According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for this world to recreate, reclaim, redeem, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater
Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger
Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton
I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. – anon
Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII
Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut
Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest
People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. – anon
Certainly God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater
An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater
Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann
Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument. There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner
Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14)
Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton
The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens we show to the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. – anon
The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul
The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah
If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer
God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. – anon
Our little [biblical] systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God art more than they. - Alfred Lord Tennyson
We can’t control God; God is uncontrollable. God can’t control us; God’s love is uncontrolling! - Thomas Jay Oord
Life in perspective but always in process... as we are relational beings in process to one another so life events are in process in relation to each event... as God is to Self, is to world, is to us... like Father, like sons and daughters, like events... life in process yet always in perspective. - R.E. Slater

Friday, October 21, 2011

Christian Smith - Introduction: The Bible Made Impossible

Deliver Us from a Wilderness of
Our Own Making
by R.E. Slater

I am including an excerpt of Christian Smith's book on biblicism as a way of beginning a review on this very important subject. Later articles will more fully review Smith's proposals but the reader may begin reviewing this subject with me now through this posting here below.

As an introductory note, the term biblicism seems clearly associated with the idea of "popular folk religion"... meaning that, "popular folk ideas, religious statements, pious cliches, and idealized sentiments" are used by Christians when speaking of their faith to break it down into meaningful statements to their life experiences. This is done by quoting to each other cherished abbreviated proverbs, murky haikus, quaint ideologies, judgmental temperaments, over-simplified characterizations, and generally, a form of religious-speak that is usually found within a sociological grouping of Christians when they get together to talk over their life experiences and the confusing, sinful world of people around them. Examples of these statements are given at the end of this post where Christian Smith cites dozens of popular expressions that we have all heard at one-time-or-another spoken at church or with one another in daily conversation. Popular sentiments casually expressed from the pulpit, radio, TV, family and well-meaning friends, each sentiment holding a facsimile of truth to it but ringing hollow as pious platitudes and cliches in the specific instances of our daily Christian lives in need of hard answers and clearer truths.

For myself, this type of mindset is most appropriately named folk religion, and became the reason that motivated me to re-analyze my Christian faith beginning over a decade ago in the late 1990s. One that is still evangelical but more critical of it, less in-favor with its religiosity, one which I now term an emergent Christian faith found at the further end of the spectrum of evangelicalism.  And so, I have begun synthesizing my journey within the stories and subjectlines of this blog in an attempt to convey what I have learned about what my faith is and is not; what it means and what it shouldn't mean; and how I presently understand it in comparison with popular religious expressions and opinions. It became especially clearer to me when more carefully listening to what Evangelicals were saying (or not saying) around me; or witnessing how my Evangelical faith was responding to specific issues around it before re-framing those perceived realities and events accumulating around it into unsatisfying arguments and reimaged conceptions. And much like how a sudoku puzzle is solved by looking for what is not there - as versus what is plainly seen - my judgments began to amass and grow in correspondence to Evangelicalism's overly harsh criticisms, fallacious evaluations, blithe assertions, and self-sustaining parochialisms. Consequently, this then caused me to judge my own accumulated Evangelical traditions as too shallow and on-worthy of my continued support in its current self-laudatory forms.

Having then become disenchanted with living my faith through fashionized Christian rhetoric, stylized metaphors and politically-correct expressions, what I hungered for now is to hear God's Word afresh in a more-objective, less-defensive, non-evangelically religious terms and popular cliches. Especially when presented by well-meaning Christians who coerce, threaten, bully and judge my faith when straying out of the safe boundary lands of their Evangelicalism. I yearn more than ever to hear God in a clearer light, one more realistic, more edgy, more confrontational to the popular notions of today's religious folkisms. Something that would strip away my religion and get back to its very core - the very person and fellowship of the Triune-God speaking through open Scriptures, through the atonement, through life's experiences, and the world about me.

