The Problem with Biblicism 1

When I was researching why it was that evangelical Christians moved over to Roman Catholicism I encountered what I still think is a good logical argument: that those who believe in supporting all arguments from Scripture can’t support that view on the basis of the Bible. It’s a good case for desconstruction. The evangelical, or radical Protestant, view of the Bible, in other words, is not without its problems.

Christian Smith challenges those who anchor their faith in the Bible, and the Bible alone, to run the gauntlet by pushing them to examine the course they run and the pushbacks they get. His new book, and today’s post is a foretaste of the series coming soon, is called Bible Made Impossible, The: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture. I believe this book is the biggest challenge evangelicalism has to face, and I mean honestly face. In essence, he argues that what we believe about the Bible (biblicism) is undermined by how we actually read the Bible and how we practice the Bible. (The art work on the dust cover is brilliant.)

His argument will look a bit like this: the problem is called biblicism (defined below).

1. He sees biblicism in evangelicalism (not all of it) and in most charismatic and Pentecostal Christianity.
2. Biblicism involves belief in the Bible’s exclusive authority, infallibility, perspicuity, self-sufficiency, internal consistency, self-evident meaning, and universal applicability.
3. Liberalism is the corrosion of historic orthodoxy and is intellectually naive and susceptible to some reprehensible social and political expressions, but opposing liberalism — which Smith does — does not lead to or require biblicism. There are other alternatives.
4. What ultimately defeats biblicism is “pervasive interpretive pluralism.” The Bible says and teaches different things — if you listen to biblicists carefully — about most significant topics. It is, he argues, meaningless to talk about the inerrancy of the text if the interpretation of that text is up for grabs.

5. His goal is to become more evangelical, not less, in approach to Scripture.
6. Christian Smith, a notable Christian sociologist, has become a Roman Catholic, but he wrote this book before that move took place. He had these problems with evangelicalism before he became Catholic, but these problems are part of the reason he became Catholic.

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  • Outrageously good post Scot…looking forward to your series. I pre-ordered the book. Dr. Smith’s work with adolescents was ground-breaking and STILL being utilized by honest leaders as a contextual “read” of youth culture and how the organized church is not “producing” disciples of Jesus but “moralistic therapeutic deists.” So, I look forward to your take on the book and reading it myself. The Bible as idol is a serious issue as one faces a mission-driven, Kingdom lifestyle. Many of those “sojourners” in life have questions about the bible that cannot be “dogmatically” or “modernistically” argued. You just can’t rely on “well, the bible says it” type of praxis…a follower of Jesus (Jesus Creed-er) must have a view of scripture that has been “seasoned” by love, the fruit of the Spirit, wisdom, in-depth knowledge/experience with the text, etc. For others who are reading this comment, Scot’s Blue Parakeet book is one of those “must reads” in having a mature but God-honoring perspective on scripture. Anyway, I’ll be following buddy…

  • Paul W

    I’ll be interested in seeing how #5 gets teased out. I’ve gotten the impression that Evangelicals sometimes view themselves as having a distinctive approach/relationship to Scripture but I wouldn’t be able to articulated what it looks like.

  • angusj

    It is, he argues, meaningless to talk about the inerrancy of the text if the interpretation of that text is up for grabs.
    Amen to that!

  • superb post, thanks Scott.

  • Rick

    “5. His goal is to become more evangelical, not less, in approach to Scripture.
    6. Christian Smith…has become a Roman Catholic..these problems are part of the reason he became Catholic.”

    So he ended up not buying into his idea of becoming “more evangelical…in approach to Scripture? His solution was to abandon evangelicalism?

    I am really looking forward to this series, but there is a sense of having interesting thoughts from a scholar who, rather than taking them further, ended up not utilizing them.

  • DanS

    Sounds to me like #4 is an exaggeration. Evangelicals generally do agree with the rest of Christianity about the creedal essentials (Trinity, Christology). Evangelicals are largely in agreement with Protestantism about soteriology, but disagree with Rome on significant details (the Mass as a sacrifice for sins, definition and importance of grace, role of faith vs role of sacramental acts). Evangelicals strongly disagree with some aspects of Catholicism that seem to be totally dependent on tradition and not found in scripture at all (immaculate conception, papal infallibility) which I cite only to point out the centrality of scripture in the rejection of those dogmas.

    The point being, the “pervasive interpretive pluralism” is mostly about peripheral issues that have nothing to do with the nature of God, Christ or the basic story of salvation.

