Biblicism vs. Bibliolatry: Guess what? They’re Different.

February 10, 2012 — 3 Comments


“There are four qualities that have been the special marks of the Evangelical religion: conversionism, the believe that lives need to be changed; activism, the expression of the gospel in effort; biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible; and what may be called crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Together they form a quadrilateral of priorities that is the basis of Evangelicalism” (Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain, Kindle location 163).

In his attempt to circumscribe some basic features common to evangelicalism, D.W. Bebbington includes ‘biblicism’ as one of the four priorities in his quadrilateral. In recent years, biblicism and its adherents–biblicists–have come under attack. As Peter Leithart writes, “‘Biblicist’ is a fighting word.”

Much of the recent hub-bub comes after the publication of Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture. He charges that “American Evangelicalism embodies a pervasive interpretive pluralism in biblical interpretation and theology,” due to its commitment to biblicism. Ouch. Are Smith and Bebbington talking about the same thing?

I think not. Bebbington goes on to further describe biblicism as the “belief that all spiritual truth is to be found in [the Bible’s] pages” but, contra Smith, asserts that such “[r]espect for the Bible did not necessarily lead them into far-fetched views. . . [or] wooden literalness” (locations 404 and 417). Smith, on the other hand, narrowly defines biblicism as “a theory about the Bible that emphasizes together its exclusive authority, infallibility, perspicuity, self-sufficiency, internal consistency, self-evident meaning, and universal applicability” (Smith, The Bible Made Impossible, viii).


The differences between Bebbington and Smith are stark. Bebbington notes that until the mid-19th century, evangelical biblicism displayed a “remarkable fluidity in ideas about the effects of inspiration on the text. The overriding aim of early Evangelicals was to bring home the message of the Bible and to encourage its devotinal use rather than develop a doctrine of scripture” (Bebbington, loc. 435). Smith reads his narrow definition of biblicism back into the whole of American evangelicalism and pronounces is “misguided and impossible” (Smith, ix).

At points, I agree with Smith’s analysis of how the Bible is used by many American evangelicals. It certainly leads to a preponderance of conflicting interpretations. That is a problem for those evangelicals who claim that the Bible is inerrant and infallible. And even a cursory reading of the Bible shows that it is not internally consistent or always self-evident in its meaning. But I take umbrage with Smith’s narrowing of ‘biblicism’ to inerrancy, infallibility, consistency, and universal applicability, and the way in which fundamentalists rush to defend those traits. That’s not biblicism, that’s bibliolatry


Though Smith raises important points about how the Bible is being abused by (fundamentalist) evangelicals, his concerns ought to lead him to further explore the impact of individualism on evangelicalism. The issue is not that evangelicals have a special regard for the Bible, it’s that so many of them read it and interpret it in isolation

I consider myself a ‘biblicist’ in the Bebbington sense of the term. I believe that the Bible deserves special regard. It is inspired in a way that the Qu’ran, the Tao te Ching, the Sutras, and the Book of Mormon are not. As such, I can reasonably expect that within its pages I can find all that is necessary to be reconciled to God

What about you? How do you see the Bible? Are you a biblicist, too?