Nor has this journey been especially easy to travel, and yet, hopefully, it will become more satisfying to share with faith-seekers following similar journeys as tortuous as mine own; who are attempting to discern truth-from-error on both sides of the Evangelical/Emergent fence! Never had I expected such an intense personal disruption, one without sufficient guides or signposts, without historical precedents, bereft of mentors, teachers, or fellowship. One finding no encouragement and no advantage to it; a singular path dimly lit, if at all, filled with judgments, condemnation, and intense personal aloneness. I felt as if in the days of the prophet Jeremiah who was thrown into the bottom of a miry pit of clay by religious zealots doubtful of his faith. Who looked up out of his cold, wet prison yearning for answers and direction from God but received little hope and cheer in return. All the while being personally vilified, doubted and made miserable by the religious community around him. Eventually all this changed for Jeremiah but it took a very long time during which he experienced the daily provocation in his spirit of new truths about God and his place in the world; along with a personal rejection of all the accumulated, ingrained, religious platitudes he had acquired in his life; and a daily fresh determination to re-assess not only his own past but to re-envision his new present and the future that beckoned him. And like my own experience, I felt my own proponents had as little charm as the predecessors of my newly-reforming faith. Each side swinging at the other side with no cause, and with even less reason, at one another. When instead a fellowship should have been arising that would create a stronger, more unified, and more honest discussion and interaction between Evangelicals and Emergents. It was enough to cause one to despair and give up hope. Neither side was guiltless, and both sides were inclined towards disagreements and hostilities towards one another.

And yet it all makes sense now after the many desperate years (including as many recent desperate months!) of religious intrication. Through it all, a new freedom has been found that does not wish to leave me. A spiritual land discovered that breathes more pure, more alive, more wondrous with every breath. One that I like and intend to keep and not give back. Come walk with me, and the many other brothers and sisters I am discovering, as Christianity's outer markers are reset and we regain what was nobly lost in our modernized religious culture of the past hundred years. It is all new territory requiring many explorers and all are welcomed to journey to God's new lands of global outreach and assimilation. Once begun none will wish to turn back... praise God through His Spirit for delivering us from a wilderness of our own making!

R.E. Slater
October 22, 2011

Christian Smith - The Bible Made Impossible
by Christian Smith

This Introduction is part of a seven part series on Christian Smith's book.

Go to this link here to see the remaining 6 Reveiws (Parts 1- 6):

The entirety of this article's contents may be found here -

© 2011 by Christian Smith
Published by Brazos Press
a division of Baker Publishing Group
P.O. Box 6287, Grand Rapids, MI 49516-6287
E-book edition created 2011
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means—for example, electronic, photocopy, recording—without the prior written permission of the publisher. The only exception is brief quotations in printed reviews.
ISBN 978-1-4412-3205-2
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is on file at the Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, New International Version®. NIV®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide.

by Christian Smith

This book addresses Christians, especially evangelicals, who believe that the Bible is a divine word of truth that should function as an authority for Christian faith and practice, and who want to espouse a coherent position that justifies and defends that belief. My contention here is that the American evangelical commitment to “biblicism,” which I will define and describe in detail below, is an untenable position that ought to be abandoned in favor of a better approach to Christian truth and authority.

What follows is not an attack on Christian authority or the Bible. It is rather a critical interrogation of certain aspects of one specific account. The goal of this book is not to detract from the plausibility, reliability, or authority of the Christian faith or from scripture. The goal is to persuade readers that one particular theory of Christian plausibility, reliability, and authority—what I call biblicism—is inadequate to the task.

I am aware that the term “biblicism” is often used pejoratively, as a disrespectful slight suggesting ignorance and lack of sophistication. I intend the use of the term here in a rather more neutral, descriptive sense, denoting a particular tradition of approach to scripture, as described in greater detail below. I contend that the biblicism that characterizes the thinking and practice of much of American evangelicalism is not so much “wrong” as it is impossible, even taken on its own terms. It simply does not work as proposed and cannot function in a coherent way.

