Awhile ago, in a class my second semester here at Dallas, the prof went off on a tangent about how we use the adjective “biblical.” Certainly evangelicals strive to be biblical, be a part of biblical community as my church calls it, or possibly to even think biblically and recover a Christian worldview. However, the biblical path is not without pitfalls and some of them hinge on usage.
What the prof pointed out was that in many usages, “biblical” functions as a conversation ender. This is especially true when it comes to pragmatics. Say that I feel that a small group should be structured and run a certain way, and say, you disagree and present your counter case. I then question the legitimacy of your approach, to which you respond, “well it’s biblical to do it this way.”
Conversation over. Because now if I question you, I am questioning the “biblical” way of doing things. You have evoked the Word of God as giving unqualified support for your position, so who am I to question that? Most people don’t have the guts to question what has been deemed the “biblical” way of doing things.
Now, our prof did point out that it really shouldn’t be this way. If you claim that your way is biblical, then I can just ask you to prove it and move the conversation forward. But this points to the deeper meaning of throwing words like “biblical” around.
“Biblical” and other similar words and terms are always susceptible to reification. To reify a concept (rhymes with deify) is to take it from being abstract and make it concrete. In evangelical circles at least, “biblical” is a term that has been reified which means everyone assumes it has a monolithic meaning which it doesn’t necessarily have. It has an abstractness to it that can’t quite be done away with. This is not to say there is not a certain sense in which “biblical” can be an objective description of things, but in another sense, what you consider biblical is enmeshed into your larger categories of theological thought.
For instance, I consider myself to have a “biblical” view of election. An Arminian (or another Calvinist) might strongly disagree that my conception is in fact biblical. Baptists consider their way of organizing and running a church service to be biblical; Anglicans and Presbyterians may disagree that that adjective fits. They may not go so far as to say that the other is unbiblical, but sometimes the way we use the term at least implies that.
If my way of doing things is “biblical,” then it is hard to avoid the implication that your way is not. What I think we might need in this area is a level of humility, and an attempt to define what we mean when we use “biblical” to describe something. When someone says something is biblical, ask them what they mean by that. If they are interested in actually being biblical, then in theory they should be open to having the Word of God revise their approach to whatever it is. If they’re just interested in being right and using the cloak of being “biblical” to ward off disagreements, then you maybe there are bigger fish to fry than debating word usage.