The Bible is our only guide? Really? The Bible and evangelicalism #1

The Bible is our only guide? Really? The Bible and evangelicalism #1 February 1, 2022

In my last post, I noted that evangelicalism is a diverse movement that spans a wide range of Christianity.

When we speak of “evangelicals” in an American context, we most often have right-leaning, or far-right, evangelicals in mind. Even then, however, there are a wide variety of evangelicals within America.

I also noted that there are traditionally four pillars that define evangelicals: biblicism, cross-centered, conversionism, and activism. This does not mean that all evangelicals believe in all four of these or that those who do understand them in the same manner.

Finally, I noted that in the US young people are leaving the church in high numbers. In fact, it is quite reasonable to suppose that American Christianity as a whole will go the way of Europe within a generation.

Young people are leaving for a variety of reasons but leading the way is the fact that they are disillusioned by the grand disconnect they perceive between the teachings of Jesus and the Bible—as they understand them—and what they see in many American churches (this is true whether the churches are evangelical or not: though it is even more so the case for evangelicals that are politically right-leaning).

What I intend to do in the next set of posts is to make some observations regarding some of the dangers of each of the four pillars of evangelicalism in order to point out the basis for the evangelical failings in this regard. Whether or not you are an evangelical, I believe that you might gain from these posts also.

You might be reading these posts and think: “this guy’s critique of evangelicalism and evangelical churches suggests that he is not an evangelical. I think he is catholic or something.”

Allow me to interject here that, I self-identify as an evangelical. I am, therefore, critiquing my own tribe.

One reason why I am an evangelical is that I have a high view of Scripture. I am an evangelical because I believe that Christ is the center of all things and that the biblical story only makes sense through Him. I am an evangelical because I believe that all persons must acknowledge that Christ is Lord. And I believe that Christ calls and empowers His people to be the means through which He builds His kingdom.

I believe, however, that we must nuance our understanding of each of these.

I also believe that right-wing American evangelicalism, the evangelicalism that I was raised in, has hijacked evangelicalism as a whole and given the Church a bad name, and has caused much of American society to reject the tenets of Christianity altogether. I am also convinced that this brand of extremism has caused many within the church to leave the church and in many instances their faith.

One of the reasons that American evangelicalism has fallen prey to the radical voices that have steered them off course has been the embrace of Christian nationalism. This we will have to address in future posts also.

NB: We have addressed Christian nationalism in a series of podcasts on the determinetruth podcast Nov 2-Dec 9, 2021.

In writing these posts I do not suppose that I will change the landscape of American evangelicalism. Sadly, I believe it is too late for that. Instead, I perceive that my efforts in these posts will be more along the lines of a rescue mission than a dismantling of the edifice.

What is biblicism?

Evangelicalism has been widely known and, in some sense, respected for its high view of Scripture. Unfortunately, much of American evangelicalism,[1] has gravitated to bibliolatry: a worship of the Bible—though it might be more accurate to say that they have come to worship the Bible “as they understand it.”

Biblicism is typically defined as having a high regard for the Bible and a conviction that it contains all the spiritual truths needed for Christians.

I am personally convinced that the Bible should have a place of primacy in the life of the believer and the Church. I have advocated for more than 30 years that one of the most significant acts a Christian and/or a Christian community can undertake as a part of their spiritual growth is the reading, studying, meditating, and memorizing of the Bible.

With this being said, however, I would suggest that biblicism can lead to numerous problems—some of which are potentially quite significant.

In fact, I might be so bold as to claim that many of the key sources of evangelicalism’s woes begin with biblicism gone awry.

NB: My goal is to keep these posts free of charge. I do not intend to ever hide them behind a paywall. I can only do this if those of you who have been blessed by them and can afford to give ($5, $10, $25, or more/month) do so. You can give a tax-deductible contribution by following this link.

What does the Bible mean?

One of the fundamental problems with biblicism revolves around the question of the meaning of the Bible and who decides what it means?

I have had numerous conversations during my time in academia and the local church in which individuals have brought forward some wacky interpretations and their evidence from the Bible in such a manner that there was no response I could give, besides agreeing with them, that would suffice.

 

On one occasion a woman gave me a printout of dozens of pages of Bible verses all “proving” her arguments—I wish I could remember the issue. The point of the massive array of verses was that when they were read the way she assumed, they indeed proved her point well. The problem was that they were not actually saying what she thought. But there was sadly an unwillingness to read them any other way than what she assumed.

