The Rationalism of the “Biblicist”

The April 25, 2010 episode of The Heidelcast, a weekly podcast by Dr. R. Scott Clark, Professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary California, and writer of the Heidelblog, contains a discussion between Dr. Clark and Martin Downes, author of Risking the Truth, about how “biblicism” is fundamentally rationalistic, and so undermines the sole authority of Scripture, which it intends to uphold. What follows is a transcript of this short segment of their interview.

Clark: What happens when a fellow comes with his Bible open, as Faustus Socinus did (an anti-Trinitarian heretic)? He had his Bible open, and his uncle Laelius Socinus, managed to convince Heinrich Bullinger that he was basically orthodox. And so, both of these fellows said, “Listen, we believe the Bible, but we just don’t think that you’re getting it right. We’re more biblical than you. In fact, we want to get rid of all of this systematic theology and these confessions, and we just wanna follow the Bible.” What’s wrong with that approach, which scholars have called “Biblicism”?

 Downes: The real problem is that, although it claims to be, upholding Sola Scriptura and the sole authority of Scripture, actually what’s really going on beneath that claim is a subtle form of rationalism.

 Something that Jehovah’s Witnesses are always saying to people is, “Did you know the word “Trinity” isn’t in the Bible?” As if to say, “Ah, crums! It’s not there. Well, perhaps the idea isn’t really there.” Perhaps somebody invented that and imposed it upon the text.

 I think what we find is that Biblicism demands that truth be stated in a certain way, and will not accept that we believe things, because of the express statements of Scripture, but also what “by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture” (Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 1, section VI).

But it is very subtle, and I think that’s why it does take more people in. It’s an appeal to a standard of authority that we want to hold to whole-heartedly, but actually beneath that appeal, I think is a form of rationalism.

Clark: Doesn’t it also put the autonomous, individual Bible interpreter in charge of Scripture? And this is something of which Protestants are often accused, but it’s not really true. If someone pays attention to the history of Protestant theology, and the history of the Reformation, one would know right away that there was a huge difference between the Anabaptists, who were radicals and individualists and the Socinians, who were radicals and individualists…between them, and, the confessional Protestant Reformers, who actually worked within a churchly (ecclesiastical) context.

Downes: I remember once after an evening service, I chatted to a man at the door, and . . . I happened to mention what we are discussing—this particular issue—He said, “I’m not interested. That’s just a man made document.” But he wanted me to be interested in what he was saying, and his insights into the Scriptures.

So I said to him, “Look, why would I want to put aside a document that has churchly sanction, that represents the reflection from Scripture, and the thinking, not of an individual, but actually of the whole body of divines. And so, really what his claim was, “I’m not interested in what they think. I’m just interested in what I think. I just want you to believe what I’m saying. I struggle to find humility in that approach.

Clark: Not only is it arrogant, it’s essentially an Enlightenment-inspired, modernist approach to truth and error. At the end of the day, it’s not really God’s Word as understood and confessed by a body of believers, which is norming things, I’m norming things by my, private personal interpretation of Scripture. And so, at the end of the day, I, really, am the measure. I say I’m following the Bible, but I know better what the Bible says than anyone. And, unfortunately, I think, and maybe you’ll agree or not, I don’t know, that there’s a pretty radical misunderstanding of Sola Scriptura. What’s the real difference between Sola Scriptura as understood originally, and Biblicism?

Downes: I think it goes back to what you were saying about individualism. That it’s not seeing Christian belief in the context of the church, and the church is the pillar and ground of the truth, and maybe some of that is a fear of the Catholic element, with a large C and an R before it—maybe some of the squeamishness has to do with that—but I think fundamentally it is that individualistic mindset that it’s just me and my Bible. Well, it’s a big book. What does it teach? We ought to, if we are wise, consider very carefully two thousand years of Christian belief, in terms of the great creeds and the Reformed confessions.


One response

  1. […] So, we see that according to Harold Camping, theological and hermeneutical expertise is “leaning on one’s own understanding,” but appealing to the laws of mathematics, astronomy and the practice of archaeologists, or looking at the Bible like an engineering book, will not make you misinterpret the Bible. This is the typical attitude of the rationalistic Biblicist. […]

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