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Here is my definition of “biblicism.”

Biblicism is the tendency to appeal to individual biblical verses, or collections of (apparently) uniform verses from various parts of the Bible, to give the appearance of clear, authoritative, and final resolutions to what are in fact complex interpretive and theological issues generated by the fact that we have a complex and diverse Bible.

Put another way, biblicism is a tendency to prooftext—where the “plain sense” of verses are put forth as final and incontrovertible “proof” of a given theological position.

In The Bible Tells Me Sowhen I talk about a “rule book” or “owner’s manual” way of reading the Bible, I’m talking about biblicism.

If I may be clear on something, I am not saying that the Bible doesn’t shape, give guidance, and/or directives for matters of faith and life. I am saying that discerning how the Bible does that is more than lifting verses from the Bible and laying them out on the table.

The Bible simply doesn’t work that way.

That’s because the Bible was written by different people, under different circumstances, for different reasons, spanning more than a thousand years. It was written during times of peace and war, in safety and exile, in Israel’s youth and chastened adulthood, and then under Roman occupation. Its writers were priests, scribes, kings, and simple folk, separated by time, politics, and geography, not to mention Myers-Briggs personality types.

Any claim to what the Bible “teaches” us has to go beyond citing a lone verse or amassing several verses and move toward a deeper engagement with:

  1. The immediate literary/theological context of the verse(s).
  2. The place of any verse(s) in the context of the biblical grand narrative (the “canonical context”).
  3. The self-evident and theologically vital diversity, differences, and various transformations that we see throughout the Bible.
  4. The various ancient contexts out of which any and all biblical utterances arise.

These 4 are related and play off of each other. For example: 4 is at least one of the reasons why we have 3; the fact that we have 3 alerts us that we need to keep in mind 2.

These 4 issues are not steps to follow that insure proper interpretation. They do not end hermeneutical conversations; they allow them to happen.

I can’t think of a single point of theology or Christian doctrine that can keep these 4 factors at a distance and still maintain hermeneutical, theological, and doctrinal integrity.

But biblicism:

  • is often a power move, a rhetorical bullying tactic for claiming God’s support for our ideas,
  • relieves us of the responsibility of respecting the Bible enough to struggle with it and what it means to read it well—which is what Jews and Christians have been doing for over 2,500 years,
  • sells the Bible short by taking the easy way out of reading the Bible like it’s a phone book or line-by-line instructional manual, rather than what it is: a complex, diverse, intermingling of wise reflections on life with God, written by the faithful for the faithful.

Biblicism isn’t biblical—and I’m happy to allow the apparent contradiction of that statement to stand as is.

[Comments are moderated and may take as long as 24 hours to appear. And that’s not a long time at all in the grand scheme of life, now is it?]

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.

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  • Richard Green says:

    I would be very interested in Peter’s thoughts about the role of the Holy Spirit in biblical interpretation.

    • Pete E. says:

      So would I, but one thing the Spirit clearly doe no do is give the church unanimous views on biblical interpretation.

      • Richard Green says:

        Agreed. I do think though that the Spirit does lead us away from biblicism and other things like “prosperity gospel”. I think that the Spirit testifies to the character of scripture and of God.

        The explicit content for specific followers of God in specific places and specific times seems differ, but for the good reason that while God may One, we are many and diverse, while still having a certain core humanity in common.

        As one of three brothers, we were very different. I can think that if my parents always told each of us the same thing for similar circumstances that we would all have suffered for it. 😉

      • Bev Mitchell says:

        Good one! But then we do have our listening problems to consider 🙂

      • David Ramos says:

        For real, your next book/project should be related to this topic. I am all for the “human fingerprint” on the Biblical text (like you said in other writings, academic study of the Bible will do that to you). But I would love to see more well-thought out examinations of what the “spirit’s fingerprint” looks like (if we can think about it like that).

  • Tom says:

    I am in the middle of The Bible Tells Me So now and am enjoying learning new things. Thanks for writing these complex and detailed ideas in such an easy to read way!

  • Brad says:

    Pete, I know you have the sort of right wing, inerranist, “Bible says it so I believe it” Christian in view here (and rightly so!). But would you agree that progressive Christians can just as easily fall into the biblicism trap if a verse suits their particular issue? An e.g. would be treating the Sermon on the Mount as “settling” the issue on violence (“don’t resist an evil person”). In short, I think it needs to be said that not only the Christian Right are guilty of the sort of abuse you rightly highlight.

