One common response you may hear in theological discussions, either among professional theologians or laypeople, is, “That’s not biblical” or something similar. I’m not going to pretend I’ve never said that before either. This is often used to dismiss or refute positions quickly, and it also often paints the other side as not caring about what the Bible says. At face value, it seems like the easiest test to administer: If a belief or action doesn’t square with the Bible, then it should be abandoned. Any faithful Christian will agree with that, right?
Unfortunately, the phrase and others like it are often used very ambiguously and even in a self-serving and inconsistent manner. One example of this is how some Christians have objected to the use of written covenants for church membership or leadership as “not biblical.” When pressed what that means, they’ll often say that there is no explicit mention of written covenants in the New Testament. It can be somewhat amusing to see their reaction when you ask them things like, “Having background checks for potential children’s ministry workers is required at many churches but isn’t explicitly in the Bible. Are you okay with that?” Clearly, there needs to be less ambiguous usage of what it means to be “not biblical,” or at least its varying usages need to be clarified in each context so Christians aren’t guilty of inconsistency or equivocation.
Categories of “biblicalness”
I think it may be helpful to break down what it means to be biblical by going through different usages to go along with some good principles to follow. This way, there can be a bit more consistency and clarity in how the “biblical” test is used.
1. Clear and explicit commands/statements
This is the most obvious meaning when we say something is biblical or not biblical. If there is an explicit and fairly unambiguous command or statement in Scripture, then Christians are obligated to heed it even if it is uncomfortable or unpopular. Refusing to is not only “not biblical,” it can be rightly called unbiblical.
Given the doctrine of the perspicuity (clarity) of Scripture, there is quite a bit in the Bible that falls in this category, mostly concerning basic ethical commands and basic truths about God, Jesus, the Gospel, and salvation. People who obstinately argue against these clear commands and statements really expose themselves as immature or confused Christians at best and false Christians at worst (if they deny essential doctrines) because there is frankly very little effort in interpretation needed to understand these truths. To be clear, I’m not saying disobeying or struggling with clear Scriptural commands means this because we all do; I’m talking about stubbornly denying that the Bible makes these statements and commands in the first place, which is a different animal.
That said, the perspicuity of Scripture does not mean that every single passage in the Bible is obvious or that there cannot be deeper meanings gleaned from texts with further study. It gets irritating when some Christians, when arguing with other conservative Christians, arrogantly try to claim that their position falls in this category when it obviously does not.
2. Clear logical conclusions and extensions of #1
This is another straightforward test of what is biblical: Anything that follows pretty easily from #1 has strong biblical support such that denying it is not only not biblical but unbiblical. For example, it is a clear Scriptural command not to lust after women who are not your wife, so it’s a pretty easy to apply that to pornography even though pornography is not explicitly mentioned in the Bible. Other examples, which turn out to be foundational doctrines, are truths like the Trinity and the Incarnation. There is no Bible verse that says, “And thus Jesus Christ is God incarnate, both fully God and fully man,” yet there are explicit and clear scriptural statements that Jesus is God but also that he was a man, so a clear extension of that is the doctrine of the Incarnation. That does not mean we know how to fully explain the mystery of the Incarnation; it just means that Scripture affirms that Jesus is both God and man and that the Incarnation follows. Again, stubborn denial of truths in this category doesn’t speak well to the maturity or salvation of a self-proclaimed Christian.
3. Commands and statements that require more interpretation
As Alvin Plantinga has noted, Christians are obligated to believe and obey what Scripture says, but it is not always completely obvious what it in fact does say. As stated above, much of the Bible is straightforward, but that doesn’t mean all of it is. If a certain interpretation is granted, then it may follow that something should be obeyed, but there may be some latitude given for disagreement on the interpretation itself.
There are a ton of examples of this, but one can be on the issue of divorce. Some Christians believe that the NT provides no exceptions for divorce, while others think it does. I actually think the former position is fairly weak, but even then I understand that these are conservative Christians who care about Scripture and wrestling with texts. If they are right, then their position follows, but of course I and others don’t think their interpretations are correct.
4. Clear logical conclusions and extensions of #3.
Same as #2, but with the added caveat of more acceptable interpretive differences.
5. Wise, but not necessarily required, applications of any of the above.
These are conclusions and applications that may be wise or reasonable but fall short of being required. For example, it is a principle to avoid lust, and depending on the person and situation, there may be wise ways to apply that, such as not hanging out with the opposite sex one-on-one, not riding in a car with a member of the opposite sex, not watching certain movies or TV shows, not listening to certain music, not talking to the opposite sex on the phone too frequently or too long, etc. However, none of those can be argued as universal “rules” that can be clearly argued from Scripture. Preachers who argue this go too far. Insofar as they are presented as suggested and possibly wise applications, then they are biblical, and insofar as they are presented as commands, they are not biblical. Another example of a wise but not required application, as hinted above, is the use of written covenants.
6. Views and doctrines allegedly consistent with any of the above and other doctrines
This category has a lot to do with interpretation but also with logical argument, though the logical extension may not be as obvious as #2 or #4. This encompasses doctrines, viewpoints, or entire systems that are not explicitly taught in Scripture but, at least arguably, largely covers the biblical data in a careful way. This, however, invites opportunity for disagreement without jeopardizing one’s orthodoxy.
For example, most Calvinists know that limited atonement is not explicitly taught in Scripture, but they’ll argue that it is a view that is both consistent with some scriptural passages as well as other Calvinistic doctrines. They have ways to try to lessen the force of other texts that seem to speak against it. In this way, they try to argue that limited atonement is “biblical.” I do not agree with them and find the arguments to be weak, but if I say their position is not biblical, I’m not merely saying that limited atonement is not explicitly taught in Scripture or isn’t a blindly obvious logical step from a particular verse (that would be true for a host of proposed doctrines) but that all of their interpretations and logic fail to make a convincing case.
Likewise (and quite ironically), Calvinists often accuse Molinism of not being biblical, but Molinists will argue much the same way: Molinism is not explicitly in the Bible, but there is data there regarding middle knowledge, human free will, and the sovereignty and foreknowledge of God such that Molinism is the best systematic explanation of all of those biblical facts. Molinism may be wrong, but simply resorting to an argument that it’s “not biblical” is either elementary if you mean that it is not explicitly taught or is presumptuous because you haven’t yet made a case against its interpretation or logic. I have often observed this subtle switch in the usage of “biblical,” relaxing the definition to defend one’s own position but then restricting it when criticizing another, and that’s just equivocating nonsense.
Much more could be said about this topic, but I think this is a good starting point. In summary, it is helpful in discussion to be clear what we mean when we say a position is “not biblical.” Do we merely mean that it’s not explicitly taught in Scripture? Well, then that argument rarely amounts to much, at least in debates with fellow conservative Christians. However, if we mean that someone’s interpretation, logic, or application is off, then it becomes a bit more interesting of a discussion and avoids the fallacy of equivocation as well as the haughty connotation that the other side just isn’t as faithful to Scripture as you and your doctrinal buddies are.