"Biblical" as a Sociological Stress Test

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.

Secondly, biblical definitely doesn't describe the attempt to conform to or recreate the church we find in the pages of the bible. I know of no denomination that looks like the church revealed in the New Testament. Can you point me to one?

And if we can't what does that say about how we are using the word biblical? Suddenly it's very clear that biblical doesn't mean "doing what they did in the bible." Because no one is doing that. So what does biblical mean? Again, whatever it means it's clear that it doesn't mean biblical.

So what does it mean?

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
When groups gather, as I will be gathering, 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.

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39 thoughts on “"Biblical" as a Sociological Stress Test”

  1. I certainly wouldn't argue against your observation that the Bible produces heterogeneity of opinion. But does that necessarily bear on the question of whether it "could or should" do so? Isn't that a different matter? 

    Couldn't it be the case that the Bible can and should produce a degree of homogeneity that it empirically does not, and that this happens not because of any characteristic of the Bible, but because the Christians reading it get swayed by moral or intellectual weaknesses? E.g. couldn't it be the case that the Bible has a homogeneous but demanding core, such as the Sermon on the Mount that both you and I love, but then most Christians have fears and desires that keep them from following it? Or they are not humble and patient enough to see the Bible fitting together, and change their mind accordingly, bit by bit?

  2. I do think you can make that argument. The trouble I have with it is that "biblical" and "unbiblical" then become moral categories. With, to borrow some of your adjectives, the humble, patient, morally strong, intelligent and courageous on one side and the prideful, morally corrupt, intellectually weak and fearful on the other side.

    And that's a huge fear of mine: "Biblical" as out-group denigration.

  3. Ivan,
    Let me add another thought.

    I actually agree with you about the heterogeneity being a product of human sin. In fact, I think the doctrine of original sin could be put to good use here. That is, if we were all to agree that all our hermeneutics were contaminated by sin then some of my worry about out-group denigration would be mitigated. If every Christian group was willing to say, "Our understanding of the bible is sinful" then I think I could work some version of what you describe above. For in that case no group is priveldged and all are humble on the journey toward greater and greater understanding.

    I'm just not aware of any Christian group who would be willing to say their understanding of the bible is sinful. Though, I think, that has to be the case. Just because we are humans.

  4. My own experience is that the meanings of words are:

    1) socially constructed i.e. learned through social usage and experience, and therefore
    2) different for different people (as no-one has exactly the same experiences as some anyone else)

    Given that measures of human difference all tend to be normally distributed, any group will tend to coalesce around certain constructs that make up the definition of 'biblical' for that group, depending on their values and purpose (which generate their hermeneutical strategies).

    So the tightness of definition (standard deviation) of the word's usage will tell you something about the pressure to conform (which usually indicates anxiety about identity) and the difference between the group's core meanings (mean) of the word and other group's core meanings will tell you something about the degree to which those groups hold common values.

    One of the things I really like about normal distributions is that they 'normalise' outliers.  However you choose to measure any population, there will always be a spread of results, and there will always be outliers at the extremes.  If you change your rules for group membership i.e. if you alter the stress test - you will just create a new group of outliers.  Outliers are a fact of life.

    Perhaps if we could come to terms with this fact of life, we might start to get better at valuing our outliers - the different, the marginalised, the difficult, the edgy, the provocative - because they are the ones that define the borders of our identity.

  5. This is why I love you Andrew. Where else could we find the normal distribution and the standard deviation used to get at this subject?

    And btw, I think you are exactly right. It's not an either/or issue, but a distributional issue.

    Heretics are what, three standard deviations from the mean? :-)

  6. Richard, I think this is extremely insightful, and not simply because you've put into words a lot of what I've thought, some of which I haven't been able to find words for yet ;)

    I think it's interesting that the Nicene/Constant. Creed says that Christians believe in one holy, apostolic and whole Church - those who hammered it out knew their bible exceedingly well... and they did not choose to use the adjective "biblical".


  7. Yes!
    I think that’s huge! If each group brought their very sharpest
    awareness of being sinful to bear on their own understanding
    of the Bible
    , then that would be a huge help. That would
    fuel some deep humility, and some readiness to learn and change and
    grow—i.e. to repent.

    relevant thought here concerns the particular contents of the Bible.
    Assuming that the Bible really truly does condemn pride and
    judgmentalism, and affirm things like love, kindness, humility, and
    forgiveness (as it sure seems to, from my sinful perspective), then
    that should work as a check on the sort of out-group denigration
    you’re concerned about. Whenever a group starts to denigrate, that
    group is at that moment acting unbiblically.

