What Does It Mean To Be ‘Biblical’?

Richard Beck and Scot McKnight raise the question of what it means to be ‘biblical’. Beck questions the degree to which the Bible can create anything resembling a consensus:

Here’s my basic observation: Whatever biblical means it doesn’t mean biblical.

What I mean is this. Are Catholics biblical? Methodists? Pentecostals? Amish? Presbyterians? Episcopalians? Baptists? And on and on? It seems everyone would own the word biblical. And if that’s the case, if biblical can embrace all this diversity, then I struggle to understand how, when I gather to discuss a “biblical” approach to a controversial subject, that anything other than a diversity of opinions will emerge. Strictly from an empirical standpoint, the bible doesn’t produce homogeneity of opinion. Rather, it produces heterogeneity of opinion. That is a fact. The bible does not produce consensus. And if you think that it could or should you’re just not a serious person.

Rather than leading to a single position, Beck argues, a conversation about a ‘biblical’ position will rather produce ‘a diversity of views that share a family resemblance.’ So what exactly is does the word ‘biblical’ mean?

This is what I think it means. Biblical is a word Christian communities use to describe their hermeneutical strategies. Biblical is a word that is used to describe how a particular faith community reads the bible. What this means is that the word biblical is a sociological label, a way of describing the interpretive strategies of a particular community.

Consequently, when a faith community gathers to discuss if a view is biblical or not they are asking how a particular view sits with their hermeneutical history and norms. The issue isn’t if a position is biblical or not (because, as I noted above, no one is being biblical) but if a position would cause a sociological rupture, a tear in the hermeneutical fabric that has held this community together. If the position can be woven into the hermeneutical web then it is declared biblical. But if the rupture is too great then the view is declared unbiblical.

In summary, this is my definition of biblical:

Biblical is a sociological stress test

While, on a purely descriptive level, it may often be the case that the term ‘biblical’ functions in this way, the notion that it must always function in such a manner strikes me as rather cynical (if unwittingly so).

Does the fact that there is plurality of interpretation really mean that Christ cannot communicate to his Church through the Scriptures in a manner that breaks through prevailing cultural and communal hermeneutical habits? Does the existence of numerous interpretations really undermine the notion of the perspicuity of the text? I am really not sure that the one follows from the other.

Naturally, correctly interpreting the Scripture is not always straightforward. Faithfully interpreting the Scripture requires a Spiritual attunement to them, an attunement that I believe is located primarily in the life of the faithful congregation. A faithful interpretation arising from profound Spiritual attentiveness and attunement to the text can be hard to arrive at for various causes, many of which are powerfully operative in the Church today. Among these reasons one could list a limited knowledge of or exposure to the whole body of the biblical text, the absence of exposure to the broader hermeneutical ministries of the body of Christ (including such things as the life of the liturgy), sinful resistance or a slothful inattentiveness to the text.

The fact that those who hardly know the Scriptures at all, handle it very selectively, avoid the contexts in which its meaning is revealed, fail to make diligent use of the means of interpretation provided to them, come to the text unwilling or unprepared to be attentive on account of a prior agenda, or do not consistently expose themselves to the ministries of faithful interpretative communities arrive at radically different understandings of the text tells us nothing whatsoever about the perspicuity of the text itself. Given the levels of biblical literacy in the Church today, should interpretative pluralism really surprise us at all? I would suggest that, before questioning the perspicuity of the text, we should be far more suspicious of ourselves.

Faithful and attentive interpretation is not always demonstrably correct interpretation, and so such interpretation can seldom easily command consensus. God does not generally communicate his truth to us in a manner in which things could not be interpreted otherwise, should we desire it to be. Powerful though it is, in important respects God makes his Word vulnerable to us: faithful interpretation must develop a deep sensitivity to the text, inclining our ears to it. Correct interpretation is a discipline of deep Spiritual sensitivity to the text, not something that can be arrived at through some certain and scientific method and demonstration. We are to be like the servants who can read the slightest hand gestures of their masters (to borrow an illustration from James Jordan).

