October 29, 2020

How Pervasive Is “Biblicism”?

By Chaplain Mike

For this “Bible Week” on IM, I am reading some books I’ve not had a chance to look at before about how Christians relate to and deal with the Scriptures. Tonight I finished Christian Smith’s brand new book, The Bible Made Impossible, The: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture.

Scot McKnight commended this book with these words of high praise: “Here is a genuinely evangelical catholic understanding of scripture.” Scot has been doing a series on Bible Made Impossible over at Jesus Creed, which has prompted some interesting discussion.

In the introduction, Smith sets forth his purpose in writing:

This book addresses Christians, especially evangelicals, who believe that the Bible is a divine word of truth that should function as an authority for Christian faith and practice, and who want to espouse a coherent position that justifies and defends that belief. My contention here is that the American evangelical commitment to “biblicism,” which I will define and describe in detail below, is an untenable position that ought to be abandoned in favor of a better approach to Christian truth and authority.

• Bible Made Impossible, p. vii

More on the problems of “biblicism” later, and the “better approach” Smith commends. First, we need to see how he defines this “biblicism” he says is practiced by many American evangelicals.

Smith understands that this term is often used pejoratively, but he states his intention to use it in a more neutral way, to describe his observations about the way a broad swath of American evangelicalism actually views, speaks about, and practices its approach to the Bible. The “impossible” of the title refers to Smith’s claim that the “biblicism” he sees in the evangelical world “does not work as proposed and cannot function in a coherent way” (p. viii)

Christian Smith gives a precise description of “biblicism” so that the reader is clear about the particular theory and style of dealing with the Bible that he is critiquing. In his view, there are ten related assumptions and beliefs to biblicism.

Our task today is to think about his list and discuss whether or not he is giving an accurate picture of a view that is indeed pervasive throughout the American evangelical world.

Here are Smith’s points, as he summarizes them in Bible Made Impossible (p. 4f)—

  • Divine Writing: The Bible, down to the detail of its words, consists of and is identical with God’s very own words written inerrantly in human language.
  • Total Representation: The Bible represents the totality of God’s communication to and will for humans, both in containing all that God has to say to humans and in being the exclusive mode of God’s true communication.
  • Complete Coverage: The divine will about all of the issues relevant to Christian belief and life are contained in the Bible.
  • Democratic Perspicuity: Any reasonably intelligent person can read the Bible in his or her own language and correctly understand the plain meaning of the text.
  • Commonsense Hermeneutics: The best way to understand biblical texts is by reading them in their explicit, plain, most obvious, literal sense, as the author intended them at face value, which may or may not involve taking into account their literary, cultural, and historical contexts.
  • Solo Scriptura: The significance of any given biblical text can be understood without reliance on creeds, confessions, historical church traditions, or other forms of larger theological hermeneutical frameworks, such that theological formulations can be built up directly out of the Bible from scratch.
  • Internal Harmony: All related passages of the Bible on any given subject fit together almost like puzzle pieces into single, unified, internally consistent bodies of instruction about right and wrong beliefs and behaviors.
  • Universal Applicability: What the biblical authors taught God’s people at any point in history remains universally valid for all Christians at every other time, unless explicitly revoked by subsequent scriptural teaching.
  • Inductive Method: All matters of Christian belief and practice can be learned by sitting down with the Bible and piecing together through careful study the clear “biblical” truths that it teaches.
  • Handbook Model: The Bible teaches doctrine and morals with every affirmation that it makes, so that together those affirmations comprise something like a handbook or textbook 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. (This model is not really a separate characteristic, but rather the outlook generated by the first nine points.)

Smith understands that this is not a “formal” position held by evangelicals, and that different people and groups hold and emphasize various aspects of these points differently.

The point is not that biblicism is a unified doctrine that all of its adherents overtly and uniformly profess. The point, rather, is that this constellation of interrelated assumptions and beliefs informs and animates the outlooks and practices of major sectors of institutional and popular conservative American Protestantism, especially evangelicalism.

• Bible Made Impossible, p. 5

• • •

So, what do you think?

  • Is Christian Smith fairly characterizing the view of the Bible held by “major sectors” of American evangelicalism?
  • Is he overstating his case with regard to any of these points?
  • Even if you don’t think all of Smith’s points are accurate, are there any that you would highlight as particularly troublesome for a healthy and robust view of Scripture?
  • How might you qualify or change what he says with regard to any of these points?
  • What examples can you suggest that you think either confirm or undercut his observations?




  1. Long-time lurker here, but I *think* this is the first time I’ve left a comment.

    I haven’t been following McKnight’s series on this book closely, but I’ll have to go back and check it out – it looks like a good read. I will probably try to pick this book up in the future.

    On any given day, my view of the relationship between scripture, theology, and daily life may vary widely. My community is committed to saying Psalms together every day (we currently use the Morning/Evening Prayer liturgies from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer), and my current tendency is very much in line with lex orandi, lex credendi (the rule of prayer is the rule of faith) – meaning that I tend to read scripture in light of the creeds and the development of doctrine, as well as liturgy, but also maintaining scripture reading as a major part of the liturgy itself. So it’s not a “one or the other” kind of thing so much as a “hermeneutical spiral” (I hope!).

