According to Christian Smith, Biblicism just plain doesn’t work.
The “biblicism” that pervades much of American evangelicalism is untenable and needs to be abandoned in favor of a better approach to Christian truth and authority. By untenable I do not simply mean that it is wrong, but rather that it is literally impossible, at least when attempted consistently on its own terms. It cannot actually be sustained, practiced, and defended. (The Bible Made Impossible, Kindle Location 189)
Karl Barth put it this way:
In actual fact, there has never been a Biblicist who for all his grandiloquent appeal directly to Scripture against the fathers and tradition has proved himself so independent of the spirit and philosophy of his age and especially of his favourite religious ideas that in his teaching he has really allowed the Bible and the Bible alone to speak reliably by means or in spite of his anti-traditionalism. (CD I.2, p 609)
I’m becoming convinced that the problem goes even deeper: Where Biblicism holds sway, heretical understandings of essential doctrines will always be able to gain traction. This is an inevitable result of biblicism and interpretive pluralism.
Let’s step back and remind ourselves what is meant by “biblicism.” I’ll defer to Smith’s definition from The Bible Made Impossible: “a theory about the Bible that emphasizes together its exclusive authority, infallibility, perspicuity, self-sufficiency, internal consistency, self-evident meaning, and universal applicability.” (Kindle Location 66)
I’m generally pretty reserved about using an “H” word (heresy or heretic) to describe a contemporary Christian teaching, movement or teacher. And when I use it, I don’t intend it in an insulting or demeaning way; and I don’t intend to come off as having an opinion about any individual’s eternal destination. To me, it’s simply a descriptive word meant to denote a teaching universally rejected by all major segments of the church (Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant). Arianism and Sabellianism (which came up in yesterday’s post) are great historical examples of heresy, and are relevant because they still creep up today in places such as Unitarianism and Oneness Pentecostalism.
To illustrate a little more specifically… I’ve recently been exposed to something of a conservative denomination that adheres to a unique brand of Unitarianism. I probably wouldn’t have given them a second glance, but decided to take a closer look because a friend of mine has a background in it (and I really want to understand where he is coming from). Most of us think of more gushy liberal types when we hear the term Unitarian (think: the “Unitarian Universalist” denomination); but this particular group shares a lot of surface-level similarities to conservative evangelical and fundamentalist cultures. They take the Bible seriously, in a literalist sort of way (though I would argue that, like everyone else, they are selective about their literal interpretations). They affirm the inerrancy of Scripture, the uniqueness of Jesus as God’s son and the Messiah, the substitutionary atonement and physical resurrection of Jesus, salvation via faith/repentance, etc etc. Sounds fairly typical, no? Orthodox, with nothing to raise an eyebrow at? But their main distinctive doctrine is a denial that Jesus can be called “God” in any meaningful sense (since it is a term reserved for Jesus’ Dad), or that he was preexistent; in other words, they deny the Trinity because they see it as at odds with the “unity” of God.
I’ve started into a book by one of their current principal thinkers, Anthony Buzzard (
it’s free on Kindle right now). He argues (at length) that Christians should return to the creed of Jesus, which was the same “unitarian creed” of Judaism (i.e. the Shema). I don’t intend to address any of his arguments here at this time (honestly I’m not sure if I have the patience for it!). However, I do want to note that he supports his unorthodox views via a sort of restorationist biblicism. He believes that Jesus “was the ultimate biblicist,” making Buzzard’s mission to restore the church to the original beliefs of Jesus and the apostles regarding the unitary nature of God.
In places Buzzard seems bewildered that anyone would simply write him off as a “heretic” without engaging his arguments. After all, he shares a common basic approach to the Bible with many evangelical and fundamentalist Christians (biblicism), and he also proclaims basically the same “how-to-get-saved” gospel message. Given that common ground, shouldn’t Christians be more willing to engage in open conversation regarding the foundational question of who God is?
Who can blame him?
Biblicism makes for a confusing, splintered playing field, with no clear authority. As Barth argued, biblicism takes authority out of the hands of Christ, and puts it into the hands of the reader of Scripture (see quote in previous post, “Our Paper Pope“). With the “Bible” as our only foundation (i.e. without relying on “man-made” creeds or even doctrinal statements), what grounds do we have to dismiss either Unitarianism or Oneness Pentecostalism as heretical? They base their beliefs on the Bible also. While we can argue with them about the texts, these conversations are rarely productive — since all sides involved are absolutely convinced that they are faithful to what Scripture clearly reveals.
Can we just be honest? American Evangelicals have biblicism in our blood. Sometimes we can only get along with each other based on a common view of the Bible — that it is inerrant, clear, and the ultimate authority on… everything. Want to learn about science? Read the Genesis account of creation. Want to know what to make of the situation in the Middle East? Read the newspaper alongside the prophetic literature in the Bible. Want to be happier, healthier, or more physically fit? Vote for the right presidential candidate? Bible, Bible, Bible. (Smith’s excellent book, The Bible Made Impossible, is replete with examples of this type of thing).
Biblicism lets us use the Bible to address our pet-issues that it wasn’t meant to address, and at the same time inevitably leaves the back door open for essential doctrines to be brought into question.