The Problem of Biblicism 4

The Problem of Biblicism 4 August 3, 2011

Christian Smith, in his must-read and challenging book, Bible Made Impossible, The: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture, contends that what many of us (evangelicals) affirm is impossible to hold with intellectual integrity. He calls this belief “biblicism,” and if you want to read what it is read this post. The fundamental problem that undercuts biblicism as a sufficient basis for articulating the Christian faith is interpretive pluralism. That’s the big idea.

Smith is an excellent sociologist and a historian of social movements, particularly American evangelicalism, and so he examines (in chp 3) the history, sociology and psychology of biblicism.

Big questions: How important is this inductive (commonsense realism) method to biblicism? What do you think of the possible social factors at work in biblicism?

As for history, what is now called “evangelicalism” owes much to Charles Hodge and BB Warfield, and both of them operated with three philosophical ideas: (1) Scottish commonsense realism, (2) a Baconian inductive model, and (3) a pictorial theory of language. Smith reduces this discussion and I even more: essentially what this means is that the evangelical heritage for biblicism believes a person can read the Bible, understand what words mean and to what they refer with certainty, and can gather the facts in order to construct just what the Bible says. Smith says Wayne Grudem’s systematic theology exemplifies this model of thinking. He also mentions Greg Beale.

But, language doesn’t work this way; human interpretation is involved in the gathering and sorting out of the “facts,” and anyway each of us is shaped by our cultural, religious, economic, ethnic… contexts when we gather and sort. Critical realism is vastly superior to commonsense realism. Listen to his overall judgment on this method of reading the Bible:

It is “counterproductive and intellectually obscurantist” … and “biblicism presupposed a set of philosophical assumptions … that were rightly abandoned by informed thinkers a long time ago” (60).

So this means Why is pervasive pluralism not more of a problem to many evangelicals? (I can say that many of us do find it a problem, but many don’t.)

1. Biblicists are a social cluster and they mutually reinforce one another.
2. Biblicists tend to minimize pervasive pluralism in Bible reading. Many think the differences are minor. [Check out the substantive nature of the 3-4-5 views books. There was a reason why Piper a few years back said seminaries ought not to be fostering this kind of pervasive interpretive pluralism.]

3. Biblicists gain strength among themselves by disagreeing with others; they establish difference, difference helps form identity; their identity permits them not to take the alternative views seriously; numbers make them think they are right.
4. Biblicists gain identity and strength because if they do transcend differences they will become ecumenical and that means liberal and that means their fragmented framework actually supports their identity. They retain a common enemy and they convince themselves they are not compromising with liberals who are ecumenical.
5. Biblicists, psychologically, have a need to create order out of chaos and to land in certainty; biblicism permits order and certainty. Smith makes it very clear he’s not psychoanalyzing any individual biblicist but speaking in general of a potential underlying framework. He even suggests that for some, on some occasions, (good qualifications, he’s not broadbrushing) some forms of biblicism are a form of failing to trust God and instead is a grasping for control.

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  • Tom F.

    I don’t know that I can speak to how important commonsense realism is to biblicism, but as to the possible social factors I really like the 5th reason for why biblicism is not recognized as more of a problem. I think we all have that problem of trusting God in the midst of chaos, although not all of us may deal with it through biblicism.

    I think its possible to forget just how alien the world of the Bible is, especially if we have pursued education related to the Bible or theology. It makes perfect sense to me why some folks would encounter the strange world of the Bible, have a strong sense that their reading of the Bible influences their eternal destiny and acceptance by God, and therefore be terrified that they might get it wrong. Biblicism offers a solution of sorts. You could eradicate biblicism from evangelicalism, but somewheere down the line, it would be entirely re-invented, so long as evangelicalism maintains that strong sense of both the Bible as God’s primary revelation and a general sense that many, many people are and will be rejected by God. Since neither of those will probably change anytime soon, evangelicalism will probably remain biblicist, even as the cognitive dissonance caused by interpretive pluralism increases.

    In fact, as the cognitive dissonance increases, you might even see a resurgance of biblicism that starts bordering on neo-fundamentalism. Wait a second… 🙂

  • Andrew Wilson

    I always become suspicious when people start psychoanalysing their opponents, particularly when there are apparently so many straw-men thrown in. Presumably a so-called biblicist (although how many actually exist as Christian defines them, I’m not sure) could make the same case in reverse: antibiblicists prefer flexibility and abhor the rigidity and dogmatism they perceive elsewhere, and this personal predisposition makes them deny that clarity exists on anything except Jesus (and maybe poverty) so they don’t have to be constrained by biblical imperatives on parenting, marriage, work, etc … I doubt this is true of Christian, but then I also doubt that his psychoanalysis is necessarily true of Greg Beale or Wayne Grudem. Personally, I’m kind of troubled by an analysis that makes it possible to cast aspersions on the motives of people like Grudem – who I’ve personally found to be a humble, gracious and encouraging man, albeit one with strong convictions – as has happened a couple of times recently here, on the basis of a supposed psychological explanation. But that may be my British sensitivity coming through!

    Thanks for the post, and the book, anyway though – fascinating stuff.