  2. I’ve spent a lot of time around self-described Evangelicals– have attended their churches and read their books– but admit to not understanding them very well.

    On the one hand, I’ve never seen anyone explicitly promote “biblicism” as described above. If I’ve understood various popular Evangelical authors on hermeneutics (e.g., Robert H. Stein, Gordon D. Fee, Walter C. Kaiser, Craig Blomberg, Tremper Longman, Grant R. Osborne, Leland Ryken etc.) correctly they would surely not endorse such an approach. On the other hand, I have seen Evangelicals having all sorts of common assumptions and ways of doing things that are part of an assimilated and assumed culture that isn’t ever made explicit or clearly articulated.

    All that being stated, I’m curious if there is a disconnect or not between the way Evangelical authors write about hermeneutics and the experience of Evangelicals within their churches and other fellowships.

    • Having studied under some of the people you name, Paul, and having been a pastor in Evangelical/Fundamentalist churches, I would say yes, there is a disconnect. I think Smith’s arguments hold true mostly on the popular level. In the seminaries where the kind of scholars you mention teach and have taught there is much more nuance and balance.

      • If you haven’t already, you should do a post about that disconnect between some churches and the academy.

        • Richard Hershberger says

          For extra credit, compare and contrast your experiences in Evangelical and Lutheran churches. This disconnect is a problem in all churches, but not necessarily to the same degree.

      • Which then immediately begs the question, why are the pastors & Bile teachers not communicating what they’ve learned sitting under instruction to the congregations committed to their charge? Sounds like Sounds like a failure to communicate apostolic faith & doctrine.

        • From personal experience I think many pastors/Bible teachers are afraid of nuance. They have tried it in the past and been misunderstood or gotten burned. It isn’t just the church; our culture in general doesn’t want to deal with complexity and is lazy-minded. They would rather watch TV than read, they want their news in sound bites rather than trying to understand an issue, etc.

          • Isaac (the poster occasionally still known as Obed) says

            I think you’re spot-on there. Nuance and actually wrestling with the text is hard, hard stuff. And folks is lazy. BUT, I’m reminded of that wonderful movie “Keeping the Faith,” in which the Ben Stiller character (a rabbi) is rightly rebuked for not giving his congregation enough credit. I.e., I think that pastors sometimes foster such laziness by not challenging the congregation. It’s like weightlifting: at first you’ll be weak and it REALLY hurts. But as you get into it and get stronger, it gets easier to do the work.

          • David Cornwell says

            “…our culture in general doesn’t want to deal with complexity and is lazy-minded. ”

            Dan, you’ve nailed it on this. We listen to the puppet masters and they pull our strings. The evangelical big shots, super pastors, pop how-to authors, etc. tell us what to think and how to “do it.” This is true in “evangelical” religion and politics.

          • I would disagree slightly. Some pastors are quite willing to deal with nuance. However, people in the pews generally want to know that there are definite answers, and that the pastor knows those answers. Start messing with people’s biblicist presupposition, and many pastors will find themselves out of work.

            Keep in mind that in the Evangelical/Fundamentalist church world, the pastor works for the congregation. He/she has no security. It makes challenging the status quo very tricky. I suspect this is one reason why we see so many young church planters coming out of seminaries. They know it is easier to start a new work than to fight those biblicist battles in established churches.

          • I think one reason people in the pews want to be told exactly how it is and not wrestle with issues is because of fear. There has been so much emphasis on getting to heaven and avoiding hell that they fear straying from that path. Certainly there are people who are lazy and would rather relax, but there is more than that in the lives of some of the people in the pews. They may in the past have had questions and wanted to discuss issues, but were shut down and told that questioning is a slippery slope to hell. We need to encourage questions and have safe forums for people to discuss what’s in their hearts and minds.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            There has been so much emphasis on getting to heaven and avoiding hell that they fear straying from that path.

            Instead of living their lives as Christians, they’re just keeping their noses squeeky-clean so they can pass God’s Litmus Test and not be Left Behind. From “life more abundantly” to Fire Insurance and Fire Escape.

          • There are a lot of theological issues that are complex. Many evangelicals don’t want to wrestle with a number of issues. Its too complicated!! It involves too much thinking!!! Many evangelicals let their pastor do their own thinking for them and seldom challenge what is taught…not unless its a trigger issue. Evangelicals have been dumbed down as has many parts of society today. Maybe that’s why people whose careers are affected by osme of these issues, ie Biology professor at Virginia Tech, Astronomer at NASA, etc.. put distance between themself and evangelicals

          • @ Eric…Yes pastors do have security. They tell people what people want to hear and that gvies them job security. Its when pastors have problems or tell people stuff they don’t want to hear that they run afoul of the system.

          • Eagle,

            “Yes pastors do have security. They tell people what people want to hear and that gvies them job security.”

            Blanket statements about situations and pastors you know nothing about are not helpful.

        • I think that bona fide seminary training is actually still a relatively rare thing in many evangelical churches. It probably varies from denomination to denomination, but I know many pastors who went to Bible college for an undergrad degree but never pursued anything higher. And at that level, there really isn’t very much in the way of serious hermeneutic study offered. The sad thing to me is that is that these kids graduate thinking they’re experts, and they have people treat them as such, so it kind of perpetuates this circle of ignorance in many evangelical churches.

