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.


  1. Excellent, Corey. I struggle with the description of Scripture that is sometimes used, "inerrant." If something is without error, that makes it perfect and God alone is perfect. It makes me wonder, in our zeal to be people of Scripture, how often do we idolize that Scripture? Thank you for your wise words. Blessings! Kim Chafee

  2. I agree for the most part with the basic hermeneutic(al?) concepts you've explained, particularly of the need to examine the context of passages rather than cherry-picking something that supports your own views. And I too, upon hearing of what the KS pastor and others said about executing homosexuals, wondered when they were gonna get around to applying the rest of Leviticus. I reach a very different conclusion than you do, however, where I don't believe Jesus is opening the door in a way that is more, shall we say, permissive than the Old Testament. I believe God's characteristics of love, justice, and holiness are in full effect today just as they were in the Old Testament, but where before we are under law, we are now under grace. For those of us who believe Christ's atonement on the cross was complete and full, that means every sin we commit is one that was paid for with his blood. So, as Paul asked, shall we go on sinning so that grace may abound?

    I do think God's kingdom is exclusive in the sense that those who do not repent and believe and, consequently, follow Christ, will not inherit the kingdom of God. There seems to be a trend towards the more vague and somewhat nebulous concept such as your mention of traveling "in the direction of condemnation or forgiveness", where there is a blurring of the lines of objective right and wrong, or even saved or not saved. Now I'm a believer that right and wrong isn't always black and white, but when we get to the point where we answer questions like "Is there a hell? Does God send people there? How can I get to heaven instead?" with answers such as "well, love wins", then I just have to think, what on earth does that mean? This isn't a matter of our interpretation deliberately excluding anyone, it's a matter of holding fast to what Christ said instead of explaining away the bits we don't like, such as the "eternal fire" passages. ('aionion' tangent goes here...)

    It also doesn't make much sense, to me at least, to question the authority and inerrancy of the scriptures. How do we know what Jesus said?

    And one final point, using your example of marriage -- if we look to Jesus' description of marriage, "a man shall leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh", as authoritative, why leave any room for alternatives to that? Does it matter for our sakes how perverted it was in the Old Testament, if Jesus just told us what it's really supposed to be, and has been from the beginning?

    1. I confess I'm having trouble following your first paragraph, unless you have misunderstood my use of the word "permissive" or have misunderstood me to say that God Himself has changed over time.

      I'm not sure how one can read my comments on the direction of scripture and interpret it as "a blurring of the lines of objective right and wrong." It has nothing to do with that; in fact, it could serve to unblur them. It seems you want definitive answers that scripture doesn't give. I can't tell if you have actually read Bell's "Love Wins" or if you're relying on what you've heard, but I'll be clear: I want love to win. If you don't, then we're not on the same page. When we don't want love to win we are usually seeking judgment on a certain group of people among whom we don't place ourselves, but have we not been told that there is "no one righteous"? I know that one of your favorite hobbies is to read my blog (sarcasm), but based on some of your comments here, I would point you toward my survey of the concept of hell in the Bible (http://soapboxsuds.blogspot.com/2011/06/wheres-fire-survey-of-concept-of-hell.html) and my comments on the nature of "faith" (http://soapboxsuds.blogspot.com/2012/04/faith-has-feet.html). And by the way, any study of the original languages is not a "tangent."

      Authority and inerrancy are two totally different things. I affirm the former, but the latter is demonstrably false. It is not necessary to believe false things about the Bible in order to say that it is authoritative. "Inerrancy" is a concept that doesn't even make sense in light of how the Bible came to be and how it gets to us in an English translation. Which of the hundreds of divergent, ancient copies of each biblical book do you wish to claim is inerrant? Besides, it seems to me that you're closer to agreeing with me than you realize, since you later refer to marriage and family in the Old Testament as "perverted." That's not exactly an affirmation of inerrancy.

      The marriage point: the context of the passage makes it clear that Jesus was primarily addressing the permanency of marriage. The interchange is about divorce. In our day, divorce is widely accepted but homosexuality is not, and so it's pretty typical that we would focus in on the "man and woman" part and make it about gender prerequisites...which also relies on a precedent approach.

