Ok- though it has been a while since my last blog, I have been busy in my current research on grief and bereavement studies, practical theology, and pastoral care. Today’s entry, however, reflects a topic that has been on my mind for the past several years.
Many conservative Christians desire to take the Bible “seriously” – to embrace what is considered to be a “high view of Scripture.” Biblicism is an appropriate word to describe how some conservative Christians (including fundamentalists and evangelicals) have mutated a “high view” of the Bible into something unhealthy for the church today.
The current essay is divided into three parts. Part one will provide a basic definition of Biblicism. Part two will explain the problems of Biblicism. Part three will attempt to offer a better way to approach the Bible for the spiritual nourishment of mature people of faith. Are you being bamboozled by Biblicism? Let’s take a closer look.
Part I: Definition
The origin of Biblicism is predicated upon the Bible’s own internal testimony of its divine inspiration.
2 Timothy 3:16-17
All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.
The passage of 2 Timothy 3 is a good place to start for a person of faith who holds a high view of the Bible; most Christians will not argue about the Bible’s view of its own inspiration. What is relevant here, however, is how Biblicism launches out of this normative Christian belief into something unhealthy for people of faith and even epidemic for today’s church.
If you are unfamiliar with the term Biblicism, I’ll develop a definition in two parts. Here is part one:
Biblicism is a fundamental commitment to the supremacy of biblical authority.
Good so far…the Bible says it, and that settles it. Right?
Biblicists feel confident that they have accurately identified what the Bible is (i.e. the revealed and inspired written Word of God). Whatever the Bible says about a given subject, it must be accurate. The logic is plain enough: what the Bible says, God says. Therefore, it is incumbent upon people of faith in God to look to “the Good Book” so they can know what the will of God is. Biblicists believe that when you read the Bible, it is fundamentally clear and precise. As such, one is not encouraged or required to look beyond the 66 books of the ancient text.
- Want to know God’s will for dating? Look to the Bible.
- Want to know God’s will for eating and dieting? Look to the Bible.
- Want to know God’s will for marriage? Look to the Bible.
- Want to know God’s will for finances? Look to the Bible.
- Want to know God’s will for women’s roles in church and society? Look to the Bible.
- Want to know God’s will for politics? Look to the Bible.
You get the point. The message is clear: to navigate the many important questions of life, you must look to the Bible for clear instruction. And when you do, the Bible will provide you with clear “biblical” answers. In short, a Biblicist believes that the Bible does much more than provide the parameters for basic Christian orthodox beliefs. In fact, the Bible is an instruction manual for living in the twenty-first century (or whatever century for that matter).
Now, to develop the second part of my definition of Biblicism, you need to know the two chief Biblicist assumptions.
- First: A Biblicist believes that there is one clear “biblical” teaching on any given subject.
- Second: A Biblicist believes that he/she can know and understand precisely what that truth is on any given subject.
The Bible does not just contain truth, it is truth, the fullness of God’s revelation to humankind. Yet, most importantly for the Biblicist, he/she believes that one can know precisely what that full truth is. As if forgetting that our human minds are fallen and have affected our ability to interpret the Bible (and everything else for that matter), Biblicists contend that you just have to read the Bible to understand it…it’s that simple. Well, some Biblicists assert that a basic understanding of Greek and Hebrew is necessary to unlock the many interpretive mysteries of the text. Nevertheless, the second assumption is the same: if you happen to know the original languages of the Bible, you can understand precisely what it is the Bible is affirming on any given subject.
The second part of the definition of Biblicism is based upon this second premise. Here is my full definition:
Biblicism is a fundamental commitment to the supremacy of biblical authority and to the belief that one can interpret precisely what biblical authority bears witness to on any given subject.
Christian Smith provides perhaps a better definition in his seminal work, The Bible Made Impossible. He suggests that Biblicism is a belief that the Bible is “an instruction manual containing universally applicable divine oracles concerning every possible subject it seems to address” (2012:98).
Part II: Problems
I contend that Biblicism fails on at least two accounts. It is both untenable (i.e. it does not work out in practice) and it is naïve. First, let’s look at why Biblicism is untenable. If the Bible is indeed a Holy Handbook of divine oracles, why can’t sincere Christians read it and come to a common agreement about its subjects? This should be self-evident; however, the Biblicist framework is embraced by literally millions of Christians across many denominations young and old alike. It is helpful therefore to go a little deeper and unpack the basic principles of Biblicist thinking.
