Being "Biblical": Principle or Precedent?

There is a word we Christians (myself included) throw around a lot in our discussions of how we are to live and think.  The word is "biblical."  "Is this biblical?" we ask, about anything from a doctrine like the Trinity to laws and policies to everyday personal decisions.

Should Christians be "biblical?"  Yes. Like any good Baptist, I affirm that the Bible is our only written authority for faith and practice. The question is how, and what that means. Many who use the word are using it in the sense of precedent; that is, any given passage or story in the Bible can serve as a guide for life today. We need only look to see what was done or what it says somewhere (anywhere) in the Bible, and that's what we should do. But I argue that the concern of Christians today is not what the biblical precedent is but what the biblical principle is, which is also precisely how Jesus interpreted the scriptures (more on that in a moment).

The difference is our approach. Biblical precedent treats the Bible as a constitution, a book in which we can find an immediate applicable answer to a problem or question. It pays little or no attention to historical/cultural context and ignores the human elements of scriptures. As long as the Bible passage in question deals with the topic in question, plug it in. The immediate and clear problem with the precedent approach is that the Bible is a product of its time. For some, saying that the Bible is "inspired" requires that we believe its authors transcended their time and limitations in order to write (and then went back when finished?). 

On many topics of concern today, if we look to biblical precedent, we immediately run into problems. The Bible reflects values and practices that are often foreign (and sometimes illegal) today but were common in those days.  For example, take the issue of marriages and families. The way some talk, you would think the Bible is a shining beacon and example of the happy, stable, one man and one woman headed nuclear family. Far from it. The Bible permits and condones family arrangements that even today's most conservative Christians would find hideous. There's no way around it. Women did not have rights; they were the property of their husband as part of the grander hierarchy of society. It all revolved around the man, and the biggest concern (even of the women; see for example Hannah in 1 Samuel 1:1-11) was producing as many males as possible to continue the man's lineage (thus the reason for multiple wives and the perception of being punished by God if one could not conceive).

The biblical precedent approach doesn't work. Most people know it; the trouble is getting them to realize they know it.

Our approach needs to be one of biblical principle, not biblical precedent. The biblical principle approach involves a careful, reasoned, and systematic approach to the Bible that respects things like culture, context, and our own interpretive limitations. This approach recognizes the observable truth that the Bible does not speak with unity and clarity to every issue. This approach shows the Bible much more honor and respect because it gives it the critical and careful examination that it deserves instead of approaching it carelessly and "with the naked eye." We must do more work to look for what we can call the "hermeneutical direction" which means looking at the Bible as holistically and deeply as possible and seeking to find the direction in which the narrative travels.  What is the more overall thrust?

We can start simply with this question: does the narrative flow of the Bible as a whole go in the direction of liberation or oppression?  Does it travel in the direction of condemnation or forgiveness? Love or hate? As the scriptural narrative moves along, do doors seem to be opening, or closing?

For example, the book of Deuteronomy, which is thought to have been written later than the rest of the Torah, repeats some of the commands/laws found in the previous books but in edited form, at times even repealing some of the more oppressive aspects of the codes. It becomes clear that people had been interpreting the laws in ways that benefited only them and had begun to treat foreigners exactly the way they were treated in Egypt.  Thus Deuteronomy's repeated injunction: "Remember that you were once slaves in Egypt."  We also see many of the prophets in the Bible lambasting God's people for other ways in which they may have obeyed certain commandments but were ultimately guilty of much greater sins: idolatry and injustice (the inverses of the two greatest commandments, Matt 22:37-40).  Also, as the biblical narrative moves along, we see more and more openness and inclusiveness towards "outsiders" (i.e., Gentiles), culminating in Peter's declaration in front of Cornelius, "I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right" (Acts 10:34-35).  These are a just a few of many examples.

So the question is, what is my justification for this kind of interpretation?  What is my corroborating authority in my claim that this is a more correct way to interpret scripture?


