In recent years, I have been helped in my study of the Bible by employing an informal distinction between “biblical necessities” and “theological explanations.” Of all the classes I teach at Talbot, this distinction has been most helpful to students taking a class I teach called “Pauline Theology: Romans.” Since some of my students have benefitted from this distinction, I thought you might appreciate reading about it.
A biblical necessity is a truth that you find yourself compelled to affirm after a careful reading of Scripture that pays attention to the appropriate literary, historical and canonical contexts. You may not know how to explain all the what-abouts of the subject, but you cannot get around the fact that this particular teaching seems clearly supported by Scripture. The thing that you must affirm after a careful and contextual reading of Scripture is a biblical necessity.
A theological explanation, on the other hand, is not directly supported by particular Scriptures. Often it is one means of explaining the relationship between biblical necessities. This does not mean it is unimportant, nor that it is unbiblical; only that it is in a category separate from a biblical necessity and should not exercise the same compulsion-to-assent that a biblical necessity does.
My main goal in this article is to encourage you to prioritize biblical necessities over theological explanations. This does not mean that you should attempt to avoid working toward theological explanations; indeed, you cannot! But it does mean that when a conflict between a biblical necessity and a theological explanation arises, you should favor the biblical necessity over the theological explanation.
Let me suggest three examples from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans. Romans clearly teaches that salvation comes through calling upon the Lord in faith as a response to hearing the message that has been preached (Rom. 10:14). Romans 10, I believe, when taken together with other supporting passages, compels us to affirm that salvation only comes through conscious faith in Christ (what is often referred to as the exclusivist position, see also Acts 4:12; John 3:16, 18; Eph. 2:12). But affirming exclusivism still begs the question of how God deals with someone who has never heard about Christ. A theological explanation to the question might run something like this: “If someone is a true seeker of God, God will make a way for that person to hear the gospel, like he did for the Ethiopian eunuch, Cornelius, or Lydia.” I happen to like this explanation, but please note that it is still a theological explanation, not something explicitly taught in Scripture.
Let me offer another example from Romans: Sin and death got transferred to humans via Adam (Rom. 5:12–21). It is incorrect to assert that the only reason people sin is because they choose to sin; that is, that they could live a sinless life if they really wanted to. Inherited sin (“original sin”) is a biblical necessity. But explaining how sin got transferred from Adam to us is a theological explanation. It is useful for students of the Bible to think deeply about this question, especially since it overlaps with other theological issues (such as the origin of a person’s soul), but in the end, when we need something to fall back on, we should try to land on biblical necessities rather than on theological explanations.
Finally, it should be noted that the distinction between biblical necessities and theological explanations is useful for discussing the most famous of all examples from Romans. Romans teaches that God predestines to salvation (Rom. 8:29–30; 9:15–16; cf. 11:5). Romans also teaches that people must believe in the Lord Jesus Christ to be saved, and furthermore emphasizes that if they don’t, they won’t be saved (Rom. 10:9–13). Each of these, I believe, is a biblical necessity. We should honor and affirm both assertions. A theological explanation, in contrast, would be an attempt to account for how these two biblical necessities might work together. But I would encourage all who are reading this to remember that priority should be given to biblical necessities, even while we can agree that searching for theological explanations is a constructive and valuable task.
Perhaps this distinction between biblical necessities and theological explanations might help you as you take deep dives into Scripture and seek to understand how the things God has written in his Word fit together.
This article is adapted from a post that first appeared on March 16, 2017, on Talbot’s faculty blog, The Good Book Blog.