          • I think the problem is less the level of formal education and more the hunger for learning. Even someone with a graduate degree only knows what they have learned in class. And at the rate that material is covered in most academic settings, that doesn’t amount to much. Every student needs to have instilled in them a life-long love of learning. Nothing less can do justice to the study of the Scriptures.

        • Another aspect I’ve seen that people trained in seminary do unconsciously is: they think they are learning how to read the Bible so that they can teach the people, instead of learning so that they can teach the people how to read the Bible.

      • Clay Knick says

        I think you are right, Mike. Much more nuance.

    • I’m guessing that a key ingredient to the disconnect is the seeker friendly push within the sermon. You preach to the lowest common denominator, and you dare not muddle the waters too much. Your sermon is casting a net toward fish that may just be visiting a time or two. Too much complexity, too much nuance, and they’ll get a more easily digestible “product” down the road.

      Not that the pastor would actually phrase their strategy in these words, but I think some pastors almost have to apologize when they introduce something complex.

      • I have to disagree with most of the comments within this mini-thread. The disconnect between Seminary and Ministry, is Seminary educates you in the scholarly but Churches need leaders. Not leaders in the CEO model per se, but knowing how to parse your Greek does very little in actually helping you lead and minister to a congregation.

        Most if not all of what I learned in seminary has been forgotten because I’ve had no use for it since.

        • No way to mince words on this one: you went to the wrong seminary and/or got the wrong degree. A (mostly) worthless seminary degree ?? I’m not doubting you, just saying this is more a statement about your seminary than how it ought to play out.

          • I’ve heard that ’round the horn, this is a pretty common view. Perhaps people have differing views, who perhaps went to other seminaries. But I’ve heard this from Dallas, Talbot, Westminster, Trinity, Southern, and Fuller grads (like myself).

            Perhaps I over stated, I still hold on to a few things (and I’m greatful for them) but by in large the ins and outs of a day-to-day ministry does not require a seminary training, not that the training actually helps in the day-to-day matters.

        • PB – I think you are on to something there. Leadership and teaching are two different gifts. The leader may not be called to be a scholar, nor the scholar a practical leader. The Body needs both. I guess as long as neither dismisses the importance of the other then the body works fine.

          • It would be great if scholars were taught to lead and leaders taught to study. If we’re talking about training pastor-shepherds, these people need both skills to some extent b/c often a church can’t afford both.

            One thing that the mega-church does well is train leaders by using more of an apprenticeship model. If these apprentices could then go on to a scholarly education, I think we could have something special.

  3. This definition of “biblicism” seems a pretty accurate description of how I’ve seen many evangelicals approach the Bible. The most troublesome aspects of biblicism are summed up in points two and three — not just that the Bible is true, but that it contains and expresses all truth. People who believe that — and I’ve known many — don’t buy any textbooks to homeschool their children, or any novels to develop imagination and empathy, or any books on science, history, or medicine — unless they are books entitled something like “What the Bible Says about Science/History/Medicine.” They end up in a gnostic-like dichotomy, ignoring all aspects of creation as a revelation of God and focusing exclusively on the Bible. The result is that these biblicists actually misuse and disrespect the Bible by asking it to bear a weight it never was intended to bear.

    • Yes! While “biblicism” isn’t explicitly espoused by evangelical/denominational groups, it’s there, as an undercurrent of our belief systems. What’s funny to me, though, is that we claim “complete coverage”, “divine writing”, and “commonsense hermeneutics” (without appropriate context) as stated above, but then hen-peck about the pages, looking for the “tastiest” verses, picking and choosing the passages that make us comfortable, support our personal beliefs, and promote our own morals and standards.

      Not so easy to digest are things like “sell all you have and give it to the poor”, “to live is Christ, to die is gain”, and “Follow me.” These things get stuck in the craw…they don’t get swallowed, and become a part of our innermost being…and they certainly don’t come out of mouths in the pulpit, because we pastors can’t promote what we don’t live.

      In regards to your thoughts on kids….Damaris, I spent years in youth and college ministry, and was always so disheartened by parents who would restrict their children’s reading, movie viewing,and music to “Christian” works…much of which makes me throw up in my mouth a little. What’s really ironic and sad is that some of the greatest Christian art in the world would be considered “graven images” by true fundamentalists.

      My own mom was as devout as they come, but encouraged me to read anything I could get my hands on…She was almost expelled from her high school in Georgia back in the 1950’s when she brought in a copy of Erskine Caldwell’s “Tobacco Road”. I’ve read everything from Dante to Dan Brown, and I really don’t believe I’m going to go to hell for it. I attended a university that is as “secular” as it can possibly be, and came out of it a fairly well-rounded individual…at least my wife thinks so, on days when I take out the garbage like I’m supposed to, and wash the dishes before I come to work.