    • Pete E. says:

      Prooftexting is absolutely a problem across the spectrum, though I don’t think your example above belongs. It’s one thing to “over apply” a non-violence passage and completely another to suggest that Noah supports non-retirement. At least the former is on-topic.

      • Craig Thompson says:

        A bit off topic, i.e. completely, how do Montana congressmen recouncil their retirement theology with Numbers 8:25. The Bible said it, it must be true, the biblical retirement age is 50 young-earth years old or else you are calling God a fibber!.

    • Fred Fauth says:

      It seems obvious to me that every verse in the Bible is subject to so much context that no single verse, even the one you cite here, can be the end-all statement on a topic. I think each verse should be viewed as “input” to the topic. I cannot subscribe to a “plain reading” of a God who tells a bystander “don’t resist an evil person” while said evil person is, for example, harming a nearby child. Every moral person is going to damn well resist that evil person from a “plain reading” standpoint. So we need to evaluate this verse and wrestle with it. I don’t know the Greek behind this or anything like that, but to me a verse like this is speaking to controlling our instincts for vengeance and realizing that sometimes it is better to allow oneself to be taken advantage of if it furthers the gospel. But discernment here is so key. We don’t tell the abused to tolerate the abuser, either. So this verse presumes a certain level of strength on the part of the the person being acted upon.

  • gingoro says:

    It is so hard to remember different peoples definition of so many fundagelical terms. I use Biblicism to mean a high view of scripture that does not imply inerrancey or even broadly defined infallibility. Even the NAE define it as one of the boundary markers: “Biblicism: a high regard for and obedience to the Bible as the ultimate authority”. In the Carl Henry sense I consider my self an evangelical but not with the definition used by the new Calvinists or Al Mohler etc who I see as fundagelicals.

  • charlesburchfield says:

    What came up for me the other day in my spirit was to do a little research on spiritual authoritarianism. Here are a few things that stood out to me in the article I read out of Wikipedia:
    //Spiritual Authoritarianism refers to conceptions of spirituality that claim Absolute Truth is known by a cognitive or spiritual elite, who are therefore entitled to direct the spiritual path of the followers.//
    //when an inquirer asks why they should believe-and-do what is taught, the teacher’s reply is, ‘Because the tradition of which I am a representative says so…This appeal to the weight of established thought and practice proves that it is durable. It does not show that it is valid.//
    //The question cannot be answered from without, but only from the full awakening and alertness of divine autonomy within.//
    //the…call of the religious quest… initially throws up a great deal of insecurity… [and there is] No better way to put a stop to the upsuge of [insecurity] and the underlying challenge of finding an inner source of guidance – than by capping it with allegiance to an external source of certitude.//
    //The institutionalization of this process has had a range of unfortunate consequences within each school that maintains it.//

    If one claims that spiritual authority resides in oneself, some other person, being, doctrine, book, school or church, one has to understand that one’s motives and behavior will be subjected to scrutiny by the people one is teaching or instructing. I am assuming that No authority resides in anything external unless one first decides to confer that authority on it.

    //The process is not completed until the divine which appears without is acknowledged by the divine which is enthroned deep within…the individual must take his stand upon the witness of the inner light, the authority within his own soul. //

    ‘If you have a revelation from God, I must have a revelation from God too before I can believe you’.
    -Benjamin Whichcote

    In my humble opinion When one is intolerant, repressed and in denial one tends to project one’s frustration by outlawing, shunning, excluding and attacking all others whose opinions do not agree with one’s own. A renewing and a reframing mind continually re-evaluates Prejudice, bigotry, presumed internal Authority to uncover the fear, projections, introjection and brainwashing at work Within. In my experience This is a lifetime task .
    A Bible is a massive resource which, when treated with due caveats, can be drawn upon, modified and revised in framing the maps which guide the examined life.  no one really knows for sure what the ancient Mystics meant by what they wrote and when one reads them one may now seek an inner knowing in dialogue with the text in concert with guidance from the Holy Spirit for this day.
    I think that To disown, deny and be unaware that one may receive directly the guidance of the Holy Spirit is to subvert and delay its transformative power and this disfiguration is reflected in the teaching of the outer authority that replaces it.

  • John says:

    Great post, Pete.
    I came from a community where “Biblical womanhood/manhood” could be described in a few verses, it’s absurd that God’s diverse creation is routinely flattened out. A lot of Christians are selective – as, mentioned here, the Bible has a lot of diverse views. That not even mentioning that sexuality, marriage, gender roles and such are far more nuanced than popular culture would have us believe.
    Biblical inerrancy often sounds a lot like, “I want my views to be accepted as inerrant.”

