What Does “Biblical” Mean?
Yesterday, Richard Beck of Experimental Theology wrote a post on what the word “biblical” means. As will be obvious, I don’t much care for what he had to say. In fact, it made me so grumpy that I thought I’d respond. I hope he takes it as a compliment. In his piece he concludes:
Biblical is a sociological stress test. When groups gather…to have a conversation about what is or is not biblical they are engaging in sociological stress test. Can this hermeneutical community, given its history and norms, accept a change in this area without significant rupture? How much stress can we tolerate? That’s the question under consideration. How much stress can we tolerate?…This, as best I can tell, is what it means to be biblical.
Beck argues his way to this conclusion as follows. First, he categorically rejects the idea that the Bible can produce a consensus. “If you think that it could or should you’re just not a serious person.” Therefore, a discussion about what it means to be biblical cannot be a discussion “toward a fixed destination.” Rather, a conversation about the Bible can only air a diversity of views that share some sort of family resemblance. Parenthetically, “biblical” also cannot be an adjective that applies to the structure or actions of the ecclesiological community—“biblical definitely doesn’t describe the attempt to conform to or recreate the church we find in the pages of the bible.”
So what does “biblical” mean? Beck’s definition seems to make it entirely self-referential. “Biblical is a word Christian communities use to describe their hermeneutical strategies.” Or again:
[T]hey 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.
This all seems to me to be one theological outworking of George Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine. Here, doctrine does not refer to a reality outside of the church community. Rather, it is an expression of the community’s belief structure. Or, in Lindbeckian terms: the doctrine expresses the grammar of that community. There might be something to this linguistic analogy, but only if the words refer to something—only if the words are directed to someone.
To say that the church’s attempt to say what is “biblical” or not is merely an effort to test its own hermeneutical strategy is, in the end, depressing and hopeless. It essentially means that when we talk about what’s “biblical” we are merely talking about our own attempt to talk about what is “biblical.” It’s a total ecclesiological solipsism.
Is this our only option? I certainly hope not. This asks us to accept the idea that the Bible is not only diverse, but is entirely malleable and devoid of intrinsic meaning. It denies that a conversation about what is biblical can have any fixed destination. Obviously this means that the Bible itself has no fixed destination, or at least none that is ascertainable to us. Is it really so bad as that? It seems to me that the New Testament writers, for all their diversity, thought that Jesus Christ was the fixed destination of the canon. A good hermeneutic attempts to bring the diverse elements of Scripture—in both the Old and New Testaments—to some semblance of unity in light of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Furthermore, doesn’t the resurrection of Jesus mean that the center of the canon himself stands with the text, causing it to impose itself upon the church in some fashion? Canon does mean rule, after all. And if the canon cannot rule in this way, there is no possibility for the church to do anything other than determine herself. The whole notion of the church as gathered and commissioned becomes a terrible sham.
Ultimately, Beck is wrestling with a difficult issue—the pluralism of biblical interpretations. It is right to say that orthodoxy is a matter of faith and not sight. It will become the latter only in the eschaton. However, to allow this fact to lead us to the point of throwing up our hands and concluding that there is no correct interpretation is certainly not theologically nor ecclesiologically helpful. Our difficulty in understanding what, exactly, is biblical should lead us to further prayer, study, and humility. It should lead us to continual reexamination of what it is that we believe and how it is that we are to express this. If we don’t believe that God can actually confront us—objectively—in the text, then we might as well give the whole thing up. Our interpretations—and our congregations themselves—will be entirely subject to sociological trends.
So I propose an alternative understanding to the word “biblical”: I think it is best understood in terms of confession. When the church says, “this is biblical”, it means “We believe that this is how we are to respond in obedience to this text, or this issue in the life of our church”. There is certainly a subjective aspect to it, but if we are not to deny the possibility of revelation altogether, we ought not to deconstruct it.