    Inerrancy seems to me to be unrelated to the issue differing interpretations. Asserting Paul wrote the truth is not in any way connected to whether we understand him fully. I seem to recall Augustine making such a point, that scripture has a uniqueness to itself, and that subsequent writings (including his own) are for edification only, are fallible and not binding on the believer.

    Which is not to say there are no problems with division over side issues, but we can overreact to that and not see that there are matters in scripture that are fairly clear and substantial agreement about them.

  • Jason Lee

    Rick #5: I’ve not read the book, but note that the post says “5. His goal is to become more evangelical, not less, in approach to Scripture.” It doesn’t say “more evangelical Protestant.” Smith might be using “evangelical” in a more expansive way.

  • rjs

    Looks like I’ll have to add this book to my library. Are you going to wait on the rest of the series until the book is out?

    My take (and it would take much more space to flesh it out): Authority doesn’t rest in scripture, and it doesn’t rest in institutional hierarchy. It rests solely with God and has been given to Jesus. Scripture and church (tradition) through the power of the Spirit illuminate our understanding of God.

    If we look for, and expect to find, absolute authority anywhere other than God we will be disappointed.

  • Scot McKnight

    rjs, yes I’ll wait but I got the book already which means it should be at Amazon soon.

  • Scott Eaton

    I’m really looking forward to this!

  • T

    This is interesting, especially in light of dopderbeck’s comments in the recent post on church. The moves to Catholicism really don’t make much sense to me, but issues around ‘unity’ (often weakly defined, IMO) and ‘authority’ seem to be the recurring issues for folks who make the move. FWIW, I don’t say that the moves don’t make sense and mean that I am deeply opposed to the move for myself or others. It’s honestly that the issues often driving the move (concluding that Church, not Book, is the real ‘top’ authority, etc.) just don’t grip me with much urgency. With rjs, I tend to think that a solid increase of Christology is key.

  • Sounds like a must read. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.

  • keo

    #4 is crucial. “Interpretive pluralism” is what I was getting at when we discussed Wesley’s quadrilateral. We can say that Scripture is “primary,” but this is only true as a posture or an ideal. The reality is that the same Bible doesn’t say the same things to all those who revere and respect it. Therefore, the “primacy” of Scripture is really the primacy of what we think Scripture means or the primacy of wanting Scripture to be authoritative in our lives.

    DanS @6 Are you forgetting baptism and the Lord’s supper? They may “have nothing to do with the nature of God, Christ or the basic story of salvation” as you say, but many Protestants think these are critically important; agreement on what they mean or how they are to be practiced, however, are points of extreme disagreement between Protestant denominations.

  • Really looking forward to this series!! Now to find some extra change to get this book…

  • Amos Paul


    Amen to that. I was just quoting some of Jesus’ own statements in John and Matthew along those lines.

    That being said, I DO believe that the church is called to critically understand and develop theology. Growing in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ is a dynamic and personal thing for every believer, but as a community we are to extend that mission as a group to encourage and sharpen one another.

    Paul tells us that Scripture is good for teaching and Jesus says that it points to Him. So Scripture illuminates Christ and God’s character. It is not Gods Word itself, but written words that POINT to and illuminate God’s Word (think John 1 here). Therefore we regard it as primary in understanding God in that any of our theologies we discuss should be grounded in it.

    I’m fine with tradition being a lens (or perspective) to look at Scripture through and develop theology therein, but I think we have a serious problem when tradition doesn’t seem to be looking at Scripture at all.

  • Alan K

    T #11: Most evangelicals that become Catholic do so because of ecclesiology–they become convinced of the reality of the Roman Catholic church and/or they doubt the reality of the Protestant church.

  • Ron Newberry

    Looking forward to the discussion. I know some biblclist who act as if they have a Bible and follow it to the letter, they really don’t need Jesus. Their trinity is Father, Son and Holy Scripture.

  • JohnM

    Is the definition of biblicism in point #2 THE definition or would others define it differently?

    Is it really necessary or helpful to the discussion to insert a reference to inerrancy (point #4)? I’m not arguing for or against here, but the inerrancy debate per se is not what this is about.

    Jason #7 not withstanding, The debate is pretty much within Protestanism and I think for Roman Catholics the issue is moot. No resentment or hostility on my part, but Smith made his choice, and for me it does take a little wind out of the sails of his argument.