Biblicism is Untenable
To see why Biblicism does not work, but nevertheless remains a popular way to approach the Bible, it is necessary to distinguish between its first and second principles. As a first and foundational principle, the basic sentiment behind the Biblicist position is quite admirable indeed – to give due respect and proper consideration to the Holy Book of the historic Christian faith.
Theologians over the centuries have developed key words to help us understand just how important the Bible is. Words like inerrant (describing the belief that the Bible is free from all errors in its original writings), infallible (describing the belief that what the Bible teaches is true and useful), and authoritative (describing the belief that the Bible is the ultimate authority for faith and practice) are the generally accepted terms for “Bible-Believing” Christians. Christians historically have assented to the belief that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant, infallible, and authoritative word of God. There is no derision for this basic principle about the Bible. Most Christians, including those of the Biblicist variety, embrace this orthodox view of the Bible. But here’s the real rub: Biblicists go beyond this first and most basic presupposition about the Bible. They develop a unique nuance that is problematic.
What makes a Biblicist and Biblicist is when one teases out an interpretation of God’s Word about a secondary concern (i.e. an otherwise disputable matter or matter of indifference) with bold apodictic claims of air-tight certainty. Simply put, problems arise when one steps beyond the bounds of basic historic Christian orthodoxy. It is not that one is unable to have an opinion about a debatable subject that marks a Biblicist; it is that a Biblicist holds his/her personal interpretation of a debatable issue (e.g. women’s roles in church and society) on the same level with basic historic Christian dogma that has defined the church for the past two-thousand years.
Many people throughout history and across the globe today assent to the Bible’s unique position as God’s holy inspired special revelation; however, an interesting breakdown occurs when people begin discussing and acting upon what it is they believe the Bible to be saying about a debatable subject. Oftentimes, there is a disconnect between what the Bible says, and what we say the Bible says (think about the church’s rejection of Galileo or the “biblical” South’s justification of slavery to name just two). Regrettably, sometimes the church just gets it wrong.
To contend that the Bible is inspired and useful for teaching is one thing, but to explain precisely what it is you think that the Bible “really” says about a debatable subject is an entirely different task. Biblicists blur this important distinction and tend to believe that if they simply make an appeal to biblical authority, their interpretation of what the Bible says gets the final word. Though Biblicists appeal to “biblical authority,” in practice, it is their own interpretation of the Bible that is the final authority.
Let me give you an example of how Biblicism fails:
- Two Christians in a conversation (let’s call them Bob and Joe) agree that 2 Timothy 3 is true. “Surely the Bible is the inspired Word of God,” Bob says, as Joe warmly agrees by the nodding of his head.
But watch what happens after the very next step is taken. What we often uncover is not uniformity, but interpretive diversity – a pluralism of beliefs.
- Christian Joe then turns to Christian Bob and says, “It is a good thing that the Bible is true, because it clearly teaches X” (fill-in-the-blank with whatever debatable secondary concern you can think of, such as Calvinism, Young-Earth Creationism, Complementarianism, Annihilationism, etc.).
Note that when we state our “clear reading of Scripture” on a secondary biblical issue, we often find that those around us, the very ones who agreed with our first principle of biblical authority, are no longer standing with us. In fact, they are looking at us as if we are crazy.
- “Surely,” Christian Bob exclaims, “the Bible does NOT teach X or anything of the sort; the Bible actually and quite simply teaches Y.”
- Then Christian Joe responds aghast! “Bob, how can you say the Bible teaches Y when you know full well that it really teaches X? Perhaps you, good sir, do not really believe in Scriptural authority after all.”
You see, to claim a belief in biblical authority does not produce uniformity. Instead it often demonstrates what is known as “interpretive pluralism.” There are many competing views of what the Bible “clearly teaches.” Is one view more “biblical” than the other? Who gets to decide? Biblicists find it particularly problematic that people come to different opinions of what the Bible teaches. This interpretive pluralism is a major problem for Biblicists and is strong evidence for why Biblicism does not work as an approach to the Bible.
Biblicism is also Naïve
Unfortunately, Biblicism is not only untenable, it is also epistemologically naïve. Biblicists believe fundamentally that Biblical authority somehow trumps all other sources of knowledge. Here’s how this plays out…
Some Biblicists may give lip-service to the idea that God has revealed Himself in both the “book of nature” and the “book of the Bible” – but in the final analysis, Biblicists more often than not will capitulate to their own interpretations of God’s Word over any other source of authority. Ironically, Biblicists mistakenly think that they must choose the Bible over and above the knowledge gained from a particular field of study or discipline, because that type of knowledge is colored by “the limitations of human reason.”
