What Do We Even Mean By “Scriptural/Biblical”?

I’ve been thinking a fair bit the last few days about the word “scriptural” and its counterpart “unscriptural.”

Anyone who has been about Christianity for longer than a couple of hours has probably heard a well intended person throw out the word scriptural or unscriptural at some point. (You may in your flavor of Christianity hear instead “biblical” and “unbiblical” – I hear both variations regularly)

But what do we really mean when we say these words?

Obviously we value the scriptures.

So scriptural/biblical is good.

Unscriptural/unbiblical therefore is bad.

But what is scriptural?

Now you ask most people and they will probably give a rather broad, ambiguous answer like the following…

“Well Phil, scriptural is something that is supported in scripture.”

So is the definition that:

Scriptural is supported by scripture and unscriptural is not supported?

But that’s not very unhelpful is it? If it’s just something supported in scripture then we find a lot of things we probably don’t want to be sided with today as a church…

  • genocide
  • hate crimes
  • murder
  • polygamy
  • rape
  • and so the list goes on

I personally don’t for a second think God is supportive of this sort of thing.

But it is found in scripture…in fact, some of it is found in a lot of scripture!

The default answer you would get in response to this is maybe something like…

“Yes but Phil, there are other scriptures that clearly forbid this so really it’s unscriptural.”

So maybe our definitions are:

Scriptural is something that is permitted.

Unscriptural is something that is forbidden.

With a further clause… something that is permitted which is then forbidden later becomes unscriptural.

But this becomes problematic in and of itself too… for some things that are forbidden become allowed later on.

So maybe it’s that:

Scriptural is something that is permitted, unless it is later forbidden.

Unscriptural is something forbidden, unless it is later permitted.

But then this becomes problematic. For what is “later” or is it just when a certain person permits/forbids something.

Jeremiah doesn’t like some of the laws of Moses for example (Jer 7) but does that mean that they become unscriptural? Jesus adds more extreme requirements to some of Moses’ laws – so is that the new standard of what is scriptural?

But what about Paul who later says that “we are not under the law”… does that make all the law unscriptural? Or when he says “everything is permissible”… does that make everything scriptural?

What a mess!

Can you see how much of a quagmire this is? And to be honest I’m only just scraping the surface.

You see, the truth is the Bible is used to support a whole host of amazing things with the argument that it’s the scriptural thing to do.

But it’s also used, and has been used throughout history, to do some really awful things…again with the argument that these things are scriptural.

If we are going to be honest we use the Bible extremely subjectively and 9 times out of 10 the “scriptural” thing is surprise, surprise, perfectly in line with our views, theologies, ideologies etc.

We read what we want out the Bible. You see, 9 times out of 10 the word scriptural means “my way of approaching the world, faith, God, people etc.”

We have to acknowledge this fact, that our readings are deeply subjective. Until we do we are at the mercy of our own egos.

The technical terms for all of this are exegesis and eisegesis.

Exegesis literally means “to lead out of” – it’s the idea that we read the text and we allow the text to shape us and create in us new views.

Eisegesis literally means “to lead into” – it’s the idea that when we read the text we find what we want in the text to support our own current views.

Obviously what I’m talking about in this article is the problem of people believing they are reading exegetically when in fact we all tend to read the Bible eisegetically.

What can we do then?

So how do we escape this issue?

As I said above, first and foremost we must admit we have this problem. If you don’t you are at best deceiving yourself and at worst lying.

It’s impossible not to have this problem, it’s human nature. But the beauty is scripture isn’t meant to be read on its own. It’s meant to be read with Holy Spirit. Remember it isn’t even scripture that is to lead us into truth… the scripture itself tells us that the Holy Spirit is the one who leads us into all truth.

Secondly we must remember that Christianity is not called to be scriptural.

We are called to be Christ-like.

I know that might be a tough thing to come to terms with. Perhaps you see both statements as one and the same. But I would argue that they are not.

How did Jesus read His Bible?

Jesus frequently critiqued the people of His day’s ability to read the scriptures and decide what was right and wrong.

He told them often that they not only misunderstood the scriptures but they actually read them wrong!

When they asked Him how He read the scriptures He bluntly told them that He read all of scripture through one lens… “love God with all you’ve got and love your neighbor (which includes your enemy) as much as you love yourself.”

In light of this, any interpretation of scripture which does not cause the following four things is not correct according to Jesus:

  • Causes you to love God
  • Causes you to love your family and friends
  • Causes you to love your enemies and strangers
  • Causes you to love yourself

If scripture doesn’t take you to these four places you are reading it wrong according to Jesus. And he frequently misquoted it or selective quoted it to prove this point! He would quote passages talking about god’s blessing of Jews and hatred of gentiles but instead miss parts out so it said that God wanted to bless everyone and hated nobody!

This of course made the Jews very very angry. Why?

Because it was unscriptural!

Creating a new standard for Bible reading

It’s why I’ve decided there needs to be a new standard. A standard that isn’t as broad and vague as scriptural or biblical.

The new standard for me is no longer:

Is it scriptural?

Instead it is:

Is it Christ-like?

Now of course, again if we are going to be honest with ourselves, we still have a deeply subjective element in play when we interpret Jesus. There are going to be people who think Jesus supports violence and those who think He is categorically against violence. So it’s still going to be subject to the classic eisegesis issue.

But honesty while it’s still prone to subjectivity there is a lot less scope for it.

You can read your Bible and maybe think God is going to support a genocide… I’m mean there is a LOT of evidence that God does enjoy a genocide or two, here or there.

But you will never be able to read the red letters of Jesus and think that genocide is something a Christian can support.

It’s literally impossible. OK maybe not impossible… I know some people out there are really passionate about their ideologies and will make anything say what they way.

But it’s pretty close to impossible.

It creates a whole lot less room for error when trying to understand how to read scripture. How to decide what is right and wrong for us as Christians.

Now what do you do about genocides and all the other funky stuff that goes down in scripture. Well that’s where I’d suggest a bit more in depth study. There are several ways to approach the discussion. I personally lay out some of my views in a three part video series called “Is God Really God? What to do when the God of the Old Testament doesn’t look like Jesus.” You can watch the series for free over on The Grace Course. But ultimately you’ll have to wrestle with this, pray about it and come to your own conclusion.

We can’t escape subjectivity but we can be more aware of this fact when we open up our Bibles.

We can prayerfully ask Holy Spirit to lead us into truth and expose our own biases and desires for the text to say certain things.

We can include more believers in our lives as we wrestle with the texts.

But maybe most fundamentally, we can limit how we warp the texts found in scripture by giving them a new interpretive guideline.

No longer do we just ask, “is it scriptural?” But rather we ask “is it Christ-like?”

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