  • scotmcknight

    JohnM, in my next post I’ll give a more complete view of biblicism, but these factors come from Smith’s opening introduction.

  • John W Frye

    That inerrancy as a theological theory still has a life is truly amazing. First, evangelicals claim that inerrancy applies only to the “original autographs” which do not exist to anyone’s knowledge. All we have are copies of copies of (errant) manuscripts. Second, as mentioned above, the same supposed ‘inerrant’ text means five different things depending on the interpreting communities, and varied practices in the church flow from the interpretations. I still think inerrancy serves as a prop so that a group can say “We have the ‘biblical’ views on X, Y, and Z.” What is inerrant in the minds of its proponents are their particular slants on a text.

  • Scot, I pre-ordered this some months ago but thought it wasn’t out until next month. Are you working from a pre-pub?

  • Mijk V

    Will this book find an audience with biblicists, or will its readers already be sympathetic toward this kind of discussion?
    D. H. Williams has been beating this drum for over a decade with multiple volumes, yet I have not seen a single response from a biblicist perspective.
    Whereas Williams has remained Baptist and yet still struggles to reach his intended audience, Smith is now RC. I imagine this will only afford biblicists yet another reason to, albeit unreasonably, ignore these important ideas.

  • dopderbeck

    I’m looking forward to this one. This book and Chris’ “95 theses” book on his journey to Catholicism, taken together, are a real challenge from a first-rate Christian thinker.

  • Rick

    Jason Lee #7-

    You are probably right. Thanks.

    From the post: “Biblicism involves belief in the Bible’s exclusive authority, infallibility, perspicuity, self-sufficiency, internal consistency, self-evident meaning, and universal applicability.”

    When looking at biblicists, we must understand their presupposition: God is trustworthy. Therefore, since God uses Scripture as a primary source of revelation, it must be trustworthy as well. Also, as Trinitarians, they see that trustworthiness as fully possible.

    So to them, if there is a problem (such as #4), it is an “us” problem, rather than a “it” or “Him” problem.

    People such as Scot, Oden, Wright, and apparently Smith are seeking is a third way to look at the issue(s).

  • Scot McKnight

    Peter G, I’ve got the real thing.

  • I can’t wait to get my hands on this book and look forward to the series here.

  • Luke Allison

    John W Frye # 20:

    I really appreciate everything you have to say on this blog, so this isn’t meant to be disrespectful or even crusty.


    Have you ever read any books on the theological theory of inerrancy? It’s a pretty complicated idea, not nearly as simple as “My view is the right view”, or “the Bible says it, so it’s right.” That may be the more “folksy” understanding of inerrancy, but that’s certainly not what the scholarly understanding has been.

    The question isn’t “is inerrancy true”, but rather “what does inerrancy mean”?
    To that end, the main questions we should always be continually addressing are the same ones interpreters have always tried to address, like “What is the relationship between the Old and the New?” I guarantee you the average evangelical has not a clue how to answer that one.
    Or how about: “When do I take this literally?” Simple, plain meanings should not be complicated, and complex apocalyptic passages should not be made easy.
    Or what about contextual questions?
    What about “Does Scripture interpret Scripture, and if so, how does context affect it?”
    Or how about the meaning or understanding of “Progressive Revelation”? Not going to have that conversation with most church-going folks.

    The list goes on and on…but, I believe it’s a beneficial list to teach and discuss within our individual local contexts.

    The fact of the matter is that the average evangelical congregation seems to be doing nothing of the sort, although there are signs of hope here and there.

    So is trashing a beautiful and complex theory really the key? Or is actually teaching it in a way that is winsome and accessible the solution? I’m leaning towards the latter in my own context.

    Now, don’t get my wrong, I recognize that the “doctrine of inerrancy” is not an explicitly Biblical idea. But I believe early Church history would indicate that written Scripture as authoritative prophetic utterance was hardly a foreign concept to the people of God.

    Jesus’ view of the Law and the Prophets, of course, was exceptionally high.

    So what am I saying? Inerrancy is good, just maybe not in some of its less informed varieties.

  • Vince

    Post #11 T: Just wanted to clear up, that since the doctrine of the Catholic Church regards Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition as complimentary and coequal to each other in the revelation of Christian faith, a convert to Catholic Christianity does not conclude “that Church, not Book, is the real ‘top’ authority, etc.”

    Also wanted to bump what keo had to say: Are you forgetting baptism and the Lord’s supper? They may “have nothing to do with the nature of God, Christ or the basic story of salvation” as you say, but many Protestants think these are critically important; agreement on what they mean or how they are to be practiced, however, are points of extreme disagreement between Protestant denominations.

