There are a great many things not specifically mentioned in scripture, says Jonty Langley. So using it as a defence against any idea you don’t like might leave you on shaky ground



Ah, the old ‘that’s not in the Bible’ chestnut. You must have heard it - or a version of it. A butterfly of an argument, flitting from comment section to online forum, self-published discernment manual to red-faced homegroup debate. Like a butterfly, it’s attractive and quick, and even impressive (if you prefer your colours bright and your thinking pre-chewed), but it lacks weight.

‘Christians should discount / reject / distrust this thing because it is not in the Bible’ comes up these days, as it often has done in the past, when discussing progress, progressivism and, usually, anything liberal. The accusation of being non-biblical is currently being thrown at all things ‘woke’.

There are literally dozens of things that the Bible does not specifically mention. Microwaves. Mobile phones

The zealous Christian commentators of the Righteous and Redeemed TwitteratiTM are asking, with tears in their plankless eyes: “Where does it say ‘woke’ in the Holy Bible?” And I can tell you right now: nowhere. But also: in quite a lot of places.

Words and wings

To say that ‘woke’ is not in the Bible has the same intellectual weight as saying that if God had wanted us to fly he would have given us wings. My brother in Christ, there are literally dozens of things that the Bible does not mention. Microwaves. Mobile phones. Potatoes. Michael Buble. 

Making this argument in the English language, in a country that the writers of the Old Testament had not imagined, using technology that even our grandparents found pretty wild, seems to be the definition of dozy.

It’s not that I dislike untangling concepts that are not biblical (but treated as if they are) from those that we actually find in scripture, it’s just that once you start pulling on that thread, a lot of things tend to unravel. I’m happy, for instance, to get rid of ‘pre/post millennial’, ‘rapture’ and various superstitions about demons. I’m less keen on throwing out ‘Trinity’.

A safe guide

Within the TNITB argument, there is a kernel of a reasonable, good faith question: Should we be guided by a cultural, philosophical or worldly idea when it is not present in scripture? You will sometimes hear this deployed against ideas such as socialism: if it was a useful principle, why would the Old Testament law, the prophets or Jesus not have mentioned it? The natural answer is that financial market capitalism ain’t there either, and I don’t hear those same people complaining about that.

But a more serious response is that the underlying principles of sharing, taking care of the poor and the weak, communalism and national responsibility for the welfare of all can be found in the Bible, even if the specifically-named system did not yet exist. But, before my lefty pals get too cocky, so can principles underlying capitalism.

My communist siblings are often tempted to say that the Jesus of the Bible was a communist and, honestly, I wish they were right. But he wasn’t. Did he act and speak prophetically against the rich, the powerful and empire? Yes. Did he propose a systemic change? I don’t see it.

The spirit or the letter

The Bible is silent on a great many things that we may wish it wasn’t, if you take it literally and specifically. Abortion, for instance, is never directly mentioned.

If you choose to extrapolate, you are always, unavoidably, engaging in your own exercise of post-biblical editing. There are many issues on which even the spirit of the particular scripture you may call on is in tension with another.

We can see this as undermining scripture, or we can do endless mental gymnastics to pretend a series of 66 books written at different times by people who were inspired by but not dictated to by God form a seamless system. I think both of these options are mistakes. The Bible is a God-breathed gift. A gift can be misunderstood – and even misused. And it can be useful in different ways to different people in different contexts. If the giver’s intention is worth keeping in mind, then so is the possibility that a gift was meant to have multiple uses.

We value butterflies as pollinators, objects of scientific study and aesthetic sources of joy. It’s probably best to avoid putting too much weight on them, though.