      I’m protestant, but not afraid to pray with icons, and I recognize that the bread and wine are sacraments, and shouldn’t be downplayed by making a last minute trip on “Communion Sunday” to buy cheese nips and grape juice to be the body and blood (don’t laugh…I’ve seen it happen). I like to watch movies, including the ones that don’t star Kirk Cameron. I love music, and listen to everything from Orthodox chant to the Allman Brothers. And I love my Bible, but I’m not sure it teaches me how to manage my money, have better sex, or avoid getting angry and swearing while I attempt to change my own oil.

      Lord have mercy on us all…

    • MelissaTheRagamuffin says

      I submit that the average evangelical doesn’t know what hermeneutics is.

      • Oh, so very true…

        • Adrienne says

          Amen ~ I think they think it is a guy in church named Herman. And I agree wholeheartedly with Damaris and her statement that they don’t buy “any novels to develop imagination and empathy”. As a Fundamentalist/Evangelical of almost 40 years I can’t say that I was “taught” to empathize with is so weird as that totally contradicts the Gospel!!!!! Emmanuel, God with us. Jesus came down and tabernacled among us. I always felt like I was the “soul police” – I am still struggling with that. My only concern and “job” is to make sure that people are saved. To listen to them, to enter into their lives, to just humble myself and be one of them is none of my business. A sort of spiritual superiority.

          All you have to do is look through the best sellers in the average Christian Bookstore to see how the Bible is “interpreted” in the larger segment of “Christianity”. Next Door Savior, Ten Steps to…., We Saved Our Marriage With…etc.

          In my opinion the closest Bible today to teach us the “story telling, imaginative way” to interpret Scripture is Eugene Peterson’s “The Message”. It involves all of me. It is not my Handbook, My Self-Help Bible, My Recovery Bible. It makes me think, laugh, cry and want to read more and more. Oh Lord, one of the first Bibles that my husband and I bought when we were new Christians was “The Self-Help Bible”. Is that pathetic or what?

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            It is not my Handbook, My Self-Help Bible, My Recovery Bible.

            You forgot “My Grimoire of One-Verse Verbal-Component Magick Spells.”

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          I think they think it is a guy in church named Herman.

          That anything like the Flintstones episode where Barney misreads “Archaeology” as “Your real name is Archie Oogly”?

      • And if you doubt that, puncuate a sentence with it, and wait for the reaction. Even if the response is positive, the attitude is often: that’s for the brainiacs at “cemetary” (hee-hee code for “seminary”). Let’s not make this too complicated and ‘worldly’…etc..

      • hermeneutics = what happens when Katnip the cat, meets Herman the mouse.

  4. Bill Ferrell says

    I think biblicism is the official undercurrent of the church I attend. In practice, I see the members do not practice it very much. I actually feel the Bible is read in “snippets”—-mined for verses to support viewpoints. The members don’t even follow the rules of the church very much. I do not sit in judgment as I do not accept much of the theology of the church and find some of the rules incomprehensible. (I am a former Catholic and attend a Baptist church with my wife.) The minister espouses “Creationist” views that are indefensible but he gives some good advice in his sermons that amazes me at times. Anyway, good post.

    • Isaac (the poster occasionally still known as Obed) says

      Y’know, it seems to me that most hard-core biblicists don’t actually know their bible very well. Or if they do, it’s known in one-verse out-of-context sound-bites rather than as a whole. It’s hard to actually know one’s bible and have such a untenable view of the bible as biblicism is.

      • Yeah, I was just thinking after some of Bible posts this week, we’d have a lot less would be hotly debated in the current Christian world if people actually took some hermeneutics. In fact, it should be a requirement before you’re allowed to debate (i.e. yell) about any of the popular Bible/theology debates. When you break down some people’s methods for interpreting the Bible, it’s pretty scary.

    • Pragmatism is the undercurrent; Biblicism is the waves on the surface. The church should have never sold out to consumerism. Because it has for the most part, most of what we hear is the gospel according to Popeil (It dices. It slices. It solves all your problems and fits in your back pocket. If you are not completely satisfied, return for a full refund).

      “Pragmatism is a matter of human needs, and one of the first of human needs is to be something more than a pragmatist.” – G.K. Chesterton.

  5. The Divine Writing approach doesn’t characterize my own denomination, and most Christians I know would not ascribe to it. Internal Harmony, however, is very prevalent, especially under the slogan, “Scripture interprets scripture.” This can lead to disregarding a more obvious reading of a passage in favor of an interpretation based on another passage. Another approach that I have seen is the Handbook Model. My wife is a marriage and family therapist and she has often been looked on with suspicion because her schooling is extra-biblical. There is a feeling that the issues she works with ought to be handled only from scripture. A parenting book my wife and I are currently reading is guilty of this also.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      My wife is a marriage and family therapist and she has often been looked on with suspicion because her schooling is extra-biblical. There is a feeling that the issues she works with ought to be handled only from scripture.

      “No Constitution except the Koran! No Law except the Law of God (Shari’a)!”
      — Slogan of some radical Islamic party in North Africa

    • I that the Handbook Model is responsible for a lot of ignorance & lack of interaction with world & actual people. It seems to replace honest observation & experimentation with a pre-packaged ‘holy’prescription for all kinds of things. Thankfully, it appears that most Doctors are not subject to this, but learn actual anatomy from real bodies, & Farmers learn how to farm from the earth. For some reason Psychologists, Therapists etc are not allowed this realism . I’ve tried to look in the Bible to find the actual instructions for how to break up a simmering disagreement between 2 alpha male teenagers or many of the things I deal with on a daily basis & guess what? I learned the particulars, such as body language from experience. Principles are there, particulars…no.

