The Acid of Biblicism

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I recently had an interaction on Twitter with another evangelical Christian about whether human life begins at conception. My interlocutor argued that since the Bible did not explicitly state that it does, the question should be left to individual Christian consciences. What struck me was not so much the issue at hand, important though it is, but the methodology that my interlocutor employed, namely biblicism. First, I was required to give an explicit statement from Scripture to make my argument and second, any inferential and deductive reasoning from Scripture was disallowed, let alone any appeal to any kind of Christian tradition. I suspect the motive for using such a method, in this case, was entirely wholesome: to ensure that we submit to God’s word and God’s word alone. However, as the argument progressed, it was pressed home to me how destructive biblicism is and what a problem its grip on the British evangelical mind has become.

First, biblicism is an acid in which no aspect of Christian orthodoxy, whether ethical or doctrinal, can long survive. This is because at the heart of biblicism is scepticism. Does the Bible really say that? Explicitly? So clearly that there is no room for doubt? Initially, this might raise doubts about what might be regarded as peripheral and harmless issues, perhaps particular redemption or the application of the fourth commandment. But the biblicist method, consistently applied, cannot stop there. Before long, questions much more central to Christian orthodoxy come under suspicious gaze of the biblicist eye. Perhaps the perseverance of the saints might be next or Chalcedonian Christology and before too long it might be the divinity of Christ himself. After all, did Jesus really explicitly say that he was homoousious with the Father, asks the Arian. Prove it to me.I am not suggesting, of course, that everyone with biblicist tendencies is a proto-heretic. What I am arguing, though, is that consistently applied, biblicism cannot generate or sustain Christian orthodoxy. That means, ironically, that far from amplifying its authority, biblicism renders the Scriptures mute. Someone who is heard only when they speak without room for misunderstanding will never be heard at all. The bar for what counts as ‘explicit’ can always be raised higher until virtually no statement can clear it.

The second reason why biblicism is so dangerous is that it creates space for manipulative leaders. This is because the criteria for what is really ‘explicit’ in the Bible is always arbitrary and therefore able to be defined, and redefined, by teachers and leaders with forceful personalities. For instance, I recently heard one influential preacher state that, the ‘Bible writers are our theologians’ and that we should be ‘second-generation Christians’ implying, presumably, that we should depreciate the views of all other theologians and generations of Christians. The problem with such advice is that it does not so much put the Bible in your hands as you into theirs. For who else but the ‘Bible teacher’ can tell you when and how the Bible is being so ‘explicit’ that you should listen to it? Cut off from the voices of other theologians and other generations we have little way of knowing whether their reading of Scripture is orthodox or eccentric. This is why contemporary conservative evangelicalism is such a bizarre mix of commitments, often wildly out of step with the way previous generations have understood the concerns of Scripture.  We are absolutely sure that the Bible clearly teaches one way to preach (not the way the Puritans or Spurgeon did it) but rather agnostic about the trinitarian relations or the nature of the Lord’s Supper. The reason is that, rather than reading the Bible in the light of hundreds of generations of Christian reflection, we read it in the light of the concerns of a few influential individuals. This, in turn, gives those individuals tremendous power.

In a very perceptive Twitter thread, the theologian Grant Macaskill noted that in biblicist cultures,‘leaders become “brokers” of “sound biblical teaching” that is unaware of just how modern it is, and how little it preserves of the theology of its own heritage.’They have, Macaskill notes, ‘social capital to wield over their flocks’ which means, he goes on, ‘diminished theology (creates) an environment in which manipulation and abuse can thrive’. I am not saying for a moment that every biblicist is a manipulator; many who promote such thinking are godly, if misguided, men and women. But just as mould grows in a warm, moist room, so manipulative bullies can flourish in a culture gripped by the tenets of biblicism. Of course, such is the depth of sin in the human heart, no theology or culture is invulnerable to abuse but as Grant Macaskill says, ‘the experience of manipulative and abusive leadership often emerges with imbalanced and diminished theologies.’

Biblicism, therefore, erodes everything it touches. No doctrine, no ethical principle is safe from its corrosive effect, for all Christian doctrinal and ethical orthodoxy depends on a pattern of sound judgement that cannot be reduced to extracting the ‘explicit’ statements of Scripture. This is why the recent discussion about biblical hermeneutics, abstract and esoteric though it may seem, is actually of the deepest significance. The question it raises, beneath all the complicated terminology, is this: will we maintain the faith once delivered to the saints or will we embrace a methodology that   disolves it? Grant Macaskill comments that ‘Much (not all) contemporary evangelicalism is at once theologically diminished and theologically smug’. Hard words to hear, perhaps, but ones that bear careful reflection. My growing conviction is that the root of the problem Macaskill identifies is our biblicism and while we continue to let it grow, we will continue to eat of its bitter fruit.

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