One Way To Escape Biblicism

Much of recent American Reformed theology has been caught up for some time in a distorted form of biblicism that has fallen into the trap of trying to reinvent the theological wheel in areas where doing so is fraught with danger—in particular, the doctrine of the divine attributes and the doctrine of the Trinity. More often than should be the case, important aspects of these essential doctrines of the Christian faith have been seriously misunderstood and then, on the basis of such misunderstanding, rejected or revised, with disastrous consequences. One way in which these misunderstandings could have been avoided would have been to grapple with the way these doctrines were defined and defended by the greatest theologians of the past, theologians such as Augustine, Gregory of Nazianzus, and yes, even Thomas Aquinas. Read more»

Keith Mathison, “Should We Read Thomas Aquinas?,” Tabletalk (August 10, 2018)

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  1. What’s wrong with “biblicism”? Weren’t the Reformers themselves “biblicist” when they used the Scriptures to criticize (rightly, in my view) large parts of Western Catholic tradition? And what of our own Reformed tradition, with its regulative principle of worship and its revision of church government along New Testament lines, both of which, in using the Bible, upended more than a millennium of church tradition?

    I will admit that a lot of my extra-biblical Christian reading these days is of people who have been with the Lord for quite a while now. Hence, I do not really know some of the issues in Trinitarian teaching that have arisen in recent years. In teaching adult Sunday School, Bible studies, or catechism/conffession groups both here and in Taiwan, I have run into a kind of “Unitarianism of the Second Person combined with Docetism” (for lack of a better word), or a binitarianism of Jesus and the Spirit in popular “worship” songs. But I am not really up on what educated clergy and theologians have said that goes off track. Could you point me to some quick and easy online resources? Thanks.

    • Peter,

      No, the Reformers were not biblicist! Please follow the link and read Keith’s essay. See also the relevant sections in RRC.

      The Reformers taught and tried to follow sola Scriptura, whereby Scripture is the final rule for Christian faith and practice but they did not seek to read Scripture without consulting the ecumenical creeds and the great Christian tradition. The biblicist seeks to read Scripture as if no one has ever read it before. The Reformers were close students of the tradition and thus avoided many of the errors that plague us now.

  2. Dr. Clark,

    The term “biblicist” is a new term for me. You say that they are folks who “seek to read the Scripture as if no one has ever read it before.” So, they are reading it in isolation from all those who have already contributed to our understanding, is that correct? Sounds like they are intentionally ignoring all their predecessors, is that a correct assumption? Why are they approaching Scripture in that way? Is it a conviction that they are trying to avoid some of the past errors?

    • Michael,

      There’s more about biblicism, its history, influence, and problems in Recovering the Reformed Confession.

      Yes, biblicists seek to read Scripture isolation from the confessions and history of the church. On a popular, lay level, it’s often done out of ignorance. Among teachers and pastors, however, this approach is embraced out of ignorance and sometimes out of pride. Sometimes, however, it’s a deliberate methodology adopted under the mistaken idea that it is the route to truth. One very popular Bible teacher has been known to say that he reads his text at hand as if no one has ever read it before. This is taken among some as a mark of fidelity to the Scriptures. This occurs in a context where the history of the church and confessions are regarded with suspicion.

      Were biblicists trying to avoid past errors they have picked the very worst way to avoid them since one of the most frequent and likely outcomes of biblicism is that its practitioners tend to fall into the great heresies of the church. This is one great reason to flee from biblicism. The idea that “I am different. I am special. If I read Scripture in isolation, I will avoid heresy” is hubris.

    • I have run into many people, both in the flesh and online, who reject any commentaries or theological works. It is them, the word and the Holy Spirit. This is spiritual narcissism.

  3. OK. If “biblicism” is to read the Bible as if nobody else has ever read it before, I see your point. My own impression is that a lot of post-Second Great Awakening folks read the Bible “with fresh eyes” that were actually fitted with spectacles provided by the British empiricists and [anti-Reformed] Scottish “common sense” philosophers (or, if you live in the Far East, provided by traditions of spiritism, Buddhism, Confucian moralism, etc.).

    However, is there not a perpetual need to subject our beliefs and practices to the Bible’s scrutiny and criticism? For the record, I accept the historical Reformed confessions, even down to things like infant baptism, a system of ethics based on the Decalogue, and a cessationist view of certain charismata. But this acceptance of the Reformed view was accompanied by a lot of searching of the Scriptures.; and having learned from the Reformed influence on my North Atlantic culture that the Bible is itself comprehensible (with the HS’ help).

    • Peter,

      See RRC where I give a brief history of the movement and the nomenclature.

      It is vital to distinguish biblicism from sola Scriptura, which is what you describe in your second paragraph. Everything we confess is subject to the Scriptures and subject to revision in light of the Scriptures but that is far from biblicism.

      FWIW, I have come to doubt what has become the standard narrative re Scottish Commonsense Realism. The Enlightenments were variegated and Scotland Enlightenment was not quite the German Enlightenment.

  4. Having never heard the term biblicism I looked it up. This only added to my confusion as the dictionary definition means someone who interprets the bible literally. According to your brief post here I might be somewhat of a biblicist as I tend to be wary when accepting a teaching just because it is tradition or was proclaimed by someone famous in church history. This is for two reasons. The first reason is because I had no discernment when younger and fell for some bad teachings. The second is because tradition while helpful is not scripture itself but humans trying their best to follow God’s word and the Spirit’s leading which occasionally leads to error or partial truths. Great age of an idea does not always equal more trustworthy. I thought sola scripture began with God’s word first and foremost. Tradition is great but it’s not the inerrant word of God.

    • Colleen,

      The proper definition, the scholarly definition of biblicism is the attempt to read Scripture in isolation from the church and her confessions. The word “tradition,” is misleading in this context. It has a role but the context in which we read Scripture is the visible church and her confessions and creeds. Scripture always comes first. Scripture is always the principal, final authority for the Christian faith and life.

      That’s distinct from “tradition,” or things proclaimed by “someone famous.” Augustine is important as is Anselm, Thomas, and Calvin but we believe what we do because of what Scripture teaches but we don’t read Scripture in isolation from the broader church and her authoritative declarations and interpretations of Scripture.

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