    • I love that scene from the Simpson’s Movie where Homer is frantically paging through the Bible looking for answers to the present catastrophe and can’t find any.

  6. Hi all,

    I enjoyed this article very much. I would agree to all of Smith’s points. What I have seen in my experience is that many Christians make the link between the bible and Christ so tight that the two actually form one entity. As a result Christians equate bible study with being with Christ, and to make matters worse many will consider any critical view of the bible as being the same thing as criticizing God. Such practice differs little from an Islamic view of the Koran.

    I think at the end of the day we ask the bible to do too much.


  7. As an evangelical I have some issues with Smith’s points as overbroad and lacking nuance. I note the earlier conversation where Chaplain Mike makes the key point that with seminary training (which I have) there is more nuance and balance. On the popular level, my home church is evangelical and bible based and I do not see the Smith points in play there – elements yes but not to the extent of what Smith sets out. I fear there is a conflation of evangelical and fundamental or like James White, evangelical is being defined socioculturally and then hammered theologically.

  8. This position is perhaps the most difficult for me to move away from. It permeated every area of my youth. I’ve been able to add and modify positions on various matters of faith but have found that I’m held by an unseen tether to Smith’s list of assumptions and their subsequent world view.

    One quibble. I’m not as sure about the Democratic Perspicuity one. In the churches of my upbringing great value was place on the knowledge gained by attending a Bible College. (They never would call it a Seminary – why?) These guys could pars at least Greek and did practically every week in a sermon. We could not possibly know what the Bible was saying as well as they did. Just disagree with them on something and find out.

    On the other hand, I am well familiar with the school of thought that values personal study and eschews hard core book learning. (My father is at the Sword of the Lord conference this week.)

    There seems to be two branches distinct and lots of mistrusting of the other.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      (They never would call it a Seminary – why?)

      Because that’s what Enemy Christians called theirs.

  9. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    Divine Writing, Total Representation, Complete Coverage, Commonsense Hermeneutics, Solo Scriptura, Universal Applicability, Inductive Method, Handbook Model —

    Democratic Perspicuity: What happens when two different Believers read the same text and get different “plain meanings of the text”? Why, only MY plain meaning is God’s Word! Let the Cleansing of the Heretics begin, with the edge of the sword. “JIHAD! God Wills It!”

    Internal Harmony: Wasn’t Dispensationalism an attempt to fit together the entire Bible like one big puzzle into a single unified whole, just like an engineering textbook?

    • let’s not be too critical of the Islamic perspective of their written Qua’ran…

      don’t they believe the written text really secondary to the actual spoken words of Allah & The Prophet?

      they conclude the written version cannot be the purest form of God’s words. it was the original dialogue that was without any type of misunderstanding or translation error or memory lapse on the part of transcribers…

      once the bible is treated as if the only ‘pure’ representation of God among us, it simply relegates Jesus to a cameo role in the whole incarnation scene of salvation’s Passion Play.

      the living Word is the central aspect of my faith. and although the bible does contain as its central theme this selfsame Jesus, He can get lost amidst all those trees of text that are forced into nice neat rows when they were never planted that way in the first place…

      and so the Forest can be missed. and some people seem to be okay with that…

      • Scott Miller says

        I disagree. The Koran is written in Arabic, and believers have to read it in Arabic. No “biblical” interpretation or scholarship is allowed. And the book itself is super holy, where you can’t even get it soiled in any way.

      • Joseph is wrong. There are numerous Surahs that begin with “Say”, i.e. God telling Mo exactly what to say/write.

      • i guess that is a negatory then???


  10. An interesting article on Biblicism over at CrossAlone Lutheran District:



  11. David Cornwell says

    “Inductive Method: All matters of Christian belief and practice can be learned by sitting down with the Bible and piecing together through careful study the clear “biblical” truths that it teaches.”

    Since seminary I’ve always liked the “inductive method” of bible study, especially the way it was taught in that institution. If used properly it could guide one into a better understanding of the original sense of the writing and guide into present day application. However a recent book written to update and provide a “sequel” to the original has left me scratching my head a little. The book’s target audience is pastors and teachers, which is good. As it passes beyond the sense of the original to become more “comprehensive” it becomes more technical and difficult. And it seemed to me that the author is saying keep on going in this study and you will eventually come closer to figuring out the truth of this passage in all of its manifestations. He does admit that the average pastor or layperson will have to adjust this type of study to his/her schedule. Some pastors would love to get lost in the study, around books and scholars, and never be out with the people.

    It seemed that the author was almost getting lost in a fundamentalism of its own, leaving room for few differences in interpretation and application. And I had the feeling that in the process the bible became another work of law, rather than grace. I never had that feeling with the original.

    I still like the method, but think it has the potential for legalism and abuse.