    As others have brought up, many of us do think it is of vital importance to pledge allegiance to ONE Lord Jesus Christ, ONE Church, Under God, Indivisible. We do not think it is wrong to be concerned that there are tens of thousands of denominations each claiming they have the truth of the same book.

    God Bless

  • Dans

    Keo #13. Baptism and Lord’s supper are huge issues, but the disagreement among protestants are around the edges. I mentioned the sacrificial implications of the medieval view of the Eucharist, which protestants pretty universally rejected, but I think it accurate to say almost no one stopped practicing communion altogether – all agree it is still clearly commanded in scripture. Again, the disagreements, though real, can be exaggerated to make it appear there is no common ground at all.

    And for that matter, I’ve seen just as much disagreement within the RCC tradition and far worse wild speculation in the mainline than the fragmentation in conservative evangelicalism. It is somewhat hidden in the RCC because of a singular structure, but I think you’ll find wilder theological ideas at Catholic colleges than you’ll ever find in most evangelical settings, including questioning of Creedal statements.

    I think the problem, for those who might get labeled “biblicist” is humans easily get carried off by speculations and it is a belief in an authoritative text that can pull us back. “Always reforming” does not mean always changing – accepting change in any direction without reference to a standard. “Canon” has to mean there is something in the text that is clear enough to anchor us. So there can be disagreement within boundaries, but still there are boundaries. In the end, the question an Evangelical Protestant prior to the last decade or two would ask is simply “where is it written?”. And I think that is the same question the church fathers asked for the most part. I fear we are losing that anchor and evangelicalism is, like the mainline, flying apart and floating untethered in space. So I guess I’m a biblicist.

  • Luke Allison

    Near as I can tell, everyone on here is a biblicist. Since the clearest understanding of Jesus’ teaching is given in the Gospels, are any of us getting away with saying we don’t hold to Scripture as inerrant in some sense?

    Everyone is an interpreter, everyone uses hermeneutics, and everyone is assuming some kind of authority when they make any “ought” statements based on what they read in the Gospels. But Jesus of course didn’t write the Gospels in the purest sense of the word. So why does the Sermon on the Mount have any more authority than any of the other Early Apostolic documents?

    Really, I think this argument always comes down to what parts of the Bible we hold to be inerrant based on how much we naturally agree with and/or appreciate them.

  • T

    Alan K (16),

    I think you are right, but it seems that a central part of the ecclesiology that matters to the folks who make that change is the authority of the Church. I’m not trying to be too specific here; I’ve just not had folks I’ve known that became Catholic mention much of the Catholic distinctives other than the RCC’s age and a belief, relatedly, that the RCC’s leadership has authority in some special and necessary way for their faith. I personally tend to think such bible vs. church comparisons are a bit like asking whether the chicken or the egg came first, and miss the real purpose of both.

  • “It is, he argues, meaningless to talk about the inerrancy of the text if the interpretation of that text is up for grabs.”

    I’ve been telling people that for some time, and they always seem to look at me like I’m crazy.

  • keo

    Dans @29 — You say “the disagreement among protestants are around the edges,” but these edges mean that some Protestants won’t take communion with others. Predestination and free will is another example, and who goes to hell — or what hell is. That example even colors “the basic story of salvation,” as does the relationship between salvation and speaking in tongues for some groups. And then there’s “common ground” on what the Bible says about the creation account, and homosexuality, and women’s roles, and what the entire book of Revelation means, etc. Yes, Jesus and some creedal formulations, but I really don’t think it goes much past that in any detailed sense. Out to where most people actually live, for example.

    What is “clear enough to anchor us” may be little more than our common understanding of our need for a savior and God’s provision through the death and resurrection of his son, Jesus. And a conviction that the Bible is somehow authoritative — even though most of us must be significantly wrong on almost all of the particulars. A belief that “Where is it written?” is still a good question, even if we don’t agree with each other on the answer.

  • beakerj

    This looks like a great book to review Scot. I’m just reading your book The Blue Parakeet & loving it.

    I’ve realised that this isssue of how we interpret the Bible & the fact that people interpret in different ways underlies many of my current questions about God, following the almost total collapse of reasonable certainty about the meaning of words describing God’s character during my Mother’s recent death. I am woefully under-educated about hermeneutics (& epistemology of language) & yet painfully aware that these issues have the weight of infinity & eternity on them. Not a good combination.

