What is “biblicism”?
THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:
This question is the title of an article this month on patheos.com by Michael Bird, an Anglican priest who teaches theology at Australia’s Ridley College and is also a visiting professor at Houston Baptist University. See www.patheos.com/blogs/euangelion/2020/08/what-is-biblicism. More on Bird in a bit, but first let’s lay some ground.
The dictionary definition of biblicism is adherence to a literal interpretation of the Bible. Merriam-Webster dates the first known use of this term to 1805. That was a century before the rise of the literal-minded U.S. Protestant movement called “fundamentalism,” named after The Fundamentals, a series of conservative booklets on the Bible and doctrine published from 1910 to 1915.
Literal interpretation is bound up with the belief that the entire Word of God is free from error. This was the first of the so-called “five points of fundamentalism” that originated as “essential” Christian beliefs defined by a U.S. Presbyterian General Assembly in 1910.
People sometimes distort literal interpretation. There’s a useful explanation in the “Chicago Statement” issued by 300 Protestants at a 1978 meeting of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy. They stated that God used each human writer’s cultural milieu in inspiring the Scriptures, and that while “history must be treated as history,” Christians should also treat “poetry as poetry, hyperbole and metaphor as hyperbole and metaphor, generalization and approximation as what they are.”
That working principle, of course, does not settle all debates. Classic examples involve the creation of the world, which begins the Book of Genesis. Did the famous six “days” of the process last 24 hours, as some literalists contend, or are the “days” poetic or symbolic references to vast phases of time? Is the account meant to be historical and did the events occur in this precise order? On the discussions rage.
The “fundamentalist” label often carries negative connotations and should not be applied to people who reject and resent that label. Similarly, the conservative folks at gotquestions.org say, “biblicism” and “biblicist” are sometimes applied to cast aspersions against literalists.
This site’s anonymous author says opponents’ caricature of biblicists wrongly claims that they spurn any information that doesn’t come from the Bible, ignore the “general revelation” that God provides in addition to written revelation, treat the Bible as though it’s a text on modern science, or ignore the historical context in which the biblical books were written.
In summary, the article says, critics unfairly contend that “biblicism leads people to an intellectually shallow, naïve view of life, and a misuse of Scripture.” The article also rejects the charge that literalism amounts to “bibliolatry” – worship of the Bible. Rather, it says, the Bible is properly regarded as the believer’s “ultimate authority,” with teaching that is “infallible and internally consistent.”
This brings us to the Protestant Reformation’s principle of “sola Scriptura,” meaning that “Scripture alone” is the source of authoritative teaching. To understand this aspect of what Michael Bird writes about, we turn to a 1945 classic Why I Am A Member of the Church of Christ by Leroy Brownlow (1914-2002) of Fort Worth, Texas, an influential preacher and author in that distinctive Protestant group.
Among Brownlow’s 25 reasons why, we find this: “It has the Bible as its only creed, confession of faith or church manual.” He contended that “the Bible was the only creed” in Christianity’s first three centuries, and that believers should follow only the Bible as it “existed in the first century.”
Brownlow regarded merely human writings like creeds as unreliable, divisive, and always subject to change., even asserting that “human creeds are sinful and those who support them share in the guilt of sin.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum we have high Catholicism as proclaimed in Dei Verbum, a 1965 decree from Pope Paul VI and the bishops of the Second Vatican Council, which states: “It is not from Sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws her certainty about everything which has been revealed. Therefore both sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence.”
Continuing: These two sources of revelation “form one sacred deposit of the word of God, committed to the church.” Authentic interpretation of both “has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church.” Tradition, Scripture, and church authority, “in accord with God’s most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others.”
Protestants, of course, disagree, and an elaborate answer to their belief about divine revelation is available in the booklet Scripture Alone?: 21 Reasons to Reject ‘Sola Scriptura’ by Catholic polemicist Joel Peters, who also posts his argument at www.catholicapologetics.info.
Michael Bird’s August article falls between those two poles and contends that biblicism “is definitely not the Protestant view!” He embraces “Scripture alone” but asserts that the Protestant Reformers and their successors “did not mean the naked Scripture, mere Scripture, but more like the primacy of Scripture alongside tradition, experience and nature, etc.”
In his view, Protestants who spurn confessions of faith and interpretations of the Bible, as embraced for instance by fellow Anglicans, fail to recognize that all Christians necessarily appeal to a consensus that developed within their own circle. (The Guy would cite, for example, a traditional interpretation in Brownlow’s Churches of Christ. They permit only vocal music in worship because the New Testament does not mention the use of musical instruments that occurred in the Old Testament. Other Christians disagree.)
Bird says those who regard the Bible as the exclusive source for belief and practice fail to recognize the influence of their own historical background, wider traditions, cultural influences, revered teachers, and “in-group boundaries.” He contends that biblicists inevitably accept “an influence outside the Bible for how to understand the Bible.”