  8. I've always regarded 'biblical' as a theological category (in line with the church's allegedly Bible-based theology), but a church is a community, so its theology is itself a sociological construct. I think it works.

  9. As I have been saying since coming to this group, the Bible (pick your version) is obscure, dense, contradictory, opaque, and in many places nearly unintelligible.  Watching otherwise rational people argue its passages over the past 50 some-odd years has been one of my greatest entertainments.  It's the reason I became a skeptic.
    This is why there is no "biblical" Christian Church, but some flavor-of-the-month version on every other street corner.  Cause and effect. 

  10. Yeah, I think its both. And let me rush to say I'm not saying anything new here. This is just a spin on some post-liberal theological thinking where doctrine functions as a sort of insider grammar for a community. That grammar/doctrine is the way they reason, theologically, together. A Wittgensteinian language game.

  11. Fan-freakin'-tastic, Richard!  Thanks!  

    I'm enjoying the comments as well, but I don't feel as though I really have anything to add.

  12. "I know of no denomination that looks like the church revealed in the New Testament. Can you point me to one?"
    The original Church of the new testament, still intact today, what we call Eastern Orthodox. Considering we care for the relics and remains and relics of NT people, I'd say we're the closest thing. If you read the description of the kingdom laid out in Revelation it's almost a blueprint of our Liturgy.

  13. Hmmmm. I think I'd quibble about you being the closest thing. No offense, but I can't imagine the worship services in the book of Acts looking anything remotely like an Eastern Orthodox worship service. For example, you don't meet in homes. Plus, you don't speak in tongues and we know a lot of that was going on in the New Testament churches.

    I love, love, love Eastern Orthodox theology. But I don't think you look very much like the first century Christians.

  14. Daniel Kirk has written about this topic recently in reviewing the book: The Bible Made Impossible by Christian Smith. http://www.jrdkirk.com/2011/10/08/stop-with-the-impossible-bible-already-pt-2/

  15. Richard,

    I like your analysis, and I fear that it is correct in it's conclusion.  I also like what you said about the bible being hetrogenious.  We always talk about the early church, but it's far more likely that they were known as the early churches.  I think the fact that we have four gospels is a testament to the diversity in the understanding of Christ, as most churches probably only had one or two (if any) gospels available to them.  This diversity in hermunetics is one of the things I like most about my church, as we try to practice a communal and conversational hermunetic.

    Ideally, I'd like "biblical" to mean that something is weighed against what we read in the Bible, and I don't mean just the obvious passages.  Take  homosexuality for example, which is causing a large rift in my denomination (although it is everywhere as well).  Yes, we all know the 6 passages, but how do we view homosexuality through the lens of the Good Samaritan?  What is our response to a change of orthodoxy through the lens of Lazarus and Dives or pearls before swine?

    I love that the Jewish traditional is filled with arguing the meaning of a text.  It is in the discussion that we find meaning, not in the handing down of orthodoxy.



  16. I really like that last line.  If only we (at least my culture of American Christians) could put into practice the idea of seeing ourselves as only a small part of the much larger "meta-dealings" [is there a better word for what I'm going for?] between God and humanity.  I think, then, not only would we be more aware of other traditions' ways of dealing with the same text, but perhaps we could also see the forest for the trees on issues pertaining the to function and importance of dogmatics.  

    I don't wish for much...

  17. I think I probably got the idea of considering theology in terms of data types from...oh, where was it now....oh, yes...


    I love you, too, Richard!  Us outliers gotta stick together - no wait, that way we'll start to become normally distributed...


  18. What a lively discussion this topic has produced!  I would agree the the term "biblical" is used loosely and rarely describes a true biblical sociological  or cultural model.  If we did, all women would have head coverings at all times, no woman would be allowed to teach, they would sit separated from the men, etc. 

    I think what the term "biblical" does describe is "intent."  And that description is on two fronts: 1) what was the intent of the author of the passage in question, and 2) what is the intent  of the leaders now as they craft dogma and guidelines?  Is it their intent to maintain the spirit of the Bible through different cultural lenses?

    The early woman suffrage movement used this test to craft their ideology of gender equality.  They saw Paul as declaring the genders equal in Galatians, but for the sake of the Gospel not being hindered, he mandated elsewhere that some women curtail their rights so as not to offend the morays of the cultural with which they found themselves.  Thus, they reasoned, the intent of Paul was that the genders should be equal whenever a culture could bear this doctrine.

