Asking where you get that from the text is not biblicism

You may have been in a discussion about the bible with someone, only to find out that you are a biblicist. At least, that’s what the person you’re speaking with calls you. They call you a biblicist because you have either pointed to scripture and drawn a conclusion from some verses or you are asking them to provide some biblical backing for whatever they are arguing. Rather than doing that, they insist you are a biblicist.

Biblicism was usually a position ascribed by those who deny biblical inerrency and infallability to those who do. It was a sneer designed to suggest it might be unsophisticated to take the Bible at all literally and to consider it a higher source of authority than outside sources. According to such people, a biblicist is somebody who sees no value in information from outside the bible in understanding scripture.

But the term gets bandied about by Evangelicals to describe those who they believe are not reading the Bible in the round nor recognise other sources as at all helpful (such as creeds, confessions, church history and other such things). It is usually applied to those considered to be taking a bald reading of the biblical text with no reference to context or other sources that may shed light on its meaning. It is often applied by Evangelicals, who hold to sola scriptura, to other evangelicals against what they call proof-texting. Proof-texting is taking verses on their own, potentially out of context, and using them as proof of your particular position.

I have recently been speaking about the importance of asking a particular question when it comes to bible studies, sermons and any time we make a case from scripture. The question is simple and straightforward: where do you get that from the text? It is a vital question if we are going to understand the bible on its own terms. But it is not at all uncommon, in any given discussion, for someone to retort that such a question is biblicist. If the question itself isn’t biblicist, those daring to actually point to scripture to determine the meaning of a text are biblicists.

As I understand it, biblicism concerns a rejection of anything outside of scripture and, sometimes, a rejection of anything outside of the passage itself for understanding its meaning. But it is not biblicist to understand meaning by focusing on the passage at hand first and then brining external passages of scripture to bear second and then reading it in light of other sources after. If we are to understand the passage in front of us, we do actually have to figure out what we think it actually means as it is written before we decide what the words, on their own terms, cannot possibly mean based on reading other sources.

What other parts of scripture will ever do when we come to interpret this particular passage is determine what this specific passage cannot possibly mean. Other bits of scripture will not tell you what this passage definitely means; the passage itself must tell you what it means. Other bits of scripture will tell you what this passage cannot mean. If you interpret one passage in such a way as it flatly contradicts other, clearer (and potentially repeated) passages of scripture, you are learning that this passage cannot mean what you have initially interpreted. But I cannot just read the external passages and figure out what this passage definitely does mean because this passage has words of its own that must be understood on their own terms.

This is the case when it comes to using scripture to interpret scripture. But we may decide to use external biblical sources to help us understand meaning. We might reference creeds, confessions, commentaries none of which are infallible. They may be helpful guides, but we have to acknowledge they are neither infallible nor inerrant. We, of course, have to think very carefully indeed if we have come up with an interpretation that is not supported or recognised by anyone throughout 2000 years of Christendom. But we also have to acknowledge that these other things are guides. They don’t all even agree with each other. These things must necessarily be subservient to the text, but they are helpful guides on what the text might mean.

Some, however, would wish to cry biblicism at this point. But it is not biblicism to ask someone to back up their position from scripture. It is not biblicism to ask someone to show you, in a text, why it means what they think it means. It is not biblicism to say that what cannot be shown from the text cannot possibly be what the text means. It is not biblicism to say that other sources, though helpful, are not the ultimate and primary determinate of what the passage means. It is not biblicism to ask, where did you get that from the text?

If we deny this, what we are ultimately saying is that the text is not the final arbiter of what the text means. Something other than the text must determine it. If we insist that asking where something is in the text must be biblicism because the creeds answer the question, we have just replaced one -ism for another. We are insisting our opponent is engaging in biblicism when we are operating out of creedalism. The creeds and confessions are only true, not in and of themselves, but if they are are true and proper reflection of what is written in scripture. Even if we think the creeds have rightly understood scripture, and thus limit what we might consider this biblical text to say, we are still ultimately asking the same question of the creed: where did you get that from the text? Such as they did and we think them right, then we can apply the creed as a guide. But the creed is really just a summary of the biblical text and so asking ‘where did you get that from the text?’ is still the right question, isn’t it?

Which is to say, asking where something is in the text is not biblicism. It is simply asking for ultimate authority to be vested in the proper place: God’s Word. Asking for textual evidence is not biblicism, it is rightly allowing scripture to act as our ultimate authority. Of course, we ought not to be asking for proof-texts. As Don Carson famously said, ‘a text without context is a pretext for a proof text.’ But asking for scriptural evidence means exactly that: where is your grounds for your position in the text?

When it comes to a particular passage of scripture, we have to first ask what does this passage say. Any old interpretation is not okay, we need to actually root what we think in this specific passage. Once we have come up with what we think this passage might be saying, we have to weigh it against the rest of scripture. The rest of scripture won’t tell us what this passage does mean, but it will help us see what it definitely cannot mean. We might then want to weigh these things against other outside guides, recognising that if nobody else has interpreted this as we do, we might be on the wrong track. But if others are with us, even if others are not, we may be onto something legitimate. But in the end, the ultimate question and determinate factor is this: where did you get that from the text? Asking other to do the same is not biblicism, it is responsible bible reading.