The modern evangelical belief that all of scripture is equally applicable or authoritative would have been foreign to Jesus.  In fact, as hard as it is for some to imagine, this idolization of scripture and holding it up as the foundation of Christianity is a relatively recent development (think about the advent of "Bible churches").  Fundamentalist, precedent-oriented views of scripture have made us forget what theologians have said for a long time and was reflected in the Baptist Faith and Message from 1963 to 2000: "The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ" (http://www.sbc.net/bfm/bfmcomparison.asp). This recognizes that there are certain things in scripture that are incompatible with the teachings of Jesus (around whom the Christian faith is centered). For Jesus, like any good Jew of his day, the scriptures were the beginning of the conversation, not the end, and the question was what the principle is, not the precedent. If we know where and how to look, we can clearly see this in his method of interpreting scripture (what scripture they had at the time, of course).

One thing we notice is that Jesus had absolutely no problem placing one scripture passage above another. On more than one occasion, he held up one particular scripture passage and seemed to say, 'This more clearly communicates the heart of God.'

For example, in the passages known as "The Sermon on the Mount," Jesus repeatedly uses the formula, "You have heard it said before...but I say to you..."  The things that followed the first phrase "you have heard it said..." were not just mean, distorted views that people had managed to come up with but were often direct quotes from scripture.  "You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, tooth for tooth,'" Jesus began in Matthew 5:38.  But the "eye for an eye" stuff is straight from the Old Testament (Ex 21:24, Lev 24:20, Deut 19:21).

When Jesus named what the "two greatest commandments" were, he wasn't giving his own abstract summary; he quoted two individual passages. "Love the Lord your God..." is Deuteronomy 6:5 and "love your neighbor..." is Leviticus 19:18.  But he was doing more than just his own "picking and choosing." He was trying to show the people what the thrust - the hermeneutical direction - of scripture was. "All the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments" (Matt 22:40). At times, it was almost as if he was saying that the religious leaders of the day were applying scripture in "micro" form rather than "macro."  After mentioning the Golden Rule (a moral code that long predates the writing of the Bible), Jesus said, "This sums up the law and the prophets" (Matt 7:12).

In a dialogue about divorce, when Jesus declared that marriage should be permanent, the Pharisees asked, "Why then did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” (Matt 19:7). The Pharisees were making a direct reference to Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Jesus' response, that the command was given because of their "hard hearts," almost seems to say that it was meant only to satisfy the demands of the culture at the time, but overall, he said, "It was not this way from the beginning" (Matt 19:8). In other words, "temporary relationship" is not the overall thrust - the hermeneutical direction - of scripture. One other notable place where Jesus made the overall thrust and direction of scripture particularly clear was to the woman at the well: "A time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem...when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth." (John 4:21-23)

All of this must be shrouded in a careful study of the history and context in question.  Other examples of Jesus discussing scripture with religious leaders make little sense without considering the historical context and practices of the time (Matt 15:1-11 / Mark 7:1-13, for example). Other times, an understanding of the context can dramatically alter the meaning of a passage. For example, where Jesus said that his "yoke is easy" and his "burden is light" (Matt 11:30), few modern readers understand the meaning of this.  In 1st century Judaism, an ancient rabbi's "yoke" was his own particular interpretation of scripture, and the "burden" was the set of requirements that were imposed by his interpretation.  Most modern readers assume that Jesus is making some kind of statement about how comforting his presence is, but he was actually saying something that could infuriate modern religious leaders as much as it did those of his day:  'My interpretation of scripture,' Jesus was suggesting, 'is not burdensome, legalistic, or exclusive.'  Along with his all-call for anyone to "come to him" (rabbis of those days had strict criteria for who could be disciples), he could have easily been accused of playing fast and loose with scripture.  His call in this well-known passage was not necessarily to those who were burdened by life, but those who were burdened by religion.

Perhaps the most important thing to glean from this is that whenever our walk with God, interpretation of scripture, etc. results in the exclusion of more people (instead of less) or closes doors instead of opening them, we are traveling against the direction of scripture as a whole and the message of Jesus.  That is not the kind of flow that followers of Jesus are to be swimming against.