When it comes to matters of doctrine and theology I have noticed that we Christians tend to be jargon heavy. “Doctrine” and “theology” themselves are specialized terms and unfortunately we hide behind the smoke screen of imposing language when we do not have the foggiest idea of what we are really saying. A few probing questions often quickly reveal we have been peddlers of semantic games. One of the words that gets thrown about a lot, and I am especially guilty of this, is the word “biblical.” What does it really mean?
First of all we must pause and recognise the seriousness of the word. All of Christian faith hinges on it. The gravity of this question means as usual we cannot fully explore it here. In The History of an Idea I explaining the meaning of a word is the history of a word. Lexicons give highly condensed summaries of how words have been used. This is what I wish to do here in a not so compressed manner. Words refer to things such that there is a relationship between the knower and the known. Biblical in this regard simply means related to the Bible. When we talk about something being biblical we are dealing with our relationship to Holy Scripture. So then what sort of relationship can we have with the Bible?
“Biblical” is used in mainly three or four ways. First it simply refers to the text called the Holy Bible. In this regard biblical simply means textual, that is, something found within a document which in this case is Holy Scripture. For example in Lord of the Rings “wargs” are textual because they exist in the document. The problem with using “biblical” in only that sense is it is only useful for the purposes of indexing and tells us nothing about what it means. It only tells us where we can find a word. Words don’t exist in isolation but with the other aspects of language are made meaningful.
There are a few words that are found exclusively in the Bible but the majority of words are found elsewhere in other documents as well. So if we were to find a word used in the Bible also used in a superhero comic does it make the document biblical? Certainly not. They belong to completely different genres. With this example we consider the Bible as a whole, not a random collocation of words, but a coherent set of literary documents. “Biblical” here refers to literature, in this case the collection known as the Holy Bible. At this point we introduce things like theme, subject matter, genre, structure etc. The Bible is completely different from a comic so we know simply sharing the same words does not mean there is a meaningful relationship between the two. For example we share names with millions of people around the world (sometimes the exact same name) yet it does not mean we have a relationship with them.
Beyond simple textual relations “biblical” becomes more complicated. On a literary level there are a whole lot of things that need to be considered which require us to actually understand the text on its own terms no less. What is the book actually saying? I often see people accept or dismiss things as biblical based on superficial similarities (or dissimilarities) such as similar words or turns of phrases taken out of context. Now if we are going to find real relationship with the text, that is, on its own terms, we need to look at another way in which “biblical” is used.
Biblical can also mean the period of the Bible. It is used in a historical sense, pertaining to either events the Bible mentions or are contemporaneous with it. At this point “biblical” converges with what I said about the meaning of words being historical. It is not just an arbitrary chronological era, something that happened in the past. The period in which the Bible was formed provides the interpretative context for understanding it. Like all works of literature the Scriptures are a child of their time. This is another error that we are all susceptible, when we take our modern preconceptions into the Bible. So when we say biblical it means we are thinking in the way they would have thought and understood what was written.
Biblical can be used on a textual, literary and a historical level. However, when most Christians say something is biblical they mean something more but definitely not less. Literature tells us there is a story. History grounds it in reality. Yet how does this relate to the larger theological issues that people usually mean by biblical?
Doctrinal viewpoints are as varied as there are denominations and agreement sometimes seems near impossible. However, nearly all appeal to the same book for authority. Questions regarding biblical authority are themselves another matter. One of the major problems is how we have conceived theology. In Defence of Theology I proposed a theology that emphasises relationship over dogmatic systems. We are often too familiar with the logos without really knowing the theos. “Biblical” I earlier proposed should mean a significant meaningful relationship with the Bible. (For too long the divinities have been aloof from humanity, which perhaps in itself is a reflection of how we view God himself.)
If “biblical” must mean a relational theology the foundation of all relationships is the truth. The truth is in fact the real story. The combination of literature and history makes the Bible a real story. It is not just a real story among many stories but the story of stories. This is because the Bible is the story of God. Theology then shifts from words about God to the word of God, his story. This story is told through creation, Israel and reaches its climax in Jesus the Messiah. Not only does it appeal to history, it makes sense of cosmic history.
As I argued in The Theology of a Worldview a person’s theology is their worldview. If the Bible gives us cosmic history, as far as the Creator is concerned, it is making statements about ultimate reality. Narrative is itself fundamental to worldview because our worldviews are embedded in the stories we tell. Therefore, when we say something is biblical, we are ultimately saying it is consistent with the worldview narrative espoused in the Bible. Anything truly biblical is consistent with how Holy Writ conceives the world and tells its story.
For instance incarnation is an important theological word which is not found in the Bible neither is it even unique to Christians. What makes it biblical is that it is a summary of God’s story and mission reaching its climax in Jesus of Nazareth just as it is found in the scriptures. Not only is it consistent with the text. New Testament historian N.T. Wright demonstrates in Jesus and the Victory of God, it is philosophically possible for a Jew of the Second Temple era to conceive YHWH becoming human (not that anyone was expecting it!) Other words like spirituality and resurrection also have their own specific biblical meanings.
At the theological level, for something to qualify as biblical entails a lot. We need to consider it as a text, literature, history and even more. When we dismiss something as unbiblical simply because we do not see it mentioned by name we are being very naïve. Conversely, detractors of the faith find tenuous similarities and declare a premature victory over it as false or derivative.
If biblical means relational then the most significant relationships are complex. If something is biblical it needs to reflect the sophistication of the document, to be integrated and continuous with its story and philosophy. The Bible talks about real events, real people and most importantly a real God. If something is Biblical it must relate us to the God-story and how it is told.