So what’s a “biblical” approach?

Richard Beck, ever vigilant to stir the pot, calls into question what most think they mean by “biblical.”

Recently I was invited to be a part of a conversation regarding how a community I’m associated with should approach a controversial topic. The stated goal of the conversation is to think about what a “biblical” approach would be regarding this issue.

So I’ve been thinking a lot about the word biblical and about what it might mean.

Here’s my basic observation: Whatever biblical means it doesn’t mean biblical.

What I mean is this. Are Catholics biblical? Methodists? Pentecostals? Amish? Presbyterians? Episcopalians? Baptists? And on and on? It seems everyone would own the word biblical. And if that’s the case, if biblical can embrace all this diversity, then I struggle to understand how, when I gather to discuss a “biblical” approach to a controversial subject, that anything other than a diversity of opinions will emerge. Strictly from an empirical standpoint, the bible doesn’t produce homogeneity of opinion. Rather, it produces heterogeneity of opinion. That is a fact. The bible does not produce consensus. And if you think that it could or should you’re just not a serious person.

The point being, a conversation seeking to find a “biblical” view isn’t heading toward a fixed destination. Rather, such a conversation will be airing a diversity of views that share a family resemblance. The word “biblical” here is the name we have for that family resemblance. Similar to the label “Smith Family Reunion.” Biblical means something like Smith Family Reunion.

Phrased another way, biblical is just a synonym for Christian…

And then this stinger:

This is what I think it means. Biblical is a word Christian communities use to describe their hermeneutical strategies. Biblical is a word that is used to describe how a particular faith community reads the bible. What this means is that the word biblical is a sociological label, a way of describing the interpretive strategies of a particular community.

Consequently, when a faith community gathers to discuss if a view is biblical or not they are asking how a particular view sits with their hermeneutical history and norms. The issue isn’t if a position is biblical or not (because, as I noted above, no one is being biblical) but if a position would cause a sociological rupture, a tear in the hermeneutical fabric that has held this community together. If the position can be woven into the hermeneutical web then it is declared biblical. But if the rupture is too great then the view is declared unbiblical.

In summary, this is my definition of biblical:

Biblical is a sociological stress test

So, what do you think?

My response: he’s got something for us all to hear in this claim. I can stand up and say the four spiritual laws are not the gospel, or double imputation is not the gospel, and I can say the King Jesus Gospel sure looks like what the Bible says in 1 Cor 15, the sermons in Acts and the Gospels, but some have all sorts of moves they make to support their “evangelical” and “biblical” gospel and I say right back to them, “Really, you think that’s what the Bible says?”

They think their view is biblical. So, what does “biblical” mean? Is it a power move? Or a truth claim? Or a method?

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Adam Shields

    Sounds like the first couple chapters of Christian Smith’s book.

  • Andrew Wilson

    This sounds like a 1970s lit crit piece applied to the Bible, and not in a good way. It all seems rather reductionist, and even Fishy (in the Stanley sense). No doubt the word “biblical” is often used to mean “compatible with my reading of Scripture”, but Beck seems to leave no room for the idea that some of us – including, I think (and hope!) you, Scot – try daily to allow the Bible to critique our understanding of it, and might use the word “biblical” to mean “in line with what the Bible actually says and the story it actually tells”, rather than “in line with what I’d always thought about it”. Just because there’s no pure objectivity, and an awful lot of popular level subjectivity, doesn’t mean that critical realism isn’t possible. And just because some declare ideas that are too novel “unbiblical” doesn’t mean that this move is inevitable. Methinks.

  • Jeff

    There are two points I would like to make here.

    First, Beck’s statements rightly criticize those who overuse the term biblical to mean “whatever my denomination teaches.”

    Second, I think his other conclusions are very mistaken.

    When he says…

    “Biblical is a word that is used to describe how a particular faith community reads the bible. ”

    …what if my faith community is Nazi Germany and I read the bible to say that Jews are a detriment to society? As far as I can tell, on his definition, my view is biblical because I have a faith community (in this case, Nazis) to back me up. If one would say that their beliefs weren’t orthodox, then what about the reading of the bible during the Spanish Inquisition? I would bet their views on torturing heretics were held by their faith community. According to Beck’s definition they are therefore biblical.

    Essentially he takes all the objectivity out of the term “biblical” and replaces it with cultural relativism. In fact, since it no longer refers to the bible, but the faith community, he takes all of the “biblical” out of the term biblical!

  • Chaplain Mike

    I have decided to abandon this adjective. It is too easily co-opted to mean whatever one wants it to mean. Let you yes be yes and your no be no, and if you want to support something by appealing to the Bible, just do it and explain your reasoning.