Anderson Campbell


  • Luke

    Andy,Great post per usual. Always appreciate your thoughts. However, I may push back a tad on this one. I agree with you when you say that being a biblicist is a good thing if it means creating a special place for the bible as a unique and inspired collection of writings within the Christian faith community. That being said, do you think that Bebbington’s statements that both “belief that all spiritual truth is to be found in [the Bible’s] pages” and “[r]espect for the Bible did not necessarily lead them into far-fetched views. . . [or] wooden literalness” can both be held in a practical way within our church communities? If one believes that all spiritual truth comes from the bible, what is stopping people from focusing so much on the bible that what it says and what they interpret it says begin to meld together. In other words, isn’t saying that ALL truth is in the bible placing the bible on a pedestal (which is different that saying it’s unique and set apart)? This to me seems like one step away from bibliolotry.Now don’t get me wrong, I am kind of playing devil’s advocate here, as a few answers to my questions might be community (something I think is vital to reading the bible) and humility (my particular interpretation is not inspired). But don’t you think it may be going a tad far to say that “within its pages I can find all that is necessary to be reconciled to God.” What about other forms of revelation? What about the Spirit? What about creation? For me, the bible is beautiful and inspired and authoritative. But I also believe that I can see God just as easily in the Spirit-filled community and the created world around us. Do I think the bible is exactly the same as these? Not really, because I do believe it is unique. And I believe that the bible can work with these other forms of revelation very beautifully. But to say that the bible is THE way to God, does, I believe, pave the way for bibliolotry.And since we tend to agree more often than not, I just had to reply :)Much love my friend, and I think we agree more on this than not. Still would like to hear your thoughts.Luke

  • Anderson Campbell

    Luke,I always appreciate push back. You bring up an excellent point about the place of the bible alongside other forms of revelation. I’m 100% with you that revelation and spiritual truth can be found in places other than the bible. I do not hold (nor does Bebbington) that the bible is the ONLY place that spiritual truth can be found. Rather, that the Bible is not lacking in regards to spiritual truth. The bible points to places outside as congruent sources of progressive revelation and interpretation (Psalm 19, Jn. 16:13-15, for example). The bible is a product of the animation of the Spirit through people and time. Bibliolatry seeks to elevate it to a fourth member of the Trinity. I argue that positive biblicism recognizes the unique nature of the bible, in both content and manufacture, and accords to it a primacy on account of its witness. It is testimony more than it is fact book. You are right on when you write about the place of community in interpreting and applying the bible. I deleted several paragraphs where I dealt with that so that I could keep the post manageable. I hint at it near the end of the post, but I think that the frustration of Smith (and others who uses ‘biblicism’ in the narrowest sense) can be better sourced to an individualistic usage of the bible that is unique to late-nineteenth and twentieth century evangelicalism. This is the shadow side of the bible’s ubiquity in America. It has perpetuated a ‘hermeneutic of me-ism’ among many evangelicals. Still, I think that’s a result of individualism more than claims about the bible’s uniqueness.Despite the ways in which fundamentalists misuse the bible by twisting it to say what most benefits them, I still hold that for evangelicals the bible holds a special ‘starting place,’ as it were, for knowing and understanding spiritual truth. That is a more orthodox understanding of ‘biblicism’ (if one can even use the word ‘orthodox’ when talking about evangelicalism!). The image of a conduit may be helpful. It shapes and directs revelation and Christian spirituality, but does not seek to hoard it as a reservoir. 

  • Luke

    Andy,I figured much of our disagreement was in terminology, which was correct. I misunderstood your use of Bebbington (having not read the book in which you speak). It is just that his statement struck me as very similar to ideas of the bible that I grew up with. My initial reaction to the statement that all spiritual truth is to be found in the bible takes be back to my time in communities where I was told the bible is ALL I need. For instance, my bible college “counseling” professor who said all we needed to properly council people was not a license or this psychology stuff, but the bible (I still shutter at this). I am down with your use of the word though. However, I still am not sure that biblicism is a word I want to adhere to, mainly because I have used it (or rather misused it, you might say) for many years :).Also, might the language of “biblical tradition” be better than just speaking of the bible in this conversation? I know for those of us that have studied how the bible came to be and how it was passed down, the word bible conveys all of this story. But for most people, the bible is simply the book in front of them. Biblical tradition impies the whole communal and Spirit-filled process in which we came to hold the bible today. At the very least I think we need to change how we use the word “bible” in the evangelical church, and particularly the adjectives used about it (inspired, authoritative). For many these terms still point to divine authorship and inspired individuals, rather then inspired communities and traditions. Thanks as always for helping me think better. Much love.Luke