One more point on biblicism

One more point on biblicism August 30, 2011

I want to mention one more problem that arises from biblicism, or biblical literalism: It fosters conflict.

It fosters really nasty conflict — the kind that starts with the belief that The Other Side must be evil and then goes downhill from there with little hope of resolution.

Biblicism invites this kind of conflict because it creates a framework in which bad intent becomes the only possible explanation for differences of opinion. This isn’t a failure of charity or generosity on the part of those involved in such conflicts, it’s structural — the default presumption for any dispute among biblicists over the meaning of the text.

Look at the way such disputes are framed. The Bible is first held up as the sole and final arbiter is all disputes. Right away we’re in a tough spot because disputes about the Bible cannot be resolved by appeals to the Bible. Because every other means of resolving disputes has been minimized or delegitimized, disputes among biblicists over the meaning of the text are seemingly irresolvable.

That is a consequence of what Christian Smith described as biblicism’s emphasis on the Bible’s “exclusive authority.” But as Smith also notes, biblicism also emphasizes the Bible’s “perspicuity, self-sufficiency, internal consistency, self-evident meaning and universal applicability.” It teaches, in other words, that the meaning of the Bible is plain and clear to any reader of good intent.

And that’s what makes disputes over the meaning of the Bible among biblicists so nasty and personal. If you’re reading the Bible with what you know to be good intent and some other person reading the same Bible arrives at a different conclusion as to what it means, what is the most obvious, and the only permissible, explanation?

You can’t say that your conflicting interpretations are a consequence of the Bible sometimes being complicated and difficult to understand. Those possibilities are ruled out beforehand by the belief in scripture’s “perspicuity” and “self-evident meaning.” Nor can you decide that the other person is simply innocently mistaken. The biblicistic approach does not allow for the possibility of any honest reader being innocently mistaken (and thus, since you know yourself to be an honest reader, you also know that you are not mistaken).

And that leaves only the conclusion that the person disagreeing with you must not be an honest reader with good intent.

That may not be a conclusion you’re eager to embrace, but the logic pointing toward it seems airtight. If you have a good heart, then you cannot be wrong. That means that they must be wrong and, therefore, that they must have a bad heart.

Those constrained by the framework of biblicism are thus conditioned to presume that anyone who disagrees with their interpretation of the Bible has a bad heart. And, further inflaming the dispute, they are likely to perceive any disagreement with their interpretation of the Bible as an insult — as an accusation that they have a bad heart themselves.

This does not set the stage for an open-minded, dispassionate discussion attempting to resolve any given difference in interpretation.

What it sets the stage for, rather, is endless irresolvable conflict and a long history of schisms and factionalism. Not surprisingly, that’s just the sort of history one finds among biblicist Protestants.


Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!


TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • P J Evans

    Or, there are so many churches in denominations that believe in Biblical inerrancy because the only way they can handle internal disputes about interpretation is to split into two groups with differing beliefs on whatever (probably minor) point they were arguing.

  • He said “Synod of 1923, part the hair on the left” so I threw him off the bridge.

  • Jim Daniel

    I once asked a biblicist which bible he was saying was self- self-sufficient , internally consistent, self-evident in meaning and universal applicable? How did he know that the translators had read the bible they were translating with true good intent?  He just got mad and walked off.  I have yet to get any answers to these questions.

  • If you’re reading the Bible with what you know to be good intent…
    since you know yourself to be an honest reader, you also know that you are not mistaken…
    If you have a good heart, then you cannot be wrong.

    So Biblicism absolutely requires self-deception while simultaneously denying it’s existence?

  • Tom S

    “What it sets the stage for, rather, is endless irresolvable conflict and a long history of schisms and factionalism. Not surprisingly, that’s just the sort of history one finds among biblicist Protestants.”

    To be fair, that appears to be the sort of history one finds for every belief about anything, ever.

  • Bificommander

    Never fear, Jack Chick has the answer for you: The KJV is the right one, all the ones after and before were filled with perversions, but the writers of the KJV found the real originals and persevered through repeated murders on their number, and based their translation on that. Sadly, those originals are completely lost now, so all we have to compare it to are those much older Devil-tainted versions of the Bible. That the KJV doesn’t match up is proof that they are incorrect.