  • Wade Hodges

    I think our overuse of the word “biblical” betrays a tendency to take the Bible more seriously than we take Jesus. Jesus teaches us how to read and interpret the Scriptures. Seems to me our goal as communities of faith is not to be biblical but to be Christlike in our attitudes and behavior and in our reading of Scripture. For example, I’d rather have a Christlike position on the role of women in ministry than a “biblical” one.

  • DRT

    Biblical means it is your interpretation of the bible.

  • Travis Greene

    It’s usually a power move, or a way to shut down conversation.

    I think a truly “biblical” approach (as method and as framing narrative or as the center of rather than exhaustive source of truth) does produce a diversity of views, since the text itself is multivocal and dialogical. And this, I think, is God’s intention.

    The “family resemblance” analogy is a good one. The heterogeneity of Scripture is not infinite, and neither are our possible faithful responses. “Love your neighbor” can never mean hate your neighbor. But different folks might come to different opinions in regard to (to take an obvious example) how to love our gay and lesbian neighbors. In regard to the biblical narrative, are gay folks like Gentiles and eunuchs, once cut off from God but now welcomed in precisely as they are (Acts/Galatians and Isaiah, respectively)? Or are they like tax-collectors in the gospels, to be loved unconditionally and invited to change their way of life? Both responses may in fact be “biblical”.

  • Jeff

    I realized I didn’t answer your question at the end (in bold) lol. I think biblical means simply, “what the bible teaches.” I think it is supposed to be the objective standard by which we judge whether your gospel is the right one, or Pipers.

    Now this doesn’t mean that you must adopt a static interpretation of scripture where everything is taken literally in every sense. It simply means, as I see it, that there is an objective standard by which we judge two opposing opinions by, and that this objective standard is the bible. A Piperish person may say that this objective standard must be what some have called a “static interpretation of scripture,” and you may disagree. However, you both would agree that there is an objective answer to the question “should women be allowed to preach” (for example), and that this answer can be decided by what the bible says, or what, perhaps evolved rules we adopt from the bible’s principles or whatever.

  • Peter G.

    So Scot, what are you saying when you say the King Jesus Gospel is more biblical?

  • Mark Baker-Wright

    My take away from this is not so much to avoid using the word “biblical” but to be careful that, whenever I do so, to be careful not to use the definite article (“the”) in front of it, as if there were only one “biblical” way of looking at things. It would generally be more correct to say “a biblical…”.

    Some people want to say that you can make the Bible say anything at all. I don’t think that’s true. But it is certainly clear enough that the Bible is more flexible than many (others) would like to have us believe.

  • Mike

    When Beck says “Biblical is a word Christian communities use to describe their hermeneutical strategies” he is certainly correct as far as this statement goes. An Amish person may say that biblical means something has to be literally mentioned in the Bible. Someone who has a narrative hermeneutic is going to approach Matthew 24 differently than someone with a Dispensational approach. Each sees their interpretation as biblical according to their hermeneutic.

    However, I believe Beck limits the scope of biblical. It is not just the hermeneutic we use to interpret a passage, but also the rubric we use to decide how to live out that passage. For instance, a person may interpret the Bible as saying homosexuality is a sin. They believe being biblical means viewing homosexuality as a sinful way of acting. But being biblical for many people also means acting on that hermeneutical result. One group who believes it is a sin may try and convert them from their homosexuality. Another group may picket funerals and still another group may counsel abstinence. Each group has the same hermeneutic but uses a different model for application.

    Therefore, it is too simplistic to say that “biblical” only refers to hermeneutics. It also refers to application of the results.

  • Alan K

    “Biblical” is most certainly an authority claim. While the word is definitely problematic, I think most people use it in a way that attempts to locate revelation and divine intent within the pages of scripture.

  • Randy Gabrielse

    I like Chaplain Mike’s approach. Over time, words become encrusted with too many uses and applications and so need to be either dropped or thoroughly deconstructed, which may amount to the same thing. I find biblical to be a quick way for people to critique on reading in order to favor a reading that they favor.

    Randy G.

  • konastephen

    Beck’s observations are apt. However, I cannot see how his the openness to diversity (under the banner of epistemic humility) is any less dogmatic than the groups seeking homogeneity. In fact, this ploy seems like a pretext to simply shut down the conversation of controversial topics when we don’t like the conclusions…

  • Scot McKnight

    Peter G, I mean getting back to the Bible in a way that undermines much of what we are saying. I doubt Beck thinks all interpretation is up for grabs and just power playing.

  • rjs


    I don’t think that Beck is preaching an openness to diversity – but I could be wrong.

