Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Critical biblicism

i) "Biblicist" is typically a term of abuse. Likewise, those who use "biblicist" as a term of abuse frequently distinguish between (bad) solo Scriptural and (good) sola Scriptura. Keith Mathison popularized this distinction. Unfortunately, it's an unstable distinction which Catholic apologists can and do exploit. 
I think it would be better to distinguish between, say, naive biblicism and critical biblicism.
ii) By "naive biblicism" I mean the illusion of presuppositionless exegesis. That we come to the Bible as a blank slate, and Scripture pencils its theology directly onto our blank slate. 
It's become a popular cliche to point out that this is self-delusive. We all bring certain preconceptions to our reading of Scripture. This may involve general cultural conditioning or specific theological conditioning. This is called the hermeneutical circle. 
iii) Some Christians, such as "confessional Calvinists," think the solution to "biblicism" is confessionalism. A document like the Westminster Confession supplies the presuppositions. That's our hermeneutical grid. But there are a couple of basic problems with that solution:
a) It simply relocates the problem. It substitutes naive confessionalism for naive biblicism. Solo confessionalism for solo scripturalism. For just as there's no such thing as the presuppositionless exegesis of Scripture, there's no such thing as the presuppositionless exegesis of the Westminster Confession. We're not 17C Puritans. We don't naturally inhabit their intellectual universe. The deceptively simple language of the Confession conceals centuries of theological debate. Modern readers coming to the text bring their own presuppositions. Unsuspecting readers don't catch the historical connotations of period usage. 
b) A deeper problem is this: the Confession itself needs to derive its theology from Scripture. If you begin with the Confessional as your interpretive grid, then that prejudges the meaning of Scripture. That takes the truth of the Confession for granted. The Confession needs to be used as a summary of some key Biblical doctrines, rather than the interpretive key.
iv) Some people never get beyond the hermeneutical circle. They think that's an inescapable recipe for hermeneutical relativism. Since we all bring presuppositions to Scripture, we never break out of that viciously circular exercise.
But that fails to distinguish between naive biblicism and critical biblicism. You can cultivate an awareness of your hitherto unquestioned presuppositions. Once you become self-conscious of your operating presuppositions, you can compare and contrast your operating presuppositions with the teaching of Scripture. Scripture can correct your presuppositions. Give you new presuppositions.  It's a dialectical process in which some of your governing assumptions are confirmed by the study of Scripture while others are challenged and overturned. 
One way of becoming presuppositionally self-aware is to acquaint yourself with competing interpretations or competing theological traditions. That can make you conscious of interpretive possibilities which wouldn't otherwise occur to you. Help your break out of one myopic way of looking at the text. You can then test these alternatives against the text of Scripture. Which has more explanatory power? Which is able to harmonize and integrate more data?  
v) It's also quite possible to get your interpretation right the very first time. Much of Scripture is pretty straightforward. 


  1. Steve, this is exceptional!

  2. Steve, what do you think of the arguments made in this blog post?


    1. He begins with a straw man definition of perspicuity. He blurs the distinction between what's essential for Christianity to be true and what's essential for saving faith.

      To the extent that the laity rely on Bible scholars and theologians, that's not the Protestant counterpart to the Roman Magisterium. That's not an argument from authority. It's not a case of taking their word for it. For Protestant theologians must argue for their position. Bible scholars must argue for their interpretations.

      The supporting evidence is available for public inspection and evaluation.

    2. Thanks Steve

    3. Thanks Steve