The other day I had a reminder of my past evangelical life and the way I used to think and teach.
Watching an online sermon from a local conservative evangelical Bible-teaching church with which I am very familiar, I was struck at the implicit (and explicit) theme that pervaded the message. It wasn’t the specific content of the teaching that struck me as much as it was the approach that insisted — insisted, I say — over and over again that the most important thing about being a Christian is making sure you are thinking correctly, or as someone in this world might say, thinking biblically.
This is the world of biblicism. This wasn’t just a “Bible” sermon, it was a biblicist sermon. Its main message wasn’t the actual teaching of the Bible, as purported. Rather, it was a particular point of view about what the Bible is and how we as Christians should read the Bible and understand it. While allowance was made in the sermon for minor variations of interpretation, it was clear that I was watching a talk that was being held in a closed shop with no real space or encouragement to consider or discuss any perspectives other than the conservative evangelical approach.
In his book, Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture, Christian Smith defined “biblicism” as “a theory about the Bible that emphasizes together its exclusive authority, infallibility, perspicuity, self-sufficiency, internal consistency, self-evident meaning, and universal applicability.”
That was the real message of that sermon I heard. In fact, the opening illustration was specifically designed to set that point of view in contrast with those who (I’m paraphrasing) “see the Bible as a book of myths and stories.”
Smith’s verdict about this approach? “What I say here is simply that the Biblicism that in much of American evangelicalism is presupposed to be the cornerstone to Christian truth and faithfulness is misguided and impossible. It does not and cannot live up to its own claims.”
When we read the Bible as it is, and not as we would like it to be, the biblicist approach simply doesn’t match up with what we find in this complex collection of writings.
Furthermore, biblicists want to take this book — this book they see as a self-sufficient, simple, universal guide to truth and living — and make it the authority over the church and our lives.
However, as Brian Zahnd says in plain terms: “What Christians are supposed to confess is that Christ alone is the head of the church. The risen Christ said to his disciples, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given unto me.’ With his wry British wit, N.T. Wright reminds us that Jesus did not say, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth is given unto a book you chaps are going to write.’”
Pete Enns says that, in practice, “biblicism” works like this: “Biblicism is the tendency to appeal to individual biblical verses, or collections of (apparently) uniform verses from various parts of the Bible, to give the appearance of clear, authoritative, and final resolutions to what are in fact complex interpretive and theological issues generated by the fact that we have a complex and diverse Bible.”
Furthermore, Enns critiques biblicism by charging that it “sells the Bible short by taking the easy way out of reading the Bible like it’s a phone book or line-by-line instructional manual, rather than what it is: a complex, diverse, intermingling of wise reflections on life with God, written by the faithful for the faithful.”
For nearly 30 years of my adult life and ministry, I read and taught the Bible from the biblicist perspective, though I must say I often had nagging doubts about the validity of the approach. I have gradually moved away from biblicism (for example see HERE, and HERE, and HERE), not because I have less faith in the Bible as the sacred book for Christians, but because I have come to have more respect for its complexity and incarnational nature.
I love the Bible. It will always be a lamp to my feet and and light for my path. It is a sacrament of Christ to me. It is my family Story and I take my place in its continuing narrative. Beyond that, it is an ongoing conversation that invites me to take part — to listen, to read, to study, to meditate, to struggle, to question, to discuss and debate with my brothers and sisters.
But the Bible is not the authority. Christ is the authority. The Bible is the best witness to Christ we have. But our understanding of the Bible and how to approach it comes from something else by which the church has always judged the Bible. The Story that culminates in Christ, the gospel as narrated in the Creed — the Rule of Faith — is the authoritative summary which the church used to test and approve the writings that would make up the Bible. If there is a verbal authority, it is the authority of the kerygma, the gospel proclaimed by the first followers of Christ. That is what teaches us to read the Bible in a Christocentric way, as the Apostles did.
However, even with that, the Rule of Faith does not turn the Bible into a simple book that we can read as an instruction manual or systematic theological handbook.
- The Bible is an icon of Christ that requires intense “seeing” with the eyes of our hearts through meditation.
- The Bible is a sacrament of Christ that requires we partake, and chew, and drink deeply, and digest its nourishment.
- The Bible is full of lively literature that requires us to use our imagination, to put ourselves in the Story, to re-imagine what the Story means for us and to enact it in our lives.
- The Bible requires us to pray its words, to sing them, to read and chant them as the lifeblood of our worship and piety.
- The Bible is a complex and diverse collection of writings that continually challenges our expectations — if we really read it as it is and not what we would like it to be.
The Bible puts to death our ideas of nice, bourgeois, respectable religion and confronts us with a God, a creation, a life, and a gospel more wild than tame, more surprising than familiar, more unconventional and shocking than we would ever write ourselves, more messy and even incomprehensible in places than we would ever expect. The Bible invites us to embrace its mystery, to engage in an ongoing wrestling match with God and one another for wisdom and understanding.
Put me down for that kind of journey. You can have the easy, straightforward paved path of the biblicists. Been there. Done that. It’s a dead end.