In their use of the Scriptures, both Christ and the apostles consistently point, not to the fact that the heterogeneity of the Bible dooms us to divergent opinions, but to the fact that people have failed to hear the clear word of Scripture on account of their false tradition, sin, Spiritual blindness, or lack of faithfulness in the practices of scriptural study. In a Church where so few people have extensive and intensive knowledge of the biblical text, and where wider cultural trends are so influential, it seems to me that this should be the place where we start too.

Moving on, one might also ask whether Beck’s suggestion reduces the term ‘biblical’ merely to describing a sort of generic conservative hermeneutical impulse in the community. For me this raises the question of why the appeal to the ‘biblical’ reading so often functions as a radical one, the appeal for the reading that ruptures the hermeneutical fabric of the community, the appeal to the text against the community. As I read the Bible’s use of itself, I am certainly not struck by its hermeneutically conservative character relative to the wider community. The text is rather treated as the voice of God that can break through the false consensuses and hermeneutical strategies of the tradition and lead to the creation of a new order, as light pierces darkness. I think that there is a real danger of viewing the text as being entirely at the mercy of the interpretative community, and not often serving as a site of protest against it.

In studying the manner in which Christ and the apostles spoke of and employed the text, I don’t believe that we really witness the ambivalence to the perspicuity and unity of the text that is so common today. The fact that interpretative pluralism is so characteristic of our personal experience, and we doubt the power of the text to puncture our interpretative traditions and consensuses, strikes me as more telling an indictment against us as interpreters and as Christians. We are often more certain of our own capacity to interpret than we are of God’s capacity to communicate.

So how do I understand the term ‘unbiblical’?

The Bible isn’t a homogeneous text. However, it is not presented as a disunited text. There is a profound unity in its plurality. Its unity is not that of the monologue, but of the conversation, whose voices wrestle with each other, even though in the final analysis they do not ultimately disagree. It seems to me that the ‘unbiblical’ reading is the reading that extracts itself from wrestling with the wrestling internal to the Scripture, dismissing or failing to uphold some of its voices in favour of others.

In seeking to be faithful and biblical the Church has consistently needed to protect biblical tensions (faith and works, OT and NT, Christ as man and God, unity and plurality in the Trinity, etc.), arguing for their fundamental unity, even when the exact character of this unity cannot always be fully or clearly articulated. Being biblical is about not removing difficult canonical voices from the conversation, but giving them a faithful and receptive hearing. Being biblical is about making sure that we are constantly confronted with our ‘problem texts’ and that we never silence them.

I tend to regard a lot of denominational differences as attempts to protect either the conversation or particular voices within it. Where the conversation is constrained and biblical voices abandoned, denominations can often form around those abandoned voices. Sadly, this often results in a neglect of other voices. Dialogue between Christians from different denominations can often alert us to some of the voices that we have abandoned. I suspect that we should see God’s providential hand in this and not constantly bemoan the numerous denominations that exist. Where the Church is not yet ready to hold many voices together in a united and single conversation, it is for the best that God preserves different voices at some distance from each other, in preparation for the time when we might be more able to hear.

As I remarked earlier, I would sooner blame the clarity of my hearing than the clarity of God’s voice. I believe that such a conviction can serve as a basis for unity. When we have more faith in the perspicuity of God’s Word, but less in ourselves as its interpreters, interpretative disunity is no longer treated as if it were absolutely unavoidable on account of the character of the text, but as a temporary state arising from the incomplete character of our sanctification. The more that we commit ourselves to being attentive to the text, and to the practices of interpretation, the more that we believe that disunity will be overcome. A greater confidence in the text will recognize its capacity to shake us out of our slumbers and bring us to our senses, treating God’s Word not merely as a passive victim of our interpretations, but as a living voice in the life of the Church, the sword of the Spirit by which God is preparing us to become living sacrifices on his altar. I wonder whether our belief in unavoidable interpretative plurality on account of the nature of the text itself has produced a sort of laxness when it comes to our commitment to studying it, serving to exacerbate the very problem that it claims as its basis.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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3 Responses to What Does It Mean To Be ‘Biblical’?

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