Bible Theology

Is Biblicism the Problem in the Church Today?

The diffuse nature of evangelicalism means it is both difficult to define what it now is, but also that it is popular, that is, of the people. These facts have without question led to doctrinal aberration and heterodoxy. The solution some put forth is we need to overcome biblicism and return to classical theism. But the counsel is not self-evident, in that it rests on definitions that may not be commonly held.

One writer offers this as a definition of biblicism: “An over-rigid adherence to certain Bible texts or teachings at the expense of context and other biblical teachings.”[1] The writer comes from a Reformed tradition, and adheres to sola scriptura. I assume he also holds to the inerrancy of Scripture. Thus it is not the authority of Scripture he questions, for he later says “the Bible is the Christian’s highest authority in all of life, and yes, Scripture is sufficient for doctrine and life.”[2] It is the misuse of Scripture he cautions against. On the theological left, many also warn of biblicism, but they mean something quite different. Often they identify inerrancy, or an over-reliance on Scripture as the highest authority as the root of the problem.

The true target here seems to be a contextless proof-texting, so a better name may be “evangelical populism” rather than biblicism. There is no question that this sort of evangelical populism is a problem, but one person’s “over-rigid” adherence to the text of Scripture may be, in the eyes of another, just sound exegesis. Moreover, it’s not as if only the untrained have led others astray with poor teaching. Seminary or university training is not a guard against heterodoxy.

Advocates for classical theism would not suggest we base our theology on something other than Scripture, but that we look to the Great Tradition for help. Yet there, too, they recognize limits. Many who cite Aquinas for a defense of aseity, for example, would also say he is in error when he expatiates on why transubstantiation is true. To cite another example, the hermeneutical tradition of Alexandria is different from that of Antioch. Which great tradition should one choose? We must still subject the resources of classical theism to the authority of Scripture.

If we don’t do this, then we have spawned yet one more “ism.” We replace biblicism with creedalism or confessionalism. To answer, “we believe the creeds and confessions to be a restatement of the truths in Scripture” does not fully address the issue. Ironically, confessions can have doctrinal statements buttressed by the sort of proof-texting that opponents of biblicism decry. The Westminster Confession, for example, cites many texts that refer to the Sabbath day—Saturday—for why Christians should gather for worship on Sunday. The context of the Hebrew Scriptures and the people to whom God gave the Sabbath regulations is not the context of the church. This means that here, too, many do not agree on what the proper use of Scripture is.

I have a deep respect for the study of historical theology, and believe that everyone should engage with primary sources. Yet it’s too simple to regard our mining of historical theology as the missing piece to countering a shallow faith, or evangelical populism. Believers accept (or in some cases, reject) the conclusions of historical theology as individuals. So, reading Scripture “with the church” while helpful, is not in itself sufficient. We still weigh the evidence of history by Scripture.

Biblical theology, theology in context, is indeed a help to overcoming populism, but it requires discernment, and curated sources. Yet biblical theology is still a theology that rests on God’s revelation, not on historical theology. Historical theology can provide help, but it cannot assume primacy. When we speak of theological recovery, of overcoming the deficiencies of contemporary theology, we are still calling people back to Scripture. Without further qualification, a warning against “biblicism” doesn’t tell us enough. If the call is not to return to Scripture, what then is our authority?

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

[1] Shane Lems, “The Danger of Biblicism” retrieved Nov 19, 2021.

[2] Lems, Op. Cit.

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