The Antidote to Biblicism

The error of biblicism is expressed by those who say, “Well, you have your verses and I have mine!” – as if all verses carry equal weight.

Instead, we must learn how the Bible interprets itself – the internal hermeneutic of Scripture – to give the proper weight and context to someone’s “verses.” However, it’s still not enough to say “scripture interprets scripture.” We must take into account the redemptive historical development of God’s revelation, and how the apostolic New Testament interprets the covenants and promises of the prophetic Old Testament as fulfilled in Christ crucified and exalted. If our hermeneutic is not apostolic and Christ-centered in this way, it is not the internal hermeneutic of the Bible.

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Posted by Tony Phelps | Thursday, November 2, 2023 | Categorized in Biblicism, HeidelQuotes. Tony Phelps. Bookmark the permalink.

About Tony Phelps

Tony grew up in Rhode Island. He was educated at BA (University of Rhode Island) and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He worked in the insurance industry for ten years. He planted a PCA church in Wakefield, RI where he served for eleven years. In 2015–18 he pastored Covenant Reformed Church (URCNA) in Colorado Springs. He is currently pastor of Living Hope (OPC). Tony is married to Donna and together they have three children. Meet all the Heidelberg contributors»

13 comments

  1. I wonder if this applies to how women have been historically treated by the church – especially in the middle ages – by focusing on a couple of Pauline verses instead of looking at the whole of Scripture and especially at how Christ treated them. And is the justification of slavery a child of biblicism?

    • Simonetta,

      Biblicism has long been with us (e.g., the Arians) but I think that females were considered as they were mainly out of a set of received and unquestioned assumptions. That said, I’m not sure the the story of the way females were perceived before the Victorian era has often been well told. I think the picture was more complex than the story told by the various waves of feminists. Those agitating for change often paint the past as worse than it was (which is what the Enlightenment did to Christianity in their narratives) in order to justify the changes for which they are agitating. I’m not denying that women weren’t diminished at various times in the past but only asking us all to be critical of the narrative created by the sexual revolutions since the Victorian period.

      • I’m not going by feminist literature but rather by primary sources. (As you know, I have written a book about women in church history and am writing another). What many men of the cloth have written about women in the patristic and medieval eras is appalling, and some women have objected from the start. These are facts, and some of these attitudes are still around today. I think it’s a mixture of taking some Pauline verses out of the full biblical context and yielding to cultural bias. So I was wondering if you could call that biblicism, just like holding to a misunderstood Bible passage became the basis for some Christians’ justification of slavery.

        • To your immediate question, no I don’t think that’s a helpful definition of biblicism. As you say, it’s the influence of their culture, which was, to greater and lesser degrees, in different times and places, more or less negative about females. Yes, it’s not difficult to find examples of male chauvinism in pre-modern literature, to which women rightly objected.

          But our sensibilities have been shaped by a century of waves of feminism. We have to be self-critical too. Pre-modern male writers were too often influenced by their culture but we’re not immune from influence by our culture.

          • Ok, so biblicism doesn’t apply to the justification of slavery either? What would be an example then?

            • Biblicism is the attempt to read Scripture as if no one has ever read it before or to read it without the church. The Arians were rationalists/biblicists (the two are twins). The Anabaptists were biblicists. The Socinians were biblicists. There were biblicistic elements to the Remonstrant movement. Much of Modern evangelical Christianity, since the early 19th century has been biblicist (as part of their anti-intellectualism).

              It is one thing to appeal to Scripture for a precedent, as defenders of Modern, chattel slavery have done, it’s another thing to appeal to Scripture in isolation from the whole history of the church.

              Females did not have much status generally in the ancient world. Against that background, the teaching of Paul is fairly revolutionary. Females seem to have had more status among the early pre-Nicene Christians but the legalization of Christianity in the early 4th century and then the adoption of Christianity as the state religion in the late 4th century creates a crisis. Now Christianity was a part of the establishment and the church began to adopt Roman mores. The revolutionary impulse was diminished but Christians received a lot of customs and assumptions (e.g., astronomy) as part of a package of common or natural knowledge. Everyone, Christian and pagan alike, thought that the sun revolved around the earth. That turned out to be false but it was unquestioned for a long time. That wasn’t biblicism. We read Scripture in light of those received assumptions. Ditto for the state church. It was received wisdom that there must be a state-religion even though the apostles and 2nd-century fathers argued for no such thing. It was just “common knowledge.” No one questioned it seriously or systematically until the 18th century.

              That’s why I’m cautious about lambasting pre-modern writers for being people of their time.

              In our narrative about them we shouldn’t make them better or worse than they were just as we hope people will do the same for us in future.

              • Thank you for your explanation. I guess I had the wrong idea of biblicism. And I am completely with you on your last paragraph. I am only lambasting those who cite past authors as a justification to continue in what the church has recognized to be errors.

    • What specifically was revolutionary about Paul’s view of women vs the Roman culture, which was then lost with the establishment of the State-church?

      • Dr. Clark will likely have a better answer, but one example could be 1 Corinthians 7:4: “For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.” To say that the wife has authority over the husband’s body was pretty radical at that time.

      • Sam,

        For one thing, females in Greco-Roman culture did not have much standing. They were not regarded as equals to males. It was a Patriarchal system. Females existed only as subsidiaries of fathers and husbands. Men married at 30 and females in the early teens. They were housekeepers and child-rearers. Typically females were not educated (there were exceptions for females in wealthy families). A widow might inherit the family business (e.g., Lydia) but no pagan in the Greco-Roman world could or would have said what Paul wrote in Gal 3:28. It would have been highly unusual to speak of females the way Paul does in Rom 16 and elsewhere. “Co-laborers” in the Lord is not a title a Roman would have used of a female.

  2. Scott, I am intrigued by your suggestion that Lydia was a widow. I had always thought that her toponymic name suggests servile origin. My take would be that she was a ‘liberta’ who had been sent by her former master (and current patron) to Philippi to set up a branch office of his business in Thyatira. Her independence in the management of her household (she authorises a household baptism) does not suggest a widow, who would normally revert to the guardianship of a male relation.

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