  • Surely the inductive has its place, but not without other considerations. Which is in part where critical realism comes in.

    It is amazing how God’s work continues and how God continues to speak through his word and move his people, in spite of all our inconsistencies and glaring errors. Good to get more to the heart of how we’re to look at everything, but we ought to know there is in a kind of humility we should wear which goes along with a kind of knowledge we have by faith.

  • Scot McKnight

    Andrew, I did my best to make it clear Smith was not broadbrushing, but to make this clear I have slightly edited how I summarized Smith.

  • Thanks, Scot.

    Insightful. For those of us who once believed you could actually “get back to the Bible”, as if we were Dorothy returning to Kansas, it’s good to have a definition for something that feels wrong, even if you can’t put your finger on what it is exactly.

    @Andrew There are no “straw men” mentioned here. Having pastored and worked in various charismatic churches, I can tell you that such a view of the Bible is prevalent, and destructive. It leads to exclusive cultish behaviour (“well, they say that they’re Christians, however”) and what the article fails to mention is that it is also a form of elitism, or higher Christianity. There is a great sense among those who adopt this view of Scripture that they have it all figured out. (As I once did) The ramifications do not stop there. The bifurcation of Scriptural interpretation (right way vs. wrong) leads to the marginalization of those outside the circle, which in turn leads to things like the formation of the Southern Baptists (using Scripture to defend slavery) or the current reform ideology which has always opposed the suffrage movement (again, using Scripture to defend Patriarchy and misogyny)

  • Bill

    Some in my church speak of “getting into the Word,” a phrase not all that bad, but it seems a substitute for “getting into God.” Scripture points to God, but is not “God.” The Bible is necessary, don’t get me wrong. Anyway, another good post–an important discussion.

  • Jason Lee

    All those reasons seem sound as to why biblicism isn’t a problem to so biblicists, especially number 1. Another obvious reason is that so many biblicists (and others) don’t really read or study their Bibles (see: The fact that few people read the Bible is understandable, because it’s a hard book to read. If biblicists do read/study the Bible, its in a very mediated way, e.g. guided by Bible study materials or a teacher that makes sense of passages in a particular way.

  • Jason Lee

    I should have said … don’t read or study their Bibles very frequently (see:

  • Scot,

    I’m coming late to this discussion, but I went back and read the previous post in this stream. This is how I grew up being taught to approach the Bible, although it was assumed that the pastor / theologian has a better grasp of biblicism than the average church member. However, we would NOT want to say that only a few could rightly understand the Bible. This would lead us too close to Roman Catholicism which historically had the priest as the only interpreter of Scripture.

    In this light, what is Smith calling us too? Is this simply a matter of interpretive humility, or is he calling us toward a reliance on scholars to tell us what it means? My childhood church friends would cry foul that we are loosing the ‘priesthood of all believers,’ and yet if we step back we realize that all of our different interpretations – based on their hermeneutical question “What does it mean to you?” – can’t possibly be leading us to one united understanding of Scripture.

    So again, what is Smith calling us to?


  • From where I have come from #5 was the starting place that led to #1-4. Out of a multi-fractured denominationalism men sought to get back the “Bible only”. Oddly enough they found a home with the Baptists in the American frontier. But not for long. And by the second generation became divided themselves over what “Bible only” allowed and disallowed.

    We could plant a church, say in Chicago, despite all the other churches present if there were none of “our kind” then we were breaking new ground. We really perceived ourselves as bringing truth in the midst of all the rest of you all’s error. So we built our own schools – but we weren’t a denomination. And we have our own convention – but we’re not a denomination. We have our own publishing houses – but we’re not a denomination. Because denominations don’t appear in the Bible and are therefore sinful.

  • Scot McKnight

    Jeff, good question. He’s calling us to the church’s common consensus to read the Bible in light of its central message — the gospel about Jesus Christ. He’s calling us to epistemic humility about so many thinks we think the Bible gives us answers for.

  • dopderbeck

    All of this strikes me as dead-on correct. In the book, Smith refers to Mark Noll’s classic “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind,” which makes the same points.


    Yeah much like Jeff the post makes this issue seem purely deconstructive without offering much in the way of an alternative.

  • josenmiami

    wow, this review of Smith’s book was tremendously helpful for me and explains why I have felt like I was beating my head against a brick wall for so many years. Especially point #3, about gaining strength through disagreement.

    It would seem to me that what Smith is calling “bibilicism” is a mortal enemy to true mission. If a group seeks certainty to be in control (#5) and has an inherent need for opposition and disagreement (#3), then obviouly they will take an adversarial role to those who are not part of them, or who do not share their worldview, killing any chance of a redemptive or missional influence.

    My head is spinning … time for me to stop trying to change biblicists and just hit the exit doors. ♫ “Get out teh back, Jack! Make a new plan Stan …”

  • Tom F.

