What Does It Mean to Be Biblical?

Cross Examination
Faith is the joyful willingness to submit our individual stories to the Bible’s universal story in such a way that it continually wakes us up and shakes us up.

You’re at the bookstore and you notice these titles: A Year of Biblical Womanhood. The Year of Living Biblically. How to Preach Biblically. How to Save a Marriage Biblically. But what does it mean to be biblical?

Plenty of authors suggest you’ll be biblical if you memorize a few key verses from the Bible or if you follow some Old Testament laws with awkward literalism. Other people assume that having a collection of theological proof texts at hand or some favorite devotional passages earmarked in one’s Bible is the basis of a “biblical” faith. But none of these things makes us biblical.

Being biblical depends first on our goal. It’s hard to be biblical, for example, if our goal is to be rich because the Bible consistently identifies God as being on the side of the poor. Being biblical is only truly possible if our goal is to be a faithful and dynamic disciple of Jesus.

Being biblical also means approaching the Bible as a story—not as a worldview, a philosophy, or a set of life principles.

We are not being biblical when we rip Bible passages from their context. Instead we must seek to understand Bible passages in light of the Bible’s grand story, which stretches from creation and the fall to redemption and a renewed creation.

We are not being biblical when we divide this grand story of the Bible into parts that can be used to endorse our culture’s idolatrous story, or when we interpret the Bible to say what we think it ought to say.

We are not being biblical when we sift the Bible through the screen of what we already know we want to hear, or when we refuse to allow the Bible to confront us with its challenges, instead editing the text so it comforts us only with sentimentality.

Being biblical, then, means approaching the Bible as the story that shapes our whole life. As God’s authoritative story, the Bible invites us to inhabit its storied world because it’s the truest understanding of the world that’s possible, and then to comport ourselves accordingly. Being biblical means being shaped to the core of our being. That includes our lifestyles, habits, decisions, thoughts, beliefs, even our most intimate hopes and dreams and the means by which we seek to make them a reality.

Being biblical is excruciatingly hard and painful work. But it results in the story of the Bible saturating both our inner and outer worlds so we naturally see ourselves as poor, plaintive servants of the Lord rather than as proud, in-control masters of our own fates.

All this is what we mean by approaching the Bible in faith. Faith is the joyful willingness to submit our individual stories to the Bible’s universal story in such a way that it continually wakes us up and shakes us up.

The result of being biblical is not that we know more about the Bible. It’s that through the Bible we become Christlike at our core because we have encountered the living God through the working of his Spirit. We will be Christlike not just with external conformity or as a way to try to earn God’s favor, but in a genuine, authentic, and grateful way.

About the Author

Mike Wagenman is the Christian Reformed campus minister and professor of theology at Western University in London, Ont., and part-time New Testament instructor at Redeemer University College. He attends Forest City Community Church.

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Comments

The author mentions a couple of books in his opening paragraph, suggesting that perhaps these books advise what it means to be "biblical." One of the books mentioned, A Year of Biblical Womanhood. The Year of Living Biblically actually does what the author of this article is suggesting: that we understand the Bible in context and examine passages (in this example, passages about gender and womandhood) in light of the Bible's grand story. To include it in the opening statement reads (at least to me) that it is a book that suggests a prescribed way of living "biblically" when it's actually more a tongue in cheek title. 

Hi Jennifer - thanks for your comment and your engagement with the article! Those are actually two different books you refer to from the opening paragraph. Rachel Held Evans wrote "a Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband 'Master'" (2012). And, A. J. Jacobs wrote "The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible" (2008). You're right that these types of books often use catchy or provocative phrases and words in their titles - probably to grab attention and cultivate curiosity that will result in the purchase of the books. The nuances are often not discovered until after you get a ways into reading them - sometimes to your disappointment. The Jacobs book is especially silly in its attempt to understand what "biblical" living looks like today. Admittedly, the author is trying to be humourous rather than pastoral. But, the Evans book does showcase some of the awkwardness of overly literal interpretations of the Bible also. The difference, as you point out, is that Jacobs approaches the whole experiment without a foundational Christian faith whereas Evans does. And this, in the end, makes one more helpful than the other for the Christian believer. The problem I was trying to highlight by mentioning them (and others) at the outset is that the casual reader might randomly pick up any one of them and mistake the silly one as what it means to truly be "biblical."

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