There’s been some buzz in the Christian blogosphere recently about the questions raised by Christian Smith’s book The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture. Calvinist super-blogger Kevin DeYoung pounced on Smith in a review. Then popular evangelical moderate Scot McKnight struck back. I got wind of this conversation by way of Carson Clark.
I know these names mean very little to most people who read my blog. What in the world does Biblicism mean and why should you care? Let me try to unpack the debate in non-seminary-nerd language. Smith identifies ten different propositions which define the Biblicist view. I would use his list as a reference if it were shorter and easier to explain. But I thought I would describe Biblicism in a different way.
I haven’t read Smith’s book directly, but it sounds like what he is calling Biblicism is basically the way of understanding the Bible that I’ve usually heard called fundamentalism or Biblical inerrancy or literalism in the past. I think this Biblicism is actually the product of confusing and mixing together two different assumptions about Biblical interpretation, what I would label Biblical conservativism and Biblical populism. On the one hand, it’s conservative to say that the Bible is authoritative and that Christians should look at the world with Bible-shaped glasses whenever we read or experience anything else. The reason I call this “conservative” is because you’re recognizing one particular set of writings as an absolute standard by which all other truth is measured rather than saying that everybody is entitled to their own opinions which are equally valid since there is no absolute truth. A truly conservative view of Biblical interpretation would go further than this to say that we should study how people have read the Bible over the centuries to see whether we are reading it the right way.
Here’s the tricky thing: Protestantism revolted against the conservativism of the Catholic scholastic tradition in the 1500’s because the Protestant reformers felt that the Biblical interpretations of the scholastics were corrupt (yes, I’m oversimplifying). So in this sense modern-day Protestant evangelicals have a heritage that is conservative about the Biblical text itself but anti-conservative about its interpretive tradition. The Protestant reformer battle-cries included several different Latin phases that began with sola (only), most notably sola scriptura, which means that you don’t need to read ancient theologians like Thomas Aquinas or Tertullian or Augustine to understand the Bible; you just need the Bible itself. This type of claim is actually not conservative but populist in nature because it implies that any Joe Schmoe ought to be able to read the Bible on his own and have just as reasonable an interpretation as the distinguished Dr. Seminary Professor who has mastered Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and studied all the ancient church fathers. (I’m grateful to readers for pointing out that the Reformers understood sola scriptura differently, but I still think that what I’m describing is consistent with its caricature in contemporary Biblical discourse, i.e. it may have been a genuinely conservative perspective initially that has become populist as it’s been appropriated by people centuries later.)
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with populism, per se. I just think it’s important not to confuse populism with conservativism. Here’s an example. If I’ve studied enough Hebrew to know that the word translated as “day” in Genesis 1 is yom, which actually means an indeterminate unit of time, and if I also know that Adam is just the Hebrew word for “man,” then I can read the first few chapters of Genesis as an allegory which provides the reader with absolute moral truths about reality. Such a reading would stay within the boundaries of Biblical conservativism, because my particular interpretation does not compromise viewing the Bible as uniquely authoritative.
The need for the English translation of the Bible to be completely “literal” on the other hand — i.e. for “day” to mean a 24-hour solar day and for Adam to be the name of a historical person rather than just the Hebrew word for “man” — is a populist need, not a conservative one. It’s a need for the Bible to be saying the exact same thing to someone with a sixth grade education as it does to someone who has learned Hebrew. If the Bible is somehow more meaningful to someone who has studied ancient Near Eastern myths and recognizes similarities between the Akkadian and Babylonian stories of how the world was created and the Biblical account in Genesis, then that means that the playing field of Biblical interpretation is not level and that’s not fair to the Biblical populists (who rarely acknowledge that they’re concerned with leveling the playing field).
I’m totally sympathetic with Biblical populism when the root of its concern is openly identified. If reading the Bible is something that only people with Ph.D.’s are allowed to do, how is that conducive to an environment of healthy Christian disciple-making? It’s important to let people of all levels of education participate in the conversation of Biblical interpretation. What’s problematic is when you try to say that conservativism must also be populist, meaning that not only is the Bible authoritative and accessible to readers of all levels of intelligence, but the only correct interpretation has to be the most accessible one. This is the point at which Biblical “conservativism” becomes anti-intellectual by nature.
One of the paradoxes of Biblical interpretation is that when we try to force the Bible into a single coherent system of doctrine imposed upon the text from its exterior, we’re actually not being Biblically conservative, since we’re giving more authority to the extra-Biblical set of principles that we superimpose over the text than to the Bible itself. The need to boil the Bible down to four spiritual laws or five fundamentals has to do with accessibility, not authority; i.e. it’s not conservative; it’s populist. To be a true Biblical conservative is to resist the temptation to airbrush contradiction out of the Biblical text and to allow it to remain raw and even inaccessibly mysterious at times. A Biblical populist might want for simplicity’s sake to say that everything in the Bible is completely clear and universally applicable at all times in all circumstances. It requires a more refined interpretive sensibility to recognize that some days are going to be days when we need to read Matthew 7 and other days call for John 14 (I just chose these chapters arbitrarily, by the way).
In any case, Biblical conservativism and Biblical populism both express legitimate concerns about how we interpret the Bible as Christians. If it makes me a Biblicist to say that the Bible is authoritative and that anybody ought to be able to read and understand it, then I’m okay with being called that. The kind of Biblicism I cannot accept is to say that only the lowest-common-denominator Biblical interpretation is the correct one (e.g. the Earth had to be created in 4000 BC in 6 solar days because it’s too hard for less-educated people to get their heads around it otherwise). Biblical populism and conservativism are legitimately deployed independently; as a confused mishmash coupled together, they are an utter disaster.