Using “biblical” and why the Holiness Partnership might be missing the point.
This paper explores use of the term “biblical” as an adjective and whether the Holiness Partnership is using it properly to reclaim holiness.
By Rev. Bob Hunter, et. al.
What are proper uses of the term “biblical” in the Wesleyan tradition? Are there potential misuses? Is the Holiness Partnership using it correctly as an adjective to describe their mission and purpose?
The Holiness Partnership stated mission is as follows, “Our mission is to re-discover the vision and understanding of Biblical Christianity, re-emphasize the Biblical doctrines of the Holiness church, re-invigorate the local church for mission and evangelism, and re-capture fidelity to Biblical truth.” If repetition is any indicator, “biblical,” is what they are about.
The frequency with which the adjective “biblical” is used needs historical context. Hailing from the tradition of Wesley, Nazarenes historically embrace the doctrine of scriptural holiness. Experiencing justifying and sanctifying grace characterizes this belief. Any attempt to reclaim “biblical” holiness apart from an experience of faith envisioned by Wesley is an adventure in missing the entire point of Wesleyan spirituality. The Wesleyan experience is a deeply rooted in one’s encounter with God, not a quest to obtain propositional “biblical” truth. For Wesleyans, "knowing the truth" is primarily a matter of "knowing God" and experiencing his grace. Not assenting to biblical knowledge. I do not claim to know the Holiness Partnership’s intent, but it appears frequent use of the adjective “biblical” in relation to their mission is actually a misuse and not an accurate reflection of Wesleyan thought. A reality we must face is this; it is entirely possible to be “biblical” and miss sanctifying grace. Wesley viewed scriptural holiness as a heart fully given to God. Is biblical holiness conceived that way by the Holiness Partnership? I would hope so! Christ and grace aren’t mentioned, however.
It begs the question, what are meaningful uses of the adjective “biblical?” Many Christians apply “biblical” to something they believe is endorsed by the Bible, such as biblical Christianity, biblical marriage, biblical manhood or womanhood, biblical citizenship, etc. The reoccurring problem, historically, has been that biblical understandings are not uniform and attaching a “biblical” label may not withstand the scrutiny of time, especially when “biblical” is applied to non-essential beliefs. For example, “biblical” marriage is an expression used by complementarian voices within the church to promote male headship. But many Christians, including most Nazarenes, reject those assumptions. While one could certainly argue for male headship using biblical texts, other readers of scripture will arrive at different conclusions resembling egalitarianism. Thus, “biblical” is not a suitable label to place on marriage because it assumes a one-size-fits-all interpretation when that is not the case and some uses of “biblical” are woefully inconsistent with what the Bible actually teaches. A “Christian” label is preferable because it recognizes the possibility that Christian marriages may have different expressions regarding leadership roles. Some are complementarian and some are not. Moreover, beliefs about marriage are shifting, much like the church’s opinion on divorce. Egalitarianism is on the rise and complementarianism continues to wane. Thus, the idea of Christian marriage seems more suitable. Avoiding absurd inconsistencies in using “biblical” strengthen our credibility and helps us advance the Bible’s genuine message.
The folly of slapping a biblical label on something other than the Bible itself is explored in depth by the late Rachel Evans who experimented with the idea of biblical womanhood. Her book, “A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband 'Master'” chronicles the journey. Rachel took the Bible’s advice about women at face value. With gut wrenching realism, she highlights peculiar beliefs about biblical womanhood while challenging her readers to read the Bible more closely. Her yearlong experiment trying to live out biblical womanhood is playful and respectful. In the end, readers are liberated from false perceptions associated with the idea of a “biblical” woman. While I have not always agreed with Rachel’s writings, I love this experiment because it explores the true meaning of womanhood; one consistent with Christianity’s deepest hopes and dreams for humanity. Without being down on the Bible, we can do the same. Attaching a “biblical” label to something doesn’t mean that it is. Peeling back the label for the purpose of reflecting on the full scope of the Bible’s message should be our aim.
Is the Holiness Partnership’s characterization of “biblical” holiness appropriate? Yes and no. The question, once again, is one of intent. We cannot readily dismiss “biblical” as a label because biblically informed views of holiness are something to which we should all aspire and Wesleyans embrace Bible inspired teachings concerning holiness. However, difficulties appear when “biblical” is used to distinguish one view of holiness (theirs) from another. This is truly unfortunate and unhealthy for the church because it conveys superiority. Historically, Wesleyan theology is deeply rooted in the Holy Scriptures and conversations about holiness assume close examination of biblical texts as a primary source of inspiration. Concerns arise when one group’s narrow interpretation of holiness is declared “biblical” without respectful consideration of other perspectives drawn from the Bible that are not labeled as such but reflect the best intentions of our tradition.