Of course, Biblicists make the same mistake. When their interpretation of the Bible contradicts an idea someone has in a non-biblical field of study (e.g. “the earth is round”), Biblicists forget that they too are faced with their own “limitations of human reason” as they read and study the Bible for themselves. Biblicists are guilty of what is called “epistemological naivety” – as if their interpretations of sacred Scripture are somehow free from possible error.
Nevertheless, despite being untenable and epistemological naïve, for a Biblicist, to say that one is “biblical” is a real badge of honor. As such, Biblicists make it their life quest to discover the “biblical model” for whatever is in question. The chief concern for a Biblicist faith becomes “biblical precision” – a presupposition that the Bible is divinely formulaic. The underlying assumption is that the Bible contains everything you need to know if you study it correctly (yes, pepper in a little Greek and Hebrew when needed). Further, in this sort of a recipe fashion, Biblicists take great pride in thinking they know what the ingredients of a biblical model is for whatever subject they are trying to “serve up.” Obviously, for a Biblicist, the Bible quite rightly has a secure place of ultimate preeminence for all faith and life. So…is there a better way to nourish a mature faith in Christ? This is the topic of part three of this essay.
Part III: A Better Way
Biblicism, in my estimation, is unhealthy for a maturing life of faith. The issue I have with Biblicism is not its high respect for the Bible, but its overly rationalistic approach to the ancient text. As I explained in the first two parts of the essay, Biblicism fails because it is untenable and it is guilty of epistemological naivety (and sometimes plain old fashioned arrogance).
Unfortunately, in our attempts to help nurture a “high view of Scripture,” we can unwittingly sow the seeds of Biblicism. Let me explain from my background how easy it is for Biblicism to surface in a budding life of faith. If you were born in the Bible-Belt in the twentieth century, raised in a Protestant church through Sunday School, Training Union, and Vacation Bible School, you may recall an old childhood song about the Bible.
Yes, that’s the book for me
I stand alone on the Word of God
Of course, I still love this old song. It fueled a passion in me as a young boy for Bible study and compelled me to learn how to connect my new faith with my daily life – what many call developing a “Christian worldview.” At the same time, if one is not careful in standing “alone on the Word of God,” he/she may believe that a positivistic view of Scripture is the only way to go. The quest can digress into a never-ending task of deciding who is right and who is wrong about the Bible, and a never-ending task of defining who is in or who is out of your group with the “right” answers. This “bounded-set” type of thinking can easily lead one to be obsessed with trendy buzz-words that shape a false confidence in one’s own sacred canopy. The quest for uniformity in biblical interpretation is maddening and not the way to go for a healthy maturing faith in my estimation.
Biblicists tend to think that Bible discovery is like a well-paved “straight and narrow” roadway. There is one correct view of the Bible (i.e. only one true Christian worldview), and the Biblicist is convinced that he/she has it. Unfortunately, Biblicists unwittingly turn what they hope to be a high view of the Bible into an unhealthy view of the Bible as a Holy Handbook filled with divine oracles about everything in life. For a Biblicist, understanding the “true” meaning of Scripture is as easy as the open road.
Here is how you can know that you have been bamboozled by Biblicism. Has the Bible really yielded “clear” and “straight” answers for everything important in your life? Consider how the following examples have not led to unified answers among Christians from your own experience.
- What does Christian Dating/Marriage look like?
- What is Christian Parenting?
- What is a Christian view of Eating/Dieting?
- What is the Biblical way of Handling Stress?
- What does the Bible have to do with Scientific Facts?
- What is Christian Leadership?
- What is the Christian view of Retirement Planning?
- What does Christian Politics look like?
Furthermore, has the Bible really yielded “clear” and “straight” roads of theological precision? Consider the following examples.
- What should Christian growth look like?
- What is the right mode of Baptist?
- What is the biblical model of church governance?
- What does the Bible really teach about hell?
- What is the clear biblical teaching about divorce and remarriage?
- What is the right view of women in ministry?
- What is the accurate teaching about the doctrine of the rapture?
- What does biblical authority say about the millennium?
- What did the atonement of Jesus really accomplish?
- What does the Bible clearly teach about eternal security?
- What is the one true Christian view of war?
