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What is Biblical?

January 31, 2010
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What is Biblical?  This is not a facetious question.  I have seen, in recent months, an upsurge in a health and wealth prosperity gospel, no doubt touted as salvation from our most recent recessionary foe.  I’ve yet to see any expression of this, no matter how perverse, that does not quote from the Bible.

So what is Biblical?  There are three ways I can think of to divide out the things we call “Biblical”.  The first is any direct quote from the Bible, no matter what new contexts it has been placed in.  The second is any direct quote from the Bible, provided that it is being used to support something that it meant in its own context.  The third is anything that expresses a Biblical concept.

Some examples may be in order.  Telling someone that God has plans to give them a future and a hope is the first.  While that is, indeed, what Jeremiah 29:11 says the statement is addressed to Exiled Israel.  And that isn’t any of us.  Telling someone that Jesus is the resurrection and the life to encourage them to have hope beyond death, on the other hand, is the second case.  This is exactly what this quote functions to do within the context of John 11.  Discussing the Trinity, never explicitly mentioned, but constantly implied, serves to demonstrate the third case.

So which is Biblical?  I propose that only the second and third are.  This is based on an understanding of how language works.  The meaning of words is vague, at best, outside of context.  “Right” might be the opposite of left, or the opposite of wrong.  Occasionally these two may be confused, such as when answering a statement while navigating for someone.  However, the rarity of this confusion is a marker of how much context narrows the range of possible meanings.  Words have useful meanings only in contexts.  This is not the fault of sentences, speakers, or authors.  This is just the way language works.  The Bible is not exempt from this.

This, of course, implies that it is easy to quote the Bible, and be wrong anyway.  Indeed, this is a common practice.  We tend to notice it most when it is used in ways we don’t like.  When a bad atheist website quotes Mark 9:40 (“Whoever is not against us is for us”) and Matthew 12:30 (“Whoever is not with me is against me”) to show contradictions in the Bible we recognize the fallacy of out-of-context quoting.  Neither of these statements stands in isolation, but is against a larger background of conversation, and particular people taking sides in particular ways.

Dangerously, though, we rarely recognize when this occurs and we agree with the meaning implied.  I chose Jeremiah 29:11 in my earlier example because it is often used this way – and that way is, by my definitions, not Biblical.  But, of course, we do think that God plans to give us a future and a hope.  And one can make an argument for that from that verse.  In fact, one could even quote that verse in a sufficiently well-trained group and expect them to recognize that while this verse does not apply directly to them it is a witness to God’s character as someone who does not give up on His people.  And so we do believe that we have a hope and a future.  Perhaps because of this we rarely call people on using the quote to say this in a more direct, and incorrect, sense.  But the cultivation of these usages trains people to not pay attention to meaning.  This is where the question “What is Biblical?” becomes an important question of real consequence.  How is someone trained on a system of using the Bible as a mean-anything-nice quote book supposed to detect misuse by health and wealth preachers, snake handlers, and so on?  How is someone trained to look at words, but not meaning, supposed to argue for the Trinity, or against polygamy?

The filter for Biblical needs to be meaning.  That meaning needs to come from original context.  The meaning can be transformed, as Jesus frequently does in his own quotation of Scripture, but the transformation needs to give a nod to the original, and re-explain it, not ignore it.  Filtering by what we like, or what “sounds right” (what I call the “crazy filter”, the rejection of things that sound crazy) is inherently weak.  Something can always creep in on the edge, where we like wrong things, or where they are close enough to being right to trick us.  It is only by knowing the Bible, in context, and knowing what things mean, and not just what words sit next to each other, that we can begin to speak of “Biblical”.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. February 4, 2010 11:02 am

    this is certainly a question worth asking oneself when vetting scripture. thre are moments that i “hear” someone state what scripture means & simply accept it. then there are moments when i actually hear someone state what scripture means & i note to myself that i should confirm that in that context (historical & cultural) that it does mean that.

    it’s a practice i could certainly improve upon. thanks for the reminder about it.

  2. Jay permalink
    February 8, 2010 6:22 am

    What you state about a Scripture verse needing to speak from its concept is a truth completely ignored by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. They hopscotch all over the Bible to promote their own theological agenda when in reality they are doing a supreme disservice and disrespect to God’s Word, while indoctrinating their converts to do the same. And they teach that they are the only true channel to worshiping Jehovah God.

    These windbags not only abuse and distort the Bible, they stole away the love of my life from me! Although I agree with a few of their critiques of mainstream Christianity, on the whole it is a really bad excuse for a religion.

    • Eric permalink
      February 8, 2010 8:45 pm

      I think a lot of strange readings start out this. People begin by building around an isolated verse or two, not realizing that the real units of the text are larger than that.

      I feel like this is one of the reasons to always try and do better than the “crazy filter” approach. Presumably if you’re crazy your crazy filter is actually filtering out and discarding the sane, and so the only chance you have for self-correction (something we should all strive for) is real understanding, especially of the issues that seem least happy to play together.

  3. May 1, 2010 8:54 am

    Came and found this after you said you wrote about it in the comments to my Jeremiah 29:11 post. Great post! Love the image of the Bible as it is commonly used as a feel good book of handy quotes. Reminds me that, though I’m working on re-understanding scripture in its proper context and being wary of airlifting verses out to support my arguments, I need to do a lot more study to get good at it!

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