    Can you recommend 2 or 3 decent foundational books on these issues that can help get me up to speed? I have no theological education, but am a Graduate in other areas. Words are my friends in every other area of my life, & I’m determined to crack this in theology too.

    Incidentally, my (British) church also has the issue of ‘inerrancy’ as a condition of membership, which I disagree with & has prevented my husband joining our church & therefore being able to lead anything. We are quite influenced by the US though, having originally grown out of L’Abri.


  • Terry

    I agree with angusj, and others, this is worthy of an amen. Indeed, this to me seems nearly always conflated into one issue, and of primary import in working towards an eventual solution: “It is, he argues, meaningless to talk about the inerrancy of the text if the interpretation of that text is up for grabs.”

  • Patrick

    My question is what is a non Biblicist Christian?

    Do they see other venues as having more importance in explaining who Jesus is and why we should believe He is God and what He wants of us than the Bible?

    My Catholic friends have the same esteem for the Bible as I do, they just think God can affect us in other ways than just reading it. I am not a Catholic and I agree with that.

  • Jacob S

    Rick 24: It’s not an issue of whether or not Scripture can be trusted, but whether or not we can be trusted, as individuals, to read it. (As you say, an “us” problem).

    Empirically, the answer is no. If we could be, we wouldn’t mess it up all the time, and a lot of must necessarily be messing it up all the time.

    The question is: what does the trustworthiness of Scripture mean if its readers are lacking in it? What, in essence, does actually matter whether or not the truth is contained in Scripture, to me, if I am not capable of finding it there? You could say that these questions are a bit self centered, and they are, but given that Scripture was written for believers and not for its own sake they’re still valid questions.

  • AHH

    beakerj @34,
    Scot will I’m sure have his own recommendations (as may others), but I think a great place to start for a healthy approach to Scripture is N.T. Wright’s Scripture and the Authority of God.
    If you want to get into more detail after reading that, I think Kenton Sparks’ God’s Words in Human Words is worthwhile, but it isn’t an easy read.

  • DanS

    Keo 33. In earlier centuries unbelievers were not allowed to even stay for the communion service, not because the Christians were unloving, but because they took communion so seriously. I like a more open communion to a point, but I respect those who have a closed communion more than those who open it up to virtually anyone, as is common in some mainline experiments. I was once Catholic. Am I unloving if I don’t go to communion at a Catholic church because of a conviction that Christ’s sacrifice is once for all and the “sacrificial” elements of Catholic theology violate my conscience? Does that mean I hate Catholics or that I don’t agree that the Lord’s supper is a command of Christ and a vital part of Christian worship?

    I’ve personally never been in a church that didn’t leave room for both Calvinist and Arminian views, and I’ve attended very conservative churches. I heard pretty much the same doctrine of Hell for all of my 50+ years from when I was a Catholic as a child to an Evangelical as and adult and from my acquaintances in Lutheran, Presbyterian and Anglican circles. Seems like the “divisions” over that issue are fairly recent, and the controversey was not started by the “biblicists”.

    Creation: Augustine’s “City of God” pretty much lays out a YEC view, though he didn’t hold to a 24 hour day. Not sure there was any widespread questioning of the historicity of Genesis prior to the modern era, though must saw it as more than bare history. Again, wrong to blame the biblicists – they weren’t the ones introducing a contrary view. Homosexuality? 3400 years of general agreement in Judaism and Christianity, and now the biblicists are to blame for controversy?

    Not saying there aren’t problems in the Biblicist camp, only saying that in my experience they are worse outside the camp. Biblicists have an objective written standard they imperfectly appeal to, which to me is preferable to appealing to the shifting waves of contemporary thought.

    Rick 37: “What, in essence, does actually matter whether or not the truth is contained in Scripture, to me, if I am not capable of finding it there?” Again, I think that overstates the problem. If I don’t recall every detail of a book, it does not follow that I know nothing of the story or of the author’s intent. There is a difference between understanding in part and understanding nothing. We cannot know perfectly, but we can know substantially – and on a few central issues, there is a lot more consensus in interpretation than we sometimes think.

  • Jeremy

    I am a little bit wary of Christian Smith delving into a subject matter that is not his area of expertise, but if I am going to respond on a blog with no expertise at all, I guess he is OK.

