Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Richard Beck: Biblical as Sociological Stress Test

"Biblical" as a Sociological Stress Test

Recently I was invited to be a part of a conversation regarding how a community I'm associated with should approach a controversial topic. The stated goal of the conversation is to think about what a "biblical" approach would be regarding this issue.

So I've been thinking a lot about the word biblical and about what it might mean.

Here's my basic observation: Whatever biblical means it doesn't mean biblical.

What I mean is this. Are Catholics biblical? Methodists? Pentecostals? Amish? Presbyterians? Episcopalians? Baptists? And on and on? It seems everyone would own the word biblical. And if that's the case, if biblical can embrace all this diversity, then I struggle to understand how, when I gather to discuss a "biblical" approach to a controversial subject, that anything other than a diversity of opinions will emerge. Strictly from an empirical standpoint, the bible doesn't produce homogeneity of opinion. Rather, it produces heterogeneity of opinion. That is a fact. The bible does not produce consensus. And if you think that it could or should you're just not a serious person.

The point being, a conversation seeking to find a "biblical" view isn't heading toward a fixed destination. Rather, such a conversation will be airing a diversity of views that share a family resemblance. The word "biblical" here is the name we have for that family resemblance. Similar to the label "Smith Family Reunion." Biblical means something like Smith Family Reunion.

Phrased another way, biblical is just a synonym for Christian.

Secondly, biblical definitely doesn't describe the attempt to conform to or recreate the church we find in the pages of the bible. I know of no denomination that looks like the church revealed in the New Testament. Can you point me to one?

And if we can't what does that say about how we are using the word biblical? Suddenly it's very clear that biblical doesn't mean "doing what they did in the bible." Because no one is doing that. So what does biblical mean? Again, whatever it means it's clear that it doesn't mean biblical.

So what does it mean?

This is what I think it means. Biblical is a word Christian communities use to describe their hermeneutical strategies. Biblical is a word that is used to describe how a particular faith community reads the bible. What this means is that the word biblical is a sociologicallabel, a way of describing the interpretive strategies of a particular community.

Consequently, when a faith community gathers to discuss if a view is biblical or not they are asking how a particular view sits with their hermeneutical history and norms. The issue isn't if a position is biblical or not (because, as I noted above, no one is being biblical) but if a position would cause a sociological rupture, a tear in the hermeneutical fabric that has held this community together. If the position can be woven into the hermeneutical web then it is declared biblical. But if the rupture is too great then the view is declared unbiblical.

In summary, this is my definition of biblical:
Biblical is a sociological stress test
When groups gather, as I will be gathering, to have a conversation about what is or is not biblical they are engaging in sociological stress test. Can this hermeneutical community, given its history and norms, accept a change in this area without significant rupture? How much stress can we tolerate? That's the question under consideration. How much stress can we tolerate?

This, as best I can tell, is what it means to be biblical.

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