In order for evangelical biblicism to appear to work, therefore, those who believe in it have to engage in various forms of textual selectivity, denial, and contortion—which actually end up violating biblicist intentions. Most of these are practiced covertly, not in any sneaky way, but simply as the learned, taken-for-granted, and therefore largely unintentional habits of a particular subcultural style of thinking and behaving. Contemporary Christians who want to be theologically orthodox, biblical, and evangelical (in the best sense of the word) can and must do better. But before anyone is motivated to do better, we must confront the real problems with the current, inadequate biblicist account.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that all American evangelicals are biblicists. Some are not. And some others mix biblicism with other forms of authority, such as personal “leadings of the Spirit.” Many simply assume a kind of background biblicism without giving it much systematic thought. Many academic and more thoughtful evangelicals also tend to be more selective and careful in the way they articulate their biblicism. Furthermore, while I am focused here on evangelicals in particular, nearly all American Protestant fundamentalists are also biblicists, as are many if not most charismatic and pentecostal Christians.[1] I am suggesting, therefore, that biblicism of the kind I describe below represents the epistemological center of gravity of much of American evangelicalism (and conservative Protestantism more generally) and so warrants the kinds of questions raised in this book.

By “biblicism” I mean a theory about the Bible that emphasizes together its exclusive authority, infallibility, perspicuity, self-sufficiency, internal consistency, self-evident meaning, and universal applicability. Different communities within American evangelicalism emphasize various combinations of these points differently. But all together they form a constellation of assumptions and beliefs that define a particular theory and practice. My argument as follows does not question the doctrine of the divine inspiration of the Bible.[2] Nor am I here discounting the crucially important role that the Bible must play in the life of the church and the lives of individual Christians. I am not suggesting that the Bible is just a set of historical writings set in particular cultures, or the record of human subjective experiences of the divine that has little to say to contemporary people without being translated into terms that modern people can accept. Instead, what I say here is simply that the biblicism that in much of American evangelicalism is presupposed to be the cornerstone to Christian truth and faithfulness is misguided and impossible. It does not and cannot live up to its own claims.

I must also insist that my motives, goals, and arguments have nothing to do with promoting or representing theological liberalism. I am no theological liberal. While I believe that orthodox Christians need to engage intellectually and socially with theological liberals, I am and always have been a skeptic of theological liberalism as a project. I view the program of liberalism as an unworthy corrosion of historically orthodox, evangelical (again, in the best sense of that word) Christianity. I view theological liberalism—despite its good intentions—as naive intellectually, problematic in its typical ecclesial expression, and susceptible to unfortunate and sometimes reprehensible social and political expressions. It was no accident, for example, as Karl Barth explained at the time, that the prominent leaders of theological liberalism in the German church together publicly endorsed the causes of both Kaiser Wilhelm in World War I in 1914 and Hitler and the Nazis in 1933. When the church lacks a sovereign word of God that is not defined in terms of human subjectivity, experience, and culture, such ill-fated political moves become hard to resist. The theological liberal program lacks internal resources to help expose idolatry and so recurrently falls prey to the latest cultural movements and political fashions. I would go so far as to agree with J. Gresham Machen that theological liberalism is not one particular branch of Christianity; it is rather actually a very different religion from Christianity.[3]

However, opposing theological liberalism does not necessitate biblicism as the only viable alternative, as some seem to believe. This notion is an unfortunate legacy of the American modernist-fundamentalist battles of the early twentieth century. Slapping the “liberal!” label on others is still a knee-jerk reaction of many evangelicals against any argument that on first glance does not seem identical to or more conservative than their own position. This tendency has much more to do with the sociological process of maintaining safe identity boundaries and avoiding truly challenging intellectual engagements than it does with sustaining Christian faith with appropriate confidence, integrity, and trust in God.[4] In any case, to be clear, I deny any attempts to label the argument of this book “liberal.”

My argument in what follows focuses not merely on theories about what the Bible is believed to be and how it ought to function as an authority. It also focuses on how in practice the Bible is often actually read and used as an authority and on the results that this produces. I will suggest that the problematic results are not mere accidents or worst practices within an otherwise sound approach, but they are rather the inevitable outcomes of bad biblicist theory. In this I do not assume that empirical facts about what actually happens are all that are ever worth knowing. A great deal of Christianity is of course about conforming problematic empirical experience to what is ultimately true in and about reality. However, actual empirical human practices and experiences of Bible reading, interpretation, and application—especially when they are widespread and endemic—tell us a great deal about the adequacy of our theories about the Bible.