    “What ultimately defeats biblicism is “pervasive interpretive pluralism.” The Bible says and teaches different things — if you listen to biblicists carefully — about most significant topics. It is, he argues, meaningless to talk about the inerrancy of the text if the interpretation of that text is up for grabs.
    5. His goal is to become more evangelical, not less, in approach to Scripture.”

    “If you listen to biblicists carefully.” Does he mean that biblicists come to different interpretative conclusions? I don’t see how that really is a strong critique against biblicism. Sure biblicists have different interpretations, but it is likely that someone is wrong or that there interpretations can all be partly correct. But that seems to be a very weak critique. In addition, evangelical scholars have dealt with this point already. I wonder if he interacts with Kevin Vanhoozer at all.

    What does he mean by “become more evangelical” if his whole point seems to be that most evangelicals are biblicists?

  • scotmcknight

    beakerj, what AHH said … good place to start.

  • DRT

    This looks like a must read for me.

    I have significant issues with the wording, and concept of number 5. More evangelical? I guess I still don’t get that concept and should probably listen to Dad and go back to the Catholics…..

  • Adam

    Luke #30

    “Really, I think this argument always comes down to what parts of the Bible we hold to be inerrant based on how much we naturally agree with and/or appreciate them.”

    I agree with that statement but there are too many inerrantists who say they believe “the whole bible” while doing exactly as you say which is NOT believe “the whole bible”.

    The claim to inerrancy is almost always followed by a claim of perfect interpretation.

  • I find it interesting that few of the comments so far have really addressed the two biggest problems with Biblicism. I wrote about them here:

  • Scot,

    A quick thought: I’ve been listening to a church history course on my commute, and I think it has lots to say about this issue.

    Specifically, pluralism isn’t the problem with biblicism. It’s simply part and parcel of the experience. But in the past after all the arguments and debates, one side won and carted the rest off to jail. Especially the closer we get to the modern day.

    Sola scriptura may have led to chaos, but the other choice was frequently a papal police state.

  • John W Frye

    @ 27 Luke Allison,
    I appreciate your comment and push back, but after your “But” in comment 27, all the issues you listed are related to hermeneutics, not inerrancy as a theological construct.

  • John W Frye

    Luke @ 30 and Adam @ 43,
    Adam nailed it with this line: “The claim to inerrancy is almost always followed by a claim of perfect interpretation.”

  • Luke Allison

    Adam #43

    “The claim to inerrancy is almost always followed by a claim of perfect interpretation”

    Honestly, I must be hanging around in different circles than you. I grew up in the Word of Faith denomination, where the Bible is twisted and formed to fit whatever situation a given individual may be experiencing, but even most of them had some room for “I don’t know” here and there.

    The Church I’m currently employed at is possibly the most theologically generous place I’ve ever seen. Sometimes maddeningly so.

    I guess I’d be interested to hear what specific examples you have of this kind of interpretation. What issues do preachers who claim “perfect interpretation” tend to bring out the big guns over?

    I tend to fall back to Carl FH Henry’s statement: “There are two kinds of presuppositionalists; those who admit it, and those who don’t.”

    Knowing that we all bring presuppositions, those of us who teach must strive to remove them as best as possible.

    I don’t think that humility is the ultimate virtue when it comes to teaching anyway. GK Chesterton once said that “Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction where it was never meant to be…Nowadays, the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not assert-himself.”

    I think we should doubt ourselves but trust the text to the extent that we can understand it. That last part of the sentence is key. Do we want to understand it? Are we doing anything to help ourselves understand it better? Are we studying it for the purpose of disproving it, or for the purpose of knowing God better? Are we studying it to prove our own presuppositions, or to find out what it means? All these questions count. Very few of them get asked in Christian circles.

  • Luke Allison

    John W Frye #46

    “all the issues you listed are related to hermeneutics, not inerrancy as a theological construct”

    I guess I wonder then why any of us bother with hermeneutics if we don’t assume inerrancy? I’m reading Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen, and it’s stunningly rich and complex. But I’m not going to give my life over to its study. As a matter of fact, if the whole series ended tomorrow with the authors’ death, I’d feel sad for a few hours and then move on with life.

    I guess it all comes down to what inerrancy actually means. My experience is that the average Christian (new or veteran) isn’t entirely sure of an exact answer to that question. But they operate under a presupposition that what they’re reading is trustworthy, because they believe God is trustworthy. Of course, the only reason they believe that is because the Scriptures testify to it. And the cycle begins.

