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Why "Biblical" tends to be UnBiblical

Not too long ago a blogger was criticizing contemporary evangelicalism's obsession with the term "biblical." This blogger suggested, if I remember correctly, that seminaries should come up with a degree in Biblical Biblicalness." There is, of course, something to be lauded in this emphasis. But I would suggest the opposite is actually taking place. Terms like "biblical" often lose their meaning rather quickly. Instead, they become storehouses for other kinds of things. When I hear people use the word "biblical" today, more often than not it is a placeholder for: "what I find comfortable in light of my background."

It is usually easy to point this out, in light of the fact that these people's claim to "be biblical in all things" is, itself, extra-biblical. The call to be biblical itself is based on theologizing. That is not to say that the inclination is somehow unbiblical, but that the content of what it means to be biblical is based on a theological development (the Bible never states, for instance, sola scriptura - Scripture alone). I say this because I find that the term biblical is usually used in an unbiblical manner. It is an elitist tendency to write off other people who stand under God's word and to, instead, apply God's sovereignty to themselves. Rather than standing under the judgment of Christ, they stand at his side, pointing out people they think deserve his wrath. They often mimic, in other terms, the Pharisees. 

Too often the term "biblical" is wielded as a way not to deal with other human beings, but to dehumanize them through one's own "obvious" reading of the word. Too often, this "obvious" reading is really just an American reading - taking one's own worldview and applying it wholesale to the biblical text. The implications of this is that it is far to easy to learn an interpretation of the word as a way to sheath the sword of the Spirit - or, in other words, to learn the word in an attempt to hide from Jesus's penetrating glare.

To truly be biblical, therefore, we must be undone by Jesus. The word is, to use Dietrich Bonhoeffer's great little phrase, the "dagger at the heart of the church." Or, with Hebrews 4, the word is the two-edged sword which cuts us to where soul and spirit meet, and where joint and marrow reside - and it leaves us naked and exposed before the one to whom we must give an account. Being biblical is being laid bare before Christ - and living there - undone by his word and grasping onto him alone for the grace to survive is penetraing glare. 

Ironically then, the term biblical is often used to avoid being biblical. 



This is not a very helpful post, mostly because you throw so many hay-makers so broadly that you end up missing altogether. I think you probably have something helpful to say here, but would you mind getting a little more specific? Talking about what all "those people" think just doesn't get us anywhere, and neither do appeals to your particular experience with "those people" because if we don't know you, we don't know what circles that experience has been in.

Also, it is at least a little ironic that the "word of God" in Hebrews 4 is almost certainly about the gospel message, not the Bible. Obviously one could point to the relationship of the two in terms of revelation more specifically. But still, in a post about being biblical when you really want to hammer home the purpose of the Bible, maybe the exegesis could be a tad more careful (not that you're the first to say that about that particular passage, of course).

With no disrespect,
Andrew Faris
Someone Tell Me the Story


The post was meant to be broad to avoid specific finger pointing. I was merely hoping to raise a flag for people so when they hear someone use the word "biblical" in the near future, they might think about it a bit more. Knowing who these people are specifically is irrelevant for the post. In terms of the exegesis, I see no reason to think that "Word of God" should be understood as Gospel. If nothing else, Word of God is a reference to God's revelation - which, I would argue, must include Holy Scripture. With the bulk of the theological tradition, I would hold to a view of Scripture as the Word of God.
I must say that I find this comment to be odd. I guess I'm just not sure what you are hoping to accomplish with it, other than claim that the post could have been better (which, I assure you, all of mine certainly could). The exegetical jab, furthermore, rather than being based on its own exegetical depth is simply doing what you say you don't like about my post - randomly asserting a position is based on "careful exegesis," that doesn't, in the end, ever offer "careful" exegesis. I am not offended by your comment, I just find it curious.
But I do find you point helpful, in that you can provide us with the specifics you were looking for. Your point about careful exegesis is the equivalent to asserting the "biblical" higher ground. Your view of this passage, in other words, is "right," while other positions are lazy (or, to use your language, this passage is "certainly" about the gospel. Certainly? Really?). You see, the use of the term "biblical" is, as I have stated, more often than not used to simply assert one's view that is "certainly" correct, as a way not to actual enter-in to the reality that others too stand under God's word as interpreters. The position that is "certainly" right, becomes what we call "biblical." The implication is, for those who hear you, is that if you disagree with me you are unbiblical. But, to quote Paul, "I too have the Holy Spirit." The force of my post was to highlight how our positions become aligned so closely with the Gospel that the possibility of being wrong fades away. The tenor of your comment seems to follow this line.


