Biblical Inductivism—Friend or Foe?

As someone committed to the verbal inspiration of Scripture, I have always thought it best to use biblical words in biblical ways. It sort of seems self-evident.

So how do we respond when some of our friends in the world of reformed theology, say something like this. (I am quoting a respected friend from a discussion elsewhere about a biblical term and its uses…)

Here’s the thing: the biblical inductivists want to say: don’t use concepts in a non Biblical way. The more theological thinkers are happy to say ‘here’s a useful concept that we can use as a theological construct to apply to our reading of scripture’.


This biblical inductivism is a greatly limiting theological method, in my view, though well motivated. Causes all kinds of problems with doctrine of church!


[…] what I am complaining about is the “theology = word studies” approach…

As I said, I think it’s safer—as a default—to use biblical words in biblical ways. With Moses and Jesus, I believe we live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. So I am probably a biblical inductivist.

But I know there are limitations to word studies: concepts allied to a particular term can be expressed without ever using that term. In addition, sometimes people like me get lost in the detail of the words, and lose a bigger theological picture. Missing the wood for the trees, I suppose. Summary theological terms are useful and sometimes powerful in synthesis of a concept.

If you are not getting what I’m asking about, let me give you specific examples. In my circles, we’ve debated whether we should use the word ‘church’ to refer to anything other than the assembly or congregation (either local or heavenly), which is what the word study approach shows it means in the Bible. Church is not the denomination, nor the building, nor the institution, nor the liturgical structure, not even the individual members in their lives scattered throughout the world during the week. But is that somehow reductionistic?

Likewise, I get really irritated (and I will blog on this soon) about how systematic theology has for centuries hi-jacked “sanctification”—using it to refer to the process of progress in holiness and godliness, often marginalising or even ignoring the fact the NT often uses the sanctification word group to refer to a status or position, rather than to process and progress. But it’s useful to have a recognisable jargon word in theological discussion for “the process of growth in godliness” and to be able to distinguish this from forensic “justification” on which so many important debates turn.

And then there’s Tony’s recent thread on whether we should continue to fight to discourage people from using the word ‘worship’ as the prime descriptor of what we do when we gather together at church, let alone as the default term for singing at church.

And in fact, the quote I opened with above came in the context of asking whether in fact ‘covenant’—at least as the covenant theologians use it—is really being asked to bear more weight than this term actually receives in the Bible.

I think the conceptual debate on this biblical inductivism will help us with the particular discussions on ‘church’ or ‘worship’ or ‘sanctification’ or ‘covenant’. No doubt you can think of other examples!

So biblical inductivism: friend or foe? What are the strengths and weaknesses of my friend’s quote above?