    I propose it is the act of discerning "intent" that gives such diversity it Christian circles.  The example above gave rise to fierce debate back then and its rumblings can still be felt today as men and women wrestle with the "less than equal" passages of the Bible.

    Thanks for the thought provoking post.

  19. Thanks Richard,

    In my context, the phrase 'Bible-believing Christian' is the telling one. It is used to imply a Biblical homogeneity that is both a predicate of Christian faith and is predicated on the text itself, but it very rarely means much more than "We all beleive the same thing about the Bible." It can be reduced to the identification of a certain kind of conservative reading of the text that wants to claim a singular authoritative position over others. It therefore labels all other readings of the text "non-Biblical" or "non-Bible-believing". It is used in my context alongside labels like 'Non-denominational'. As in, "We are a non-denominational organisation. Any Bible-believing Christian is welcome." While sounding inclusive, in my experience, the grouop who self-identifies in this way is usually the most exclusive - that is, anyone who does not adhere to their particular reading of the text is excluded as not taking the Bible seriously.

    As Richard and others have mentioned, this is not to take either the text or the history of the Bible or the history of the Bible's use in the church very seriously at all.

    I like to identify my theology as Biblical because I try to take the text and tradition of the Bible as seriously as I possibly can (even the bits that do not support my theological persuasion). I place myself under the text to echo Barth. It is not a claim of arrogance as much as it is an admition of intentional humility in my attempts to discern the Word. Part of that involves naming and confessing the hermeneutic prejudices I bring (which are many and varied), and trying to put them down long enough to encounter God.

  20. Such a simple, common-sense explanation for what endlessly occurs in and among Protestant Christian denominations -- not to mention between those and other branches (Catholic, Orthodox).  Reading this blog is like a drink of refreshing, cool water for a parched soul...  I have been pondering lately on why the various factions in Christianity fight so with each other; for that matter, why those in the same denomination debate and divide.  From a previous blog post here, I understand the difference between talking to convert vs. talking to understand one another.  But underneath that presumed mission to convert others to one's own particular set of "right" beliefs, I suspect (speaking from personal experience here) that many people are hoping to convince themselves with their arguments.  After all, if knowing and believing the "right" set of biblical beliefs is essential to conversion/salvation, those questions / doubts that nag a person's mind under the surface can be a scary thing to live with.  Learning to live gracefully with questions, doubts, and differences is a hopeful sign of deeper faith.  I'm working on that; I sense that God is working on that in me.  Thanks for your blog -- it's among my favorite places on the Net!  Keep writing...God bless.

  21. Sorry, reading the comments after I posted my own!  The proposition that the meaning of words is different for different people reminds me of a recent blog post by Roger Olson.  How can the same Bible be interpreted in such wildly different ways (Calvinist/Arminian, as compared in that post)?  Dr. Olson proposed people/groups with different gestalts (ways of looking at the world).

  22. Hi Susan

    I think you're right.  It took me thirty years to realise that I was reading the Bible wearing a pair of reformed theology glasses.  I've now swapped them for a pair of 'God is love' specs.  I'm not sure if it's possible to opt out of tinted shades altogether, but given an options list of God's character, His attributes or a particular theological camp, I think I'd rather start from love.  I accept that my understanding of this is in constant need of transformation and that my theology is a work in progress, but I feel a whole lot better about my starting point.  As Richard points out elsewhere, this determines most of the answers we reach.


  23. +1 on the laudatory comments.  "Biblical" as sociological stress test really nails it.

    I think you may give most of us way too much credit by ascribing to our communities hermeneutical "strategies."  If a strategy is anything, it is (a) thought out and through, and (b) _a priori_.  Much of what passes for hermeneutical "strategies" in the ordinary evangelical-ish church is little more than _ad hoc_,  reactive (reflexive, even) tactics, swinging wildly in response to a threatening idea, hoping to parry it long enough to live to fight another day.


  24. I think that the individualism of American Protestantism explains more about this kind of language than does a more nuanced social explanation.  Namely, "biblical" is language for dealing with individual death fears: to be biblical is to keep the terms of your hell insurance policy.  That which is not biblical threatens you with default on the policy.

    Your base observation is spot-on, however: "biblical" is used in extremely sloppy fashion.

  25. I would say that the modern Jesus Army in the UK (http://www.jesus.org.uk/) is a church very similiar to the New Testament Church. The underground church in China as well is very NT similiar.