  12. Scott Miller says

    “The Bible represents the totality of God’s communication to and will for humans, both in containing all that God has to say to humans”.

    I don’t know any evangelicals who explicitly believe this way, except for firm cessationalists who believe that divine revelation stopped with the canon. Pentecostals, and virtually all of the non-pentecostals I know would put personal experience as equal to the Bible (unfortunately). If I hear one more person tell me “God told me…” I will pull my hair out. Perhaps that’s why I am significantly balding now!

    • David Cornwell says

      John Wesley was always a very practical theologian. Here is what he believed was important for arriving at theological conclusions:

      Scripture – the Holy Bible (Old and New Testaments)
      Tradition – the two millennia history of the Christian Church
      Reason – rational thinking and sensible interpretation
      Experience – a Christian’s personal and communal journey in Christ

      The scripture, however, was always primary.

      This approach and understanding has always made sense to me. However the rub seems to always come in with Reason and Experience.

      • Thanks David. I never read it. I like this. Yes experience is the tough one.

      • Yes, but go too far down this path and you’ll end up being called out by Glenn Beck, as the Methodist church did. Just because scripture, reason and experience indicate that our health care system is broken and kills people doesn’t mean you can say that in American public and get away with it. It’s far easier to just conclude that a literal reading of the ten commandments tells us that all taxation is theft.

  13. Tigger 23505 says

    “Total Representation: The Bible represents the totality of God’s communication to and will for humans, both in containing all that God has to say to humans and in being the exclusive mode of God’s true communication.”

    Unless I’m missing something this one is false — In the OT we find Psalms 19, 50, and 97 show that there is more to God’s testimony than just the bible. Even making allowances for the different genres of scripture it seems pretty clear to me that the heavens, the earth, the plants and the animals have things to tell us about God. In the NT Paul makes the same point in Romans 1. (Sorry for referencing the whole chapter but I can’t decide where to cut it.)

  14. Scott Miller says

    In addition, I only know of one or two evangelicals in my personal life who even would acknowledge many of these statements, and they are highly educated folks from creedal traditions.
    Most evangelicals that I know would wonder why we are having this conversation. The Bible is the divine word, just as the sky is blue. By definition, they would not blink at the suggestion that it is handbook. And many of these people use the verses of the Bible as “meant for them”, where all of the stories and epistles are meant for their situations today. Isaiah and the minor prophets, not so much, so we will avoid them.
    And some of the people I know even open the Bible at random to “get their word of the Lord for today”. Now how is that different than any superstition?

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      And some of the people I know even open the Bible at random to “get their word of the Lord for today”.

      Bible-dipping. Here’s why that’s not such a hot idea:
      1) “Judas went and hanged himself.”
      2) “Go and do likewise.”
      3) “What thou doest, doest quickly.”

      Now how is that different than any superstition?

      You’re using the Word of God (TM) instead of sheep entrails or which planet is in which house of the Zodiac, that’s how.

      Wasn’t one of the Roman Empire’s beefs about this Christian cult was that they weren’t superstitious enough to be a real religion?

    • cermak_rd says

      Bibliomancy! divination by means of a book in which a passage chosen at random carries the omen. It’s been used with the works of Homer and Virgil, the Christian Scriptures, and the Koran.

  15. On a why this matters note:

    My father is dying and just informed me that he doesn’t want to have his funeral at the church he and my mom attend. I was stunned; he is a long-term fundamentalist Baptist and I couldn’t imagine why. He has repeatedly told me the preaching at his church is “powerful” (read: follows all the rules above).

    The stick for him was that the pastor has never carried on a conversation with him despite bushels of fresh veggies dad gives him on Sundays. The music minister asked my parents if this was their first time visiting after they had been attending for five hears. This is not a mega church. They might have 100 on a Sunday. My mom has Alzheimer’s (by now it’s obvious) and the pastor nor any of his staff has ever asked, offered, or prayed for her.

    The bottom line is that shepherding can not be divorced from preaching. This method attempts to make the Bible be the answer to all situations but divorces it from compassion and in some cases human decency.

  16. You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and these are they which bear witness of me.(John 5:39) Christ is the inerrant word of God. The whole of the law and the prophets point to him. The word is not textual but living and vital. We experience the word and the bible is the key road sign. It is critical for instruction and keeping us in the word, but Jesus is the word. There is the milk of the word and the meat of the word. Each has its time and place. Subjective experience of the word, as in our relationship with Christ, can always be checked against the scripture. Human perception is faulty and we see dimly as through a glass. The bible is our beacon to the word. A bible can fray, be torn, lost, burned or trashed; the Word of God cannot. Thank God for the bible. Without it I think we would be like those scattering form the tower of Babel. Its worth is inestimable. Nonetheless, it is not the word that goes forth and does not return void – Jesus is that word. 1John 1:1 -John says that they looked upon and touched the word of life. Jesus said the words I have spoken to you are spirit and life. The word of God is active and living and sharper than any two edged sword. Sorry if I belaboured an obvious truth but it is sometimes lost in the context of today’s questions.