    And I don’t think this criticism about the adjective “biblical” is a pretext to shut down conversation because of objectional conclusions.

    Rather I think the point is that “biblical” as an adjective is meaningless until it is accompanied by a much fuller description and argument, and by a willingness to listen to alternative arguments that are also grounded in scripture.

    To claim that this is the biblical approach or answer is a power claim that shuts out conversation or dissent.

  • DRT

    I’ll team up with Alan K#12:

    For the hearer – Biblical is that person’s interpretation of the bible.

    For the speaker – It is a claim to god’s authority

  • T

    Well, I think this post is more on than off, and much more useful than not. That said, I do think some positions are more “biblical” than others, especially when the bible has much to say on a given topic. One of the great uses of the Quadrilateral, imo, is that it can help us discern how much a particular conclusion is shaped by scripture relative to experience, tradition and reasoning. As long as there is a sizable portion of the Church that thinks that most or all of their theology is from the bible “alone” then this post will be helpful.

  • Robert

    I once knew a pastor who used ‘it’s bilical’ all the time when he meant ‘shut up and don’t question me’. He used the term many times of things which aren’t in the Bible; going forward and praying a little ritual prayer at the end of an evangelistic service, for instance. So I think it’s essentially a claim to orthodoxy – defined as the belief of that church community – and it can therefore be used in a divisive an exclusive way. I don’t hear it used by liberals, just by conservatives, though that may just be my experience.

    Is bashing babies’ brains in biblical? (Psalm 137)

  • Tim

    It seems like if you understand the Bible to be our road map, guide, textbook, answer guide to all of life, then defining the term “biblical” becomes extremely important, because if the answers are all in there, then you need to figure out exactly what it says and means, which then dictates the “proper way” to go about doing that, thus defining biblical to you. If others don’t agree with that approach, they must not be biblical.

    But taking the approach of McLaren, Smith, and others who have said this approach to the Bible is impossible, and we should view the Bible as a library or narrative, etc., then the term “biblical” doesn’t become as important as before.

    Of course there are those who would say, “that’s just their definition of biblical, which is different than ours. They just have a wrong approach to understanding the Bible.” True. But as NT Wright says, the Bible is not the authority in and of itself, but it points to the real authority. So the important term to understand is “Christocentric” rather than “biblical.”

  • Richard

    Let me underline what Scot said at #15.

    The context of the post was gathering with a group of people to determine “the biblical view” on a controversial topic. The post I wrote was pushback on what I felt was the assumption behind that conversation: That “being biblical” would produce a uniform answer. I was pushing back on the notion that if you open the bible everything just becomes clear. It often doesn’t. So the group needed, in my estimation, to prepare for a family of views coming out all under the umbrella “biblical.” For some reason, when people hear the word “biblical” they hear the word “uniform” rather than “diversity.” The post was an attempt to make this assumption and association explicit.

    The last bit, about the sociological stress test, was my attempt to illuminate what I thought was really going to be happening in this group. That rather than a real attempt at being biblical, which would amount to, in my estimation opening a Pandora’s (or the Spirit’?) Box, we would really be determining how a particular view could sit with our hermeneutical history and norms.

    In short, I was trying to get this group to pay attention to how the word “biblical” is often just cover for “hermeneutical.”

    Is that a powerplay? I don’t think so, because a lot of people who make this mistake seem legitimately unaware that they have a hermeneutic at work. That is, they really do see themselves as purely “biblical.” True, they are using the Bible as a power move (i.e., we should submit to God’s Word) but the intention does seem to be pure (in many cases). So I see it less as a powerplay than an example of slavery, being captured by the Principality and Power of your faith tradition. Which is why most of these conversations tend to be angry, dehumanizing and death-dealing.

  • James

    I think eisogeting into others’ use of the term “biblical” with certain meanings is probably more reflective of one’s own biases and desires to produce a “trump card” like statement than it is an attempt to understand what the other person means by . Why not just ask them what they mean by it, instead of saying “when people say biblical, they mean?” Would they be too much to ask?

    Also, I think when we assume a person saying “I try to be biblical” is thinking more of the scripture than of Christ, we potentially stand in a place of judgment of their hearts that we have no right. I smacks of, “Oh, well you’re of Apollos & Paul, huh? Well, I’M of CHRIST!” which was condemned as roundly by Paul as the former.

  • James

    Sheesh. I need an edit button. Go easy on me, grammar/typo police! ;-)

  • konastephen

    Rjs #16,

    I’m sure that many do use the term ‘biblical’ to shut out conversation or dissent. And this is wrong. But this happens just as often the other way as well—that by relativizing the many ‘biblical’ positions, it allows us to promote our new way, in spite of the general interpretative consensus through history.