In what follows I will not engage a number of issues that have long occupied certain kinds of critics and defenders of the Bible. One of those concerns higher criticism of the text, such as whether the purported author of a certain text really was that author or whether the events described in a text “really” happened in that way. Those may or may not be interesting and important issues, but they do not concern me here. Neither will I engage the exercise of finding long lists of scriptural texts that appear to contradict each other, to which some sophomoric skeptics devote themselves in order to try to undermine the Bible’s coherence and authority.[5] That merely mirrors the worst kind of fundamentalist literalism, to which few thoughtful evangelicals subscribe, and betrays pitiable misunderstandings of how human language works.

My line of reasoning in this book will run as follows. First, I will argue that most biblicist claims are rendered moot by a more fundamental problem (which few biblicists ever acknowledge) that undermines all the supposed achievements of biblicism: the problem of pervasive interpretive pluralism. Even among presumably well-intentioned readers—including many evangelical biblicists—the Bible, after their very best efforts to understand it, says and teaches very different things about most significant topics. My suggestion is that it becomes beside the point to assert a text to be solely authoritative or inerrant, for instance, when, lo and behold, it gives rise to a host of many divergent teachings on important matters. Authority implies and requires definitive instruction, direction, or guidance. As the nineteenth-century Princeton Seminary theologian Charles Hodge stated, “If the Scriptures be a plain book, and the Spirit performs the functions of a teacher to all the children of God, it follows inevitably that they must agree in all essential matters in their interpretation of the Bible.”[6] But definitive instruction, direction, or guidance is precisely what pervasive interpretive pluralism precludes.

So, theorists about the Bible can assert theoretical claims of scriptural authority and infallibility as much as they want. But those ring hollow because of the ubiquitous variety and combinations of “biblical” teachings that sincere readers of the Bible think it teaches on nearly every subject. To be clear, the problem is not that theoretical claims to biblical sufficiency or authority are proved to be wrong or erroneous per se; rather, they are defeated in relevance by the undeniable lack of interpretive agreement and consistency among those who share the same biblicist background. That defeat in relevance then gives rise to questions about the truth of those theoretical claims. Biblicists might offer a variety of responses to this problem, to be sure, but none of them, I will suggest, are adequate to address the difficulty. So, pervasive interpretive pluralism remains a debilitating problem for the relevance of biblicist theory.

Having made that primary case, I will then turn more briefly to a subsidiary examination of the larger question of the defensibility of biblicism generally. My argument focuses on the fact that the Bible contains a variety of texts that are problematic in different ways and that biblicist (among other) readers rarely know how to handle. Some are texts that frankly almost no reader is going to live by, however committed in theory they may be to biblicism. Others are texts that need explaining away by appeals to cultural relativity (although no principled guidelines exist about when that explanation should and should not be applied). Some are passages that are simply strange. And some are texts that seem to be incompatible with other texts.

In order not to let these problematic texts endanger their formal theory of the Bible, biblicists tend to respond in three ways. The first is simply to ignore the problematic texts, essentially pretending that they do not exist. The second is to “interpret” the problematic texts as if they say things that they do not in fact say. The third is to develop elaborate contortions of highly unlikely scenarios and explanations—of the sort to which nobody would ever resort in any other part of life—which seem to rescue the texts from the problems.[7] But, from the viewpoint of the biblicist perspective itself, these strategies should be illegitimate. Reliance on them to sustain a biblicist position is self-defeating. In addition, I will show, first, that biblicism itself is not a self-evident, much less necessary, teaching of the Bible about itself, and, second, that biblicism has some problematic, pernicious pastoral consequences for many thoughtful youth raised in biblicist traditions.

I conclude with three chapters advancing a number of proposals for overcoming American evangelical biblicism. My proposals assume that biblicism can be escaped not by turning away from an evangelical approach to the Bible but rather by becoming even more truly evangelical in the reading of scripture. Contrary to the fears of some biblicists, leaving biblicism behind need not mean losing the best of evangelicalism but, instead, can mean strengthening an evangelical hermeneutic of scripture.

