We recently witnessed the 493th anniversary of the event that sparked the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses on the Wittenberg door in hopes that the Church would re-examine its practices in light of its Biblical mandate. Luther was so convinced based on investigation into what the Bible said, that he challenged this monolith, despite the ramifications that it would have for him personally. Who can forget his famous words at the Diet of Worms in 1521
“Unless I am convicted [convinced] of error by the testimony of Scripture or (since I put no trust in the unsupported authority of Pope or councils, since it is plain that they have often erred and often contradicted themselves) by manifest reasoning, I stand convicted by the Scriptures to which I have appealed, and my conscience is taken captive by God’s word, I cannot and will not recant anything, for to act against our conscience is neither safe for us, nor open to us…Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen”
Martin Luther had a Biblical conviction that no negative ramifications could override.
It does occur to me that many both today and in the past, have taken hard stands on what they deem as truth based on Biblical convictions. This includes notable figures such as Luther, persons who have adhered to doctrines that have deviated from historic orthodoxy and even heretics. Yes, all would claim to have Biblical convictions because doctrines have been formulated based on what is in the Bible.
So I’ve been pondering lately what it means to be Biblical because it is a term that gets thrown out quite frequently with convictions of truth claims. This is because position is taken based on a “biblical truth” simply because it is stated in the Bible. That means that even distorted claims can be proclaimed as Biblical truth. I would even contend that the foundation of Roman Catholicism is Biblical since Matthew 16:18 and Matthew 18:13-15 serve as the foundation for Catholic theology related to the church’s authority.
Moreover, Biblical convictions can be met with a zeal and conviction equal to that of Luther’s that can make the espouser of claims dogmatically rigid on their positions. It is possible to have Biblical convictions about claims that might not be consistent with what the Bible is communicating and when zeal turns into a rigid understanding, it can make even the most egregious of claims seem plausible and defended. The claims don’t have to be outright heresy, but when rooted in conviction have the impact of being believed, particularly when supported with selected proof-text passages. Don’t get me wrong, zeal is important for defending the Christian message that most certainly is in the Bible. The basic tenets of the faith are not only defined but cannot be compromised.
But having convictions is not the same as understanding. One can have convictions about something that is misunderstood. So it seems to me that “Biblical” must be qualified since that defining something as such means it is more than just what is clearly stated in the Bible. I believe it comes down to hermeneutics – how we interpret the Bible. Because being Biblical is not so much what is stated, but the meaning of what is being expressed through scripture.
The meaning is rooted in God’s revelation and His ultimate revelation in Christ. Thus, as Christians I believe that when we deem something Biblical, it is expressed as what is pertinent for Christians, how we understand God and what He has provided. It generally means what is applicable for us to understand and live our life according to. Therefore, I think a Biblical conviction has to be based on the following evaluation:
1) Appropriate to the consistent themes of scripture: God has revealed himself through the 66 books that express His movement in time and space in relation to His people and purpose. There are unified themes throughout but also points of discontinuity. Understanding how each part fits within the meta-narrative is essential for understanding what it means in terms of the overall message. Being Biblical must be rooted in what the Bible is communicating
2) Appropriate to the author’s intent: it comes down to meaning. The Bible is a product of dual authorship. It is God’s revelation communicated through the pens of 40ish authors over the span of 1,500 years. Human authors used the art of language, writing under the divine guidance to transmit a message through various genre, such as historical narrative, poetry, letters or apoctalyptic literature.
What is said must be evaluated for what the author was intending to communicate and reading the genres appropriate to the their style is important. There is a post forthcoming that will speak more to authorial intent and meaning. But a claim cannot be Biblical if it is not rooted in the meaning of what the author is communicating. For example, some might say it is Biblical for us to have a vision for our lives of where God is taking us based on Proverbs 29:18. But vision here does not mean what our contemporary understanding is. It is the proclamation of God’s revelatory communication. I wrote more about that here. So being Biblical should be rooted in the meaning of what is being said.
