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Has the Term “Biblical” Lost its Meaning?

Do you identify yourself as a “Christian?” Maybe you prefer the term “evangelical”—or what about “Christ-follower” or “believer?”

Each of these labels means the same thing, more or less—but each has a slightly different emphasis. Several years ago, phenomena like the emerging church and trends in American politics prompted discussions about whether labels like “Christian” and “evangelical” had lost their usefulness as descriptors. Were they too broad and vague? Were they too closely associated with specific political views, or with off-putting stereotypes?

Those terms are all still in common use, but such discussions provoked a lot of healthy reflection about the power of labels—and the importance of using language carefully and accurately, particularly in the context of religion and Christianity. I felt similarly challenged recently when I read a blog post by James McGrath questioning whether the term “biblical” has similarly lost its usefulness through overuse.

McGrath takes particular issue with the application of the word “biblical” to certain political factions. But whether you agree with that angle or not, I think he has a point in that we attach the word “biblical” to so many different things that its meaning has become diluted—if it ever had a single specific meaning to begin with.

What do you mean when you describe something as “biblical?” Here are a few different senses in which I’ve seen “biblical” used:

  • to refer to the actual text of the Bible: “This biblical quote is taken from the book of 1 Corinthians.”
  • to describe an epic event: “It was an earthquake of biblical proportions.”
  • as a general synonym for “Christian,” with a slight emphasis on appreciating the Bible: “He recently joined a biblical church across town.”
  • to describe something derived from, or referring to, the text of Scripture: “That was a very biblical sermon you preached last Sunday.”
  • to describe (usually conservative) politics or views about society: “This politician is running on a biblical platform.”
  • To mean “in adherence to God’s law.” “She tries to lead a biblical lifestyle.”

You can probably come up with more examples. I think most Christians would commonly define “biblical” as meaning something like the last item listed above: in agreement with the teachings of the Bible. But as McGrath notes, even that is a very broad use of the term. The Bible, after all, is a collection of many different pieces of ancient literature, each of them written with a specific message and to a specific audience.

Certainly, Christians believe that the Bible is a unified, coherent text—but the themes of (for example) Leviticus, Esther, and Matthew are distinct enough that using a single word to encompass them all is tricky. If you say you’re trying to live a “biblical” lifestyle, does that mean you’re living in accordance with Old Testament laws, the New Testament covenant, or an overarching principle that underlies them both? Different people hearing the phrase will jump to different conclusions.

What do you mean when you say “biblical?” Does the term still imply a direct connection to Scripture, or has it become a broader synonym for “Christian” or “godly?” Are there other terms that would work better?

Filed under Reflections