How I came to write a book about biblical authority and scriptural interpretation is sometimes beyond me. (I have no doubt that some readers, by the time they get well into the book, will wish I had never written it.) I did not start off with that intention in mind, but it began simply with me (someone who tends to think better when writing) merely drafting out some thoughts and questions for myself and perhaps to bounce off a few friends for their reactions. Needless to say, it grew from there. I am not a biblical scholar or a theologian professionally—although I have studied at three Boston Theological Institute schools (Gordon Conwell, where I took a course on Christology from David Wells; Harvard Divinity School, where I studied historical theology with Margaret Miles and Ian Siggins, among others; and Andover Newton, where I took an excellent course on scripture with Gabriel Fackre) and have spent much of my life reading in theology.

Professionally, I am a sociologist. For purposes of writing this book, that is both an asset and a liability. It is an asset, I believe, because it gives me a perspective that is different from many who deal with these topics for a living and so enables me to perhaps see things that some others may not. Being a sociologist—particularly one not employed at an evangelical institution with doctrinal standards statements determining the viability of my employment—also frees me to say things in print that I think are true without the accompanying worry that I will lose my job as a result. I know that there are at least some employees at evangelical institutions who share the concerns I lay out in this book but who cannot give voice to them because of the internal political problem this would create.[8] I am fortunate not to have to worry about such matters.

But being a sociologist is also in some ways a liability in writing this book, since I do not have the expertise in certain complex areas of scholarship upon which this book touches. I do not claim to bring such expertise to my argument; rather, the force of my case, such as it is, grows merely from the asking of some very simple questions and the refusal to settle for what I think are inadequate standard answers. Sometimes what needs to be asked or said—especially in contexts of well-established and taken-for-granted routines that at least some powerful people have a stake in maintaining—is not all that sophisticated but is instead quite elementary. Pervasive interpretive pluralism is the proverbial massive elephant in the room of evangelical biblicism that nobody talks about. I want to talk about it.

I should also say up front, for purposes of full disclosure, that, since completing the writing of this book, I have joined the Catholic Church. My reasons for becoming Catholic—an evangelical Catholic, I might add—were many, and only partly related to the issues raised here.[9] This fact of my autobiography, however, takes nothing away from the importance and legitimacy of this book’s argument for American evangelicalism—a movement about which I still care, in certain ways admire, and want to see realizing its best potential. Toward that end, for evangelical Protestants who intend to remain evangelical, the argument of this book stands strong and deserves to be engaged and answered. The constructive suggestions with which I conclude this book hold true for evangelical Protestants, and, to be clear, no reader needs to become Catholic in order to embrace any or all of them.

Finally, it should go without saying that just because I cite a certain author or publication, that does not mean that I accept and endorse everything he, she, or it says. Oftentimes one wants to connect with certain specific ideas or perspectives of another without implying a full-scale endorsement of the other’s entire intellectual program. Most scholars know this. But, since among American evangelicals issues surrounding the nature of the Bible are so sensitive and politically charged, it is probably necessary for me to avoid guilt-by-association by saying it explicitly: merely because I cite a certain author or publication, that itself does not mean that I accept and endorse everything he, she, or it says.

I owe a debt of thanks to Mark Regnerus, Brian Brock, Mark Noll, Stanley Hauerwas, Richard Flory, Stan Gaede, Rich Mouw, Katie Spencer, Trish Snell, Peter Mundey, Scot McKnight, Charles Cosgrove, Bill Webb, Roger Olson, Jeff McSwain, Douglas Campbell, Meredith Whitnah, Kevin Vanhoozer, Peter Enns, Craig Allert, Roger Lundin, Robert K. Johnson, Bob Brenneman, Kent Sparks, and David Sikkink for critical feedback on early versions of this manuscript. As is customary to say, and is true here also, this book was strengthened considerably by these people’s helpful feedback; yet, none of them is to be held responsible—even by association—for any of its mistakes, inaccuracies, confusions, oversights, or oversimplifications, of which I am aware there may be more than a few.

Finally, I owe a large debt of gratitude to my fellow B4B partners: Jeff McSwain, Douglas Campbell, Allan Keoneke, and (for one very enjoyable year) Brian Brock (as well as sometimes Jeremy Begbie, Allan Poole, and Peter Hausman)—to whom I dedicate this book, whether they like that or not. Nobody could hope to enjoy a more fun, stimulating, and edifying group of theological companions while meeting at Whole Foods to hash out life-changing theology. May they and their work prosper, especially Jeff’s at the Reality Ministries Center in downtown Durham, North Carolina.

