If you are an evangelical Christian who believes that the Bible is the Word of God—that it is an inerrant revelation of God’s character, his intention for mankind, his plan of salvation, and instruction for Christian living and church life—then a driving aim of your life will be to believe and act according to that which is truly biblical (Matt 4:4; 2 Tim 3:16). But simply claiming that something is or is not biblical isn’t incredibly useful if there are evangelicals on opposite sides of a given spectrum who each claim to “be biblical.”
For example, there are plenty of Christians who disagree about how to conduct a “biblical ministry” or what it means to offer “biblical counseling.” There are disagreements about what a “biblical marriage” should look like or what a “biblical view” of politics, parenting, or education entails. The vital question of the hour, then, is how we determine if a position is biblical. My attempt here is not to arbitrate between any specific claims (e.g., is Presbyterianism or congregationalism biblical?), but to establish some general criteria to help us discern between any claim to biblical fidelity. With these things in mind, I would argue that a position is biblical if it…
1. …takes into account all the biblical data on a particular topic (i.e., it is comprehensive). This is the first and basic step in formulating a doctrinal position. In order to begin to claim that your position is biblical, you must demonstrate that you have dealt with all the biblical data pertaining to a given topic. No relevant piece can be left out or unaccounted for in your theological formulation. Of course, this kind comprehensive handling of the biblical text requires a lot of hard work. Some fail to arrive at a biblical position simply because they are not willing to put in the time and effort to search the whole counsel of God for all the relevant data. Jesus often confronted the Jewish leaders with their failure to account for all the biblical data when we would ask them, “Have you not read” (see Matt 12:3, 5; 19:4; 22:31; Mark 12:10, 36)?
2. …handles that data on the Bible’s own terms and according to the Bible’s own categories. The next step is just as vital. We must gather all the biblical data through careful exegesis of the relevant texts according to sound hermeneutical principles. This exegesis must handle the Scripture on Scripture’s own terms and its own categories. We must be careful to not thrust our own understanding upon the text, and we must be aware of how our own theological presuppositions, personal relationships, even our own sinful and pride can sway our interpretation of Scripture. Again, the Jewish leaders failed in this area. In their position on “at-will” divorce, they did not read Deut. 21:1-4 (where God allows for divorce and makes provisions for it) in light of Genesis 2:24 where God’s original plan was that the man and woman remain together.
3. …draws all the biblical information into an internally coherent system. If God relates to himself coherently (and he does; 1 Sam 2:3; Is 65:16; Mal 3:6) then his revelation to his creatures will be coherent. If his revelation is internally coherent, therefore, then that which best reflects the biblical teaching (doctrinal formulations) will be internally coherent. Internal coherence is not the final arbiter of truth—a system can be false yet have internal coherence—but a truly biblical position cannot be less than internally coherent.
4. ….makes best sense of all the data when compared to other positions. In order for a position to be biblical, it must make the best sense of all the biblical information when compared to opposing positions. This is not a question of cultural fit. That is, we are not asking if our position accords with contemporary views on God, man, religion, epistemology, and so on. No, we are asking, in light of #3 (see above) if our position is (assuming we have done the hard work of #1-2) the best explanation of all the data, or if another position better explains the various facets of biblical revelation on the topic in question.
Of course, coming to solid conclusions on what is or isn’t biblical requires some diligent study. One of my college professors, C. W. Smith—a favorite among the students—one day observed during a lecture that many Christians seem to have confused prejudices with convictions. Genuine spiritual convictions are rooted in biblical truth that has been carefully culled, studied, and absorbed; prejudices are beliefs we think are in the Bible but for which we are unable to provide a clear argument with relevant texts and coherent theological synthesis.
While you may think that such work should be left for the pastor-theologians of local congregations and scholars in the academy, Scripture encourages all Christians to think with theological and spiritual maturity (1 Cor 2:6; 14:20; Col 1:28; 4:12), to grow in knowledge (2 Peter 3:16), and to pursue wisdom and understanding (Prov 2:1-10). In other words, it is God’s will for you to know His Word well and to have confidence in what is and isn’t biblical. I hope this brief article aids you in this pursuit.