    There are valid questions that will not be settled by us and are worth asking, but often an appeal to doubt actually ends up covertly taking a side. And this side seems more culturally-biased than what it purports to refute.

  • Jake Ulasich

    I seem to recall Scot challenging the some ideas concerning systematic theology and an approach to the bible in one of my classes. He claimed that James’ words about justification through faith and works being a direct argument to Paul’s words about justification through faith alone. For me, that was a challenging statement, one that hasn’t hit a lot of christians who claim to use a “biblical” approach.

    What I’m saying is that this article points not only to an openness of interpretation, but an essential difference in looking at the bible, one which many “biblically based” churches probably cannot stomach. James and Paul came at the truth from different angles and probably had a few differing and conflicting opinions, some of which made it into the canon of scripture. Many Christians don’t know what to do with that. Beck’s view of scripture, I think, is going to have some trouble even conversing with many in Christianity.

    I agree with rjs(#16): this isn’t an attempt to undermine the conversation itself – it is a sincere desire to approach each other with more openness to diversity, but it is going to be an opposing veiwpoint, in itself, to what many would consider “biblical.”

  • Pat Pope

    I commented yesterday on your evangelism post Scot, that one of the things I wish that the Church would stop doing is teaching or leading people to believe that in the area of non-essentials, there is only one right way to believe, act or think.

    The author has a good point. As one that has worshipped in several different traditions, I see the differences on what is considered biblical or even holy or Christian. A taboo in one circle is not seen as such in the other, yet both groups worship the same God and desire to live in a way that is pleasing to Him. ‘Course, the whole problem here is that then churches would have to agree on the non-essentials first and that’s where all of this breaks down. We’ve made many non-essentials, essential.

  • Richard

    For konastephen at #24

    Regarding the post you linked to, I actually did bring up that issue with the group I was in conversation with (see my comment at #21). That is, I can see how one might assume that I’m using doubt as a Trojan Horse for heresy but I actually was using the issue in that post to simply draw attention to our assumptions about what is or is not obvious about the bible.

    The point of my comment to the group (and of my post) is to ask a provocative question so that what is implicit becomes explicit, hermeneutically speaking. I think we have to keep doing something this, over and over. Revisit something we seem sure of to note that we made some hermeneutical moves, some of dubious quality, to get to what we think is a settled and “obvious” biblical truth.

    I think that’s a valuable exercise.

  • Jon G

    I take the claim that something “is biblical” to mean that it is substantiated by the Bible. Basically, that it is in agreement with scripture.

    BUT…that means we have a huge problem when come to major disagreements about what Scripture actually says. Whether on baptism, role of women, story vs. soteriology, (for me it’s Trinity) etc…apparently what one side thinks is “clearly biblical” clearly isn’t – and what, then, does that imply about the ability of Scripture to disseminate for us God’s thoughts? Essentially, how authoritative can it be if those seeking it’s wisdom all come up with different answers?

    I think the proper way to solve this issue is not to look at the Bible as THE authority but AN authority. It has something to say, but we must be humble and realize that it isn’t always clear…or maybe that our thinking about it isn’t always clear. THE authority is God’s. I would much rather be “godly” than “biblical”

  • konastephen

    Richard at #27,

    I agree: we should revisit things we seem sure of to note the hermeneutical moves we make in our supposedly “obvious” conclusions. But after reading your post and the following comments, it seemed to me at least, that you were going beyond just revisiting controversial questions, but instead staking out a position. In the end, would you call that position biblical, or would you say it’s not important?

  • Richard

    konastephen at #27
    Yes, I was definitely taking a position in the comments. But two things. 1) In the comments I insisted that everyone should keep the views they had on the topic, the post wasn’t trying to convince anybody of anything. 2) Then why was I arguing a side? Mainly, as I also said in the comment thread, to provide a sort of case study, a sort of blog parable, to illustrate the point of the post. I was trying to keep the hermeneutical situation fluid in the thread to make a point.

  • Peter G.

    So Scot, the King Jesus Gospel is biblical because it “gets us back to the Bible in a way that undermines much of what we are saying”?

    That sounds a lot like a power play. And I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. But that it should be acknowledged as such.

    You say that those who don’t think the King Jesus Gospel is more biblical “have all sorts of moves they make to support their ‘evangelical’ and ‘biblical’ gospel”? Do you have similar moves or is it just them?

    I’m resonating with konastephen a bit here. Just like with the universalism discussion we had here several months back, I often feel like pulling out the relativism card becomes its own power play. I don’t mind that actually except that many who use it seem to think they’re the only ones without an agenda at the table.

