September 21, 2020

A blast from my so-called “biblical” past

The other day I had a reminder of my past evangelical life and the way I used to think and teach.

Watching an online sermon from a local conservative evangelical Bible-teaching church with which I am very familiar, I was struck at the implicit (and explicit) theme that pervaded the message. It wasn’t the specific content of the teaching that struck me as much as it was the approach that insisted — insisted, I say — over and over again that the most important thing about being a Christian is making sure you are thinking correctly, or as someone in this world might say, thinking biblically.

This is the world of biblicism. This wasn’t just a “Bible” sermon, it was a biblicist sermon. Its main message wasn’t the actual teaching of the Bible, as purported. Rather, it was a particular point of view about what the Bible is and how we as Christians should read the Bible and understand it. While allowance was made in the sermon for minor variations of interpretation, it was clear that I was watching a talk that was being held in a closed shop with no real space or encouragement to consider or discuss any perspectives other than the conservative evangelical approach.

In his book, Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture, Christian Smith defined “biblicism” as “a theory about the Bible that emphasizes together its exclusive authority, infallibility, perspicuity, self-sufficiency, internal consistency, self-evident meaning, and universal applicability.”

That was the real message of that sermon I heard. In fact, the opening illustration was specifically designed to set that point of view in contrast with those who (I’m paraphrasing) “see the Bible as a book of myths and stories.”

Smith’s verdict about this approach? “What I say here is simply that the Biblicism that in much of American evangelicalism is presupposed to be the cornerstone to Christian truth and faithfulness is misguided and impossible. It does not and cannot live up to its own claims.”

When we read the Bible as it is, and not as we would like it to be, the biblicist approach simply doesn’t match up with what we find in this complex collection of writings.

Furthermore, biblicists want to take this book — this book they see as a self-sufficient, simple, universal guide to truth and living — and make it the authority over the church and our lives.

However, as Brian Zahnd says in plain terms: “What Christians are supposed to confess is that Christ alone is the head of the church. The risen Christ said to his disciples, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given unto me.’ With his wry British wit, N.T. Wright reminds us that Jesus did not say, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth is given unto a book you chaps are going to write.’”

Pete Enns says that, in practice, “biblicism” works like this: “Biblicism is the tendency to appeal to individual biblical verses, or collections of (apparently) uniform verses from various parts of the Bible, to give the appearance of clear, authoritative, and final resolutions to what are in fact complex interpretive and theological issues generated by the fact that we have a complex and diverse Bible.”

Furthermore, Enns critiques biblicism by charging that it “sells the Bible short by taking the easy way out of reading the Bible like it’s a phone book or line-by-line instructional manual, rather than what it is: a complex, diverse, intermingling of wise reflections on life with God, written by the faithful for the faithful.”

For nearly 30 years of my adult life and ministry, I read and taught the Bible from the biblicist perspective, though I must say I often had nagging doubts about the validity of the approach. I have gradually moved away from biblicism (for example see HERE, and HERE, and HERE), not because I have less faith in the Bible as the sacred book for Christians, but because I have come to have more respect for its complexity and incarnational nature.

I love the Bible. It will always be a lamp to my feet and and light for my path. It is a sacrament of Christ to me. It is my family Story and I take my place in its continuing narrative. Beyond that, it is an ongoing conversation that invites me to take part — to listen, to read, to study, to meditate, to struggle, to question, to discuss and debate with my brothers and sisters.

But the Bible is not the authority. Christ is the authority. The Bible is the best witness to Christ we have. But our understanding of the Bible and how to approach it comes from something else by which the church has always judged the Bible. The Story that culminates in Christ, the gospel as narrated in the Creed — the Rule of Faith — is the authoritative summary which the church used to test and approve the writings that would make up the Bible. If there is a verbal authority, it is the authority of the kerygma, the gospel proclaimed by the first followers of Christ. That is what teaches us to read the Bible in a Christocentric way, as the Apostles did.

However, even with that, the Rule of Faith does not turn the Bible into a simple book that we can read as an instruction manual or systematic theological handbook.