3) Descriptive is not necessarily prescriptive: The Old Testament is important because it lays the foundation for the work that Christ would eventually accomplish. It is prophetic and speaks to the heart of God. So being Biblical does not necessarily mean that everything in the Old Testament is applicable for us today but certainly is important for the foundation that was being laid. But everything cannot be Biblical in the sense of prescriptive for us today. Yet it is Biblical concerning God’s revelation.
I think another area that becomes challenging is the gospel narratives and understanding what is applicable to the revelation of Christ vs. what is instructive for Christ followers. It is easy to assign something as Biblical, meaning expected for the Christian to perform or abide by simply because Christ taught it when in actuality it may be that it is Him he is referring to. For example, I recall several years ago, I did a sermonette on Luke 5:34-35. I related the old wine skins to the old nature and way of doing things and the new wine skins to the ‘newness’ of life. But I was not being Biblical since that has nothing to do with what Jesus was communicating. He was referring to Himself and the fulfillment of Old Testament promises that would introduce a new paradigm that would be inaugurated by his death (cf Ephesians 2:13-16). This does go back to meaning.
4) Prescriptive for Christian Life: So clearly there is much, particularly in the New Testament, that is applicable for life today. This is where the rubber meets the road in terms of how we use the term Biblical. But I also think this is the toughest one and wades in gray areas of Christian liberty. Clearly there are commands for the Christian but there are also situations that might not be applicable to us.
Moreover, just because something is not in the Bible does not make it un-Biblical. I often hear statements such as ‘if its not in the Bible we shouldn’t consider it’. But there is much about living life in the 21st century that is not in the Bible. Nonetheless, the Christian standard that is laid down by the teaching of Christ and apostolic instruction provides the basis for what is Biblical, meaning what does the Bible commend. So being Biblical will be consistent with the NT prescription even if the specific situation is not stated.
5) Make room for doctrinal distinctions: Given the plethora of protestant denominations, it is clear that not all will agree on what is Biblical. For instance, because of the situation at Pentecost in Acts 2:1-4, there is an expectation by some baptism of the Spirit is an event subsequent to conversion and have expectation that this should happen with Christians today. However, as I have stated in previous posts, and is in line with the previous section on what is prescriptive vs. descriptive, I believe this was the induction of the Holy Spirit to permanently indwell believers, beginning with Jews and eventually Gentiles (Acts 10:44-46; 11:15-18). It is not prescriptive of a 2nd baptism but descriptive of the first baptism. A Pentecostal would define this as Biblical but I would not, since I don’t think it is to be expected today.
I admit this can get tricky. How much do differences deviate before we can deem them as un-Biblical? In the example above of Catholicism, the foundation is deemed as un-Biblical by Protestants because the visible church was not what Jesus meant yet it was construed that way in the early development of Christianity. Ok, I’m not going there.
6) Compatibility with historic orthodoxy: is the claim consistent with what has been believed everywhere by all at all times? This is the value of knowing church history and how the Christian faith has been defined and refined through periods of evaluation and defense against heresies. For example, the existence of the godhead, equal in substance yet distinct in three persons have been deemed as un-Biblical by some. Yet, the Biblical evidence is clear and is supported through careful articulation of the faith that has existed throughout church history.
The bottom line is what is considered Biblical must be evaluated. Just because its in the Bible does not mean it is expected for today. Just because its not in the Bible does not mean it is not consistent with the what the Bible commends. I also think Biblical convictions have to be qualified with ‘according to my interpretation’. Yet, the Biblical evidence is clear on the sine qua non of Christianity. I would propose creating sub-categories of ‘Biblical’. I don’t know what these sub-categories would be but without them, I fear that what serves as Biblical convictions may not be honest with the Biblical text at all. And non-Biblical, Biblical convictions carried out with zeal, are no help at all and can actually be quite harmful.