Biblicism and the Problem of
Pervasive Interpretive Pluralism
by Christian Smith

The “biblicism” that pervades much of American evangelicalism is untenable and needs to be abandoned in favor of a better approach to Christian truth and authority. By untenable I do not simply mean that it is wrong, but rather that it is literally impossible, at least when attempted consistently on its own terms. It cannot actually be sustained, practiced, and defended. Biblicism is one kind of an attempt to explain and act on the authority of the Bible, but it is a misguided one. In the end it cannot and in fact does not work.

A better alternative to biblicism is needed that takes seriously scriptural authority but in a way that does so beyond the framework of biblicism. Before any biblicist or semibiblicist is going to be motivated to seek a postbiblicist alternative to biblicism, however, they must first become convinced of biblicism’s untenability. Seeing that biblicism really is a dead end may motivate a constructive search for something better. This chapter and the next three seek to persuade readers that biblicism is a dead end, best to be abandoned.

What Is Biblicism?

Many functional biblicists in America have not heard of the term “biblicism” or do not know that it describes them. That does not matter. What does matter are the real belief system and the practices it animates. Whether called by that name or not, biblicism is prevalent and powerful in American Protestantism, particularly among conservative Protestants. As John Frame, professor of theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Orlando, Florida) concludes in a thoughtful paper titled, “In Defense of Something Close to Biblicism,” “although Protestant theology under the sola Scriptura principle is not biblicist, it is not always easy to distinguish it from biblicism.”[10] The word “biblicism” turns out to mean different things to different people. It is therefore important to be clear about the meaning I intend here.

All that I write below is intended to reference the following definition. By “biblicism” I mean a particular theory about and style of using the Bible that is defined by a constellation of related assumptions and beliefs about the Bible’s nature, purpose, and function. That constellation is represented by ten assumptions or beliefs:
  1. Divine Writing: The Bible, down to the details of its words, consists of and is identical with God’s very own words written inerrantly in human language.
  2. Total Representation: The Bible represents the totality of God’s communication to and will for humanity, both in containing all that God has to say to humans and in being the exclusive mode of God’s true communication.[11]
  3. Complete Coverage: The divine will about all of the issues relevant to Christian belief and life are contained in the Bible.[12]
  4. Democratic Perspicuity: Any reasonably intelligent person can read the Bible in his or her own language and correctly understand the plain meaning of the text.[13]
  5. Commonsense Hermeneutics: The best way to understand biblical texts is by reading them in their explicit, plain, most obvious, literal sense, as the author intended them at face value, which may or may not involve taking into account their literary, cultural, and historical contexts.
  6. Sola Scriptura:[14] The significance of any given biblical text can be understood without reliance on creeds, confessions, historical church traditions, or other forms of larger theological hermeneutical frameworks, such that theological formulations can be built up directly out of the Bible from scratch.
  7. Internal Harmony: All related passages of the Bible on any given subject fit together almost like puzzle pieces into single, unified, internally consistent bodies of instruction about right and wrong beliefs and behaviors.
  8. Universal Applicability: What the biblical authors taught God’s people at any point in history remains universally valid for all Christians at every other time, unless explicitly revoked by subsequent scriptural teaching.
  9. Inductive Method: All matters of Christian belief and practice can be learned by sitting down with the Bible and piecing together through careful study the clear “biblical” truths that it teaches.
The prior nine assumptions and beliefs generate a tenth viewpoint that—although often not stated in explications of biblicist principles and beliefs by its advocates—also commonly characterizes the general biblicist outlook, particularly as it is received and practiced in popular circles:
10. Handbook Model: The Bible teaches doctrine and morals with every affirmation that it makes, so that together those affirmations comprise something like a handbook or textbook for Christian belief and living, a compendium of divine and therefore inerrant teachings on a full array of subjects—including science, economics, health, politics, and romance.[15]
Biblicism is not a comprehensively formalized position always explicated in exactly these ten points and subscribed to identically by all adherents. Different people and groups emphasize and express a variety of these points somewhat differently. Some may even downplay or deny particular points here and there—there are, for example, highly biblicist denominations and seminaries that are unapologetically confessional. The point is not that biblicism is a unified doctrine that all of its adherents overtly and uniformly profess. The point, rather, is that this constellation of interrelated assumptions and beliefs informs and animates the outlooks and practices of major sectors of institutional and popular conservative American Protestantism, especially evangelicalism.