  17. I grew up believing many of the those “Biblicist” bullet points. I think Miller’s list is very accurate.

    I agree with a previous commenter who says that few evangelicals believe the BIble is, alone and in its totality, the entire revelation of God for us. In my experience there’s a lot of “God told me” etc. that is also unhelpful in many ways, though better than the strict Bible-only fundamentalism that was more prevalent in the past. I still know of some who hold to it, but they are very few and far between these days.

    In my neck of the woods, there’s a lot of interest in prophecy, especially as it relates to Israel. Many Christians I know feel very committed to Israel’s prosperity and security, because they see Israel and the Jews as “God’s Chosen People.” They hold these beliefs because of their Biblicism, especially the “Universal Harmony” part. If the Old Testament says it, they believe it. The New Testament, even Paul’s letters, don’t really make a dent in it.

    I realize there’s more going on with evangelicals’ fascination with Israel: a lot of it is political, since the Israel Lobby is a powerful force in America. But still, these theological convictions come from somewhere; they mostly come from the Puritans and the evangelical movement in Britain, which supported a Jewish State long before any Jews did.

    But I think Miller is basically right on.

  18. I think this list is spot on, and the best way to see it is by tuning in to local Christian radio. So much of the ‘biblical teaching’ assumes scripture as handbook, and ‘scripture as handbook’ assumes the other points.

    Many of the people I know turn to scripture with the expectation that it has the answers to the problems in their lives- whether sexual, financial, marital, emotional. parental or concern over foreigner policy. The problem, they think, is an educational one. Life’s hurts, difficulties and disappointments are only there because there is some bit of information that they are missing. Scripture contains the incantations that will bring bliss out of familial chaos.

    Of course it doesn’t, and it won’t, and I’m afraid that people end up rejecting an invitation to a conversation with God, because it isn’t a magic wand.

  19. I think that very few evangelicals are truely “Sola Scriptura”. They may say it. But their interpretations are always heavily influenced by their traditions. Show a Calvisinst some strong Arminian verses, and he doesn’t know what to do with them. Show an Arminian some strong Calvinist verses and he doesn’t know what to do with them either. Verses that don’t fit what we already believe tend to be glossed over or ignored alltogether.

    • Absolutely, and for many non-denoms, they can rail against ‘tradition’ all they want, but doing it Pastor Joe-Bob’s way , oh these 3 or 4 yrs, is in fact tradition (newly minted). It’s just poorly thought out, ill tested tradition.

    • Michael,

      Do you mean “solo” Scriptura–like Chaplain Mike summarized Smith’s main points above, or “sola” Scriptura as in one of the slogans of the Reformation. My experience is that Smith is right on… most evangelicals (and fundamentalists even more so) claim “sola Scriptura” but have redefined it such that it no longer means what the Reformers meant, but is instead “solo Scriptura.” So instead of Scripture being read as encapsulating the Great Tradition of the Faith and being the church’s ongoing corrective, Scripture is viewed without any reference to the history of interpretaion.

      Thus all historical creeds, confessions, & theological formulations are viewed with distrust. Each generation stumbles all over themselves trying to reinvent the wheel for ministry and worship. Each generation has a crisis of faith trying to respond to the flavour-of-the-month aberrant teaching/heresy when, with a little historical study, they would see how the earlier church already dealt with that same brand of aberrant teaching/heresy… and our contemporary North American ahistorical arrogrance continues unabated, undermining both Christian doctrine and piety!

      Well, enough ranting from me.

      God bless. 🙂

      • RonR,

        I did mean “sola scriptura” as is in John Wesley’s quote that “In all cases, the Church is to be judged by the Scripture, not the Scripture by the Church.” I hear a lot of… “well that verse can’t mean what it seems to mean because it doesn’t fit with what we believe.” Sometimes it is subtle, but often it is quite blatent.

        • Micheal Bell,

          Thanks for the clarification. After re-reading your initial comments, I realized I had misread what you wrote. Sorry.

          I heartily endorse the John Wesley quote.

          But isn’t what you (and I) are talking about the very thing Smith is talking about in the term “solo Scriptura”… that is to say, a person reads Scripture as if they themselves ourselves have no traditions that influence they interpretation while *clearly* anyone who disagrees with them does so because those other individuals are not *actually* reading Scripture but are instead being influenced by their *unbiblical* traditions!

          Wouldn’t sola Scriptura approach Scriptura humbly, with a willingness to hear the other side of the debate and a willing to do some self-examination in light of Scripture as interpreted by the other side?

          While solo Scripture does exactly what you and greg r and myself have described… assume we have no traditions that influence our reading of Scripture while *clearly* anyone who disagrees with me does so because they are under the spell of the bogeyman *tradition*.

          Take care,

          • Not quite the same thing.

            I guess what I am saying is that evangelicals tend to be neither “solo” or “sola” scriptura because they are heavily influenced by the traditions in which they find themselves whether or not they are willing to acknowledge the fact.

