Over on Complegalitarian Wayne Leman asks whether either side of the complementarian/egalitarian debate should claim to be Biblical. Since I am openly egalitarian, perhaps I should try to answer the question “is egalitarianism Biblical?” instead.
But the fact is that I’d rather question the term “Biblical,” as indeed some of the commenters to Wayne’s post have done. The fact is that most people in the Christian community claim to believe things that are Biblical in one way or another. And depending on one’s approach, almost anything can be called Biblical.
I’m sure I’ve told the story before of the young man from an Independent Baptist church who came to my door wanting to share the gospel with me. It didn’t matter to him that I was already a Christian, or that I pulled out my Greek testament to follow along with his texts. He was arguing in favor of “once saved, always saved” but more particularly that the “once saved” had to be a complete and total dependence on grace without any inkling of any form of works. He had a quite legalistic definition of grace, in fact! We both presented texts, and as those of you acquainted with the topic may guess, books like Matthew, Hebrews, Acts, 1 John, and James featured in my part of the discussion. When it was over and he was about to leave he said, “I’m worried about your salvation. I’ve presented you with nothing but scripture, but you haven’t responded with any scripture.” Then he paused. “Well, except for Matthew, Acts, Hebrews, and James, and they don’t count!”
His reason they didn’t count was that according to him those books were written either for the Jews or for a “transition period” between the Jewish dispensation and the dispensation of the church. Those with theological training will recognize a fairly detailed and intense form of dispensationalism.
Now my point isn’t whether his form of dispensationalism is right or wrong–I happen to think it’s silly, but that is unimportant here. Rather, I’d like you to notice that both of us though we were being Biblical, but neither of us would be likely to recognize what the other one was doing as Biblical. I wouldn’t be surprised if he has a sermon illustration about visiting this guy who read Greek and who kept using texts that just didn’t apply in that particular context.
Depending on how you approach interpretation, a great variety of things can be made Biblical or not Biblical. That’s because the Bible is a collection of different books from different times, places, and written for different purposes. They are brought together as a “Bible” by the recognition of the Christian community. I happen to think that collection is Holy Spirit driven, but that’s not the key issue here.
There is enough diversity in all those books that depending on how I tie them together, I can come up with very different results. Yet over and over I encounter people who won’t even discuss their approach to interpretation or their understanding of the Bible as a “canon.” What many want to say is that they are just teaching what the Bible says, and then they quote a line, a verse, or a passage and apply it to their particular time and circumstances. But that line, verse, or passage wasn’t written at that moment, and its author didn’t point it at that particular time, place, and circumstance. The interpreter is taking something that was written at one time and place and applying it to another.
And we have to do that. But we should acknowledge that our understanding is involved in our interpretation and application of the passage. We each interpret, we each have to take responsibility. Some think it appears selfless and humble to take ourselves out of the equations. “I’m just proclaiming the word of God.” But it isn’t humble to do the work and then claim that it was really God all along instead of you.
Let me just list some key approaches to understanding the Bible as a complete canon.
- Community – the community receives, collects, and interprets, then in various ways mediates the application. The Catholic church’s “magisterium” is one aspect of this type of approach though there are many others. In some charismatic churches the pastor has become a local “magisterium” and nobody can question the pastor’s understanding of scripture. It may get labeled in different ways, but few of us are immune to the attempt to create some kind of authority.
- Dispensationalism – since the Bible appears to say very different things in different places, one way to make it work is to divide it up. Then if you have one text that says “faith without works is dead” and another that “you are saved by faith apart from works” (pardon my loose paraphrasing here), you just assign them to different dispensations.
- Proof texting – rarely claimed as a method, but very commonly used, this involves taking your favorite key texts and applying them while ignoring everything else. The more accomplished proof-texters have ways of explaining away all other texts, and seem oblivious to how ridiculous such explanations may seem to others.
- Historical-critical – I enjoy the tools of this method, but it too has its weaknesses, usually in that it takes texts apart without ever putting them back together. One can come up at the end knowing about everything there is to know about a text, but still having no idea what it actually means.
- Covenant theology – fit the texts within the various covenants God made. I like large portions of this idea, though a bit of overdoing it can result in something that looks remarkably like dispensationalism, though the two are not really that closely related.
Of course there are more, and I’m not here trying to advocate one or the other. I’m just trying to point out that we all have some approach or combination of them, and often when we think someone else is hopeless non-Biblical, it is more the result of a difference in approach than to any ignorance on their part.
In the end, however, I think the term “Biblical” is not a very meaningful one. I’d prefer “true” and “false.” Once we’ve made our claims we can then discuss the issues based on whatever evidence and process of logic we used to arrive at them. At a minimum, however, we have to look at the approach, otherwise the debate will be intractable.