There are certain words, used in certain fields, that have the magical ability to grant legitimacy or illegitimacy to anything they’re applied to, simply by virtue of being used. Like Midas, these words can turn anything they touch into gold. One such example is the word “scientific”. If someone claims that their method is scientific, then it’s bound to be good, right? Another word like this is “democratic”. Others are “equality”, “tolerance” and “ethical”. Marks and Spencer is described by a lot of people as an “ethical” shop – therefore it’s surely a good place to shop, right? Now in Christian spheres, we have the word “Biblical”. If someone calls a phenomenon or an idea ‘Biblical’, it means it’s pretty sound by Christian standards.
But here’s the thing. These words are powerful, and unless people have a chip on their shoulder they don’t always look into the implications of what they mean or the connotations they have. For instance, does merely calling something “scientific” make it scientific, or are there real life implications attached to this label that have to be fulfilled in order for it to apply, that are being overlooked? To consider another example, is a clothes shop ethical just because the word ‘ethical’ is plastered across its store front window? Why was there all the palaver about the horse meat scandal? At least partially because the product did not turn out, upon further examination, to be what it said on the label. I feel that the same set of problems potentially applies for the word ‘Biblical’, and this worries me. If you like an idea, you can call it “Biblical” and people will agree with you; if you don’t like an idea, you can call it “unbiblical” and people will leave it alone. What does this have to do with the Bible? Not necessarily very much, as long as the label acts as its own justification. Unless the label is peeled back, the lid is taken off and the contents are tested, people’s trust can all-too-easily be breached. In the case of the horse meat scandal, the consequences were lawsuits and financial ruin. In the case of Biblical exegesis, the consequences can be all-too-easily brushed aside. The assumptions behind our tendency to place automatic credence in the label ‘Biblical’ are as follows:
[Bible = the Word of God] + [The Word of God = infallible] = [“Biblical” = infallible].
And unthinking people, forgetting that certain real life conditions have to apply for something to be as “Biblical” as someone says it is, and forgetting that there’s a middle man applying the quotation marks in this equation, might deem anything labelled “Biblical” to be infallible – just like that. Just utter those magic words and you could get off Scot-free; no homework required, and no questions asked – and what being “Biblical” actually implicates in real terms might be completely overlooked. People forget that between the word and its designation there is a person applying it, and that that person has a fallible mind and possibly an agenda, and might sink to any depths to garner support for said agenda, including pretending that he actually knows what the Bible says about this thing that he’s touting as ‘Biblical’.
I do not mean to say by this that this ‘sinking to any depths’ is always done with a deliberate malicious intent to deceive; but if you have invested your whole life and perhaps your career in the things you believe in, and you want others to believe in them too, then it is tempting to fudge a translation of something to make it ‘fit’, or to quote a Bible passage that perhaps only tangentially relates to what you wanted your reader to take away with them. People often don’t mean any harm, but when they’re aware of the debates that are raging around them that are all trying to attack their point of view, the temptation to find ways of defending it at the price of integrity is significant, as well as the temptation to over-compensate by emphasising a certain doctrine above others in a way they shouldn’t.
What I find ironic is that many people are more eager to pronounce of the Word of God fallible than they are to declare the same about unsupported statements concerning it – when in reality the Word of God – written, as it is, by supernaturally inspired men – is the text that has most justification for its claim to infallible status. I think that this might be partly owing to etiquette. Even if the the average punter were aware of the middle man’s authorial presence, who would dare be so impolite as to imply that he hasn’t done his homework? Who would think of being so darned unchristian as to mistrust his judgement – and not only that – but to go out of his way to prove him wrong? How untrusting!
It’s time to wake up. The Christian faith is a battle, not a tea party. Truth matters, and there is only one Word on which we need to hang our hat: the Word of God. If anyone claims that something is “Biblical” or “unbiblical” and doesn’t refer back to the Word, then the jury’s still out on it. In fact, don’t stop there. Look at the evidence they give carefully, because ‘Biblical’ can mean anything from ‘being a hit in a Bible concordance search’ to ‘being representative of conservative evangelical Christian beliefs’. The distinction matters. There’s something disenchanting, I know, about approaching media with a default attitude of ‘suspicious’. But if we’re searching for truth – and the term ‘Biblical’ is claimed by Calvinists, Wesleyans, Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Charismatics and the like – then in itself the word cannot be taken on face value. Unless we’re happy to do what C.S. Lewis calls ‘wait in the hall’ of mere Christianity; that is, to adopt a form of Christian faith so devoid of specific tenets that it is not directly contradicted by any denomination that claims to be ‘Biblical’ but likewise cannot qualify a person for membership of any church, then the usage of the word ‘Biblical’ has to be investigated carefully. I am not a Postmodern; I believe that God invested his Word with meaning. Randy Newman says in his book ‘Bringing the Gospel Home’ that when trying to explain the gospel to family members we must remember that the true gospel is very ‘easy to miss’ in the midst of all the packagings and listener-friendly nuances we try to give it. No kidding. If something as foundational as Christ’s atoning death and Resurrection is easy to miss, then how much easier to miss must everything else be…?