On another occasion, I was shown extensive documentation “proving” that the European Commission was the 7-headed and 10-horned Beast of the book of Revelation and that the Rapture and Second Coming would occur within a few years. I remember thinking that arguing with this person would achieve nothing—you could discern this from the manner of their presentation—and all I could do was wait a few years to confirm that they were incorrect.

In many of these conversations, there was simply no way to respond (and oftentimes I certainly tried). The problem is that within this sort of extremist evangelical biblicism[2] they had as much authority as I did to interpret the Bible—at least they did in their mind. Any conversation on the meaning of the Bible was simply a case of my opinion versus theirs.

Any appeal to my education, or that I had publications on the topic at hand (which is actually why they came to me in the first place: they wanted to show someone whom they considered an expert what the truth really was), or to the overwhelming number of scholars that agreed with me, was futile. I couldn’t appeal to the history of interpretation within the church.

Nor could I appeal to the great damage that such speculative theology was doing, has done, and will continue to do to the faith of individual Christians or Christian communities.

I couldn’t appeal to the fact that such views turn our eyes off Christ and the call to live out the gospel.

I couldn’t appeal to the fact that such extremism harms our Christian witness in the world.

I know because I tried all of these.

In all of these encounters the only thing I could do was to respond in love; ensure that they were not able to teach these things in the church in which I was ministering; encourage them not to teach them anywhere else; and, for those who had prophetic speculations, wait for enough years to go by to confirm they were wrong.

Of course, I suspect that even when the years went by and they were proven wrong, they may still have concluded that they were not wrong. Somehow they just misread the particulars.

I assure you that my experience is not unique. This sort of stuff happens daily throughout churches in the West. Church splits have resulted from such disputes. Denominations have arisen. And even such phenomena as the origin of the Jehovah’s Witnesses have arisen because someone leading a Bible study came to a position that they became so convinced of that there was no way to respond.

Biblicism gone bad: How bad is it?

Using the Bible as a weapon to promote and encourage all sorts of evil is not new or intrinsic only to American evangelicalism.

In my posts over the past year, I noted that slavery was justified by the Bible. Pastors gave sermons, lots of them, that justified to their congregants the practice of chattel slavery. In fact, some even suggested that slavery was not only biblical permissible but godly.

(The issue of slavery and its biblical justification was, in fact, the catalyst for the formation of the Southern Baptist Convention).

The Bible has been used to defend colonialism and the annihilation of the Indigenous peoples.

The Bible has regularly been used to justify racism.

The Bible was and still is used to assert the superiority of White men.

Many used the Bible to defend segregation. In fact, as I noted, this was one of the defining issues for the burgeoning evangelical movement.

Many still use the Bible to justify the subordination of women in such a way that has led to societal injustices and the abuse of women.

And we could go on.

In 20th century Europe, the Bible was used to defend fascism: including the fascism of Nazi Germany (many in America argued this also, they just failed to win out).

The Bible was used to defend and even to justify the Crusades and the destruction of the Muslim “infidels.”

From the Epistle of Barnabas (early 2nd century), to the writings of John Chrysostom (347-407) and Martin Luther (1483-1546), to the present day Neo-Nazi’s, the Bible has been used for 1900+ years to defend antisemitism and the violence that often accompanies it.

Not only that, but the Bible has also been used to try to dissuade others from calling out such injustices (think of the letter that the eight clergy wrote to Martin Luther King Jr).

To simply assert that this is not what the Bible means is not sufficient. After all, those who have held, and still hold, such views will simply respond, “Yes it is.”

So where do we go from here?

For many, it means to disregard the Bible and the Church. To do so, I believe would be to the detriment of all. After all, many others have read the Bible and started hospitals, orphanages, schools, outreaches to those in need, etc.

The Bible remains the Word of God. And as such, it continues to transform lives.

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[1] To be clear, I am referring only to the radical, right-wing, brand of American evangelicalism.

[2] I am sure that such extremist readings of the Bible occur outside the evangelical church as well.

About Rob Dalrymple
Rob Dalrymple is married to his wife Toni and is the father of four fabulous children, as well as the grandfather of Oliver and Holland! He has been teaching and pastoring for over 32 years at colleges, seminaries, and the local church. He has a PhD (Westminster Theological Seminary) in biblical interpretation. He is the author of four books (including: Follow the Lamb: A Guide to Reading, Understanding, and Applying the Book of Revelation & Understanding the New Testament and the End Times: Why it Matters) as well as numerous articles and other publications. You can read more about the author here.

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