In various contexts, I often hear or read the word biblical. In my experience, it’s typically used in reference to theological perspectives, moral decisions, or worldviews in general. One might, for instance, refer to biblical views on wealth and possessions, social justice, or marriage. Each time I encounter that particular adjective, I pause to consider what the speaker or writer means by it. Oddly, the longer I’ve studied the Bible, the more difficult I find it to nail down what exactly it means for something to be biblical. To be sure, I believe we should draw on Scripture to inform our lives, but I’ve found that the term can be used in a variety of ways.
For example, one could label something biblical to refer to what the Bible says about a given topic. Should Christians judge others? Jesus explicitly says not to do so (Matt 7:1–5). Thus, the biblical perspective on judgment is that Christ-followers shouldn’t do it. Simple enough! Yet things get complicated when the Bible seems to say more than one thing about a given subject, such as slavery, what roles women play in Christ-following communities, or how gentile believers should relate to the law. If our Scripture contains diverse witnesses, then which texts support the biblical view?
That approach is also complicated when we compare certain parts of the Bible with contemporary Christian practices that are taken for granted by much of the church. Why, for instance, do most American churches rarely, if ever, discuss the wearing of head veils if Paul believes so strongly that women should cover their heads in worship? Based on 1 Cor 11:2–16, it would seem reasonable to conclude that veiling in church services is the biblical thing for women to do, a conclusion reached by some Orthodox traditions.
From another point of view, one could identify as biblical what we perceive to be the underlying truth or motivation of a text. Some understand biblical interpretation as efforts to peel back the historically or culturally contingent aspects of Scriptures to find universal, timeless truths that should guide theology and practice. For example, for Christian greetings to be biblical, must we literally kiss one another, as Paul so consistently instructs (Rom 16:16; 1 Cor 16:20; 2 Cor 13:12; 1 Thess 5:26)? The answer according to this view would likely be no. Instead, we can remove the historical-cultural “husk” of Paul’s exhortation—literal kisses—and embrace his core message—to greet one another with hospitality and affection—which we can practice in contemporary, culturally specific ways.
That approach also has its challenges. If every single sentence in the Bible—indeed, every word!—is in some way culturally conditioned, how do we decide what’s contingent and what’s “for all time”? Moreover, how do we make those decisions in consistent ways?
Things become even more complicated when we seek a “biblical view” on a pressing concern that the Bible does not directly discuss. What, for example, is the biblical view of COVID-19 vaccinations, genetic engineering, or investment in the stock market? Christians ought to have theologically informed opinions about such issues, but what makes a given view biblical?
My suspicion is that we fluctuate between the above options, and others, without realizing it. And my goal here isn’t to argue for a specific definition. I merely want to stress a single point: biblical interpretation is much more complex than we often acknowledge.
The biblical texts are products of numerous, ancient contexts, all of which differ significantly from our own. To read Scriptures well, one must interpret them in relation to those contexts. We must also learn something about the writings’ original languages, their rhetorical and stylistic conventions, and some basics about how texts can have meaning. Such knowledge and skill can help us, but the complexities don’t end there! Once we’ve studied the texts and reached some conclusions, we must still decide how best to relate what we’re interpreting to our settings. Do we “apply” a passage to our situation, as if our contexts match those of the writings, or should we compare a single passage with others in search of a larger truth that unifies the Bible’s diverse witnesses? Should we do something else entirely?
Our world is full of complex problems, and I understand the temptation to reduce such challenges to more manageable simplifications. Yet, we owe it to ourselves and others to acknowledge those complexities and to avoid overly simplistic slogans that begin with something like, “The Bible plainly says…”; or to assert, “It’s clear; no interpretation is needed.” Instead, complicated problems that affect real lives demand lots of hard work, sustained engagement with diverse viewpoints, and humility.
What, ultimately, does it mean for something to be biblical? Responsible answers begin with the recognition of a vital truth: it’s complicated.