  • The Bible is an icon of Christ that requires intense “seeing” with the eyes of our hearts through meditation.
  • The Bible is a sacrament of Christ that requires we partake, and chew, and drink deeply, and digest its nourishment.
  • The Bible is full of lively literature that requires us to use our imagination, to put ourselves in the Story, to re-imagine what the Story means for us and to enact it in our lives.
  • The Bible requires us to pray its words, to sing them, to read and chant them as the lifeblood of our worship and piety.
  • The Bible is a complex and diverse collection of writings that continually challenges our expectations — if we really read it as it is and not what we would like it to be.

The Bible puts to death our ideas of nice, bourgeois, respectable religion and confronts us with a God, a creation, a life, and a gospel more wild than tame, more surprising than familiar, more unconventional and shocking than we would ever write ourselves, more messy and even incomprehensible in places than we would ever expect. The Bible invites us to embrace its mystery, to engage in an ongoing wrestling match with God and one another for wisdom and understanding.

Put me down for that kind of journey. You can have the easy, straightforward paved path of the biblicists. Been there. Done that. It’s a dead end.

Comments

  1. Nice post.

    –> “That is what teaches us to read the Bible in a Christocentric way, as the Apostles did.”

    This line got me thinking that it should always be, “Tell me what the Bible says about Jesus,” never “Tell me what Jesus says about the Bible.”

    Preaching and sermons about “the Bible” are just plain… off.

    • thatotherjean says

      Um. . .Jesus didn’t say anything about the Bible, because it didn’t yet exist, except as what Christians call the Old Testament. Jesus spoke about himself–what he was, what he intended, and how his followers should behave. A lot of Christians skip most of those parts.

      • Jesus referenced, cited and at times pouted the Torah many times . Jesus did not also use television or the internet to proclaim his message as it did not exist either.

  2. Here’s what I always tell myself when I’m embarrassed by the memory of something I said or did or taught in the past: if you never felt that way, that would actually be far worse, because it would mean you haven’t grown or changed in any significant way in that period of time.

    To me, part of what makes following Christ so exciting is that there are always new mysteries to discover and new paradigm shifts in our thinking – God is infinite and beyond our ability to comprehend, so we can spend all of eternity going “farther in and farther up” into the mystery of God and never run out of new things to discover and ways to grow.

  3. Burro (Mule) says

    It invariably makes me nervous, almost without fail, when Protestants (such as I used to be) use this kind of language about the Bible. Without the strong steering currents of Tradition they inevitably set their rudders towards Hey-Man-It’s-What’s-Happening-Now (the Revolution). It reminds me of an co-religionist whose devotion to Popes John Paul II, Benedict, and Francis were scandalous for a Greek. “The Popes are the only thing keeping what’s left of their original Orthodoxy alive. Left to themselves, they’d cut all their cords with the past and become Protestant.”

    He did not use the word ‘Protestant’ positively.

  4. The Bible tells us about Jesus, the foreshadowing, the life and death of Jesus, who is the Word. We study the Bible to learn about the Word, which as we know was there in the beginning. Learning about the Word opens up your heart to let the Word , live and grow in your heart. I think a lot of evangelical leaders miss this point by a mile but I do think that many of the average people really get it. It is about Jesus. The Bible is the roadmap to Jesus, if you do not follow the roadmap or use your own you will not find the Word. Keep my Word in your heart.

  5. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    Biblicism = Bible-as-Koran.
    “IT IS WRITTEN! IT IS WRITTEN! IT IS WRITTEN!”

    I’ve also “been there, done that” (under pain of Eternal Hell). To this day, I have a gut reaction against the word “SCRIPTURE”. I have to skip over the phrase that contains it every Mass during the recitation of the Creed.

    • Burro (Mule) says

      It has been my experience that “Scripture” as used by the Catholics and Orthodox is a bird of much different plumage than “the Bible” when used by Protestants of a particular stripe. I have always been under the impression that the Church was considered very much sovereign over “the Scriptures” in a way that would be scandalous to Protestants. After all, the question is ‘which is to be master–that’s all.’