  • Bificommander

    Never fear, Jack Chick has the answer for you: The KJV is the right one, all the ones after and before were filled with perversions, but the writers of the KJV found the real originals and persevered through repeated murders on their number, and based their translation on that. Sadly, those originals are completely lost now, so all we have to compare it to are those much older Devil-tainted versions of the Bible. That the KJV doesn’t match up is proof that they are incorrect.

  • Anonymous

    So, is the divinely inspired one the one before or after they took the Apocrypha out?

  • Anonymous

    Apparently by putting Apocrypha come between the New and Old Testaments, the divinely inspired translators were showing us that the Apocrypha aren’t really part of the Bible at all. The put them in anyway because shut up, that’s why.

  • friendly (Lutheran) reader

    It teaches, in other words, that the meaning of the Bible is plain and clear to any reader of good intent.

    Yeah, as a Lutheran I have to say that, yeah, that’s Luther’s fault, big time. He was under the delusion (both naive and arrogant) that anyone who read the Bible would come to the same obvious conclusions he would, the Catholic church would be reformed, and we’d all be happy. His concept of “word alone,” i.e. rejecting traditions that are contrary to scripture, while not the “inerrancy” concept of the modern day, became the argument for most biblicism.

    When other people disagreed with him, though, he didn’t resort to “bad faith” arguments; they were just being maliciously misled by Satan. I’m pretty sure many modern biblicists would feel the same way.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    So, is the divinely inspired one the one before or after they took the Apocrypha out?

    Do you mean the deuterocanon?

  • Anonymous

    Yes.

  • Matri

    And, further inflaming the dispute, they are likely to perceive any
    disagreement with their interpretation of the Bible as an insult — as an
    accusation that they have a bad heart themselves.

    Nine out of ten times it’s the truth, for Reality and everyone living in it. These people seem to believe themselves exempt and exalted.

  • I had a debate with a Christian friend about this sort of thing once.

    He’s of the belief that the Bible can only be truly and correctly understood when one has the help of the Holy Spirit…and that without the Holy Spirit, it is impossible to come to a true and correct understanding of scripture.

    Which basically boils down to: The Christian cannot help but be right in his/her interpretation, and the nonbeliever cannot help but be wrong.

    Which, as a nonbeliever, irritated me to no end.

  • Matri

    He’s of the belief that the Bible can only be truly and correctly
    understood when one has the help of the Holy Spirit…and that without
    the Holy Spirit, it is impossible to come to a true and correct
    understanding of scripture.

    Which basically boils down to: The
    Christian cannot help but be right in his/her interpretation, and the
    nonbeliever cannot help but be wrong.

    For their own unique, specific interpretation of “Christian” and “Holy Spirit”, of course.

  • Anonymous

    I’m afraid I have to agree, but note that there were mitigating circumstances.  Martin Luther was living at a time when there was a lot of horribly corrupt church tradition.  Something needed to shake things up, and I doubt he could have foreseen that “word alone” would be used by the same kinds of corrupt church officials to control the populace in a whole new manner.

  • You can see the same dynamic with presuppositionalists and people who believe in a Catholic-style self evident natural law written on human hearts. 

    By defining the justification for your belief as “its just self evident, obviously,” you’re left with only a few ways to explain why people disagree with you.  They can’t be well informed and sincere, because that would mean your belief isn’t self evident.  So they must either be fools beyond all normal levels of human ignorance, or else they’re liars who know that you’re right but who are claiming otherwise due to their own sinfulness.

  • Anonymous

    But is there even Biblical evidence that the Holy Spirit exists?  I thought that was added in later because a trinity is more appealing to the human psyche than a partnership.

  • Green Eggs and Ham

    I grew up amongst the fundamentalists.  One thing I noticed as a teen was how much the bigwigs hated each other as they did the liberals and the Democrats and the homosexuals.

  • Long ago, alt.religion.catholic would be regularly invaded by Biblical literalists. The arguments were always the same: We’re being deluded, we shouldn’t listen to priests because that’s placing the word of Man over the word of God, if we read the Bible we’d come to the same conclusions they did. And if we did read the Bibles and came to a different conclusion, we were reading it wrong, so we should listen to them.

    Pointing out that telling us we should listen to them was telling us to listen to the word of Man caused them to disappear in a puff of logic. (Or run off in a huff after whining that we were being too stubborn to see the truth – same difference.)