  • Scot McKnight

    Peter G, I should have anticipated that cranky response from you because that comment by me can read like I wrote the book to undermine; I wrote it because I thought it was what the Bible taught and I saw it at odds with what so many are saying today so I called us back to the Bible … I ask you this:

    Do you think the Bible can reform us today?

    I do, and that’s why I wrote King Jesus Gospel.

  • konastephen

    Richard at #30,

    The conversation displayed by everyone in your post was for the most part very civil. And I take that as very encouraging. My only worry is if we start to interpret a certain type of openness and civility as a measure of the truthfulness of our positions.

    But, I agree with you that the more we make our hermeneutical processes explicit the more we’ll wake up to the true grounding of our biases. That should always be encouraged. And hopefully the bible will reform us, and not us the bible…

  • Peter G.

    Scot, it was cranky, but that’s what you get for poor wording!

    I do think the Bible can reform us and that’s why I love that you wrote the book. But I think the people you put in scare quotes feel the same way. And if they don’t, fine. But don’t question their motives. You won’t gain a hearing that way and that would be the bigger loss. Hence the crankiness.

  • Peter G.

    And that last comment came out way too authoritarian, Scot. I apologize for that.

    The sentiment was genuine though. I want others to hear what you’re saying and so I got frustrated with the way you were painting those who are in disagreement.

  • Scot McKnight

    Peter, thanks for that … all of that.

  • Scot McKnight

    Peter G, you a Ranger fan?

    … assuming so. I went to bed – had a long day of travel — with the Rangers up and when I got up shocked to hear the Cards came back.

  • Peter G.

    Yeah, but only because I’m living in Texas. I’m really a Reds fan by birth though honestly not a big baseball fan. It’s just too slow for me. If all baseball was like this world series, though, I could become a fan.

    I was shocked too. I went to be in the 7th and thought they had it in the bag.

  • John

    I just wanted to say that I appreciate the tone of this conversation. Genuine and thoughtful critique without being critical. And, when overstated acknowledge and the brotherhood and sisterhood of Christ is restored.

    Thank God for the Jesus Creed.

  • Allen Browne

    I would have thought that committing to a conversation to find the biblical approach to a topic would have meant limiting the conversation to positions that are arguably consistent with what the Bible says?
    Certainly, there are huge hermeneutical minefields, commitments to different values (e.g. a Catholic will be more impacted by how the passage has been understood in the last 2000 years than a Protestant), dishonesties (blindness and manipulation), and so on. But at least we have agreed to try to be true to the Bible in some sense, so the conversation is different from one where no such commitment exists?

  • Adam Shields

    But Allen, if we are having the conversation inside the church (which is what we are doing now and what the discussion is about) then can’t that be assumed? Can’t we assume that everyone involved is seeking to find the answer that is most consistant with our understanding as Christians (ie what is most biblical?)

    If part of the people in a conversation do not even give the other members of the conversation the good will of understanding that we all are seeking after the same thing (even if we end up with different answers) then we really do have a significant problem.

  • Alastair

    The fact that those who hardly know the Scriptures at all, handle it very selectively, avoid the contexts in which its meaning is revealed, fail to make diligent use of the means of interpretation provided to them, come to the text unwilling or unprepared to be attentive on account of a prior agenda, or do not consistently expose themselves to the ministries of faithful interpretative communities arrive at radically different understandings of the text tells us nothing whatsoever about the perspicuity of the text itself. Given the levels of biblical literacy in the Church today, should interpretative pluralism really surprise us at all? I would suggest that, before questioning the perspicuity of the text, we should be far more suspicious of ourselves.

    Obviously, biblically knowledgeable people differ, but I suspect that the overwhelming majority of our difficulties in this area come down to problems with interpreters and that we should follow the example of Christ and the apostles in focusing on the ways in which sinful agendas, Spiritual blindness, distorted traditions, limited knowledge, or commitment to the practices and ministries of biblical interpretation lead to inability to interpret the text correctly. Before arguing that the message of the Bible is disunited or not perspicuous, I believe that we should hold ourselves to this same standard (and this is a standard that applies to us first of all, before we ever think to apply it to others).

    People who can inhabit the conceptual universe of the text are vanishingly rare in the current climate. The claim that the Bible is neither perspicuous nor unified in its message often serves to justify both people’s ignorance of it, and their selective use of it. More troubling, it also serves as a means for people to stop their ears to the unsettling voice of texts that disagree with them. The supposed ‘difficulty’ of many passages and biblical teaching is often merely the fact that they doesn’t square easily with contemporary sensibilities. Most of the time when I hear this claim made in debate it functions as a sort of relativizing power play: ‘I can’t answer your arguments from Scripture, but that’s OK, because Scripture doesn’t ultimately support just one position anyway, so actually wrestling with the texts that clearly oppose my position isn’t that important.’

