“Is it biblical?”
That’s the question so many people ask when faced with a new (to them) idea or experience. It’s such a common phrase that my assumption is we all know what’s being asked without even having to pause to evaluate the content of the question. “Is it biblical?” means, “Does the Bible support this?” If I go to the Bible can I find chapter and verse corroboration that this perspective is sanctioned by God? What we don’t often realize is that this whole idea—something being or not being biblical—is actually far more complicated and nuanced than we might imagine.
Here’s what I mean: If something being biblical means that it has the Bible’s, and thus God’s, stamp of approval, then what do we do when the Bible doesn’t speak with one voice on an issue? Or what happens when the Bible supports something that we’ve come to understand as deeply problematic? I know this is a hard pill to swallow, especially if you, like me, were indoctrinated into the idea that the Bible is free of contradiction. The truth is, the Bible is complex. As we’ve seen it is the product of many authors over the period of around a thousand years, which means we should expect differences. People learn, grow, and change over time, so if the Bible is the product of people we should expect that to be reflected in the text.
A couple of examples might prove helpful.
What is the biblical approach to war and violence? Should human beings take up weapons against one another? Notice these two texts that don’t agree on the issue.
Isaiah 2:4, NRSV
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.
Joel 3:9-10, NRSV
Proclaim this among the nations:
stir up the warriors.
Let all the soldiers draw near,
let them come up.
Beat your plowshares into swords,
and your pruning hooks into spears;
let the weakling say, “I am a warrior.”
Isaiah and Joel are different people, writing in different contexts. The author of Isaiah chapters 1-39 wrote in the 700s BCE, during the time of Assyrian power, while Joel is generally dated to the Persian period, meaning between 539-332 BCE (Joel is located by many scholars to 400-350 BCE). They also have very different visions. Joel calls for Isaiah’s weapons turned plowshares to be turned back into weapons again. Which prophet is biblical? Which represents the call of the Spirit to human beings? Does God sanction violence? It seems the Bible can go either way in answering that question, and it is left up to us to decide which is better for humanity.
Here’s another example: The way the Bible talks (or doesn’t, actually) about marriage. The idea of biblical marriage is frequently referenced by those who advocate against marriage equality for the LGBTQ+ community. But what does that even mean? If you read the Bible, it actually doesn’t mean one thing, but lots of things. This meme circulated around the internet several years ago, and it demonstrates how, to be honest, ridiculous it is to talk about “biblical marriage.”
These are all in the Bible, which makes them…biblical. That doesn’t, however, make it good or the best way to be human with one another. What it does represent is how people in a patriarchal culture once thought, and within the Bible we can also see their movement and growth on some of these issues. The truth is, calling something ‘biblical’ doesn’t make it good or just or the best option for human beings today. After all, many horrible beliefs and actions have been supported biblically—slavery, segregation, continued racism, misogyny, and homophobia, all of these have been supported by biblical proof-texts.
If we remove the idea of biblical as a litmus test, how then do we make decisions about important questions? For me, I now hold up those questions and considerations to the idea of human flourishing. When faced with a question, I ask this: Will this lead to human flourishing? Will it allow human beings to become more fully and beautifully themselves? Will it lead to wholeness and healing? Will it empower us to become all that we can be, so that we can bring our full selves, and the gift that we are, to the world?
Can you imagine if we had allowed human flourishing to guide us? Perhaps then so many of God’s beloved would not have been wounded and traumatized by religion. Imagine if the question around human sexuality or gender identity was not “what is biblical,” but instead “What would allow a person to become their most flourishing self?” What if our parenting approach was not “what is biblical,” but how do I help my child become all they can be? The possibilities are many.
I am not anti-Bible. Far from it! I love the Bible. I find it to be spiritually nourishing, and a source of deepening connection with God. But the way we engage the Bible matters. When we approach it as something frozen in time, with all the answers located rigidly in the past, while also ignoring both the Bible’s complexity, the way the perspective of the authors changes and grows over time, and added to that, the complexity of our own context and questions, we aren’t taking it seriously. We are treating it like a Magic-8 ball at best, or weaponizing it, at worst.
Something being biblical doesn’t mean it’s best. Because having a biblical worldview also means believing in a three-tiered universe, and all that comes with that. It means holding assumptions that we’ve since learned, through the gift of science and medicine, no longer best explain the world or humans.
Something that leads human beings toward flourishing, toward becoming all that we can become, toward what Jesus called in John, “life abundant,” that is something to embrace, something that can be truly transformative.
As, Irenaeus said, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.”
Here’s to that full, abundant, flourishing life.
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