  • Jack Chick hates Catholics but proclaims the King James? Don’t…. the Catholics use the King James version? O.o

  • Sean Ulam

    I had this exact same debate with a fundamentalist Catholic, only with the Magisterium of the Catholic Church in place of the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

    The effect was largely the same.  He got to be magically right about everything, while I could not help but be deeply in error.

    It’s remarkably tiresome.

  • I grew up amongst the fundamentalists.  One thing I noticed as a teen was how much the bigwigs hated each other as they did the liberals and the Democrats and the homosexuals.

    I just wish that they their political front was as fractured as their theological one.  

  • tinheart

    You could replace Biblical literalism for Objectivism – or any number of absolutist philosophies – and come up with exactly the same conclusions:  namely, that when your default position is that “anyone who doesn’t agree with us 100 percent is evil”, conflict is guaranteed.

  • Anonymous

    This is an excellent post – bringing a human touch to the “inside baseball” of theological argument, and making a great point. Both halves of biblicism – the inerrancy of Scripture and its self-evident nature – are supportable on their own, but together they predict a unity of belief that simply doesn’t match the real world.

    But is there even Biblical evidence that the Holy Spirit exists?  I thought that was added in later because a trinity is more appealing to the human psyche than a partnership.

    While there is no verse that says “Worship the Holy Spirit”, the New Testament routinely refers to the Spirit as divine, in the same breath as God the Father, and says “the Spirit did X” referring to Old Testament accounts that said “God did X”. This is a great example of the many bits of Christianity that are not blindingly obvious on first reading of the Bible, which biblicism predicts should not exist.

    Besides, if I were designing a trinity to appeal to the psyche, I would expect all 3 of them to be anthropormorphic, either as a “3 fates” or “father, mother, son” dynamic. Probably Father, Son and Virgin Mary, now that I think about it.

  • MaryKaye

    When I go back and read books that I loved as a kid, sometimes I don’t like them anymore, and sometimes I still like them but my appreciation is very different now.  It’s as if I’m seeing a different book, because, of course, I’m a different person.

    I first read Zelazny’s _Lord of Light_ when I was fourteen, on my birthday; in fact I read it twice, back to back.  I distinctly recall it as being a story about Yama and Kali, about love and revolution.  I re-read it (for probably the fifteenth time) when I was 45, and found that it was a story about Sam, about religion and hypocrisy.  And still an incredibly good book, but such a different book!

    This leads me to feel that *nothing* is as self-evident as literalists need it to be.  I don’t read the Bible a lot, but even so there are moments of “this is a totally different book than when I was a Catholic schoolgirl.”  People change and grow and learn.  The text doesn’t change, so interpretations *have* to change, or you get living people shackled to a dead interpretation.

  • Albanaeon

    Hmm…  Reminds me of a similar argument I heard. 

    “The Bible can only be found to be true if you start out believing that it is true!”

    I guess the Holy Spirit works by confirmation bias…

  • Jesus Himself mentions the Spirit several times throughout the Gospels, and It is mentioned more in Acts and the Epistles. There is more than enough of what you’d probably call “Biblical evidence” to support Its existence.

    I do notice that people tend to use the Holy Spirit to justify the most batsqueek insane things you can imagine. People can’t call you crazy, because God Himself backs you up on this. I tend to blame it on self-ignorance, being unaware that random thoughts and emotions can enter your head with little provocation, and doesn’t necessitate any kind of outside of influence, much less divine influence.

  • Ray

    No, Catholics don’t use the King James version. The translation of the King James version happened in the early 1600s, after the Reformation, and by scholars associated with the Church of England. 

  • Jesus spoke Elizabethan English, donchaknow!

  • Anonymous

    I had a roommate in the late 1970s who told me that she belonged to her church because they were mostly right. She, of course, knew what was wholly right. I’d never heard someone condescend toward their church before.

    And this was pretty much my introduction to evangelicals. Fortunately, I also had a more humble Baptist in the house.

  • Mr. Heartland

    Nah, the political front is the only thing holding them together.   Without their control of the GOP, they would  have to accept a level of social control that’s actually in proportion to their numbers, which of course would be a fate worse then death for those obsessed with hierarchy.  So they’ll tolerate some minor heresy between friends to prevent it.  