  26. The general conclusion I draw from reading your blog above is "truths about the Bible are relative to the worldview they are discussed in.  Therefore we may or may not find what the Bible truly is trying to say." This isn't a good way to approach something that is the "God-breathed and profitable for training, correction and reproof".  How about biblical concepts that apply regardless of worldview such as the concept of men and women as co-heirs in the inheritance of Christ? Is that just a "sociological stress test"?

    In essence it seems like the focus of this blog is in detracting from a word that may not be perfect but has a useful function faith-related dialogue. Re-read your blog and think about this: for what purpose did I write this? I don't see it being uplifting or constructive to the Body of believers in any way.

  27. Thanks Scott, your post prompted me to re-read Richard's post and once more it was uplifting and consstructive to this believer in many ways.

    Being "biblical" is one of those badges that we seem to crave at a certain stage in our development, as a marker that God is on our side, and not on the side of those whom we oppose or disagree with. I do not disagree with this view, but embrace it, for the closer we get to the text, the more opportunity there seems to be for the Spirit of God to work on us to shake our reliance on "the interpretations of men" and break through with a fresh Word that cuts to the meeting of bone and marrow and leads us deeper into the inheritance of Christ as you cite.

    The funny thing is that the more I read Richard's posts the more frequently this seems to happen. Praise the Sovereign LORD of hosts!

  28. Have you spent much time in China with the house Churches there?  If so, I'd love to for you to elaborate on how you see the House Church movement is similar to the First Church.  I was in China for a year, but I was working at a public university, so I honestly can't say that I'm intimately acquainted with the breadth of diversity within the House Church movement there.  

    That said, I do know that many "House Churches" have grown so large that they regularly service thousands (per church) and rent entire buildings to meet in.  I'm not saying that this is somehow dissimilar in affect to the First church, but having been over there, my perspective certainly has changed.  On top of that, I definitely have a better feel for just how much a culture influences the way someone approaches the Bible without even realizing it.  Again, I'm not trying to say that the House Church movements in China are somehow a poor copy or somehow a degraded version, but I can attest that even movements such as these have their own flavor that is very much influenced by the prevailing culture.  Sometimes their cultural misunderstandings are even greater over there in the small movements because no one is there to explain to them just how culturally influenced the Bible is.  While we in the West grow up with a sense of Western history and culture, they do not.  I helped students from my college study the Bible, and the questions they had about the meaning of a text were sometimes very simple dislocations that transformed the entire meaning of the passage.  They were confused not because of "interpretation" as such, but simply because their something from within their culture, whether it was a way of approaching the Bible itself or someone else has naively tried to tell them the meaning of something, contributed to an understanding of the text in a way that was clearly very Chinese.

    And sometimes these "misunderstandings" led to incredible insights that taught me much more than I could have ever "taught" them about the Bible.  Much of how I helped students study the Bible was not in "interpretation" but in basic historical/cultural understanding of something very, VERY foreign to them.  While the culture of the Scriptures is not very close to my 20th/21st century American culture, sometimes it amazed me how much more my culture was influenced by the Bible (and the cultures evidenced therein) than theirs, which is even more removed from Biblical culture.

    However, when it comes to evaluating the similarity of a current body of believers to the First Church, I'm starting to realize that it's much less about the outward appearance (meeting in houses and such) than it is about the qualitative aspects the the First Church embodied - which are so much harder to emulate and are so much more open to interpretation around specific issues.  I do believe that smaller, tight-knit, intentional communities are much more likely to produce a truly fruitful "Church" body, but the essential question, IMHO, is not, "What should/does it look like?" but "What is it DOING?  And how is it embodying Christ?"

  29. Scott,

    I agree with Simon that your comments are certainly warranted and necessary.  There must be some kind of reverence that we have for the Scriptures, and taking things too far can lead to a host of problems on the other side.

    But what about not raising these questions at all?  I think Richard has stated here that this blog is not meant to be destructive at all, and if that happens to someone when reading it, then they should stop.  The point, I think, is balance. It is not easy to do, and perhaps no one can do it perfectly, but must not we try to walk the ground between calling into question the interpretations of men and also treating the Scriptures as inspired by God Himself?

    The critiques can certainly be overdone, thus leading to the pitfall you have rightly pointed out, but I think someone has to question these things, if for no other reason than to be a reminder of the dialectic nature between men and God in the process of interpretation.  I agree that such critique is not for everyone, and not everyone should be doing it, but as best I can tell, it seems to me that not enough people have even considered the possibility that the word "Biblical" means less about "what the Bible says" than it says about "what a community has decided about how to give Biblical basis for what they do."  Both kinds of things are playing a role, and the Bible is a very, very hard book to legitimately systematize without casting into the margins a lot of different, and very likely, possible interpretations.

