A driving principle within Christian Evangelicalism (of which I consider myself a part) is that all advice should aspire to be ‘biblical’. This principle is birthed from a place of reverence towards Scripture and is surely found in some form or another in the majority of Christian denominations and expressions. As someone who desires to read the Bible every day (but let’s be honest, doesn’t) and values it as canon, this desire is one I share.
In some more ‘conservative’ (note the quotation marks) expressions, the adjective ‘biblical’ becomes a desired predicate to all claims to truth and otherwise. At its most reductive, whenever we are confronted with an ethical, social, or political issue, the Evangelical takes one step back and asks herself ‘What does the Bible say about this?’ Of course, this is a natural outworking of a paradigm that a lot of us share: if Scripture is indeed ‘God breathed’, then it ought to be useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness – as it says in 2 Timothy 3:16. Notably, this adjective stands for something, and necessarily stands against something; if there is a ‘biblical’ approach, then the converse exists: there are non–biblical approaches to these subjects, approaches we should avoid.
But what if this approach is actually driving a paradoxically ‘unbiblical’ outcome? What if we, as Pentecostals and Evangelicals, are claiming faithfulness to the Bible but in the outworking of this principle we are being unfaithful? It is this possibility that I want to explore here.
The adjective ‘biblical’ serves and reinforces a set of assumptions that leave the Christian vulnerable to being the very opposite of what they wish to be. Through emphasizing the applicability of the Bible to fever pitch, we begin to assume and demand that it must speak to every area of our lives, and anyone who wishes to speak into any area with authority can only do so by invoking the Bible, regardless of how separated the issue is. In this process, we can force the Bible to say something it doesn’t intend.
For instance, consider this line of reasoning: does Scripture touch on the access of automatic firearms for civilians? No, but it must. It is God’s word after all, and is useful for teaching, rebuking, etc. This isn’t a hypothetical thought experiment; it has been recently advocated by well-known theologian, Wayne Grudem, in his book Politics According to the Bible. Whilst Grudem’s intention of attempting to guide North American Christians through the unstable minefield of partisan politics is admirable, the outcome is a Bible filtered through the lens of modern Republican ideology. For Grudem, the Bible speaks directly to a variety of modern North American social issues. If Grudem is to be believed, a biblical government is a small government, a biblical policy of firearms is the right to bear them, a biblical tax is a regressive tax, and a biblical view on Capital Punishment is the government’s right to exercise it; I had not known such a bible until I read a theologian deeply embedded in Republican politics.
Importantly, it is not Grudem’s right-wing values that are necessarily problematic here, but his belief that he arrived at such views through proper exegesis. In his introduction he states:
‘I support political positions in this book that would be called more ‘conservative’ than ‘liberal’ . . . It is important to understand that I see those positions flowing out of the Bible’s teachings, rather than positions that I hold prior to, or independently, of those biblical teachings.’
This is Grudem’s assurance for us that he is trustworthy: yes, his position is very partisan, but that is because the bible is.
Now it would be intellectually dishonest to eliminate the possibility of Grudem being correct; but given how closely aligned his argument is to Republican policy, and given that it took someone embedded in a politically conservative subculture to identify what ‘biblical’ politics are, observers are more than justified in being skeptical. Furthermore, a potential implication of such a position is that Christians worldwide are living ‘unbiblically’ unless they adhere to American Republicanism.
But what drives this outcome? As stated, it is the paradigm that the Bible is both the sufficient and (often) only grounds that one needs for their beliefs and opinions to be valid. Within this paradigm Scripture speaks directly to all issues and more importantly, is the authority on all issues, regardless of how alien the issue is. For example, suppose we come to the conclusion on a particular social issue from reading Scripture – this interpretation governs our thinking; and extra-biblical evidence is read in light of this. The direction is always from scripture to the world not the other way around: for that would elevate human reason to the position of absolute truth. What we are actually saying, however, is that we would never allow extra-biblical evidence to influence our interpretation. Extra-biblical evidence is then only used to support our interpretation, because it has to, given the Word of God is never at fault. Here we are confused: we have failed to make a distinction between the Bible and our interpretation of it. At its worst, such a lack of self-insight can result in a person going to scripture and citing it to support the veracity of their own preconceived beliefs, misreading scripture and forcing it to fit their own worldview, unintentionally practicing a form of idolatry whereby our interpretation is a new Golden Calf. I hope to speak to this issue in more detail at a later date, but we can finish this train of thought by briefly reflecting on how this state of affairs comes about.
One of the axioms of this paradigm is ‘the clear teaching of Scripture’: the Bible has a singular voice that is clear and apparent. It is not scripture that is difficult or contentious, it is ‘man’ who is confused and darkened to the clear truth of Scripture, muddying the exegetical waters with ‘postmodern’ and ‘relative’ thinking. Such language is rhetorically powerful, but vacuous.
Alarmingly, Grudem is not alone; Christian popular literature is rife with claims of every sort supported by texts whose relation to the issue can charitably be described as distant. It is my opinion that the adjective ‘biblical’ is thrown about without much thought to its actual meaning. But without a few choice verses in brackets, we might find ourselves being charged with not being ‘biblical enough’, and so there is the pressure to ‘back up’ your claims with the Bible (1 Sam 2:13). In doing so, we are put into a bind: either risk twisting the Bible in the desperate attempt to find a ‘valid’ basis for your view, or risk not using the Bible enough and being labelled unbiblical.
How we understand the Bible as canon for our lives is an interesting and multifaceted topic that has elicited numerous responses since the dawn of the church to modern day. However, regardless of with which paradigm we align ourselves, we can all see that the relation of the Bible to our lives today needs to be more nuanced than the illustration of Grudem. If we keep insisting that the bible must speak to all aspects of our lives, we will continue to misappropriate its teachings to fit what we want. But if we seek to understand the Bible on its own terms, then we can give it the reverence it deserves. This also allows other sources of knowledge such as the modern scientific method (in its many forms), the study of history, philosophy, psychology etc., to speak into our lives and inform us in our Christian walk – not as voices that oppose our faith in Christ, but as informants of the context within which we live as Christians. In this sense, we can truly revere Scripture.
McKnight, Scot. The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2008.
Grudem, Wayne A. Politics According to the Bible: A Comprehensive Resource for Understanding Modern Political Issues in Light of Scripture. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2010.
Wright, N. T. Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today. New York: HarperOne, 2011.