Towards a Charitable Understanding of the Nature of What is Biblical or Unbiblical
The term “unbiblical” is sometimes used to define, describe and classify practices and doctrines that people do not agree with. I am certain that you and I have heard someone criticise a practice or doctrine held by people they disagree with as “unbiblical.” Similarly, we have heard people substantiate and defend doctrines and practices they lean towards by classifying them as “biblical.” Perhaps you, too, have approached matters this way. I certainly have. If you have, how would you define the concept of “biblical” or “unbiblical”?
This short discussion that follows aims to persuade you to be charitable towards those you disagree with on legitimate disputable preferences of practice and doctrine. I will aim to do this in two ways. Firstly, I will attempt to define and clarify the terms we use. Secondly, I will offer application points proceeding from this brief discussion.
Definition and Clarity of Terminology
Probably one of the most helpful works on the understanding of the term “biblical” comes from the work of Gentry & Wellum1, where they discuss the nature of biblical theology. One of the aspects of biblical theology is that people mean different things when they use the term “biblical.” Generally speaking, Christians with good motives use the term “biblical” to mean faithfulness to doctrines and practices in question if they align with their understanding of the Bible. In addition, they mean, “Is this what the Bible says we should strive for in our behaviour and conduct? Is this what it means by what it says?” This is the definition of “biblical” at a lay Christian level. It is based on good intentions.
To a skilled exegete’s2 mind, an aspiration not far beyond the reach of lay Christians, “biblical” means faithfulness to and practice of the Bible accurately at a technical level. “Biblical” comprises of putting the whole Bible together, with doctrine and practice inseparably unified. At the back of the exegete’s mind, when this diligent biblical theologian interprets any portion of the Bible, sits the commitment to understand how any piece of a text that is studied fits in the entire redemptive-historical unfolding of God’s plan and its implications for us who worship Christ today.
Granting this definition, one can be flexible in attempting to read the Bible in a way similar to the way Grudem3 proposes we should read systematic theology; namely to study topics of the Bible in such a way as to grapple with how the Bible presents the topic from the first to the last time, and how that particular topic functions through the new covenant. Having this goal in mind, we can then attempt to reach logical conclusions on how we should present the topic to others, how our doctrines should be shaped, how we should be coherent and consistent with the Bible’s storyline and the overall Christian theology.
The Bible’s storyline is about God and how he reveals himself to us. Whether the topic is tongues, tithing, or the Trinity, we should still exegete God in our doctrines and practices. God sets the terms of interpreting any doctrine and practice, hence Rosner4 aptly defines the process of doing what is “biblical” as “theological interpretation of Scripture in and for the church. It proceeds with historical and literary sensitivity and seeks to analyse and synthesise the Bible’s teaching about God and His relations to the world on its own terms, maintaining sight of the Bible’s overarching narrative and Christocentric focus.” In order to develop your own foundation of doing what is “biblical” according to Rosner’s definition, see to it that you keep in mind God’s redemptive-historical plan and unity of the Bible, irrespective of the topic you study.
Now that we see that “biblical” conveys the idea of letting Scripture interpret itself in its own terms, how does this apply to us in our walk with Christ? In this brief discussion, I want to suggest to you to apply the principle of charity. In other words, love in all you do, even when you disagree with your brothers and sisters in Christ. Consider a few application points that I pray will help you to cultivate charity concerning legitimate differences of doctrines and practices.
The first is to consider that the very doctrines and practices you classify as “biblical” are viewed differently by other believers who aim to be faithful to the Scriptures and to live lives that are pleasing to God. So, what you classify as “biblical” may be viewed as “unbiblical” by someone else. If we treat one another this way, then what qualifies as “biblical,” since virtually all the views we espouse in Christendom are disputable? “Unbiblical” should not be confused with disputable. The fact that you can dispute or disagree with something does not mean it is unbiblical. We should learn to love (1 Peter 2:7) and respect those we disagree with as we expect them to respect us.
The second is built on the first. Practice desisting from classifying things in categories of wrong and right only, or “biblical” or “unbiblical,” especially when they relate to believers in Christ. There are many grey areas in our Christian faith, dare I say even between husband and wife, elders of the same church, and members of the same church who worship Jesus together. In Romans 14:5–10, Paul exhorts us be convinced that what we do is from faith and pleasing to the Lord. Why? Because in our relationships with one another, it is inevitable that there will be grey areas between us. We must accept one another and maintain peace. However, when it comes to the Lord, there are no grey areas. So, even if you are convinced you are right, you may possibly find out on Judgement Day that you were wrong. We will all stand before the judgement seat of God to give an account for our doctrines and practices.
This does not mean there are no absolutes and truth is relative. There are many indisputable views Christians share: the Trinity, hell, the gospel, and Christ to name a few. What this means is that we must not judge on areas that are not so easy to understand, and in areas that are not fundamental to our faith. To dismiss doctrines and practices as “unbiblical” should not be an easy task, just as it is not always easy to define what are indisputable “biblical” doctrines and practices. This also does not mean all views are correct and equal. This is one of the reasons I do not support the four or five views books idea, because it sends a wrong message that all views are disputable or equally “biblical.” Granted, some of these books do well to criticise some of the views and present a plausible view.
Lastly, as you strive to practice charity, listen for the helpful insights from those you disagree with. For example, Kingdom through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants is a brilliant book that presents views I disagree with in a way that helps me to appreciate the clarity of their view. This skill I learned from Dr. James White in 2013, where I had the pleasure to sit in on his debates with Muslims, one night in Masjid Abubakr Siddique. During the debate, loadshedding hit us in a mosque at night. Imagine the feeling. Dr. White said, “I’m not sure I’m comfortable with the lights going out.” His opponent, Dr. Shabir Ally, replied, “Especially in a mosque.” I digress! Dr. White does a brilliant job of sifting through the issues to present Islamic views from the Quran in a way that the Muslims would agree, and then successfully criticises what they say they believe by showing them their inconsistencies and incoherent views. He always helpfully uses the Bible carefully. He never attributes to them what they do not agree with or believe and then criticises that in a strawman fashion.
The overall aim in this brief blog post is to achieve the aim of studying theology in general. John Dick5 reminds us of the reasons why we should study theology as Christians. There are two that are pertinent for this topic that you should be spurred towards: namely, to love God, the most worthy exercise of our affections; and to serve him, the most honourable and delightful purpose to which we can and devote our time and talents. This should be our goal, too, especially when we disagree with people. We must be “biblical” about defining what is “biblical,” so that we can be responsible with the truth, and charitable above all legitimate differences of doctrine and practice. To this end, we should not label practices as “unbiblical” simply because we disagree with them.
P. J. Gentry and S. J. Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants, Wheaton: Crossway, 2018. ↩
This is based on our understanding of exegesis. Exegesis is the science of drawing the meaning out of the text as it was originally intended by the author. An exegete is a scientist in this field. All Christians must be good exegetes because we are all capable of understanding the meaning of the Bible if we are diligent like the noble Bereans that Luke commends in Acts 17:11. ↩
W. A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, 2020. ↩
B. S. Rosner, 2000. “Biblical Theology,” New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, Madison: InterVarsity Press, 2000. ↩
J. Dick, Lectures on Theology, Bridgewater: Applegate, 1851. ↩
Author: Tsholofelo Kukuni