For evaluation criteria of the validity of any so-called ‘evidence’ that might be provided in support of the “Biblical” label, I can’t give an exhaustive list. However, if you do find something a bit fishy and want to challenge it, then before going to the trouble to build up an argument for an opposing view, consider the following for starters:
- Are the quoted verses being taken out of the context of their paragraph/chapter/book?
- Is the text being interpreted in a manner contrary to its overall function in light of the New Covenant? (To give an example, for Christians, the Old Testament commands have a different significance in the light of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ from the meaning they had when they were first given. There is a large section of laws in the Old Testament about foods that are or aren’t acceptable to eat, whereas in the New Testament, Peter declares all foods acceptable, and it is Peter’s statement that is binding for Christians living under the New Covenant – i.e. us. To use the Old Covenant implications of those passages to support an argument that isn’t bound to Old Covenant times is to misapply the Old Testament)
- Can the quoted passage be linked to an ongoing theme in the Bible, or is the quoter trying to make it represent their own agenda?
- If so, is the quotation representative of other resurgences of that theme, which might show it to be more complex than the quoter is making it out to be?
- Is the ‘evidence’ being wrung out of the wording of only one translation of the Bible?
- Does the evidence hinge on a misconstrued definition of the “original Greek” word for x, y or z?
- Do reputable commentaries and study Bibles include, decline to mention, or positively reject the interpretation that the quoter gives?
In some cases you might also want to check whether what a person says accords with the writings of the Apostolic Fathers. I must stress however that this is slightly dangerous ground and can open lots of cans of worms that you might not have the time or the energy to pursue. The Apostolic Fathers are not always right, but for certain kinds of enquiries they can be very helpful. Letters and treatises written by people who were directly discipled by the apostles are likely to be pretty good indicators of what the 1st century church actually believed, even if it erred in places. Our authority is Scripture; I’ve made that clear, and actually by reading the Fathers you can appreciate just how highly they regarded Scripture too. But there are times when people come up with certain interpretations of Scripture that they claim to be ‘historical’, and at this point to refer to your Westminster Confession claiming that it is representative of ‘historic’ Christianity seems somewhat moot. It can be helpful, for instance, to consult the Church Fathers when a person says that a certain doctrinal point goes ‘right back to the early church’ and then backs himself up with a certain interpretation of a Bible passage. A close-up look at the early church might tell us how ‘early’ that piece of doctrine actually is and how long that particular Bible passage has been interpreted in that way, and by whom. In other words, it can falsify their claim that that doctrinal point was held by the very early church (or it can affirm it). But as the very early church was subject to the Word of God and could err, so must we be subject to it, knowing that we too can err. An even closer look at the early church can help us determine whether a doctrinal point is present in the early writings in the exact form given by the person who ascribed it to them, or whether the doctrine has been ‘interpreted’ into the writings or has ‘evolved’ out of them via nuanced readings. But it is important to set some boundaries regarding what extent your own Biblical hermeneutics ought to stand or fall on the conclusions of such a study, knowing that the conclusions you draw will not signal the end of the whole debate as it rages on, and that there are people who know much better than you do what sorts of questions and ways of responding to questions are likely to produce valid answers. It is also safer to start reading the Fathers with a supporting commentary or a translation from an author or publisher you trust. I’m not a Patristics scholar but I know from experience that in fields like this it is easy to fall into a pothole if you aren’t familiar with how the internal debates play out or what’s at stake, or what counts as acceptable practice in the field. Not knowing Greek or Latin could already make you vulnerable to translators who might not state their theological a priori in the way that Bible translators do; a commentary, we would hope, at least states its allegiances. The upshot of this is that if you’re going to ‘do’ Patristics and come out undeceived then you have to be prepared to do it properly and probably with your eyes wider open than you’re used to keeping them.
If you want to launch an intellectual offensive, then be my guest. But if a person provides evidence to support the ‘Biblical’ label, and you can pick out fallacies in the evidence they provide and the conclusions they draw from it, you might not have to go that far. What’s the difference between something deemed to be “Biblical” and something deemed to be “unbiblical”? Sometimes an honest analysis of the Bible; sometimes only an agenda.