One of the charges against those who take the Bible seriously is that they are “biblicists.” Unfortunately, the charge is one that sounds clever, but does not actually convey any real information.
For example, just recently, one biblical scholar wrote a piece arguing that biblicism was at fault for a number of things that are wrong with the evangelical church. In defining biblicism, the scholar wrote the following:
Biblicism is the idea that the Bible functions as something like a Christian field guide to faith and action: Since the Bible is God’s word, and therefore inspired by God, every word of it reveals true, reliable, and incontrovertible information about what God is like —and what it means to follow God faithfully.
Now I have to admit, after reading that definition, I could only scratch my head trying to figure out what was so bad about being a biblicist. After all, for centuries the church has confessed that Scripture is our infallible guide for “faith and practice,” which is the same thing as what this scholar referred to as “faith and action.” For centuries, the church has confessed that the Bible is God’s word, that it is inspired, and that it is infallible in what it says regarding who God is, what he is like, and what it means to follow this God faithfully. So I really am perplexed as to what is wrong with being a biblicist. By this definition, the church, for the last two millennia, has been biblicist. And evidently, because the church has been biblicist, it is also responsible for all the evils of the world.
Now perhaps this scholar meant that there are some people who are too confident that their particular interpretation of Scripture is the right one. And this can certainly be the case. We can all too easily misinterpret Scripture in such a way that it becomes merely an echo of our own thoughts and ideas, and our own ideologies. But, of course, this is not biblicism. This is simply pride and bad hermeneutics.
Or perhaps this scholar meant that some people are ready to pay a lot of attention to what one part of Scripture says, but, in doing so, ignore other parts of Scripture that might suggest something to the contrary. And this can certainly be the case. We can all too easily take a single verse or brief passage of Scripture, interpret it, and then make theological or ideological pronouncements as if other parts of Scripture might not provide a contrast or perhaps even look contradictory. But, of course, this is not biblicism. This is, if I may coin a new word here, “versicism.” Now maybe someone else has already coined this term; I decided not to Google it to find out. But my point is simply that “versicism” should not be identified with biblicism. In fact, versicism is the exact opposite of biblicism, for the true biblicist is one who pays attention to the whole canon of Scripture. And, I might add here, that versicism is by no means a malady that afflicts only evangelicals; it afflicts progressive Christians as well, and red-letter Christians, and liberal Christians.
Again, a good biblicist is one who listens to the whole canon of Scripture. And the good biblicist is one who does not ignore passages that present either contrasts or apparent contradictions. A number of years ago, Old Testament scholar, James A. Sanders argued that almost every truth of Scripture has its “contrapositive”; that is, for every truth of Scripture, there are verses or passages that seem to present contrary information. Now, I do think the way Sanders expressed things was at least a bit hyperbolic. But a good biblicist does need to pay attention to these contrapositives. However, what separates the biblicist from the progressive or liberal on this point is that the biblicist does not assume that the two positions cannot be reconciled, or that one position necessarily cancels out the other position. In fact, listen to this self-description of God, a self-description which contains one of the most interesting positive-contrapositives in Scripture. This description occurs in Exodus 34, in a passage where God passes by in front of Moses and pronounces his own name and his own character:
And he [God] passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.” (Exod 34:6-7)
Did you catch that? God forgives wickedness, rebellion, and sin. Yet, he does not leave the guilty unpunished. So which is it? Does he forgive wickedness? Or does he punish wickedness? So here is one of those positive-contrapositives. And, interestingly, they are not separated by being in different Testaments, or in two different biblical books written by two different authors. They are in the same book, the same chapter, and even the same verse! The very fact that they are in the same verse ought to give detractors of the Bible’s theological infallibility a great deal of pause when they suggest that apparent contradictions, spread out over larger sections of the Bible, obviously prove that the Bible is a hopelessly contradictory book. But if one is a biblicist, this is not a problem that causes despair. Rather, it is simply evidence of the fact that a listening, humble, faithful, reverent attitude is necessary when listening to what Scripture has to say about who God is, what he is like, and what our response should be to that revelation in terms of what we are to believe and how we are to act. And one should not be too ready, at the drop of hat, to pull out the “contradiction” card and cry, “See!”
So, evidently, a biblicist is one who has the idea that the Bible functions as something like a field guide when it comes to Christian belief and practice. The biblicist believes the Bible is God’s word, and therefore inspired by God, and that every word of it reveals true, reliable, and incontrovertible information about what God is like —and what it means to follow God faithfully.
And that is not a bad thing. That is a good thing.
December 10, 2015
Thanks Jeff. I first came across you when you replied on the contrary website which I read a bit. I agree, I think it is good to be a “Biblicist”
Could I ask you a question here? Do you think that Jesus Christ is the incarnate “Tree of Life”??