Evangelical biblicism has a long history in America—one revealing how much popular biblicism was driven not by fellowship with the historic church but by the particular sensibilities of life in a postrevolutionary, nineteenth-century, individualistic, republican democracy.[16] However intensely and with whatever variations it may be expressed by different groups, biblicism is the foundational belief and practice of many tens of millions of American Christians—perhaps as many as a hundred million (according to General Social Survey data, about one-third of all adult Americans say that they believe that “the Bible is the actual word of God and should be taken literally, word for word”).[17] Biblicism can readily be found in the belief statements of scores of denominations, seminaries, and parachurch ministries; seen in the words of myriad Christian authors and speakers; heard in the messages of innumerable pulpits and Bible studies; and observed in the practices of countless personal devotions.

Popular, Institutional, and Scholarly Examples of Biblicism

To put a finer point of particularity on the “ism” about which I have generalized above, I next cite some examples of specific expressions of biblicism. I draw here from an almost limitless supply of possible examples, both academic and popular, using numbers in brackets (e.g., [5]) throughout—at the risk of oversimplifying and overlabeling—to indicate when any of the ten biblicist themes noted above are expressed or implied. I begin with popular or “folk” expressions of biblicism[18] and then move on to more scholarly and institutional examples.

Biblicism is everywhere in evangelical popular culture, including, for instance, on the Internet. One Bible website dedicated to helping readers in “selecting the best Bible translations,” for example, is entitled “God’s Handbook to Life” [10].[19] Another Christian music and lyrics website devotes a page to “The Bible, God’s Word—Our Manual for Life” [10], which says that the Bible “contains the solution for every problem you are facing today [3]. The Bible is an encyclopedia on all subjects you can think of under the sun” [10].[20] Likewise, Faith and Fitness Magazine on its website calls the Bible “His Instruction Manual—Our Guidebook for a Healthy Life” [10], explaining that
the Bible is designed by God to provide us a blueprint for living life. It’s like an owner’s manual for a piece of exercise equipment [9 implied]. We can make the best use of the equipment if we read the owner’s manual so we are aware of how to use all the special capabilities and how all the “buttons and whistles” work. When it breaks down, we can look in the manual to know how to repair it [10].[21]
Similarly, the author of the “Bible Authors” webpage says that
the Bible was written through more than 40 men, but it fits together perfectly as if written by one man [7] because the author of all 66 books is the Holy Spirit [1]. The Bible was written over a time span of about 2,000 years, and it is totally accurate in matters of History, Prophecy, and every issue of life. There are no contradictions in the Bible [7]. . . . The Bible contains the mind of God [1]. . . . It is the traveler’s map, the pilgrim’s staff, the pilot’s compass, the soldier’s sword [4, 5 implied], and the Christian’s charter . . . [that] condemns all who trifle with its holy contents. The Word of God is your absolute, infallible guide for life. Just like every major purchase is accompanied by an owner’s manual which tells you how to operate it, if you do not go by the book, it won’t work. The Bible is God’s owner’s manual for your life [10]. God would not save you and call you to service without clear, exact directions. You must go by the book.[22]
As another example, popular evangelical pastor and author John F. MacArthur Jr. writes that the Bible is “the only reliable and sufficient worship manual.”[23] Folk biblicism is also expressed in products such as automobile bumper stickers and T-shirts, as with the following actual instances, all currently for sale:
  • God said it, I believe it, that settles it!
  • BIBLE—Basic Instruction Before Leaving Earth
  • Vote Responsibly—Vote the Bible!
  • Confused? Read the Directions! [picture of Bible]
  • Have You Read My #1 Best Seller [picture of Bible]? There Is Going to Be a Test. —God
  • Have Truth Decay? Brush Up on Your Bible
  • Hey Bible Hater! You’d Fit Right in with Communist-Atheist Regimes, Dictatorships, and Islamic States!
  • Got Scripture?
  • Certified Bible Thumper! [themes 1, 4–8, and 10 implied]