  • “I first read Zelazny’s _Lord of Light_ when I was fourteen, on my birthday; in fact I read it twice, back to back.”

    I’m going to have to re-read it.  I love Zelazny (except for some of the lesser Amber books), and it has one of the best first lines in lieterature: “His name was Maasamatma, but he preferred to drop the Maha and the Atman and called himself ‘Sam'”.

  • “The Bible can only be found to be true if you start out believing that it is true!”

    Wait, so…the Bible only gets to be true if people believe in it? If it’s incapable of swaying anyone who doesn’t already think it’s true, what would happen if everyone in the whole world suddenly stopped believing in it? /snark

    I get this rather mean picture in my head of a biblical literalist clapping their hands in front of a Bible and chanting “I do believe in scripture, I do, I do!”

  • ako

    By defining the justification for your belief as “its just self
    evident, obviously,” you’re left with only a few ways to explain why
    people disagree with you.  They can’t be well informed and sincere,
    because that would mean your belief isn’t self evident.  So they must
    either be fools beyond all normal levels of human ignorance, or else
    they’re liars who know that you’re right but who are claiming otherwise
    due to their own sinfulness.

    And in a “You go to Hell for not believing the right things” system, even conceding extreme foolishness as a reason for disagreement raises ugly implications.  Start putting people in Hell for failure to understand information, and you end up with a Hell full of severely disabled people, people who spent their lives utterly without opportunities to learn the relevant information and babies.  It’s possible to make an intellectually consistent picture like that, but basic human moral instincts rebel at the thought.  It’s much more palatable to assume that everyone has the right information deep down, and people who claim otherwise are all malicious liars.

  • Gluk. I can never keep straight what Bible different sects use. My partiality to the Revised Standard Version has mostly to do with the fact that the people who wrote it made an effort to go back to the oldest extant texts and retranslate them, as the Dead Sea scrolls had recently (for that era) been found. So at least if the translation isn’t dead-on, it’s not going to be AS badly affected by transcription errors due to people recopying ancient texts to keep them in good condition.

    I looked this up for Roman Catholics and it seems that there is a Latin Vulgate, as well as the preferred usage of the New American version or the Douay-Rheims version.

  • ‘I get this rather mean picture in my head of a biblical literalist
    clapping their hands in front of a Bible and chanting “I do believe in
    scripture, I do, I do!”‘

    It’s only a minorly exaggerated.

    My credentials include being the son of a evangelical pastor.

  • Nah, the political front is the only thing holding them together.   Without their control of the GOP, they would  have to accept a level of social control that’s actually in proportion to their numbers, which of course would be a fate worse then death for those obsessed with hierarchy.  So they’ll tolerate some minor heresy between friends to prevent it.

    Like a bundle of sticks held together by twine.  There has got to be a way we can slip a knife in there and cut that twine… 

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Jack Chick hates Catholics but proclaims the King James? Don’t…. the Catholics use the King James version? O.o

    There’s no “the” Catholics. KJV is not used for mass, but plenty of individual Catholics may use it personally.

  • Jim Daniel

    My grandfather taught me this little truism “That which is self evident to you is often obtuse to everyone else.”  I’ve found it has helped me communicate with others over the years.

  • Jim Daniel

    My grandfather taught me this little truism “That which is self evident to you is often obtuse to everyone else.”  I’ve found it has helped me communicate with others over the years.

  • Jim Daniel

    I heard this once on “Meeting of Minds” in response to “…the Bible clearly states….”

    “The Bible is a book with many sterling virtues, clarity is not one of them!”

    I have always loved that line.  Wish I could remember who said it.

  • Jim Daniel

    I heard this once on “Meeting of Minds” in response to “…the Bible clearly states….”

    “The Bible is a book with many sterling virtues, clarity is not one of them!”

    I have always loved that line.  Wish I could remember who said it.

  • Roberthagedorn

    Is Saint Augustine’s exegesis of the 2nd and 3rd chapters of Genesis correct?  Do a search:  First Scandal.

  • Anonymous

    But is there even Biblical evidence that the Holy Spirit exists?

    Acts 2:10-4 is the usual cite:

    When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty
    wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.

    How you get from there to the Spirit being another person of the Trinity is above my pay grade, though.