  20. How accurate, how common?
    ?Divine Writing: Pretty accurate, very common.
    ?Total Representation: Not very accurate in that many also embrace personal revelation or general revelation in nature. However, generally, scripture is given primacy.
    ?Complete Coverage: As above, many embrace some degree of personal and general revelation.
    ?Democratic Perspicuity: Accurate and common.
    ?Commonsense Hermeneutics: Accurate and common.
    ?Solo Scriptura: Accurate and common.
    ?Internal Harmony: Somewhat accurate; there is a ‘balance’ hypothesis that seems common, about how different passages provide balance and illuminate different facets of a topic, but do not contradict even if they appear to.
    ?Universal Applicability: Accurate and common; but the ‘revoking’ is not really possible; only ‘balancing incorrect interpretation.’
    ?Inductive Method: Accurate and common.
    ?Handbook Model: Something of a special case; there are groups like this… but most don’t take it that far.

  21. Yup, seen all of these to varying degrees and agree with Damaris that points two and three are the stickiest and cause the most problems.

    One result of biblicalism that I don’t think anyone has mentioned so far is that it makes it almost impossible for its adherents to see scripture as a story and/or series of stories with broad themes that convey great truths (in a form other than the propositional) that may be applied broadly and express the wideness of our God’s salvific mercy and grace. This is a real loss, and I’m convinced it’s part of what cripples evangelism and discipleship in a post-modern world.

    • Dana Ames says

      Seeing scripture as primarily a narrative is one of N.T. Wright’s major contributions; others do so as well, but I’m familiar with Wright. On the Wrightsaid email group to which I belong, it has been proposed a couple of times that we try to come up with a summary of that narrative in our own words, filling a regular page or less. I can’t express how how difficult this is to do, without either pulling in “proof texts” or getting tangled up in propositional minutiae so that the attempt of a page becomes more like a chapter. The best is still Wright himself, and I have carried this in my bible for a number of years now:

      Reality as we know it is the result of a creator god bringing into being
      a world that is other than himself, and yet which is full of his glory.
      It was always the intention of this god that creation should one day be flooded with his own life,
      in a way for which it was prepared from the beginning.
      As part of the means to this end, the creator brought into being a creature which,
      by bearing the creator’s image, would bring his wise and loving care to bear upon this creation.
      By a tragic irony, the creature in question rebelled against this intention.
      But the creator has solved this problem in principle in an entirely appropriate way,
      and as a result is now moving the creation once more toward its originally intended goal.
      The implementation of this solution now involves the indwelling of this god
      within his human creatures and ultimately within the whole creation,
      transforming it into that for which it was made in the beginning.
      -N.T. Wright
      The New Testament
      and the People of God, 97-98

      Here he gives it in less formally, “off the top of his head” so to speak:

      It is remarkable how in a book composed of many books written over the space of more than a thousand years there is a sustained narrative which is about a good creation in which humans play a central role under the good creator; then about the dramatic fall, so called, in which humans rebel and refuse this purpose; then about the call of Israel to be the people through whom God puts both the human race and the whole world right and how they get it wrong as well, so we have a double bind now; then of course about the coming of Jesus himself as God in person, who is both Israel in person and humankind in person, to sort out the double problem; and then about the way in which, through the coming of Jesus and then through the work of Jesus’ Spirit in and through his followers, the plan gets back on track, leading to an eventual future in which Jesus himself will be the one who has flooded God’s whole creation with the justice and peace and joy and purpose and fruitfulness which was always the creator’s purpose. So that’s the big story. Once we see that big story it’s hugely exciting to see how all the different bits of it come up in three dimensions within it.
      -N. T. Wright
      Interview, Nomad Church
      Nottingham England 2009


      • I’m pretty familiar with Wright. He’s an excellent theologian and really good at conveying things in a way everyone can understand. The items you cite above are good summaries of the biblical narrative, and they showcase his strengths. But they are not stories; they are summaries of the great story (and still somewhat propositional in nature). Stories tend to cnovey the above truths or events without listing them per se; the truths are an undercurrent, holding the stories up. The stories have characters you come to care about and dramatic turns of events; you may not know what’s going to happen next; there are always surprises and twists. I really like some of Frederich Buechener’s books as he is by nature a storyteller and the narrative comes through that way.

  22. What examples can you suggest that you think either confirm or undercut his observations?

    I think the Biblical/Nouthetic counseling movement trends pretty steeply toward the points he makes.

  23. Clay Knick says

    I’m reading Smith’s book slowly and Mark Strauss’ newest more quickly. An interesting exercise.

    • Clay Knick says

      Both are about scripture and reading them together is an interesting experience.

  24. “Inductive Method: All matters of Christian belief and practice can be learned by sitting down with the Bible and piecing together through careful study the clear “biblical” truths that it teaches.”

    The inductive method is very useful. The intent of the inductive method is to emphasize exagesis and prevent isogesis. Inductive method can be used to establish proper context of a passage. The problem is when people approach the biblical text inductively but with a predetermined expectation regarding the biblical “truths” to be uncovered. A purely inductive study is not possible, because no one approaches scripture from a truly objective perspective. Scripture is very dangerous in the hands of those who avoid mirrors.

    • (Actually, I think they have a name for people who can’t see themselves in a mirror…)

    • DeYoung’s review is not great IMO. Given its length and vociferousness, it is clear that Smith’s book got under his skin. I’m doubtful DeYoung understood what Smith meant when the latter called for a Christocentric hermeneutic, given his conclusions in his review, and in not getting this he has missed everything.