    Sometimes I feel like creating a very basic and quick biblical knowledge quiz that we must all pass before being regarded as basically fit to reason on some theological issues. Think of it as a sort of biblical breathalyser. Let’s say, for starters, recite three psalms, the Lord’s Prayer, describe the furniture of the tabernacle and/or temple and where it was placed, list the days of creation and their respective creations/events, Ten Commandments, sacrifices of Leviticus, major feasts of Israel, patriarchs in order and the tribes of Israel, major and minor prophetic books, and the beatitudes. A kid who has attended a decent Sunday school should know practically all of this stuff, so we are not talking about a high bar here. If someone can’t provide such evidence of elementary biblical awareness and comprehension (even before we start on theological and historical awareness), why should their sweeping theological declarations about the meaning of the text be given any weight? They are not fit to be behind the wheel of any theological vehicle. But perhaps I am just feeling a little snarkier than usual this morning.

    I suspect that just this basic test would reveal that a significant number of the vocal representatives of divergent ‘biblical’ positions don’t really know the first thing about the Bible that they claim to be talking about. Once this had been cleared up, I suspect that far more substantial engagement with the text would prove possible. In my experience, much of the playing of texts off against each other results from an insufficient awareness of the wider body of the text, which provides us with themes and conceptual frameworks within which this voices can come together. While I am definitely not suggesting that it would solve all of our differences by any means, it would significantly knock them down in size.

  • Jim

    To Alistair, who said:

    “Sometimes I feel like creating a very basic and quick biblical knowledge quiz that we must all pass before being regarded as basically fit to reason on some theological issues.”

    An interesting idea. But Alastair’s Biblical Knowledge Quiz would simply reveal those who know what ALASTAIR thinks is important to know… leaving the same problem we all started with: one man’s heresy is another man’s beautiful truth.

    It seems, Alastair, that it is you who want to decide whose opinion is worth listening to…. and the debate goes on.

  • Alastair


    Don’t give too much significance to the items on the biblical knowledge quiz. The main point was to list examples of a few things that anyone who has a real acquaintance with the biblical text to any meaningful degree should be expected to know. In fact, some of the items were selected precisely because they are the sort of things that, as they are probably not extremely significant or important to know for theological purposes, serve as good indications of whether you have generally been paying attention beyond the parts that you initially think significant.

    Numerous other things could be listed from across the biblical text, so there is no need to get hung up on the fact that certain things are included, while other things aren’t. A good biblical comprehension test would have questions that covered all of the biblical books, and texts and passages that are important to all sorts of theological positions. We need to be well acquainted with the Bible as a whole, not merely the pet passages of our theological backgrounds.

    Nothing was said about what theological positions one actually holds, just whether you have enough knowledge of the text itself to deserve an opinion on its meaning, or to have a mind worth making up. If you don’t have some sort of grasp on what the text of the whole Bible actually contains, I really don’t think that you are best positioned to be telling people what it means. Both academic and popular theology have a few too many bullshitters on this front, who presume to tell us the meaning of the Bible, whose contents they have only a tenuous acquaintance with. My quiz is merely a way of calling their bluff.

    Do you really think that a basic knowledge of the contents of Scripture or the lack of it (before we even mention the tradition and theology) shouldn’t have some bearing on how worthy certain voices are of our attention? Would you apply the same reasoning in other areas beyond theology? Frankly, if you don’t know enough about the content of Scripture to answer such simple questions (along with many more like them), I don’t think that your opinion about what it means is worth a whole lot.

  • Jim

    “Do you really think that a basic knowledge of the contents of Scripture or the lack of it (before we even mention the tradition and theology) shouldn’t have some bearing on how worthy certain voices are of our attention?”

    You make good points Alastair, and they are well taken, but someone without “basic knowledge of the contents of Scripture” would not be commenting in the first place, so again it seems that you are trying to draw THE line around which someone’s Biblical knowledge is considered “adequate” to take seriously. To assert that someone who is disagreeing with you isn’t knowledgable enough to do so (in your opinion) and should therefore be ignored can be seen as rather arrogant, though I am sure that that was never your intention.

    As far as applying “the same reasoning in other areas beyond theology” is concerned I certainly understand and agree with your point — we should not take medical advice from those not trained in medicine, for example. But theology is not science. It is biblical INTERPRETATION, and as such does not require seminary training… which only tends to perpetuate theological biases anyway.

    Where I would wholeheartedly agree with your line of thinking, however, is where those who have “graduated from Sunday School” – memorized what they were told to – are simply repeating what they have been taught, rather than thinking and studying for themselves. They are again only perpetuating a particular theological bias without first determining for themselves – through study, prayer, and meditation – if that theology even makes sense.