Biblicism also pervades the evangelical book-publishing market, which entails both popular evangelical markets and formal evangelical institutions (Thomas Nelson, Harvest House, NavPress, InterVarsity Press, etc.). The following are examples, drawn from among a longer list of similar books, almost all of which are currently still in print, all of whose titles listed here are, for present purposes, well worth reading word for word:
  • Bible Answers for Almost All Your Questions
  • Biblical Principles for Starting and Operating a Business
  • 100 Biblical Tips to Help You Live a More Peaceful and Prosperous Life
  • Cooking with the Bible: Recipes for Biblical Meals
  • The Bible Cure for Cancer
  • The World According to God: A Biblical View of Culture, Work, Science, Sex, and Everything Else
  • The Biblical Guide to Alternative Medicine
  • Bible Answers for Every Need
  • Bible Prophecy 101: A Guide to End Times in Plain Language
  • What Does the Bible Say about . . . The Ultimate A to Z Resource to Contemporary Topics One Would Not Expect to Find in the Bible, Fully Illustrated—Discover What the Bible Says about 500 Real-Life Topics [pictures on the cover include golfing, pets, flower arrangements, and a whistle]
  • How to Make Choices You Won’t Regret—40 Minute Bible Studies
  • Queen Esther’s Secrets of Womanhood: A Biblical Rite of Passage for Your Daughter
  • Handbook for Christian Living: Biblical Answers to Life’s Tough Questions
  • Scientific Facts in the Bible: 100 Reasons to Believe the Bible Is Supernatural in Origin
  • Friendship Counseling: Biblical Foundations for Helping Others
  • Principles for Life: Using Biblical Principles to Bring Dynamic Psychological Healing
  • Business by the Book: Complete Guide of Biblical Principles for the Workplace
  • Bible Solutions to Problems of Daily Living
  • The Biblical Connection to the Stars and Stripes: A Nation’s Godly Principles Embodied in Its Flag
  • God’s Blueprint for Building Marital Intimacy
  • Crime and Community in Biblical Perspective
  • A Crown of Glory: A Biblical View of Aging
  • Gardening with Biblical Plants
  • Biblical Psychology
  • One Blood: The Biblical Answer to Racism
  • Leadership Communication: A Scriptural Perspective
  • Diagrams for Living: The Bible Unveiled
  • What the Bible Says about Parenting: Biblical Principles for Raising Godly Children
  • God Honoring Finances: What the Bible Tells You about Managing Money
  • Success in School: Building on Biblical Principles
  • Christian Dress and Adornment—Biblical Perspectives
  • Feeling Good about Your Feelings: How to Express Your Emotions in Harmony with Biblical Principles
  • Getting the Skinny on Prosperity: Biblical Principles That Work for Everyone
  • Off to Work We Go: Teaching Careers with Biblical Principles
  • Incoming: Listening for God’s Messages—A Handbook for Life
  • Biblical Strategies to Financial Freedom
  • Revelations That Will Set You Free: The Biblical Roadmap for Spiritual and Psychological Growth
  • Scripture Based Solutions for Handling Stress
  • Bad Girls of the Bible and What We Can Learn from Them
  • Success by Design: Ten Biblical Secrets to Help You Achieve Your God-Given Potential
  • The Awesome Book of Bible Facts
  • Learn the Bible in 24 Hours
  • Body by God: The Owner’s Manual for Maximized Living
  • Biblical Foundations for Manhood and Womanhood
  • Beyond Positive Thinking: Success and Motivation in the Scriptures
  • Biblical Economics: A Commonsense Guide to Our Daily Bread
  • Holding Hands, Holding Hearts: Recovering a Biblical View of Christian Dating
  • Politics and the Christian: A Scriptural Treatise
  • Seven Secrets to Bible-Made Millionaires
  • Prophecy 20/20: Profiling the Future through the Lens of Scripture
  • Weather and the Bible: 100 Questions and Answers[24]
    [Implied in these titles are biblicist themes 1–10.

- Christian Smith

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