    #2- Andrew, as one whose post delved into the “psychoanalyzing” of biblicists, I want to say again that EVERYONE fails to trust God in the midst of chaos, not just biblicists. I don’t necessarily think your analysis of a certain kind of antibiblicist is totally off. Antibiblicists may tend towards “lowering the stakes” or at least lowering the amount of critical issues that the Bible speaks towards. And again, this makes sense to me as well. It becomes extremely difficult to both 1) hold that the Bible makes numerous claims that are absolutely essential to our Christian identity and absolutely must be upheld (or else you might become a heretic, or even damned) and 2) hold that non-biblicist interpretation means that agreement on these issues is unlikely. There’s just too much tension between these points. Biblicists tend towards folding on point 2, non-biblicists will tend to fold on point 1. Do you see what I mean about the tension between these points?

    I think it would take some incredible spirit-breathed creativity to actually turn this tension into something dynamic and empowering, and I think as Christian mentioned, we are years away from what that might be.

    There is psychoanalyzing to attack, and then there is psychoanalyzing so that we all understand each other a little better. I agree that we need to make sure our analysis is edifying to all, and I apologize if my post came across as belittling to biblicists.


  • Bob 2

    All the points speak powerfully to the stance I have seen taken and experienced over the years. But I think point #5 is right on target. It is all about controlling and holding people “hostage” to a system that is not sustainable any other way. I am speaking in terms of church leadership and their need to hold people to their view.

  • rjs

    Biblicists, psychologically, have a need to create order out of chaos and to land in certainty; biblicism permits order and certainty.

    Conversion to the RCC is another move that permits order and certainty out of chaos … at least this is an apparent theme you found in “Finding Faith, Losing Faith.” As Smith is not psychoanalyzing any individual biblicist, nor am I psychoanalyzing any individual convert – there are different reasons in different circumstances.

    But … I don’t think we will ever find this kind of order and certainty in any robust and defensible way; not in scripture alone and not in church structure. We can only find such order and certainty by constructing it in our own heads.

    I think Piper was dead wrong in his view that seminaries should not foster interpretive pluralism – the only thing of which I am certain is that everyone of us has many things wrong, and the only way we retain an epistemological humility is to have a real appreciation for this – and then to remain focused on and founded in God alone (realizing that we are always moving toward this goal imperfectly).

    Trust God, Live to love God and others, Grow in understanding constantly, ’til the day we die.

  • josenmiami

    rjs: I totally agree with you regarding “interpretive pluralism”. We (conservative biblicist evangelicals) have raised a generation of goldfish in goldfish bowls who cannot survive in the robust ocean of interpretive pluralism … if faith is genuine, it should be hardy enough to survive, grow and be perfected while facing honest challenges and different points of view …

  • Scot McKnight


    The interesting thing about Piper’s comment, and I remember it well because I had some correspondence with him about it, is that it flat-out confirms Smith’s entire analysis. Piper sees interpretive pluralism as an atmosphere for evangelicalism and education that is destructive to truth claims. This is what Smith is arguing, only he applies right back to the doctrine of the Bible.

    Piper’s solution, because he is a reformed Baptist (that seems a fair description), is to affirm and require (at various levels) a unified theology in his church and in his school.

    Smith moved toward the Roman Catholic Church, where in some ways this interpretive pluralism is resolved; Piper’s more confessional approach, in my estimation, solves the problem just as well (though without as much of the great tradition). I was surprised by Kevin DeYoung’s review because I thought he’d use Smith to affirm the need for a confessional approach.

    I see the move toward confessional evangelicalism to be a healthy move, though I disagree with that confession. The only solution to interpretive pluralism is not to assert even harder a biblicism but to affirm that God has guided the church in interpretation, which means through the great tradition or through some confessional approach. Without that, we’ve got a chaos that undermines biblicism.

  • rjs


    Sure – I think we need to read through the great tradition of the church, because I affirm that God has guided his church through time and place. But this guidance has not resulted in order and certainty in all details – and this fact should provide some perspective on how God guides and deals with his people. We need to wrestle and engage, we grow by doing so, not by being fed answers.

    I think that confessional evangelicalism may feel secure – but it is a false security, as false as the security in biblicism or any other ism.

  • ao

    Jeff (#9) and UPUPUP (#13),

    In addition to Scot’s answer (#11), you may also want to know that Smith devotes half the book to putting forward a constructive solution. Chs. 2-4 lay out the problem in detail, chs. 5-7 lay out his solution.

  • keo

    “Why is pervasive pluralism not more of a problem to many evangelicals?” Because they can’t believe that so many of the things they have grown up believing, and so many of the people they grew up trusting, could be anything but right — or mostly right. The cognitive dissonance involved would be crushing. I’m not a sociologist or psychologist, but I suspect this is true of most groups.

    I might add that many evangelicals in the pew have little interest in or stamina for the intellectual analysis needed to question the belief system they grew up in. Biblicism isn’t a problem because nobody has ever shown them that it is a problem.

  • DRT

    I wish we could do Meyers Briggs studies of these issues. I don’t you will find many biblicists that share my being an INTP, but an unusually accepting one (I like the F too).

  • Douglas McCall

    Keo, I totally agree with your statement of most evangelicals have little interest or don’t know what to say in the face of biblicism because of not knowing of anything else. There has not been any research or bible time on the personal time to warrant the knowledge of any subjects, let alone the truth.