Thanks for the response.

Regarding Hebrews 4, well, whatever, I suppose. The day after I wrote that comment I thought, "Why did I write that little jab? Mostly, I think, to throw a jab. And that's a bad reason to write it." Pride, in short, was the issue. I ask your forgiveness, and I probably have unwittingly illustrated your point.

I figured you were trying not to point fingers, but I sort of think you have to for this post to make any sense. Go ahead and say it: it is the New Calvinists you are concerned about (right?). I suppose my point is that saying, "When I hear people use the word 'biblical' today, more often than not it is a placeholder for: 'what I find comfortable in light of my background.'" is both so broad, so generalized, and ultimately so condescending that it just isn't helpful to anyone. My point then was this: why write it? I mean, really? "Biblical" means "comfortable to me"? I don't doubt that is sometimes true. But that's an awfully broad brush your painting with, and it sounds frankly elitist.

Maybe turning it around illustrates the point: in my experience, people who want to avoid terms like "biblical" more often than not do so because they don't want to sound like nutty fundamentalists even though they basically believe the same things about Scripture. They are academic elites.

This is not at all to say that you fit that bill. In fact, that's exactly my point: for me to say something like that would be way, way too broad. There are good reasons to say that things are biblical, just as there probably are good reasons to not be too hasty when we say things like "I'm just being biblical." As you said, I think it's more about the tenor of it than anything else.

I hope that makes some sense, or at least more so than my first comment. Again, I apologize for my arrogance: that's really what that was, and it's not ok. It's way too easy for me to let stuff like that fly on the blogosphere.

Andrew Faris


Thanks for your thoughts. Yeah, the blogosphere provides some rough terrain for careful thinking - and, as you note, it is easy to over-generalize to try and make a point.

In writing the post, I didn't have a specific group in mind actually, as much as evangelicalism broadly considered. We are, when it comes down to it, the one's who throw around the term "biblical" so liberally. My worry, I guess, when we use this phrase is that it makes our thinking/living static. We point to something specific and say, "This, this here, is what is biblical." I don't know about you, but interpretations I wholeheartedly believed in 5 years ago often arise as an embarrassment to me now. Biblical has often meant a handful of verses I have grabbed on to and actually use as a way to ignore other emphases in Scripture. That is what I meant by what makes us comfortable - not our own secular or fleshly views - but emphases that our church background as given us that we now use as a lense through which to read all of Scripture.

Interestingly, my post was not suggesting that we should avoid the term "biblical," but to give it a more robust meaning that included a certain posturing before the Word with our views about the Word. In other words, I think our usage of the term biblical should carry with it the eternal prophetic reign of Christ, under whose word we stand (hence the Hebrews 4 passage). So when I say that when people use the term biblical as a gloss on "what I find comfortable," what I mean is that the term is wielded as an attempt not to be attacked. In this sense, it is saying that God cannot speak through those who I disagree with. By doing so, we often, in my mind, undermine God's work through his people to admonish us. That is what I was trying to get across. By doing so, even slightly, we dehumanize one another - lowering others below our "biblicalness." Therefore, even if we are correct on an interpretation, we can be unbiblical, because we can fail to follow the Word even as we are correct about interpretating the word.

I agree with the main points here. I would add that the devotee of the "truly biblical"--anyone really serious about guiding oneself sola scriptura-- would be an astounding freak. In fact, any dozen devotees of the truly biblical would likely each consider every other devotee in that group as a freakish heretic.

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Kyle is a theologian, author, and ministry director for Metamorpha Ministries. His interests are theology, spiritual formation, and community life under the reign of Christ. His passion is to help people “think Christianly."