we move the conversation forward? How do we ground the word "biblical" in reality?

I think we have to start by acknowledging the fact that we all experience a few involuntary reflexes when we read the Bible:

We Project

We have a shared tendency to project onto the text our cultural and personal assumptions or to distort the text until it fits into a presupposed ideal. (I am familiar with this tendency because I am guilty of it too!)

It reminds me of folks who argue that free market capitalism is “biblical” when such a system did not even exist at the time the Bible was written. I understand what they are trying to say is that this economic philosophy is compatible with “biblical principles,” but even our notion of what constitutes “biblical principles” is selective and profoundly affected by our culture, our tradition, our projections, our experience and our biases.

We Select

When it comes to biblical interpretation and application, Christians have developed a funny habit of accusing one another of “picking and choosing” when the reality is, we all pick and choose. We all employ a bit of selective literalism when applying the Bible to our lives.

Let’s not forget that, technically speaking, it is biblical for a woman to be sold by her father to pay off debt, biblical for her to be forced to marry her rapist, biblical for her to remain silent in church, biblical for her to cover her head in prayer and biblical for her to be one of many wives.

Most of us are doing the best we can to pick and choose in a way that honors God and reveres the text, but this is an inexact science. There is no single “biblical” lifestyle, and we must regard any claims to such a thing as inherently selective.

So let’s move the conversation way from, “I don’t pick and choose; you pick and choose!” to, “So why do we pick and choose the way that we do?” … 'Cause that’s when things start to get interesting!

We Lose Things in Translation

It drives me crazy when people talk about “the plain meaning of Scripture” when most of them are not reading the Bible in its original language or cultural context.

As John Walton says in The Lost World of Genesis One, "We like to think of the Bible possessively—my Bible, a rare heritage, a holy treasure, a spiritual heirloom. And well we should. The Bible is fresh and speaks to each of us as God’s revelation of himself in a confusing world. It is ours and at times feels quite personal. But we cannot afford to let this idea run away with us.

 

"The Old Testament does communicate to us and it was written for us, and for all humankind. But it was not written to us. It was written to Israel."

We must remember that every poem, every letter, every list of laws and every historical account of the Bible had an intended audience that shaped its content. We’ve got to humbly acknowledge our own limitations in applying an ancient text to modern times.

We Reduce

To suggest that a collection of ancient texts, written by multiple authors and in multiple genres, spanning thousands of years and countless cultural contexts, provides a single, uniform prescription for how to live is absolutely ridiculous. The Bible is much more interesting than that!

At the heart of a prescriptive use of the word “biblical” is a desire to simplify—to reduce the Bible’s cacophony of voices into a single tone, to turn a complicated and at times troubling holy text into a list of bullet points we can put in a manifesto.

Trying to summarize what the Bible says about something is not necessarily wrong, of course. Often it’s the quickest and most efficient way to communicate about something. We just have to be wary of ignoring the parts that don’t fit to the point that we forget them … or of relying so heavily on someone else’s summary that we never stop to read the Bible for ourselves!

Reality checks keep us humble and prevent us from making idols of our own interpretations. As I’ve said before, I am suspicious of those who say the Bible never troubles them. I can only assume this means they haven’t read it.

We Bring More to the Table

Honestly, when I look at the Bible, I see a lot more passages that seem to support slavery than seem to oppose it. Slave owners in the American South did a great job of using these verses to claim that slavery was indeed “biblical.” And yet somehow, as a church, we managed to work our way around these passages because of shared sense of right and wrong, some kind of community agreement.

My Catholic readers will love this, but I think Protestants sometimes live in denial about the fact that we don’t rely exclusively on Scripture to arrive at moral conclusions. Tradition, experience and reason all play a part in our understanding of God and our interpretation of his Word. Often, when we say that something is “biblical” (meaning “what God wants”), we will find that our conclusions reflect a blending of biblical content, conscience, cultural assumptions and theological commitments. And that’s OK—as long as we admit it.

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So, do I think we should get rid of the word “biblical” altogether? Probably not. But I think it’s time to change the conversation.

None of us are living 100 percent biblically. We all project. We all select. We all have a habit of reducing the Bible and ignoring its cultural context. And we all have some baggage—some of it good, some of it bad—to bring to the table. So let’s stop throwing the word “biblical” around like we’ve got it all figured out, and admit for a moment that we don’t.

... Because, I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for a better conversation.

Rachel Held Evans is the author of Evolving in Monkey Town: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask the Questions. She also blogs regularly. This article originally appeared on her blog and is used by permission.

63 Comments

Moyo Mamora

27

Moyo Mamora commented…

Interesting points in this article, as well as VERY INTERESTING reactions...ultimately one thing that we know is that the Bible (as the inspired word of God) is absolute. The issue comes in the transcription due to the errors and limitations in men. Despite all this, the Bible has a recurrent theme of love for humanity and the redemption of mankind to a full blessed state.