      If the Church were not the ‘Fullness of Him who filleth all things’, that would be kind of a scary thing to say. Since the Catholic Church tends to equate the operation of the Holy Spirit with the decisions of the Hierarchy the statement can be seen as tending towards autocracy. The Orthodox Church has the opposite tendency. Since our infallibility is a distributed infallibility, and the operations of the Holy Spirit must be discerned by the entire Body, the statement can be seen as tending to anarchy.

      Yet neither extreme is ever reached.

      • My wife and I were members of an Evangelical Covenant church for a few years. It is ‘evangelical’ in the European sense (Lutheran-Pietist Swedish background). They don’t have a ‘statement of faith’ but 6 ‘affirmations’. It is a ‘big tent’ denomination (theologically speaking).. However, in their 130+ year history there has been very little conflict or straying far from the core beliefs of the faith. As our pastor pointed out when we first joined, it has been a ‘self-correcting’ thing, as the Holy Spirit leads the body, and they have too avoided the extremes.

        It seems like people tend to go to extremes when they make the Bible (and their particular interpretation of it) more central than Christ or the Spirit. And those people who dismiss ‘tradition’ tend to have pretty binding traditions to which they are completely oblivious (usually claiming that they are just following the Bible).

      • Christiane says

        I do think that in Catholicism, the idea of ‘collegiality’ is evolving into stronger focus. For example, the idea of ‘santo subito’ . . . at John Paul II’s funeral, the crowds began chanting ‘Santo subito’ which means ‘Sainthood Now’

        so it came ‘up’ from the people, this chanting, and was seen as something meaningful so that the Church did not wait ‘as long’ as it usually does for the process to begin of formally declaring someone a saint.

        ‘collegiality’ seems a natural mechanism for the Body of Christ to use OR rather for the Holy Spirit to use the Body of Christ . . . . that people come together in council and make decisions as a ‘college’ . . . everyone has input

        Francis extended the idea of ‘collegiality’ by inviting the whole world (different denominations, different faiths) to come and participate in a conference on marriage and the family . . . and people came, from all over, and shared thoughts together on these topics so universally important to all mankind

  6. “Biblicism is the tendency to appeal to individual biblical verses, or collections of (apparently) uniform verses from various parts of the Bible, to give the appearance of clear, authoritative, and final resolutions to what are in fact complex interpretive and theological issues generated by the fact that we have a complex and diverse Bible.”

    Sinclair Lewis described this in “Elmer Gantry.” Gantry has gone to seminary, since a seminary degree will raise his salary prospects. A favorite activity of the students there is to mine the Bible for snippets that support whatever position they wish to take. “Elmer Gantry” is well worth reading today–sadly, not merely as a period piece.

  7. I found Smith’s book so helpful – it really put into clear words the feelings I had towards Biblicism & why I just couldn’t seem to get it the Bible to function in the way that says it should, no matter how ‘surrendered’ I was to ‘sitting under the text alone’.

    I was astonished to find there were others having these issues too, & doubly astonished to find out that this was not the way the Bible had always been read. The Christocentric method is something I’m working on, but makes perfect sense, when you grasp that Christ is the Word of God.

    • Yes I found Smith’s book very helpful in articulating issues that had troubled me for a long time as well. I think his argument that biblicism’s failure to produce what it promises is compelling. If the Bible is what biblicists claim it is then why are there so many ‘three views’ and ‘four views’ books on essential matters of the faith (the nature of God, the atonement, etc.). If God gave us what the biblicists claim, why didn’t he give us the ability to understand it in a consistent way that is plain for all to see?

      • Precisely! And why does every Protestant group have a ‘body of approved reading’ that backs up their interpretation, aka their version of tradition?

  8. Christiane says

    terrific post . . .

    these days, many fundamentalist-evangelicals are loudly complaining and hawking fear, but they cannot look the rest of the Church in the eye and tell us ‘WHY their champion is Trump’ and fit it into the context of the Holy Gospels of Our Lord.

    it is getting harder to understand the mystery of their choice in who to cling to, as the Gospels speak of a different journey entirely . . .

    I am worried as to what is coming from this evangelical union with trumpism, for the sake of the evangelicals themselves. What is happening with them? What will happen? It’s not over yet. Something is coming, but what?

  9. Michael Bell says

    Great post