My Problem with the Word “Biblical”

Donald Miller

I’m spending a season in the deep south and recently attended a Christian conference. I enjoyed it a great deal, but one thing the speaker kept saying didn’t resonate. He kept using the word “Biblical.” The word itself is fine as it’s neutral, but he was using it to talk about relationships and how we should interact with each other. I found myself wondering if I wouldn’t trust the information more if he wouldn’t use that word, not because I don’t trust the Bible, but because I took enough seminary classes to know that in no way did any writer in the Scriptures intend for the book to be a comprehensive manual on how to do relationships, and to assume to is to add ideas to the ones God put together in the book itself.

Lately I’ve realized my conservative southern upbringing, while filled with the teaching of Scripture, nearly ruined the Bible for me. It was used as a comprehensive description of God, a voting pamphlet informing who I should vote for, a science book explaining why modern biologists were wrongly interpreting their findings and the ace card for anybody presenting their ideas. It wouldn’t be for years until I sat under a professor who I believed got it right.

The various and diverse essays of the Bible were written long before we began to interpret historical accounts literally. This book does not read like an article in the New York Times, nor like a modern self-help book. In fact, much of the style of literature the Bible employs (and there are various styles which should be read and interpreted differently) are no longer used or interpreted the same way. These essays, letters, plays and poems were written to cultures that would have read and understood them very differently than the way you and I understand them today.

And so this idea that the Bible presents a comprehensive guide for relationships that is Biblical is, in fact, not a Biblical idea. Nor is it “biblical” for us to use the Bible as a guide to understand science. Or psychology or finances or a guide for how to build a church. In fact, our desire to use the book as an end-all be-all for all things earthly and spiritual is a misuse of it.

Imagine reading a newspaper article from a century ago, bound with a series of love letters and the score of a musical and then trying to interpret that compilation as a comprehensive guide for living life, studying science and establishing a democracy. That’s what we tend to do with scripture but that’s not what God intended for the book.

To be sure, scripture should inform and inspire our social, political and educational systems, but to say we have a “constitution” intended for that purpose is more than a stretch, it’s a naive understanding that often makes the evangelical community look foolish.

Can it inform or inspire a how-to guide? Sure, but it isn’t in itself one at all. It isn’t trying to be one.

*Photo by Ryk Neethling, Creative Commons

2 Timothy says all scripture is given by God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, and for instruction in righteousness, and yet it’s doubtful Paul knew when he wrote those words, or any of the other words he wrote, that they would some day be considered Scripture themselves. And to assume he did is to assume something the Bible doesn’t clearly state.

Not only this, but this passage says nothing of turning the Bible into comprehensive proof of anything. I suspect, in part, we’ve turned the Scriptures into a series of absolute truths we can use for and against various ideas so we can have more control over people. Who, after all, can argue with us if our ideas are “biblical?” You have to admit the temptation to use Scripture to “end an argument” is enticing. But what if the book itself were never intended for such a purpose?

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Here’s my question, what’s the difference between a heretic with a liberal interpretation and a heretic who makes the Bible more conservative and literal than it was intended by God to be? In my opinion, there isn’t a difference. And yet how many teachers and theologians are challenged for “conservative heresy” for using the word “biblical” to support whatever psychological or scientific theory they want to espouse? Why don’t we just say here’s an idea that makes sense to me and it happens to be supported by the sciences and even the Bible has some poetic, though hardly absolute comments on the subject? I’d say the more controlling personalities would have a serious problem with the looseness of that language, and yet the looseness of that language is all the Bible really gives them. Any more assuredness on their part is a creative construct they are likely using to assume an intellectual or spiritual authority they’ve not likely been given.

So what is the Bible, then? In my opinion, it’s a book that is God breathed, which is a mystery and a paradox that makes more controlling teachers insecure. And yet that’s all it ever claims to be.

I miss studying the Bible as a wonderful piece of God-breathed literature. I think when we turned it into a book of rules, facts and absolutes, we killed its beauty. We killed something that was once alive so we could control it and make it serve our will.

I guess I just don’t believe the word Biblical is all that “Biblical” anymore. Call me legalistic, but I’m choosing to take the Bible at its word.

Donald Miller

Donald Miller

Donald Miller is all about story. He helps people live a better story at creatingyourlifeplan.com and grow their business at storybrand.com. Follow Don on Twitter (@donaldmiller). To read more of his posts on the Storyline Blog, click here.