What might it mean to be ‘biblical’?


One of the ideas I most commonly see bandied around the internet, at least in the Christian circles in which I tend to move, is a (good) concern to be ‘biblical’. This is a word that is often contentious, almost never defined, and seems to be used to describe some things that are polar opposites of each other, and other things that are pretty demonstrably the opposite of what Jesus (as the major character of the Bible) said.

We all come to the Bible (And, indeed, to any text or cultural artefact, or thing or discussion) with our own sets of opinions and biases. I try to recognise and name my own on this blog and in other places I write – but naturally I also manage to live in a blind spot most of the time. I was recently reading a book by a friend (and, to muddy the water further) someone who lectured me for a module on my MA. Now this is actually vaguely relevant to the point at hand – I, a non-conformist Charismatic evangelical with Baptist roots, was taking an MA in Mission and Ministry, at an Anglican College, alongside students training for Anglican/Baptist/Pentecostal ministry, and a few mongrel independents [i.e. non-ministerial] like me, and for one of our modules we were taught by an ordained Methodist Minister with a background in Academic New Testament study, currently running a think tank at Durham looking at digital theology. You don’t need to be able to understand all the nouns in that sentence to know that, for the solid week of teaching (And the time of reflection and dialogue afterwards), the word ‘biblical’ was not universally agreed on.

One thing I think that everyone in that room would have agreed on, though, was the importance (in different ways, to be sure) of the collection of books that we call one book, The Bible. In his book on discipleship and biblical literacy, Engaging the Word, Pete Phillips writes:

We need the Bible as much today as we have ever needed it. Our society is destroying itself. We deny how our greed has damaged the earth; how our love of riches denies life to others; how our lifestyle impacts our neighbours property. We face growing pressure that could mean the end of life on earth: nuclear war, terrorism, migration, climate change, viruses and diseases. We seem to be creating the kind of devastation that makes the book of Revelation seem almost mundane in its horror.

In his letter to his youthful apprentice Timothy, Paul talks about the terrible last days when people will love themselves and money:

People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure than lovers of God – having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people
2 Timothy 3:2-9

The antidote to such depravity and destruction, says Paul, is the Bible – or, rather, a sense of all that life brings with the word of God at the centre of our lives. There is a kind of multi-levelled Christianity here, based around that sense of the Word of God as both the presence of Jesus, the living Word, who brings alive the Bible, the written word, through the presence of the Spirit. All point to the presence of the Father – Word, Jesus, Spirit – the living Word testifying to the presence of God who uses his word to speak creation into existence (Genesis 1), who breathes life into Adam (Genesis 2), who breathes the Spirit into dead bones in the wilderness (Ezekiel 37), who brings Jesus back to life (John 20), who breathes the Spirit into the life of the disciples at Pentecost (Acts 2), who fills the church with the life and gifts of that same Spirit (Ephesians 4).

‘You know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, persecution, sufferings,’ says Paul to Timothy (2 Timothy 3:10-11). You know my life, says Paul, and what empowers it, its engine: the word of God, the living Word, the living presence of Jesus Christ (‘Christ in you, the hope of glory’, Colossians 1:27). And he points out to Timothy the importance of the written word, the holy scriptures (literally, ‘the holy writings’, 2 Timothy 3:150: God-breathed, useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, training in holiness, for equipping a servant of God for every good work, and for opening your eyes (‘making you wise’) to see the salvation available through faith in Jesus.

Opening our eyes in the Emmaus way seems to be a circular process – embracing, soaking ourselves in and breathing in the scriptures so that our minds might be opened the wisdom that they contain and which they offer to us in return. We open ourselves to the transforming power of the word only to find the word transforming us to see the Bible in new ways. The Emmaus disciples had to speak of what they knew about Jesus and his ministry, his death and potential resurrection, then their eyes were opened. Timothy has absorbed the scriptures since he was young and now is encouraged to continue to seek after the living word. Biblical literacy, or biblicism, starts a cyclical process of reflection and engagement and absorption which develops us into the ideal readers of scripture ourselves: opening our eyes, opening our lives to all that scripture and God have to offer to us. 

Biblical literacy is a process that is not just about reading the Bible, but about our eyes opened, our discipleship renewed, our lives transformed.

I could just encourage you to keep reading Pete’s book – he goes on to talk next about the importance of doing this in community – but I just want to tease out a few things.

  1. We still need the Bible. This might sound obvious – but it is always worth stressing. Jesus is keen for us to meet him in its pages – and the Bible is a wonderful gift from God to us. Paul suggests that the best way to respond to the challenges we face, as he advised Timothy nearly 2000 years ago, is to immerse ourselves in the Bible, sitting in the story and letting truth permeate every part of us. When we talk about ‘being biblical’, we need to consider our speech, the shape of our words, the stories we allude to – are we really ‘being biblical’, or are we just repeating cultural tropes with Christian language? Or, worse, mangling Bible verses out of context to justify something?
  2. The Bible is a big story, which we are invited into. In the few paragraphs above I hope you can see what I mean by this being soaked and permeated by the Bible. Pete writes in a way that is passionately involved in the big story of the Bible, but is also aware and alert to the specific challenges of different texts. Much of his language in the book is linked to his understanding of discipleship being like the disciples walking on the road to Emmaus – we are called (Again, and again – the ‘cyclical process’ is like a bicycle wheel we need to keep moving, this is a dynamic thing) to let the Bible open our eyes as we pursue Jesus. When was the last time you engaged with the Bible other than in a chunk of a few verses? When did you last do a bible overview or trace a golden thread through multiple books of the Old and New Testaments? What if being Biblical involved knowing the Bible as the Bible intends – not a set of soundbites, but God’s big story.
  3. The Bible is God’s word, for God’s glory. We often accidentally (or, in some cases, deliberately) domesticate the Bible, wrestling it to support what we think. This happens all the time, for all sorts of reasons. Pete’s emphasis in this thought on God is clear – this is thoroughgoingly Trinitarian (if that isn’t something that fits into your understanding of faith, I’d love to recommend some books to you!), exalts christ, and gives an important role to the Holy Spirit. If we think we are being ‘biblical’, but aren’t making much of God, and glorifying and thanking Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we probably aren’t being ‘biblical’ in any meaningful sense.

I could probably go on – and I expect some of the themes in Pete’s book will pop up at different times over the next few months – but I’ll close here. To ‘be’ ‘biblical’ requires more thought than prooftexting our opinion or blandly claiming divine support for something a politician does. Being truly biblical means recognising our own weakness, rejoicing in our invitation into God’s story, and pointing towards the author, rather than towards ourselves. With the whole of 2018 pretty much ahead of us, why not try making this a year in which you try to be truly ‘biblical’?

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