    I highly respect your opinions and insights, so please don’t take my comments as anything other than a few pricks here and there to keep us both thinking honestly and humbly.

  • Alastair

    Thanks for the response, Jim. Don’t worry, I appreciate forthright and challenging debate, over conversation that avoids differences and confrontation (provided that neither of us are trying to harm the other person).

    As a graduate student in theology in a secular academic setting, I know a few too many theologians who really don’t know much about the Bible. In the area of philosophical theology, I know a few who even pride themselves on their biblical ignorance. Some of the people who have the most determined opinions are people who know a few passages or books very well, and have very limited general knowledge of the Bible. The whole field of theology is highly specialized, so you really can’t count on general biblical knowledge to the degree that you might think.

    Having been around in churches all of my life too, I am also well aware of the fact that many Christians are only exposed to the biblical texts in very selective fashions. Few people will have heard many serious attempts to engage with the text of books such as Leviticus, for instance, or series on the later history of Israel. Where the historical books are approached, they can often be in the form of character studies. In my experience, Christians’ own personal Bible study habits are frequently seriously lacking. A depressing number focus on reading secondary texts, with devotional thoughts based on only a couple of isolated texts. Even the studies designed to take people through the whole Bible more often than not fail to encourage comprehension of the text itself, but seek rather to derive a few applicatory points that are only tenuously related to the text itself.

    My argument is based on the conviction that a sort of comprehension must precede interpretation (obviously things are somewhat more complicated than this in certain respects, but as a rough generalization, I think that this works). A lot of the people who are very certain of what the text says haven’t actually studied the text through in great detail, but know a few isolated passages very well, and a theological system that fits those isolated pieces together. My contention is that detailed knowledge of the contents of the Bible throughout is necessary as a prerequisite for competent interpretation. Without this detailed general knowledge, you won’t be able to tell when your theology is excluding an important part of the biblical witness.

    I should clarify that by ‘Sunday School’ I am referring to the more traditional UK practice of teaching children until they reach their teens and join the regular congregation. The standard I am referring to is one that I would expect a well-taught 13 year old to reach. As one has knowledge and basic comprehension of the biblical text’s content, one can move more deeply into the task of interpretation. However, without the comprehension, careful interpretation just isn’t going to happen.

    Comprehension, while not theologically neutral, is nowhere near as theologically freighted as interpretation. Catholics, Lutherans, Orthodox, Presbyterians, Baptists, Pentecostals, Methodist, etc., practically everyone can agree on the details of the history of, say, the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, even though they may differ sharply on what those events mean. It is to this basic level of comprehension of the details of the text that I am referring. My point is that if you have not reached a stage of comfortable biblical literacy, you have no business as a theological interpreter.

  • Jim

    “My point is that if you have not reached a stage of comfortable biblical literacy, you have no business as a theological interpreter.”

    Agreed, and well stated. But I do not (and will assume that you do not as well) equate biblical knowledge with a heart for God… for that is a divine gift not subject to the luck of a good education or to personal choice.

    Thankfully, I am constantly reminded that there are many biblical illiterates who act much more like Christ than all the biblical “experts” put together. And it is this that gives me such great hope in the power of God to change anyone and everyone.

    Peace to you my friend.

  • Alastair

    ‘But I do not (and will assume that you do not as well) equate biblical knowledge with a heart for God… for that is a divine gift not subject to the luck of a good education or to personal choice.’

    On that point we are in 100% agreement.

    Thanks for the discussion. God bless you.

  • Jacob (honest, guv)

    Alastair and Jim (#’s 42-48),

    Thank you for that discussion – it’s a blog post in itself. I couldn’t help reading bits of the discussion (particularly Alistair’s comment that “Christians’ own personal Bible study habits are frequently seriously lacking. A depressing number focus on reading secondary texts, with devotional thoughts based on only a couple of isolated texts”) and thinking ‘that’s me in a nutshell’ (currently reading Rob Bell, Keith Ward and C. S. Lewis).

    I am highly aware of my own failings (or, shall we say, ‘tricks of spiritual personality’) as a Christian – I have the uncomfortable suspicion that I’m one of Jim’s biblical “experts”.

    What I mean to ask you both (and particularly Alistair) is, is there a particular way I can become “biblically literate”? Or is that a really stupid question to ask? Even if there is no short answer to give, being pointed towards some resources would be a perfect start.

    God bless both of you,
    Jacob (busy wrestling with his theological angels – or are they demons?)

  • Jacob

    Thanks for your questions, Jacob.

