Too Much Bible?

Evangelicals have long been dismissed by Catholics, Orthodox, and confessional or mainline Protestants as “biblicists.” Evangelicals are still being dismissed as biblicists these days, but more often than in the past the charge comes from others within the broadly Evangelical world.

It’s not always clear what’s being condemned when biblicism is condemned. Christian Smith at least has a precise definition: A biblicist is someone who believes the Bible is God’s word and therefore has divine authority, that its plain sense is clear to every “reasonably intelligent” reader, that it covers everything Christians need to know, and covers everything in such a way that it is possible to construct a “handbook” on nearly any topic.

Others seem to use it more generally to refer to a way of doing theology that more or less ignores the historical and systematic theology, much less philosophical, and attempts to answer theological questions with the “Bible alone.”

Anti-biblicists are right that “Bible alone” is impossible. Reformed theologian John Frame, who advocates something he describes as being in the neighborhood of biblicism, also argues that we cannot begin to grasp or use the Bible unless we have more than the Bible—the world, ourselves, our situations.

Typically, “biblicism” is contrasted with a mode of theology attuned to historical questions and answers, a mode of theology in which even biblical interpretation is rooted in a tradition of biblical interpretation. The practical upshot seems to be that theologians shouldn’t devote all their time and energy to understanding Scripture and devote more to grasping the intricacies of a historical tradition. The premise, sometimes stated explicitly, is that Evangelicals have had too many biblical scholars, not enough historical theologians.

Speaking as a lover of all manner of theology, I think this is off-base. For all its theoretical commitment to the authority of Scripture, Evangelicals devote too little attention to the Bible in practice. I was brought up short recently when a young man told me that before going to college he had never heard Scripture read in church (except as a sermon text). How many Evangelicals have sung through more than a handful of Psalms in their lifetime? In short: Do Evangelical theologians live and move in a Scripture-saturated world?

Evangelical theologians do of course employ Scripture, but I daresay there is more, and more profound, biblical exposition in Barth than in most Evangelical systematic theologies. I daresay that Scripture was theologically formative for Barth in ways that few Evangelical theologians can match.

And as for attention to tradition: I’m all for that, but what I find in the tradition is page after page of biblical interpretation. When he’s not refuting—or analyzing—Arian arguments, Athanasius focuses on discussion of biblical texts. Augustine devotes nearly half of On the Trinity to Scripture and the rules for reading it, and the biblical discussions don’t stop after Book 8. Thomas cites and discusses Scripture in virtually every question of the Summa, and in most of the articles. Then, of course, there are Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin. If we are taking our cues from the tradition, we’d be excused for thinking we need to move closer to biblicism rather than further away.

It’s odd to see Evangelicals attacking “biblicism” at a time when Catholics are devoting renewed attention to the Bible. In the happiest result, we might hope to meet in the middle somewhere.

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