We can always expatiate on this theme as we study the Bible. Where my issue comes is when people begin to interpret certain portions of Scripture that are not as clear as a "thus says God".

Biblical? It all depends on what the Holy Spirit reveals to you as an individual. If it is not absolutely clear in the Word of God, then it ought not be imposed on others as a precept, rather as a personal revelation that can be followed with the expectation of blessings!

Great one!

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John Backman commented…

Dear Rachel,

Brilliant article. Thank you for speaking wisdom into a real conundrum.

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Marshall commented…

Interesting article, but seems to miss the key point about the Bible. The whole Bible is about Jesus Christ as he told the men on the road to Emmaus: Luke 24: 26-27 Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?" 27And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.

It starts at Gen 3:15 the first prophecy about Jesus and our salvation and goes throughout scripture. The crimson thread is Christ. Study Gen 14 and the story of Melchizedek and how David related it to Christ in Psalm 110 and the writer of Hebrews 5 uses it the explain that Christ is our high priest. The Bible is all about Christ. Yes it has many genres but the main thread is Christ.

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Jimmy K. commented…

I'm a little late onto the conversation, but while I find the subject interesting and love to talk and debate over it, I'm almost at the point where I'm just tired of it. What is the point? I mean, sure, we all add our own interpretations to absolutely everything we read, hear, see, touch, and understand. So? Rachel asks for a better conversation, I guess implying one without these interpretations? Or where they are understood by everyone? Not gonna happen. 'taint possible. Sorry to burst that bubble, but we're only Human. We're stuck interpreting everything and no amount of analysis is going to remove the lens we see through.

Or maybe the point of the article, and the "better conversation," really just longs for a hope that more people will throw aside a traditional understanding of the Bible for a 'contemporary' understanding. That we will all see the traditional lens as skewing the data, and so loose ourselves from the hold of the Church.

...does anyone else see the goofiness of that?

Get rid of that old dustly lens! Try out our new, sparkly one! See the Bible in a whole new way!

Fine print: You're still interpreting. You still have a lens. This one might include a Bible that is assumed to be more of a mythos, or an errant historical document. It might also include a lack of belief in the supernatural, or in the ressurection of Jesus. You might feel more enlightened and humanitarian. You might grow closer to God, you might drift further away. Only time will tell.

So... what is the point? Sure we interpret. And yes, I guarantee you that many of our interpretations of what God actually wants are incorrect. Maybe he is down with Slavery. Maybe he is cool with Gay marriage, or divorce. Maybe we're wrong about Jesus - maybe God is just as in touch with a Muslim as a Christian. We are bound to be wrong on a lot of issues. But every relativist is bound to be wrong, too, on some things. We all miss the mark. I think the Bible mentions that concept somewhere...

Again I say, what is the point? For me, if we start tearing apart the Bible, if we say that certain things aren't Absolute Truths (ie: our sinfulness, our need for God, God's love for us, Christ's Sacrifice on our behalf) then there is no point to being a Christian, or reading the Bible. So I will stand by those things as true, and anything that tears them down as false. That's just where I've made my stand, along with a lot of others. We all make the stand somewhere, we all have the lens we cling to.

Get used to it.

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Brian commented…

Using the ORIGINAL cultural context to interpret scripture is the basis for understanding what it truly says. To examine what is said, who it was said to, and what it meant to them is the key to understanding it. Then, when we begin to grasp the intended meaning, we can begin to apply the truth within to our own lives.

It is dangerous to claim any sort of orthodoxy as absolute truth. But it is valuable to weigh the opinions of thousands of theologians who were just as passionate about finding the truth of the God they love.

Relativism is not something to pursue. A relative interpretation of scripture begins a "what's true for you is not necessarily true for me" situation. And while that may be easier to deal with, it is not God. There is one way. And I believe that there is an absolute constant of God's heart and will flowing behind all of scripture. We may come closer or fall farther from it as each generation grapples with understanding the Bible, but that doesn't mean God intended for the meaning of it to change.

To address the slavery issue: What if instead of applying our own concepts of what slavery is, we looked at all of the cultural and spiritual contexts. In the OT, when God seems to support slavery, we can also see that it was a form of paying off debts. Indentured servitude is a far cry from the African slaves shipped here to be treated like work animals. God further explained His heart on the slavery issue when Paul addressed it in his epistle, telling slaves to obey their masters. The NT attacks a lot of the OT practices and concepts, not because they were wrong, but because humans screwed up the application. We added in our brokenness to the translation and fudged the meaning in the process.

And that is exactly what we are doing here.

As it is said, let the main things be the main things, and let the rest go. Some things the Bible is very clear on: Christ's deity, sacrifice on the cross, and resurrection are the key to our human salvation. There is no other way.

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