I am not alone in expressing my concern about the use and potential misuse of “biblical” as an adjective. Others have spoken eloquently to the issue and their voices need to be heard.
Rev. Ben Lee suggests we shift from a biblical emphasis to a Christological one.
“When people say they are going to take a "biblical approach to “X" or they have a "biblical worldview;" this is a nonsense sentiment. The Bible contains a complex, evolving, non-linear ethical perspective, and does not present a static, unified voice on basically any subject. Contrary to the futility (and morally primitive) of aspiring toward a biblical view on anything, our aim is always a Christological view on all matters of faith and life.”
Rev. Steve Malcolm offers a practical perspective on the usage of “biblical” in the work of biblical interpretation.
“It wouldn't be wrong to say that anything found in the Bible is, by definition, biblical. Like, lulling dudes to sleep and then stabbing them in the head with tent pegs is biblical. But, that isn't what people mean when they use the word. I would say that a biblical approach to any particular topic is one that attempts to understand what the Biblical authors had to say about that topic in their own contexts. And, then, if there appear to be disagreements, to put those perspectives in conversation with each other.”
Rev. Rueben Lillie cautions against using “biblical” in ways that are disingenuous and singularly authoritative, which is a concern shared by many regarding the Holiness Partnership.
“The term "biblical" itself is all too often wielded as some ultimate trump card meant more to endorse a personal (often politically motivated) perspective, or else to muzzle someone else's. This latter usage is woefully common, particularly among professing Christians. Besides being unkind and disingenuous, it's unclear. Better to use the term to talk about the Bible specifically as a text rather than risk (or intentionally create or exacerbate) misunderstanding or division. That's also why I find it particularly helpful to keep the term "biblical" lowercase. Not only is it proper English (the Chicago Manual of Style, for example, discusses this usage), but it's also a lexical reminder (and shibboleth of sorts) against speaking in ways that are irrelevant—especially those that would adamantly claim to be irreverent and singularly authoritative in their interpretation.”
Rev. Eric Frey contends Christians should take ownership of their assumptions and quit hiding behind the Bible.
“I think it’s inappropriate to use Bible/biblical to make claims about others.” We are biblical Christians" -- as opposed to the Christians that are not biblical? "We are a Bible-believing church" -- as opposed to the churches that don't believe the Bible? "We are a Bible college" -- as opposed to those *liberal* arts universities... If you want to be politically conservative, or theologically fundamentalist, or biblically literalistic, then fine. Be that. But own it. Don't hide behind the Bible. Don’t pretend you have a monopoly on the Bible. Don’t belittle the faith and beliefs of those who are different than you.”
Can common ground on this issue be found with the Holiness Partnership? Yes! In one of my conversations with a Holiness Partnership leader, the desire for true deliverance from sin resulting in life transformation was expressed. What a significant point to find agreement! Biblically speaking, we can reach back as far as the primitive church and see an embodied faith lived out in a context of diversity. John Wesley famously wrote: “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast to both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out” (John Wesley, “Thoughts Upon Methodism,” 1786). When arguments over who is “biblical” and who is not characterize the landscape of the church, we are destined to become the dead sect to which Wesley speaks. When we dare to merge doctrine, spirit, and discipline, we are unstoppable. We can come together with Holiness Partners around all three if they are willing to join. Particularly, in the spirit of the Wesleyan experience, which is historically a large tent issue encompassing a diversity of ethnicities, cultures, and nations. An embodied faith occurs in time spent with the Lord, individually and corporately, experiencing deep inner transformation. Yes, that is the Wesleyan way, not endless debates over who or what is biblical. For Wesley, the core of the Christian faith is revealed in scripture, illumined by tradition, vivified by experience, and tempered by reason. We’re never going to make it together if we cannot embrace the totality of it.
Using “biblical” for the purpose of conveying certainty, trust, and reliability when in reality, those understandings may not be any more certain than the socio-cultural and political assumptions behind them is an exercise in futility. I’m not saying we throw the baby out with the bathwater, but cautions are advised.
I believe God, through the Holy Spirit, would have us shift focus to principle matters of soteriology, which is the great hope of Wesley's followers globally. I hope the Holiness Partnership will join us in doing just that.