When "Biblical" Isn't Enough

Written by: 
Published:
August 7, 2022

There seems to be no better phrase that encapsulates a lack of knowledge of the Bible than: “but, isn’t it biblical?” The word biblical means, as by Google, “relating to or contained in the Bible.” Being a book of books, the biblical texts contain a lot of descriptions, like, a lot. So, when we throw that phrase around, do we take into account the whole text? My professor at Columbia Bible College once clarified that phrase as missing a key element: prescribing. Biblical text both describes and prescribes, sometimes both at the same time, to which he would label “doubly true,” but it also describes things that shouldn’t be emulated.

Let’s take a look at things that are “biblical,” starting with owning slaves. Saint Paul was never an abolitionist; he even told Philemon to go back to his owner—slavery in the Roman Empire was not as oppressive. Another fun idea, bestiality, is spoken of many times throughout the Bible. Having more than one wife, killing one’s wife, and lots of raping all happened in the scriptural text. We also have prophets assassinating kings, and let’s not forget, prostitution being used as a righteous act. Does the mere mention of such concepts mean we should continue them on?

If you’re not screaming “no” by now, I’ll have to think of another list. But the point becomes clear that “it’s in the Bible” is an almost useless dead-end phrase. Instead, we should ask, why is it in the Bible? Or, how is it being used? Because these questions lead us to wonder what is being prescribed, wonder more about who Yahweh is, and wonder more about creation’s relation to this God.

We very easily forget the context in which the Bible was written. Does it contain eternal truths? Of course, but how does it talk about them? How does it show them? It does this by being in conversation with ancient pop culture, not, as we would wish, 21st-century idealism. We bring these ancient conversations and poetry into our day-in-age from Greek and Hebrew languages, no less, by these three main means: the communion of the saints, current community engagement, and of most importance, the Holy Spirit.

Communion of the saints refers to, as Dr. Richard Topping wrote, “interpretative fellowship of the saints, both the living and the dead.” As Christians, we have 2,000-plus years of history to be enriched by. This interpretative fellowship allows us to go beyond time itself to find guides and aids in the faith. I didn’t realize this until university whereby I took a history of Christianity course, during which I saw the beauty of our faith unfold and develop into the gift we can know it as today. My Seventh-day Adventist education tended to view this history as Jesus lived and died, St. Paul did stuff, and boom! It’s now the 1840s, and we can talk about the start of Adventism. That’s 9% of our faith’s history. As a church, we must be engaged in the full history of our faith, the other 91%. In learning how the minds of yesteryears understood the Bible’s ancient conversations, we won’t need to make the same mistakes.

Current community engagement can be seen in Acts, when the apostles and leaders would gather to recognize and acknowledge what it meant to follow Jesus. This continues on in the form of the Ecumenical Councils that were called to clarify Christianity among new heresies and popular culture of various times. Today, we still need this community engagement, and it comes at different levels. First is the local church, which doesn’t find its full value in preaching alone, rather in the followship of being faith seekers together. From this, church members feel supported and prepared to live a spiritual life of faith among their current cultures.

Next would be the level of the clergy, both engaging within a denomination and outside of it. Our current career model in Adventism, which is based on the Catholic model, has pastors studying for four years, then leading a church for about two years, and then going back for their masters of divinity. It is such a blessing that our church has the drive and ability to foster high academic pursuits, even sponsoring up to PhD degrees. Being part of a church that is willing to spend that kind of time and money investigating ancient conversations needs to be seen as a hallmark of Adventism.

Yet, the utmost chaperone of our faith is the Holy Spirit. We know that the Spirit is eager to help, like a kid who can’t hold still because they’re too excited to tell you something. Or perhaps as a goose, as Celtic Christianity would envision, honking and hissing at you. Sadly, I didn’t know much about the Holy Spirit growing up, so when it came to applying the Bible’s ancient conversations in my life, I didn’t know where to start.

This is the current hang-up of our church—learning by the Spirit to creatively apply biblical descriptions and prescriptions in new and meaningful ways. It wasn’t until I went to CBC, a Methodist college, that I began to realize this. For example, the Bible didn’t speak about the internet, but we know from its detailed account on healthy relationships and human lust that porn is evil. Scripture never spoke on climate change, but its strong emphasis on creation should steer us to be more environmentally-minded. What leads to these and other convictions? What pushes Christians? As it has always been, the Holy Spirit.

When we learn of God, Jesus, and the Spirit from biblical conversations, it is then for us to bring about these principles (also known as theology) in new ways to meet the needs of our time; this has always been part of our faith’s history. From Acts through the Ecumenical Councils until now, we are called to apply Jesus’s message and meaning. We can see the Spirit’s hand in all of that and therefore can find the Spirit trustworthy to continue his work—if we listen, if we learn, and if we think. This leaves the whole of Christianity as “translators and appliers of meaning” from ancient times. Meaning through action, not just stated beliefs or the newest view of how the world may end. Meaning through the heart, of death-to-self, from which we can then hear the Spirit’s call.

After all, isn’t it biblical to be led by the Holy Spirit?

 


Kevin R. McCarty is an Adventist teacher and local church board member in beautiful British Columbia and a graduate student at the Vancouver School of Theology.

Photo by: Rachel Strong on Unsplash.com

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