you keep using that word

Yesterday, I had a conversation over social media with a couple of people which roughly (very roughly) centered around the use of the word “biblical.”  I was arguing that conservative protestant evangelicals are not the only people with a biblical worldview, and the other guys were arguing … well, I wasn’t really sure exactly what their perspective was (we kind of trailed off into a different discussion at that point).  But what did come across clear was that when they used the word “biblical,” what they really meant was “what I think the Bible teaches.”  And this is a terrible use of the word.

But what does “biblical” mean?1  Because if “biblical” simply denotes what the evangelical subculture believes, then that means that the majority of Christians in the world today2 don’t have a biblical worldview, and that just seems like a pretty arrogant claim for a group that only makes up less than 14% of Christians worldwide.3

So, what is “biblical”?  If by “biblical” we mean an idea that people could use the Bible to support, biblical theology supports things like…

  • The condemnation of Christmas trees (Jer 10:1-4)
  • Slavery (Exod 21:20-21; Lev 25:44-46; Eph 6:5), even sex slavery (Exod 21:7-8)
  • The notion that God will give you whatever you ask for (Ps 37:4; Mt 7:7-8)
  • The slaughter of women and children (Judges 21:10; Isa 13:15-16)
  • The execution of rape victims (Deut 22:23-24)
  • Genocide (Deut 7:1-2; 20:16-20)

By using “biblical” in this way, we basically mean anything that ever gets mentioned in the Bible.  Obviously, this leads to all sorts of problems.  As Fee and Stuart said, “Every imaginable heresy or practice, from the Arianism (denying Christ’s deity) of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and The Way, to baptizing for the dead among Mormons, to snake handling among Appalachian sects, claims to be ‘supported’ by a text.”4

If by “biblical” we mean a belief that someone can draw from reading Scripture at face value, then the following things are “biblical”…

  • Jesus wants you to hate your family (Lk 14:26)
  • Jesus wants you to be perfect or mutilate yourself (Mt 5:29-30)
  • Shellfish are an abomination to God (Lev 11:10-12)
  • Women should never talk in church (1 Cor 14:34-35)
  • God has no problem killing a baby just to teach the parents a lesson (2 Sam 12:1-23)

As crazy as some of these might seem, and as damaging as some of their implications might be, some of these are things that some Bible-believing Christians actually believe.  But, what if you want to get away from specifics?  “Biblical” theology shouldn’t just focus on select, individual passages, right?  It should take into account the overall message of the Bible. If this is what is meant by “biblical” – merely the main message of the Bible – then the adjective “biblical” should only be used when referring to…

  • The belief in God, though not really any specific belief about God
  • The belief that Israel was God’s people, though not any specifics about what exactly their relationship was like
  • The belief in Jesus as the Messiah, though nothing certain about what exactly that all entails
  • The belief that salvation comes through Christ, though nothing particular about how that works or what salvation even is

If this is all that is meant by the term “biblical,” then pretty much every Christian denomination or cult that claims the name of Jesus Christ could make claim to a “biblical” worldview.  This would include not only Evangelicals and all of the other denominations that fall under the label of “orthodox,” but also Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Rastafarians, and Christadelphians.  Hell, even the Westboro Baptist Church and the Ku Klux Klan could legitimately call their beliefs “biblical.”

If, however, by using the term “biblical” we are referring to a theology that one might draw from Scripture using basic principles of interpretation, then a “biblical” worldview supports…

  • Both Calvinistic predeterminism (Prov 16:9; Isa 46:10; Eph 1:11) and Open Theism (1 Sam 15:10-11; Jer 26:19; Isa 5:1-4)
  • Both salvation by faith alone (Rom 3:28; Eph 2:8-9; 1 Tim 1:9) and salvation that requires work (Mt 25:14-46; Gal 5:6; Jas 2:14-26)
  • Both once saved always saved (Jn 6:37-39; 10:27-29) and the need to persevere in our salvation (2 Pet 2:20-21; 3:17-18)
  • Both exclusivism (Jn 14:6; Rom 10:9) and inclusivism (Rom 2:14-16; 1 Jn 4:7) in the kingdom of God
  • Both believers baptism (Acts 8:12, 34:38; 19:1-5) and infant baptism (Acts 11:13-14; 16:14, 31-33)
  • Both complementarianism (1 Cor 11:3-10; 1 Tim 2:11-14) and egalitarianism (Rom 16:1-12; Gal 3:28)
  • Both just war (Deut 20:1-20; Isa 42:13) and non-violence (Isa 2:4; Lk 6:27-37)
  • Both condemnation of gays (Gen 19:1-13; Lev 18:22; 1 Tim 1:8-11) and affirmation of gays (2 Sam 1:26; Eph 4:1-2; Col 3:14)
  • Both hell as eternal conscious suffering (Dan 12:2; Mk 9:47-48) and annihilation (Ps 37:20; Mt 10:28)
  • Even Christian universalism (Col 1:20; Phil 2:10-11; 1 Tim 2:3-6)!

Now, this is (I think) the proper use of the term “biblical.”  However, as you can see, even this definition allows for a rather wide range of theological views… and that bothers some people.  This is where I think Christians (especially Evangelicals) make a huge mistake in assuming that whatever doctrines they hold are “biblical” and ones that contradict their beliefs are not.  I have heard adherents of Reformed theology say that Calvinism is “biblical,” but open theism is not, even though open theists have just as much biblical support for their views.5  Whether you like it or not, almost all of the major Christian doctrines that you disagree with can be (and historically have been) argued from Scripture.

So, there you have it.  Those are your options (unless, of course, you do use “biblical” to mean “what I think the Bible teaches”).  It seems like “biblical” gets swung around like a billy club, hoping to lend credibility to one’s beliefs.  It sounds much more impressive to label your own ideas as “biblical,” because nobody wants to be accused of arguing with the Bible.  It is similar to how the word “science” gets thrown around in an attempt to lend credence to something someone believes.6

So, what do you think?  What should we mean when we use the word “biblical”?  Which of the above definitions do you think is most accurate?  Or, feel free to share an alternative definition that you think works better.

Whatever you do, just be careful how you use “biblical” in the future, and please don’t assume that your views are the only “biblical” ones.

1: Some people make the mistake of assuming that “biblical” is the same as “orthodox,” and therefore anything that the church has ever condemned as heresy in an ecumenical council is rightly labeled “unbiblical.” This, however, confuses the two terms, biblical and orthodox, which are not synonyms. Furthermore, there are condemned heresies that can still be argued from Scripture, and there are beliefs held and accepted by Christians which have no scriptural evidence at all (here’s looking at you, “age of accountability”).

2: … not to mention the vast majority of Christians throughout history…

3: For more information on Christian demographics and denominations, check out this study by The Pew Forum.

4: Fee and Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 18.

5: I happen to think there is far more scriptural evidence to support open theism than Calvinism… but that’s a post for another day.

6: You may have noticed that both evolutionists and young earth creationists claim that their view is the truly scientific view.

Ready for another article?

Rocky Munoz
Jesus-follower, husband, daddy, amateur theologian, former youth pastor, nerd, and coffee snob. Feel free to email me at almostheresy@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter (@rockstarmunoz)


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