  • jtshaw says:

    Bibliolatry is the strategy, and Biblicism is the tactic. I don’t think that quite works, but it’s not too far off.

  • Pineal Peniel says:

    Having crawled out, on my belly and under fire, from the variety of bullying fundamentalism that uses Bible verses as ammo against all who will not submit to a “Biblical worldview” I’ve been conditioned to love this post. I’m convinced I must order The Bible Tells Me So.

    • Ben Cauble says:

      It’s a great book. I found it really helpful…It’s encouraging to find that the questions/concerns I’ve had aren’t a sign of “lack of faith.” I definitely recommend picking it up when you get the chance.

    • myklc says:

      Indeed! Join us!

  • Nick Melton says:

    I’d love any advice anyone has on how to gently disarm people from this in a conversation. As a minister, during a conversation my people will often reference verses left and right and I (for the reasons Enns wrote above) pretty much never engage with scripture in that moment. I’d love some practical ideas on how to help people realize what they’re doing and let them peek into a broader way of working with scripture.

  • Jeff Y says:

    The four points that must be engaged are vital. I find these to be Much more commonly recognized these days. However, two important points. One, texts still must be read and considered by themselves – with those four aspects in consideration – and then they must also be considered within the canonical context. One need not be an inerrantist to conclude that the Spirit gave unique place to these texts (as non-biblicist scholars like Wright, Hays, Gorman, Bauckham, et al do). And expected them to be read and some level of understanding arrived at. Two, moving in a positive direction, we can arrive at concepts with some confidence. Just as scientific investigation does. Yet, the key is to hold those perspectives with a degree of tentativeness, humility, and openness to new information. But, like science, we can have a fairly high degree of certainty given the preponderance of evidence – yet with humility. I think at times the concern over running ashore on the side of biblicism is so strong and so constant that we run aground on the other side. If one is only focused or incessantly focused on avoiding being grounded on the right side of the river, odds are one will run aground on the other side (or may already have unwittingly). Both extremes of naive biblicist certainty (which Christian Smith so ably dismantles in Bible Made Impossible) and a sort of biblical nihilism that reduces texts to an equally problematic pure postmodernist subjectivism which eliminates any authority of the biblical texts (this also, ironically, is also a power play in itself on the left as even Foucault acknowledged as a problem/danger). There is no monopoly on power oriented abuse of the biblical texts among conservatives or liberals.

  • Pete E. says:

    I hear you, Jeff, and I largely agree. My issue though is that I heard the plea for “balance” too often, and it usually amounts to some lip service given to one’s own position.

  • hoosier_bob says:

    I enjoy coming to this blog. I wish, however, that I could worship in a context that viewed the Bible this way. I was raised in the PCA, with its emphasis on biblicism, biblical worldviews, biblical masculinity, etc., and am happy to have left. PCA church life was killing my soul. But after a few years bouncing around to several mainline churches, I sometimes wonder whether mainline Protestantism isn’t starving my soul. Sure, it’s great to attend church and not be fed the kind of spiritual poison that generally characterizes Reformed evangelical church life. But I feel like I’m getting little more than cotton candy in its place.

    • That’s too bad to hear. I agree that sometimes it seems like in mainline’s elimination of Biblicism we’ve forgotten the Bible entirely. I’m in seminary now with the Episcopal Church and very interested in being part of a progressive movement that seriously engages with the Scriptures and has solid spiritual practices rather than simply eliminating the poison you mention.

  • Kathy Park says:

    Is there a point and if so at what point can biblicism be considered spiritual abuse? If a husband demand that he be submitted to (and the underlying context of that submission word means obey) is that spiritual abuse? If a husband questions his wife’s relationship with God and warns her of her impending destruction because she is not holding a “biblical view” of his authority in the home is that spiritual abuse? If abuse isn’t the right word what is the right word? Can someone be persuaded away, reasoned away from biblicism? It seems to me that these “biblical” views are so tightly bound to the person’s understanding of their own salvation and rightness before God that they can’t give up the ideas of biblicism without feeling as though they are renouncing their own faith. Which I can understand must be a terrifying thought…but what of us who have relationships with them? How do we live out our ideas that disagree with theirs when they claim to have the moral and spiritual and biblical high ground?

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