Evangelical biblicism is a new(ish) thing

Evangelical biblicism is a new(ish) thing December 4, 2014

White evangelical Christians are Bible Christians. We have “a particular regard for the Bible,” in historian David Bebbington’s phrase. That’s how he described evangelical “biblicism,” which he listed as one of the distinctive hallmarks of this stream of Christianity. Southern Baptist brofessor Denny Burk summarizes biblicism as “the fact that evangelicals look to the Bible alone as the ultimate authority and measure of all truth.”

This idea of “the Bible alone” is tied up with another key characteristic of white evangelicalism, what Mark Noll calls “primitivism.” In The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Noll describes this as an attempt “to dispense with history almost entirely in its efforts to recapture the pristine glories of New Testament Christianity.” You can see that at work in Burk’s appeal to “the Bible alone” — sweep away all that “tradition” and extra-biblical theological mumbo jumbo and just focus on the Bible as “the ultimate authority and measure of all truth.” Focus on the Bible, and nothing else, and we will reclaim the vitality of that “New Testament Christianity.”

This effort, alas, is doomed from the outset because biblicism was not an aspect of New Testament Christianity. The first-century disciples at Pentecost and in the generations that followed were not Bible Christians in anything like the way contemporary white evangelicals think of that term. They couldn’t have been for the very simple reason that the Bible did not yet exist. The New Testament was still being written and compiled, and the Hebrew Scriptures hadn’t yet been transformed and recreated as the “Old Testament.”

But let’s not get sidetracked with the long, sometimes messy, business of how the biblical canon took shape over the first three centuries of Christianity. I’m less concerned here with the content of “the Bible” for those New Testament Christians than I am with the form of it. I’m not talking about theology, but about technology. The Bible is a book. And in New Testament times, books hadn’t been invented yet.

This is the main reason that white evangelical biblicism cannot be reconciled with white evangelical primitivism. The former is about how we regard the Good Book, and books are a relatively recent development.

For the first 1,400 years of Christianity, books were at best a rare, expensive, elusive thing. The clergy had access to them, as did some scholars and aristocrats (those three categories tended to overlap quite a bit), but for most of its history, most Christians could not have owned, touched, or read a Bible. Being a Bible Christian in the modern white evangelical sense was simply a technological impossibility.

That only began to change in the 15th century, with Gutenberg and the advent of the printing press in Europe, and with the subsequent Protestant Reformation and the translation of the Bible into languages other than Latin.

Biblicism, in other words, wasn’t possible until the 16th century. Bible-centric, Bible Christianity like that of white evangelicalism did not exist before it was possible for it to exist. It began in the 16th century.

And but so, here is my point: Biblicistic evangelical Bible Christianity is not the only thing that began in the 16th century. And the technology and translation that made evangelical biblicism possible were not the only, or the primary, causes of its birth and growth.


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