- What is the clear biblical teaching about predestination and free-will?
- What does the Bible say is the real purpose of the church?
An honest and sobering critique of Biblicism suggests that many of us have been bamboozled. Frankly, the clear open road of the Bible has come to a dead end. Not only is Biblicism epistemologically naïve, it domesticates the Bible – forcing God’s Word to be what it is not – a divine instruction manual for the betterment of your life.
A Better Way Forward
Fortunately, there is a better, more healthy way forward for a maturing person of faith – one that embraces biblical mystery and recognizes that the pathway of Bible discovery may not always be so smooth and precise. A better way forward is not an anti-foundational relativism that suggests that there is no place for reason and truth in a life of faith. Instead, a better way forward will be marked by the often rough terrain of post-foundationalism, or more plainly, as a faith-based critical realism.
We can know something, but we actually know in part. We can see something, but we actually see in part. The better way forward is framed by a broad “mere Christianity” and encourages open interdisciplinary dialogue. A better way forward is iterative and humbly recognizes that sometimes our biblical views are simply wrong and must be changed.
Is there a name for this better way forward? Some may like referring to it as a “Christ-centered narrative approach.” This approach recognizes that the Bible is much more story than it is a divine and didactic instruction book for life. Put positively, biblical authority is located in the grand story of Christ in the Bible. A Christ-centered narrative approach points to how Jesus, who also held a high view of Scripture, taught others how everything in the ancient Scriptures pointed to himself. In this way, biblical authority is mediated not through our exclusive, subjective, and formulaic interpretations of the Bible, but rather through the historical witness of Christ in Scripture. The point of a “Christ-centered” narrative approach to the Bible is that there is a more honest and humble way forward for people of faith who believe that the Bible is God’s inspired Word.
I do not mean to suggest that a “Christ-centered” approach is anything new or novel – or that it is the only “true way” to read and understand the Bible. It is interesting to note, however, that even before the early church had a full Bible as we do today, the church embraced what they referred to as “the rule of faith.” That is, the early church recognized the centrality of Jesus and therefore placed the narrative of His birth, life, death, resurrection and return as the essential Good News of the Christian message. Today, we can see this same thinking in other “Christocentric” confessions, such as the beloved 2000 Baptist Faith and Message statement about Scripture:
- “All Scripture is a testimony to Christ, who is Himself the focus of divine revelation.”
Personally, I have found a Christ-centered narrative approach to the Bible to be more satisfying, more honest to my ability to understand the text fully, and even more respectful to the rich diversity and mystery inherent in God’s Holy Word. Moreover, I am less likely to be judgmental about one’s opinion about a particular biblical teaching, and also more open to how God may be supplementing, affirming, and even correcting my biblical knowledge with the great discoveries and progress that is made in other fields of study.
Perhaps it might be helpful to end this blog by contrasting a Biblicist view of the Bible with a better way forward – a way that admittedly does not provide nice and tidy answers to all of our questions, but nevertheless draws us closer to the ways of Christ and His centrality for all of life – another way to simply profess that indeed Jesus is Lord.
|A Biblicist Approach||A Christ-Centered Approach|
|There is one clear meaning of the Bible.||The Bible is multi-vocal.|
|The Bible is primarily a Holy Handbook of divine oracles and universal laws to help us manage life.||The Bible is primarily a divine historical narrative about God’s on-going restoration of all creation through the Person of Jesus Christ.|
|Is Exclusive: Depends upon systematic theology to define what is right and wrong.||Is Inclusive: Encourages systematic theology and interdisciplinary dialogue to learn multi-dimensional nuances of Christian truth.|
|Epistemology is based upon modern rationalism and foundational premises.||Epistemology is based upon critical realism and post-foundational premises.|
|Chief Quest: Find the right biblical model in order to support a particular interpretation or system of thought.||Chief Quest: Move people of faith together toward Christ within a framework of generous Christian orthodoxy.|
Instead of being bamboozled by the weird rigidity of Biblicism, I hope you’ll prefer to walk in the simple wisdom of Psalms:
“Your Word is a lamp to my feet
and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105).
***My basic argument of this blog entry is greatly indebted to the following:
- Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism is not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture, 2012.
- John Franke, Manifold Witness: The Plurality of Truth, 2009.
- Stanley Grenz and John Franke, Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context, 2000.
- Merold Westphal, Whose Community? Which Interpretation?, 2009.
- Rachel Held Evans, A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband “Master”, 2012.