The problem with biblicism. . .

Lately a thought has been repeatedly entering the front of my mind, and I want to put it to words to see how it feels outside my head (that phrase seems weird, but it’s an accurate description of how I approach new or different ideas).

I think Christians—Protestants and Evangelicals in particular, but mainliners and Catholics as well—have been putting God in a box called the Bible. What do I mean by that? I’ll allow someone much smarter than I am to provide you an explanation. The following is an excerpt from Addison Hodges Hart’s excellent book Strangers and Pilgrims Once More: Being Disciples of Jesus in a Post-Christendom World:

The Bible is not the Koran, and Christians (and Jews) are not Muslims. We do not read the Bible as “a book,” for example, but as a collection of books. The Bible is better described as a library. Nor do Christians receive the Bible as the Word of God. That may come as a surprise to some, especially since we are often referred to—wrongly—as “people of the book.” But, we are not; and the Word of God is not a book. For us, the Word of God is God himself. We call him, in theological language, “the Son of God” and “the Second Person of the Trinity.” We say of him that he “became flesh and dwelt among us.” In other words, for Christians, the Word of God is Jesus. He alone “defines” for us fully the character of God; he is the divine writ small, in fleshly, human terms we can see, “read,” understand, and follow in our lives. We could not know the divine in its uncreated being, but we could know it in Christ.

While Hart’s language is certainly provocative (probably intentionally so), I believe his point is valid.

I heard an analogy recently that stood out to me (I don’t remember where I heard it, otherwise I’d reference it here; if you happen to know or be the origin of the analogy, let me know so I can reference him/her/you). God is like an ocean, and the Bible is like a collection of poems, pictures, and recordings of the ocean. Nothing anyone can write or capture about the ocean can accurately describe what it is to actually see it, explore it, or be engulfed in it.

To be sure, the analogy is lacking; however, the point that it makes shouldn’t be missed. While the Bible is inspired by God, it is still a collection of poems, letters, and stories written by people in particular times and settings. It doesn’t even come close to fully or accurately describing the whole personality of God.

This is why biblicism is such a dangerous thing. Although it is considered an “orthodox” practice, I believe Christians should abstain from it.

Biblicism, as defined by Christian Smith, a leading sociologist and professor at the University of Notre Dame, is an approach to Scripture that emphasizes “the Bible’s exclusive authority, infallibility, clarity, self-sufficiency, internal consistency, self-evident meaning, and universal applicability.”

You might read that and say, “That’s absolutely the truth!” But please consider the passage I quoted earlier from Strangers and Pilgrims Once More. The Bible is not our holy book. The Bible is a collection of books that tell the story of God’s interaction with mankind.

Smith provides in his book, The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture, ten assumptions that proponents of biblicism often make. You don’t have to be guilty of all of these assumptions to be a biblicist either. Each of these assumptions individually are symptomatic of biblicism.

  1. Divine Writing: The details of the Bible’s words are identical with God’s very own words.
  2. Total Representation: The Bible represents all of God’s communication to humanity and is the exclusive means of divine communication.
  3. Complete Coverage: The Bible contains the divine will for every issue relevant to Christian life and belief.
  4. Democratic Perspicuity: Every “reasonably intelligent person” can read the Bible and properly understand “the plain meaning of the text.”
  5. Commonsense Hermeneutics: Biblical texts are to be read in their most obvious sense, as the author intended them, and this may or may not involve a consideration of their literary, cultural, and historical contexts.
  6. Solo (not Sola) Scriptura: The significance of any biblical text can be understood on its own, apart from any creed, confession, or larger theological hermeneutical framework. In other words, theological formulations are built directly and entirely out of the Bible alone.
  7. Internal Harmony: All relevant biblical passages on any given subject fit together into a single, internally consistent account of correct and incorrect beliefs and practices.
  8. Universal Applicability: What the biblical writers taught at any point in history remains universally valid for all Christians unless revoked by subsequent biblical teaching.
  9. Inductive Method: All matters of Christian belief and practice can be learned through careful study of the Bible.
  10. Handbook Model: “The Bible teaches doctrine and morals with every affirmation that it makes, so that together those affirmations comprise something like a handbook … for Christian belief and living, a compendium of divine and therefore inerrant teachings on a full array of subjects–including science, economics, health, politics, and romance”

(Summary of Smith’s ten assumptions taken from the blog Earliest Christianity.)

Smith points out that biblicism isn’t a doctrine as we would understand it. Rather, it is a “constellation of interrelated assumptions and beliefs [that] informs and animates the outlooks and practices of major sectors of institutional and popular conservative American Protestantism, especially evangelicalism.”

Why do I contend that it’s dangerous?

First, it helps fuel major debates within Christianity due to something I may have alluded to in an earlier post: the problem of pervasive interpretive pluralism.

Interpretive pluralism is both the reason for and the result of debates such as the Calvinism vs. Free-Grace Theism debate and the Young-Earth Creationism vs. Evolutionary Creationism debate, to name a couple. It informs these debates in that each side interprets its backup passages differently. It flows out of these debates because each side approaches those passages through their own interpretive lens, thus leading to multiple interpretations.

This is one of the reasons that, when someone asks me for biblical support for my positions, I hesitate to give any. Not because I don’t know the Bible passages—after all, I was a fundamentalist for nearly 20 years, culminating in a bachelor’s degree from the “Fortress of Faith,” but because any “biblical support” I might offer could be interpreted seventeen different ways.

Second, biblicism creates confusion for Christians. It arbitrarily chooses which commands in Scripture to obey, and which to ignore, citing a form of “cultural relativism,” but never truly adhering to any criteria for applying it.

For example, in many biblicist circles, women aren’t permitted to be pastors, elders, or even to preach. Yet in the vast majority of those same circles, they ignore commands telling women that they aren’t allowed to wear jewelry or that they must wear head coverings.

This logical incoherence has led many to leave Christianity. The faith doesn’t make sense if the Bible is God’s complete and final revelation to humanity. God appears dualistic in Scripture: a loving and benevolent father on the one hand, and a genocidal, vindictive tyrant on the other. Why would God reveal himself this way?

Third, biblicism elevates the Bible to the level of deity. There’s a mantra I’m about to paraphrase that sheds light on this idolatry of the Bible: without the Bible, we cannot know God. But that statement borders on heresy. The Bible, as I’ve asserted before, is not God’s message to us. No, God’s message to us is King Jesus. The Bible is a library of people’s thoughts, experiences, and legends that all reveal what they saw when they encountered God.

So then how should a Christian approach Scripture? I believe there are a few ways; none of them are perfect, but none of them lead to the sorts of issues found in biblicism. I hope to look into some of them in an upcoming post. Until then, I would encourage you to take a look at any of the following books:

5 thoughts on “The problem with biblicism. . .

  1. Pingback: Acknowledging interpretive lenses. . . | speculative theology

  2. the ocean analogy you mentioned reminds me of the CS Lewis’ map and ocean analogy but with a different twist. Lewis was referring specifically to theology (written ideas vs experience) but I think it could apply to scripture as well. A map is not sufficient to properly explain the presence of an ocean – one doesn’t fall in love with an ocean by looking at a map, however without the map, one can easily get lost in the ocean.

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