Evangelical Christians often use the adjective biblical to sort and categorize various arguments and practices. You may hear us say things like, “I am going to a biblical counselor now” or “I am a part of this church because the preaching is biblical.” To be biblical is to be acceptable and good. To be unbiblical is to be unacceptable and bad. “Don’t go to an unbiblical church.” “Stay away from her books – her ideas are unbiblical.” You get the point.
The challenge is that our use of this word is often contestable. What does any given person mean when they use the word biblical? I am afraid that, often enough, our use of the word is really just a way to hide our own preferences and views behind a whitewash of righteous language. I do not think that we should abandon the use of the word biblical; nor do I think that we should give up on the quest to pursue biblical expressions of the faith. In fact, in the next few blog posts, I will be discussing the pursuit of a biblical worldview, biblical community, and biblical ethics. But the easy abuse of this term causes me to think that we should slow down and consider what it means to be biblical.
In general, I think that being a biblical Christian is more about cultivating a certain way of life than maintaining a certain list of propositions. It is more about a posture before God and neighbor than it is a certain affilation or denomination. In particular, I would suggest that being biblical is about four types of openness.
- Openness to the Bible. At first glance this seems obvious. But it is surprisingly easy to be perfectly orthodox and yet closed to the teaching and power of Scripture. A biblical faith is always oriented to what the Spirit is saying through the Word of God. It is always listening and striving to hear the Word. When instruction is clearly given, a biblical faith receives the instruction. When instruction is not clearly given, a biblical faith seeks to apply scriptural principles and scripture-soaked imagination to the problem at hand. Openness to the Bible is not about mastery of the text. If one thinks that the text can be mastered, then one has missed the message of Scripture. The Bible is a weapon wielded by the Spirit of God to accomplish the purposes of God. Mastery of the text is not realistic. Instead, a biblical faith is constantly seeking to be mastered by the text within the context of our present situation. Because of the limits of our knowledge and the reality of our sinfullness, there will be diversity of views and interpretations among those who consider themselves biblical. What unites these people is not a list of propositions or a certain brand affiliation but a fundamental orientation towards the Word of God as authoritative and the Spirit of God as active and present.
- Openness to the tradition. If we are open to the Bible, then we are also open to the apostolic teaching which has been passed down from one generation to the next. There is a “faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people” (Jude 3 NIV). The Bible witnesses within its own pages to the beginning of this tradition. You cannot consider yourself biblical and ignore the great tradition of the Christian faith. The Trinity. The two natures of Christ. The deity and personality of the Holy Spirit. Moreover, women and men throughout history have been listening to God’s Spirit speak to them through Holy Scripture. So biblical Christians want to hear from Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin and Billy Graham precisely because these people tried to listen to the Bible. Encountering the great women and men of Christian history leads us back to an encounter with the Bible. There have been times in Christian history when the “just me and my Bible” approach have led to heterodoxy and disorder. Learning from our collective past is a sure mark of a biblical faith. Again, it becomes clear that just as the great tradition of the Christian faith does not belong to a single denomination, so the the adjective biblical does not belong to one branch of the family tree.
- Openness to the community. If we are open to those who have gone before us in the faith, then we must also be open to the views, arguments, and well-being of those who currently share in this faith with us. In evangelicalism, relationships and doctrine have sometimes been set in opposition to one another. Relational-emphasis Christians have called on us to avoid divisive conversations and focus on joint works of mission. Doctrinal-emphasis Christians have called on us to take seriously the intellectual nature of the faith and to join together in opposition to false teaching. But I am not sure that it is possible to have sound community without sound doctrine or sound doctrine without sound community. A biblical faith is always interested in the well-being of the community of God’s covenant people, precisely because God’s Spirit tells us in Scripture that a fruitful faith is a faith that grows in the soil of healthy relationships. The fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and self control (see Galatians 5:22-23) – are expressed in relationships with others. After all, what kind of kindness or forbearance is only practiced in isolation? And just as biblical Christians take seriously the people near to them, we also take seriously the testimonies of believers of every nationality, language, and culture. We accept that we are not the only faithful ones in the world and that the Holy Spirit is present with many other people in many other places. So biblical Christians will be interested in ecumenical and cross-cultural perspectives.
- Openness to the world. Finally, biblical faith is interested in what is actually present in the world. Biblical faith takes seriously that God is the creator and lord of all things, and so therefore his truth is present in all things. The Bible is not just spiritual truth but true to what actually exists in creation. The biblical Christian is free to learn from what God has made known in history, science, and art. If God is our creator, then our world is his creation. A biblical faith cannot, therefore, ignore the findings of rigorous exploration in many fields. Our faith is not properly biblical if it proceeds as if the Bible provided “spiritual” truth that somehow exists independently of the “facts” of day-to-day living. When we learn from other fields, we are not abandoning the Bible but engaging God’s world (with our Bibles in hand, of course).
So a biblical faith is a posture in which we are constantly listening to God’s Spirit speaking in the Bible, learning from the saints that have gone before us, loving the saints that are with us now, and engaging the world which God has made. In the posts that follow, I will be applying this vision of biblical living to the formation of worldview, community, and ethics. I hope that you can join me in the study.