“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?