  30. I very much appreciate what AJ and Simon have said in reply. 

    To Scott: I agree that the post has a "destructive" feel. It's hard to say everything that needs to be said in a blog post.

    But building on what AJ and Simon have said, sometimes "destruction" is needed so that we might escape the idols we create to see the bible afresh. That is, might this post be helpful as a cautionary tale? Alerting faith communities that sometimes, when they use the word "biblical", they are really just defending a tradition? Might that be something important to think about?

    To be sure, we might go on to wonder if there is more to the bible than our particular reading within a tradition. As well as questions about how we'd ever be able to tell when we've "arrived" at truth. And how we'd ever be able to adjudicate between two groups reading the same text but coming to radically different conclusions (e.g., think of how the slavery texts were used in American churches during the Civil War).

  31. Once more I defer to Karl Barth, this time from the preface to his commentary on the Epistle to the Romans: "The Word [Wort]
    ought to be exposed in the words [Worten].
    Intelligent comment means that I am driven on till I stand with nothing before
    me but the enigma of the matter [Sache];
    till the document [Urkunde] seems hardly
    to exist as a document."

    In other words, our task as those who seek to discern the 'Word' in the 'words' is to be patient enough and apply ourselves and all our faculties faithfully, so that we might glimpse the 'mystery of Christ' in and in spite of the text, so that the text serves only to point to the Word. To claim that the Bible itself 'is' the Word and not that it 'witnesses to' the Word is to give it a divinity tantamount to idolatry. To quote Paul Ricoeur; “The kerygma is not first of all the interpretation of a text; it is the announcement of a
    person. In this sense, the word of God is, not the Bible, but Jesus Christ."

  32. I am inclined to that this use of "biblical" is more often than not - with perhaps the most sincere of intents - simply an oblique and self-agrandizing reference to some vague other-than-us and inferior sector of Christianity.

  33. I suppose "Biblical" is like "Constitutional."  Americans assume that their basic civil liberties and rights are protected because laws are required to be "constitutional," and that means something.  Foundational to this protection is the fact that the constitution is designed to be as clear as possible.  If it were ambiguous and internally contradictory, or if it lacked any consistent means of interpretation, it would be useless as a guiding document, except maybe as a kernel for productive debate.  Similarly, if Christians are unable to come to any kind of consensus on the appropriate way to interpret the BIble, "Biblical" becomes a completely subjective term, and thus lacks the authority desired by those who claim it.  "Biblical" becomes just another word for "my personal interpretation."  Many Christians, however, take "Biblical" to mean "the intended meaning of the text."  In that case, there can only be one interpretation, and it becomes important to arrive at the correct one. 

  34. I'm not American, but like everyone in the West, I get plenty of my culture from the USA, and it seems to me that "consitutional" could be another similar stress test. I have read some of the gun control rhetoric - and clearly both sides are "consitutional", and equally clearly both sides think the other is "unconstitutional". There is probably a neat line up between hermeneutical stances on both the Consitution and the Bible, but I don't know the players well enough to draw it.

  35. Having just been approached by a few zealous students who intended to correct my wayward (read blasphemous) theology, I found myself making the same case that you made above (albeit with a great deal less clarity).  Thanks for your helpful articulation.

  36. I must have missed something here, but I don't see how "biblical" in the context of "a biblical perspective on this issue" could possibly be construed to mean "organized like the early church." You had a perfectly good definition already - a Biblical perspective on something is a set of related views about it that stem from the Bible. In this sense, lots of people are being biblical. It's only in the "do we speak in tongues and meet in house churches?" sense that you can claim "nobody is biblical," which has nothing to do with whether you can identify a biblical approach to an issue, or whether there is any risk of sociological rupture.

  37. Sorry to come at this so late, Richard! I just saw this article for the first time, when a friend shared the link.

    "I'm just not aware of any Christian group who would be willing to say their understanding of the bible is sinful."

    Two familiar phrases come to my mind: "Reformed and always Reforming", and "the noetic effects of sin".

    I suspect that if you phrase a bit differently--perhaps "Our understanding of Scripture is affected by sin"--you wouldn't have any trouble getting most evangelical, Reformed, etc. groups to agree.

    As an experiment, I googled "Reformed and always reforming", and the first result included: "Why the church needs reforming 1. Because of who we are (sinners)".

    This strikes me as an oversight on your part. (I welcome your feedback on that.)

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