    There’s a good chance I don’t understand anything of what you’re trying to say. Could you clarify what exactly your main contention is with the theological construct of inerrancy? Is it the man-made formulation of a “doctrine” being treated as infallible?

  • rjs


    I think we bother with study and hermeneutics because we assume inspiration.

    But inspiration does not mean anything like the “modern” view of inerrancy. Inerrancy as a theological construct is man-made and inconsistent with form of the scripture we have and the way scripture uses scripture.

  • Luke Allison

    “But inspiration does not mean anything like the “modern” view of inerrancy”

    Which is? I’m only asking so that we’re all on the same page. I don’t find much in the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy, for instance, that I disagree with. Actually, it perfectly matches what just about every believer I know presupposes when they read the Bible.

  • John W Frye

    @ 51 Luke,
    The Chicago Statement on Inerrancy states, “We affirm that inspiration was the work in which God by His Spirit, through human writers, gave us His Word. The origin of Scripture is divine. The mode of divine inspiration remains largely a mystery to us.” And then later, “We affirm that the doctrine of inerrancy is grounded in the teaching of the Bible about inspiration.” See any problems?

    “Inerrancy is grounded in inspiration.” And the “mode of inspiration is largely a mystery to us.” Inerrancy is a theological construct based on logical inferences about the “perfect” nature of God. What inerrancy wants to do is imposed the authority of the Triune God onto the Bible. Those of who wonder about inerrancy do not deny its existence as a construct, but we wonder about what good it does since we do not have the original autographs nor do we have inerrant interpretations. We also do not believe it is wise to transfer divine authority from the Person of God to the books from God. Yes, the Bible is revelation, inspired by God and useful and a trustworthy basis for faith and practice. The Words of Scripture have authority only because behind them is the Living Voice of God. We have no inerrant Bibles, yet the Spirit, *the Spirit* still uses Scripture working in and through a believing community to convert people to Christ and to conform the church increasingly into the “image of Christ.”

  • beakerj

    Thanks AHH & Scot, I’ll start there.

  • keo

    DanS @39 — We might be missing each other here. My original point was agreeing that the Bible’s “self-evident meaning” (biblicism defined, #2) is contradicted by the church’s many disagreements *throughout* history, not just in recent postmodern days. I’m not targeting Evangelicals.

    You said that, “‘pervasive interpretive pluralism’ is mostly about peripheral issues that have nothing to do with the nature of God, Christ or the basic story of salvation.”

    And I’m saying that Calvinism / Arminianism / Universal Reconciliation; baptism / persecution of Anabaptists; the sacrament of communion; doctrines of hell (The Eastern Orthodoxy Church has disagreed for 1500 years with Augustine’s version that you inherited); etc., with all their significant differences, are not peripheral issues or recent disagreements. Christians have hated and killed each other for some of these disagreements, belying the “peripheral” label. And some of these differences DO relate to our understanding of salvation, its means, its scope, and its consequences. Your 50+ years of experience aside, there’s been a lot of disagreement in the church, worldwide and through the last two millennia. If biblicism is right, then we should see less disagreement — whether great or small — in our understanding of the “self-evident meaning” of the Bible.

    And sure, we’d be worse off without the Bible. That wasn’t my point.

  • Don Johnson

    I see the ideas of inerrancy and perspicuity being an over reaction by prots to the lack of a Church Magisterium as the Catholics and Orthodox claim to have. So the criticism is appropriate.

  • Luke Allison

    John W Frye,

    “Inerrancy is grounded in inspiration.” And the “mode of inspiration is largely a mystery to us.”

    The Chicago Statement backs itself up on these ideas: “We affirm that God in His Work of inspiration utilized the distinctive personalities and literary styles of the writers whom He had chosen and prepared.
    We deny that God, in causing these writers to use the very words that He chose, overrode their

    I don’t think that grounding inerrancy in the “mystery” of inspiration invalidates the concept of inerrancy at all.If anything, it reminds us that we’re dealing with an intelligence and a power we should rightly stand in awe of.

    It seems as if you’re articulating a Barthian theory of Biblical revelation…that is, a circular “royal act” scenario between Scripture’s inception in the past and its reception in the present. Do you see the doctrine of inerrancy as an attempt at a “second incarnation” of sorts?

    Is there any sense in which human language can become a reasonable means for God’s revelation despite human innate fallibility?

    Sorry for all the questions. I’m attempting to learn, not to crow.

