Biblicism: A Trojan Horse Full Of Rationalism

Over against the magisterial Reformers and the Roman Catholic theologians of the day, theologians like Michael Servetus, Giovanni Blandrata, Valentine Gentile, and Laelius and Faustus Socinus examined the text of Scripture in a strictly linguistic and non-traditionary exegesis and found no doctrine of the Trinity: on the one hand, in the name of a return to the original message of Jesus they and their followers leveled a biblical critique against the traditional churchly doctrine of the one divine essence and three divine persons. On the other hand, looking at the writings of the earliest church fathers, they could argue no clear doctrine of the Trinity. Servetus in particular argued the case for a pre-Nicene, non-trinitarian view—with the result that his theology and that of other antitrinitarians looked like nothing so much as a reprise of ancient heresies. It is difficult to identify the sources or grounds for these views. On the one hand, they can be explained as a coalescence of the humanistic philological techniques of the Renaissance with the rather typical Renaissance humanistic polemic against the scholastic tradition, here extended to the more intricate dogmatic developments of the late patristic period—and with a radical, a-traditional version of the Renaissance ad fontes and the Reformers’ sola Scriptura. That scholarly advocate of the antitrinitarians, E. M. Wilbur, could claim that their theology was merely a natural outgrowth of early Reformation thought and, in fact, evidence that the antitrinitarians, unlike the Reformers, followed out the implications of their reformist position to its logical conclusions. Certainly, the antitrinitarian position is characterized by a radical biblicism coupled with a renunciation of traditional Christian and philosophical understandings of substance, person, subsistence, and so forth, as unbiblical accretions. Yet, it is also hardly the case that the antitrinitarian stress on the utter and absolute unity of God to the exclusion of personal distinctions in the divine essence was utterly a-philosophical and simply a return to the basic biblical message, as one recent writer has proposed.

Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy; Volume 4: The Triunity of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 74–75.

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10 comments

  1. “It is difficult to identify the sources or grounds for these views”

    These heretical unitarians seemed to appear like a veritable plague of locust Rev 9:3
    they were very contra or shall I say counter reformational in their doctrinal positions
    trying to tear down what God had built up, in every way acting the dissemblers.

    Radical biblicists, The Scriptures are Inspired thus Spiritual, so carnal unregenerate
    men cannot discern the things of the Spirit of God.

  2. “—with the result that his theology and that of other antitrinitarians looked like nothing so much as a reprise of ancient heresies.” – Does this mean that they may not have been? Did Servetus acknowledge the Deity of Christ, the Deity and Personality of the Holy Spirit, the uncreated nature of both these Persons, and their existence as separate Persons?
    It is interesting that the disputed Johannine Comma (1 John 5:7) says no more and no less about the nature and status of the Word and the Holy Spirit than the Son said about Himself in John 10:30 (which, to my mind, is at least as good an argument for adopting it as part of the main text of Scripture as its use of “Word”, rather than “Son”). So why didn’t someone construct a Two-Persons-In-One-God doctrine from the latter?

      • Having condemned all Biblicism, what do you say to a Roman Catholic who accuses Protestants of it? In the end, surely, isn’t John 7:17 the only answer? People who really care about God’s will will eventually come to sound Protestant doctrine (This does not mean that people who don’t care about God’s will will not come to profess sound Protestant doctrine – Sound doctrinal propositions aren’t all there is to the Christian faith), whether or not they embrace a position of Biblicism on the way.
        How could Luther have persuaded the Romanists of his day that he wasn’t a mere Biblicist? Answer: He couldn’t – That’s what is either done by the Holy Spirit in time or by the condemning God on the day of Judgement.

        • John,

          We have to define our terms carefully. Biblicism is the mere quotation of Scripture and the pretense of reading Scripture in isolation from the church. A pretense is just what it is. There’s an entire section on this in Recovering the Reformed Confession. Check it out.

  3. I have a lot of respect for Dr. Muller, but this passage is almost unreadable. The opening sentence is surely missing a comma after “Jesus,” but it is still difficult to parse. And what is with, “On the one hand, they can be explained as a coalescence of the humanistic philological techniques of the Renaissance with the rather typical Renaissance humanistic polemic against the scholastic tradition…”? Where is his editor?

    That asside, isn’t Muller in the last sentence saying that biblicism can’t account for all the features of these antitrinitarians? It is biblicism plus some other commitment.

    • Scott,

      1. This passage is extracted from a longer argument so it should be read that way and judged in that light.

      2. Aside is spelled with one “s.” Apparently we all need editors. 🙂

      3. Yes, you’re quite right. Muller is implying that their biblicism masked a form of rationalism. Hence the reference to the Trojan Horse. The Biblicists propose “just the Bible” but, in the history of the church, that has never been true. The Arians proposed a biblicist creed (it just quoted Scripture) in order to mask their rationalism. What was at stake was not whether Scripture is true but what it intends to say. Servetus, Socinus et al were rationalists. They knew a priori (before they ever looked at the evidence) what Scripture could and could not teach and what they were prepared to accept and that was only what they regarded as being compatible with reason or what they could comprehend exhaustively.

  4. What is the difference between applying ad fontes to the text of Scripture, which seems to be looked at favorably here in the past, and biblicism, which is seen as undesirable and even dangerous?

    • Scott,

      This is part of why the orthodox Reformed found the Socinians so challenging, because they invoked some of the same humanist rhetoric that the Protestants had picked up from the Renaissance but they did so in light of their prior commitments to rationalism and biblicism. Thus, they distorted the Protestant hermeneutic and produced a fundamentally heretical theology. See the reply to your other comment.

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