  3. I want love to win too, and saying that I am SEEKING judgment on anyone couldn't be further from the truth -- in fact I pray desperately sometimes for specific people to come to be in Christ Jesus as they will NOT fall under judgment. I have not read all of Rob Bell's book, but what I have read of it was so devoid of content and truth that I chose not to purchase it. I don't understand the point of questioning the meaning of "eternal" when there are other uses of the same word in the Greek to mean "eternal". When we go to heaven, do we experience an "age" of life with God? What's after that? Do we get cast into an "age" of fire if we die without being born again in Christ? Or does "forever and ever" and "unquenchable" not give us a good clue that it means "eternal"? Anyway, I WISH that God's will were done and that all were saved, and I wish love won over everyone, but God is as just as he is loving, and will exercise his justice in the last days.

    I guess "inerrancy" needs some qualification. Personally, I believe that God has worked through those who have transmitted the Bible through the ages to bring it to a form we can study and understand. The deviations among copies are far, far lower than any other piece of literature from that era or before, yet strangely enough we don't question what Homer really wrote in the Odyssey, for example. My personal use of the word "inerrant" means that the revelation to the authors was perfect and complete, and we can rely on the Bible, in its entirety, as the Word of God. Again, if that isn't the case, how do we really know what Jesus said? Are only the red letters "inerrant" while the rest is open for debate? I'm not trying to make the point that everyone mentioned in the Bible was without sin or did everything exactly right, far from it. Sometimes the Bible is as much an example of what NOT to do as what TO do.

    Jesus' mention of man and woman as a standard is widely supported considering the "man and his wife" concept runs throughout the New Testament. Peter and many others clearly took it as such, and they spent a lot more time with Jesus than anyone else ever did. You often mention logical conclusions, well it seems the logical conclusion for those who believe homosexuality is acceptable should be to fight for the legalization and acceptance of polygamy and incest also, and that doesn't seem to be happening.

    1. Perhaps the book was devoid of the kind of content YOU are looking for and what you have already decided is true. I find Bell's book to be very content-rich. He is not my idol. Some things were a stretch, I question a few of his facts, and his treatment of some topics are incomplete. And I'd be happy to discuss the age/eternal/"aionion" stuff with you, but it sounds like you have already decided on an answer that satisfies you.

      Your qualification of "inerrancy" amounts to the common definition of "inspiration." It's probably best to keep those two concepts distinct. The deviations among the copies are TYPICALLY minor, but not always. For example, the book of Jeremiah (I recommend that you read about the Dead Sea Scrolls if you haven't already done so). Or, sometimes entire stories are missing, like the woman caught in adultery in John 8 (your English Bible will tell you this above the text or in a footnote). But it all still depends upon making assumptions about - or ignoring - the transmission process before its extant form. Are we saying that the text we have came into being once and only once and that we have its first and final form? This is hardly the case, especially for the OT. You're correct that our accounts of Jesus are relatively close to the actual person and events, but it's also not probable that they were the first accounts to be written down, and we know they weren't the only "gospels" written.

      By the way, there are plenty of doubts that Homer wrote the Odyssey in its extant form. His authorship is a long-standing tradition, but not verifiable, similar to the "books of Moses." Where scholars do argue for its authenticity, they do so on the basis of stylistic and literary consistency, something that is not present in many OT books and which says nothing about the identity of the author.

      The concept of inerrancy doesn't make sense for the gospels any more than the rest of the Bible. You already have all the evidence you need, without accepting anything I say, that we're not always reading the exact words of Jesus. Others wrote down his words later, and when they did, they worked them into their own narrative framework. There are times, for example, between Matthew and Luke, where we are faced with one of two options: either one omitted something, or the other added something.

      When you say, "If inerrancy isn't true, then how do we know...?" you are asking a very good question; one that caused me - like many others - a crisis of faith. We need to find ways to teach the Bible more responsibly and be more honest about it earlier to avoid such shocking revelations later on. I had to wrestle with it, and no one would have been able to tell me what to think about it, so neither should I do that with you. Some people choose to accept the evidence and wrestle with it, and others choose to stick to their guns and keep making "a priori" claims about the Bible. You must decide for yourself.

      Of course heterosexuality is the "standard" in the Bible. That should surprise no one. It was the standard in biblical times for much the same reason that it's the "standard" in Iran. They've killed most of the homosexuals. Slavery is also a scriptural "standard." We've circled this block many times. And I'm quite surprised at your final point. What makes polygamy and incest logical conclusions of the homosexuality debate? Because they also happen to be prohibited by scripture? Because they also happen to all be on your vice list? I see nothing logical in the comparison.

  4. Man, I should have lived in the biblical times! I have the producing sons thing down! ....oh wait, there might be a small problem with my sassy attitude and the fact that I'm very comfortable wearing the pants in my house. :)