What does it mean to say that our beliefs and practices are “biblical”? Broadly speaking, anyone appealing to the Bible for faith and life is a Biblicist practicing Biblicism. But as soon as we encounter the variety of ways people cite the Bible to establish their views, we see the need to think more carefully about what being “biblical” means. After all, when we observe Biblicism as diverse as that between, say, John Macarthur Jr. and Joel Osteen, Pope Francis and Lewis Farrakhan, and between groups like the Watchtower Society and the Gospel Coalition, the need to think deeply about Biblicists and Biblicism becomes more evident.
From my perspective, the tags “Biblicist” and “Biblicism” can be positive or negative depending on what they reference. As a Biblicist, I happily embrace the stigma often intended by these labels, as long as I get to explain what I take them to mean.
Generally speaking, negative Biblicism is characteristically autonomous and individualistic. By autonomous I mean the tendency to read the Bible apart from the community of the baptized and the ancient but living tradition that flows from that fellowship. Muslims, Jews, the Christian Cults, and many academics model this approach. Such Biblicists misconstrue the Bible, in part, because they stand outside the very fellowship that wrote and preserves the Book, the Son and Spirit community of the Father. These Biblicisms often walk close to the stream, sometimes mischievously casting stones across its surface, sometimes drawing from it, all the while misjudging its mysterious depths. These readers assume that their own path gives them a better perspective on the stream than the one gained by being immersed in its waters.
Individualistic Biblicisms abound within the baptized community as well. Many evangelical types assume the Reformation principle of sola scriptura opposes tradition, and so they vow to hold no creed but the Bible. Yet, this assumption not only misunderstands the Reformers, it also fails to recognize that everyone approaches the Bible through some creedal lens, whether acknowledged or not. And even those unaware of sola scriptura typically assume the only thing necessary for good theological conclusions is to set alone with a Bible and a concordance. Theologian Wayne Grudem continues to commend this sort of approach to countless seminarians through his popular Systematic Theology (21). Characteristically, Grudem denies the orthodox doctrine of the Son’s eternal generation simply because it’s not explicit in any one text of Scripture. Responding to this sort of approach in another context, Michael Horton offers an apt reply:
“We are dealing with the greatest of all divine mysteries (i.e. Trinity), and we must have more reflection at our disposal than our own. This is the danger of “biblicism”-that is, marginalizing the history of doctrine in favor of explicit biblical statements, when at least among the orthodox, the history of doctrine is the history of biblical exegesis” (“Why Historical Theology Matters: Trinity and the Dangers of Biblicism”).
In other words, Grudem’s kind of Biblicism ain’t biblical! As Horton points out, it only substitutes my reading of the Bible for our reading of the Bible, bypassing centuries of church reflection, to all of a sudden arrive at the immediately “obvious” meaning of Scripture. In the end, this sort of individualistic Biblicism replaces the scope of the Bible’s teaching, as perceived by the church through time, with what is said in so many words.
In view of all this, it’s easy to see, at least in part, what sound Biblicism entails. When Barth says, “the door of Bible texts can open only from within” (CD 1/2: 533), he means that the assumptions we bring to the Bible must reflect those of the community baptized into the Threefold Name. And this Spirit-gifted community is not merely local or worldwide, but one stretching back across the ages. Sound Biblicism entails, then, that we begin to appreciate the manifold gifts of the “one holy catholic and apostolic Church.” Practically speaking, we must commit ourselves to a lifelong apprenticeship to the great tradition. This doesn’t mean we stop reading our Bible “devotionally,” or personally. But it will entail a serious concern to ensure that our appeals to the Bible reflect a family resemblance, especially in our theologizing.
The fact that such an apprenticeship seems unrealistic and even unnecessary to many evangelicals serves only to indict our sort of Biblicism. For generations we have imbibed overly pietistic reading practices along with imbalanced preaching on Scripture’s perspicuity. And as we approach the third decade of the third millennium, the digital age continues to reconfigure our brains to expect short, quick, and shallow treatments of deep questions. So yes, apprenticing ourselves to the great tradition means taking the road less traveled. It will take discipline and, as Bath says, it will mean becoming a studiosus (Evangelical Theology, 171-72).
Thankfully this task is easier today than in previous times. Rich resources abound for cultivating a more catholic Biblicism. In closing let me commend some sources toward this end. Several works written or edited by the late Thomas Oden deserve mention. His Ancient Christian Commentary series, Ancient Christian Doctrine series, along with his Classic Christianity: a Systematic Theology can help evangelicals reconnect with the faith and reading posture of the apostolic tradition. A similar series The Church’s Bible edited by Robert Wilken is a treasure trove worth consulting too. The Reformation Commentary on Scripture edited by Timothy George is a sister series to Oden’s and just as rich. Finally, the six volume Expositions of the Psalms in the Works of Augustine: A Translation for the 21ST Century, offers a good example of what reading the Psalms with the Church should look like. If you read Jason Byassee’s Praise Seeking Understanding in tandem with one of Augustine’s volumes, you’ll be on your way toward a more positive sort of Biblicism.