  • DuWayne Lee

    I hope Mr. Smith is prepared to defend the divine institution of the Papacy which is central to the Roman Catholic claim to be the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic church founded by Jesus Christ. I believe that that defending the divine institution of the Papacy faces insurmountable biblical and historical problems

  • Patrick

    NT Wright reveres the Scriptures as much as I do. So, what is a non Biblicist? Is NT Wright one?

    I’ve attended conferences with NT Wright speaking and every word he spoke was teaching what God wants us to know from the Scriptures as he saw it.

    I remain befuddled about this discussion.

    What does a “Non Biblicist Christian” think about the Bible?

  • rjs


    Have you read Wright’s book “Scripture and the Authority of God” (which is a revision of his earlier book published in the US as The Last Word, but with a different title I think in the UK)?

    Wright certainly reveres scripture – but he is not a Biblicist. Reading Wright’s books (actually his big three) was pivotal for me because he models a faith that takes scripture seriously, but doesn’t found it on a view of scripture I had come to find very troublesome.

  • Patrick


    I read “Resurrection of the Son of God” and the “Last Word” book. BTW, Bishop Wright was embarrassed by that title he said in Nashville the publishers used that title over here w/o telling him first.

    Let me describe how I see the Bible and you tell me how I fit in


    I believe it is a collection of writings God animated those people to write to document specific info.

    Is it infallible? I think the papyri they wrote it on was, I think what we have is reasonably close and using various comparative textual techniques especially for the NT we can know about what they wrote IF we study the ancient culture and languages they emanated from, maintain contextual discipline, etc.

    W/O the isagogics, we might be casting our culture onto their views. I was guilty of that for a long while.

    Basically, I would not believe a comment someone made that seemed to contradict a clear Scripture. Example, you tell me Jesus is a ghost, I say you’re wrong.

  • rjs


    But what do you mean by infallible? That is the first important point. Did the original writers err? Did they convey errant cosmology and biology because that was the cosmology and biology of their culture and the best they knew? What room is there for that kind of simple difference in culture?

    What do you see as ultimate authority and how does the Bible fit in with that authority?

  • Patrick


    First, thanks for being patient with me. I am quite interested in accurizing my understanding of God very much and I do come from a fundy background, I’m a work in progress for sure.

    When I use the term “inerrant”, I mean in the sense that what was documented is to be understood as exactly what God wanted them to transmit, yet, we must discover their cultural views to get the point, we cannot assume Moses or Paul had western post enlightenment life views.

    Example, Genesis chapter 1&2 almost certainly are not God telling us about initial material creation because we can know the ancient near eastern people did not think of creation as we do. I’m a big fan of Professor John Walton for example in his work on ancient near eastern thinking.

    However, I still see Genesis 1&2 as God telling us about initial functional creation as those folks saw it. This makes more logic anyway to me, it leaves room for dinosaurs a billion years ahead of us, it can leave room for evolution if that theory is fact based,etc.

    To the other questions, did the authors err on biology,science,etc? YES!!!!

    God did not give Joshua a science education when Joshua said the sun stopped for example. What is inerrant is the spiritual import, not biology,science,etc. IMO, there is not 1 word of science in the Bible.

    As far as I can tell, the only thing God transmitted to these ancient folks that caused their thinking in the “secular world” to go beyond their neighbor’s ability were the Levitical dietary laws and the health laws which did cause the ancient Jews to be healthier than their neighbors if they were observant.

    Ultimate authority with me rests in the Bible, BUT, I do not and never did agree with Sola Scriptura.

    I had a huge life changing experience outside of the Bible for example, God removed racism from my heart in 1 moment when I was a youngster. Looking at photos of dead black Marines from Vietnam.

    That is in consonance with the teaching of Scripture.

    Now, if I have an dream experience or if one says, “Jesus was a ghost” I compare that to Scripture and reject that.

    I also believe God uses unbelievers to effect good. For example, the separation of church&state idea IMO fits into Christ’s intent for His Church, yet, we weren’t avid enough for it historically and it took some unbelievers from the enlightenment thinking view to help create a society like ours with some assistance from wiser believers.

    I encourage you to feel comfortable correcting any of these views or making suggestions.

  • Charlie O

    My copy of “The Bible Made Impossible” arrived today. After reading the introduction and chapter 1, I am deeply affected by the clarity and persuasiveness of Christian’s concern. He has crystalized a vague but growing uneasiness I have had, but did not know the terminology for: pervasive interpretive pluralism.