    No, I don’t think that it is a stupid question to ask (quite the opposite). Apart from a good biblical education as a child, perhaps the single most helpful thing for basic biblical literacy that I have found is the Bible on cassette (and subsequently MP3). I have listened to the Bible from start to finish about a dozen times now. I prefer the KJV, simply because of the various translations that I have used, it is the one that is most fashioned for the ear, not just the eye and mind, and it is also more familiar from my earliest childhood (I memorized several passages from it from the ages of 2-10).

    At some points I would listen to a particular book several times through in a week. If you pay attention, it really helps you to get a grasp of the larger movements and themes of the text, which are things that few devotional studies give you, as they tend to be focused on small sections, rather than the bigger picture of a book. The benefit of listening through the Bible like this is that you can do so while driving, cooking, doing odd jobs around the house, exercising, walking, or even, if you have an obliging boss, in certain workplaces.

    I paid particular attention to those books where my knowledge was weak (Leviticus, 2 Kings-2 Chronicles, and the minor prophets in my case), making sure that I listened to them until I knew them very well. I challenged myself to learn sections of Scripture: chapters of Isaiah, Romans, a number of psalms. Listening to Scripture makes things far easier on this front. I would put a psalm on repeat for a half hour for a few mornings, and soon it would stick. Many verses that I never directly tried to memorize are half memorized now, and I know where they appear in Scripture. For the most of the New Testament, and the significant amount of the Old Testament, I can now give a chapter by chapter run down of the contents of each book.

    In my reading of the text I try to resist the urge to interpret, and tried to learn to be attentive instead. The questions that we bring to the text are often the wrong ones, and so we need to learn to ask the right ones. Focusing on listening to the text is something that has made a big difference to me in this respect.

    I have also been helped by the conviction that the detail of the text is there for a reason. Several years ago I read James Jordan’s Through New Eyes, which, although it took me a while to accept, ended up transforming the way that I read the Bible. Unlike many others, who just tell you what the text means, I found that Jordan gave me key insights that helped me to read the text for myself, and pick up on themes that I had previously missed. Perhaps most important of all, Jordan gave me an excitement about the text, to an extent that I hadn’t had before. Peter Leithart (who is extremely heavily influenced by Jordan in this area) has a great OT introduction book called A House For My Name. I would recommend that too.

    Such books are incredible valuable as guides provided by gifted readers, who can help to direct the beginner through some of the ways in which attentive reading can open up texts. While there are many great theologians and biblical scholars around, I am not sure that there are so many who provide this training in reading. Jordan and Leithart are both superb at this, but it can take a bit of patience and a lot of trying it out on Scripture to become persuaded. The proof of the pudding is eventually in the eating, though.

    I have also found that studying alongside other Christians is crucial, so I started a bi-weekly study group with a few like minded friends, during which time we would work through a book that we all felt that we didn’t know a lot about and interpret it together, the group leader (which alternated each meeting, everyone occupying the position at some point) also having the responsibility to check relevant commentaries. We avoided study guides, as in my experience they seldom encourage the sort of prolonged wrestling with the details of the text that we felt was important. I have also been part of mini-group (6-8 person) preaching sessions, where each week a person would choose a passage that they had been studying, and would preach on it. This helped me to read the Bible in another important way.

    I think that biblical literacy involves many different sorts of engagement with Scripture alongside each other. Part of biblical literacy for me has been learning to think and speak in more biblical language and categories. Praying and singing the psalms has helped me here, as has frequent recounting of passages that I have learnt in the past. Learning to read the Bible aloud is also very important here. People really underestimate the amount of work that it takes to read the Bible aloud well.

    Perhaps the most important thing is to become excited about the Bible. There is so much wonderful stuff in Scripture that people are missing out on, and getting into this should be the exact opposite of a chore.

  • Alastair

    Oops, that previous comment was from me. Somehow I absent-mindedly put Jacob’s name instead of mine. Perhaps it is past my bedtime…

  • Jacob (honest, guv)

    Thank you very much for the advice – bible knowledge, here I come :-)

  • Veronica Lucia

    I thank all the children of God who are biblically trained and who have been loved by a Christian family for your commentaries. Thank you for showing others that you have an understanding of who we are as Bible believing Christians and the Body of Christ.

  • Sharon

    This got me thinking…thanks for posting this. I do agree that we need to be careful how we use the word, “biblical.” Looking at the creation story, can we really state a “biblical” understanding on how God made the world? We know that God spoke it into existence (the Bible is clear on that point), but I have heard differing opinions on what that means. We do need to be careful about speaking opinions and claiming that it is “biblical.” There are things that are truly a mystery and to claim we understand can be dangerous.