On Biblicism

In the last year I’ve read three different Christian self-help books.

I wasn’t a particularly big fan of any of them, but they all came recommended by someone I trust, and they all had things I appreciated about them. There was wisdom in each and every one.

I’m comfortable reading books I disagree with or don’t like in order to comb them for wisdom. I’m a committed believer that all truth is God’s truth. We can find wisdom in surprising places. It requires a certain degree of maturity and wisdom to find the wisdom in some of those places—to eat the meat and spit out the bones as the proverb goes—but as we grow up into the image of Jesus it’s a goal we should all be able to obtain.

I fear that books like the ones I read don’t help matters though. They shall remain nameless to protect the guilty, or more to the point because my critique of them isn’t what I want to write about. They came from a cross section of American Christianity, aesthetically at least. I don’t know much about any of the authors but they wrote in the style of a) hyper-charismaticism b) an ecumenical mere Christianity c) southern American Baptists. It appeared that two authors were pastors and one was a psychologist.

All of them did the same thing, and it made it almost impossible for me to hear what they were saying.

They would make their statements about how to pursue relationships well, or how to think or act about particular emotions well, and then drop a Bible verse at the end. The majority of time the link between their statement and the verse would not be teased out, no context for the passage would be given or application made. It would simply be left as though it proved their point. Rarely did it do so, often it didn’t apply as far as I could see and occasionally it would make the completely opposite point.

The books were full of the assumption that because this sentence contains this word that the writer was using the Biblical author means the same thing by it. Rarely was it obvious that they did. Sometimes I felt like maybe I could see what the author was getting at but they weren’t interested in showing me what they meant. It was as though stating a verse from the Bible was enough proof and now they could move on.

I must admit that when I was warming to what they had to say I would then be immediately turned off and question it all. If they use the Bible so badly, why should I listen to them?

This is what’s called “Biblicism”. Which sounds like a good thing, but isn’t. Its an approach to the Bible that means quoting a verse that looks like it supports what you’re saying to prop up your argument. It’s an approach that responds to a nuanced argument from the story or structure of the scriptures with a need to read a specific sentence that says what you said, and its an approach that assumes if the Bible doesn’t say it explicitly then it either isn’t true or doesn’t matter. It’s a denial of all truth as God’s truth.

It gets my goat.

My problem with these Christian self-help books is that they undermine their own wisdom with their proof-texting and they lead people away from believing that the Bible is an understandable series of interlinked texts that they can understand. If they supported their wisdom with examples or other sources of evidence it would be better. Often the books did this, and then threw in some random Bible verses like they felt it was expected because it’s a “Christian” book. One of them was aimed at pastors specifically, which is galling.

It’s a really unfortunate feature of the American Evangelical Industrial Complex that we reap the dubious fruit of on our side of the Atlantic. There’s a tendency to baptise things because people won’t accept that they’re true if they aren’t given a Christian gloss. Please, please stop it. If its true, its true. There will almost certainly be a uniquely Christian nuance or lens to read the truth through that you can give us.

When we try to claim the Bible teaches the same idea that we’re promoting by throwing some verses at it we undermine people’s ability to read the scriptures in three ways. Firstly we undermine their trust in the Bible by making it seem like it can mean anything; secondly we demonstrate bad Bible reading which people will pick up by osmosis; thirdly it is possible that the Bible may agree with the ideas these authors—or any other—were presenting, but you have to actually show us!

Unfortunately, this pops up in theology books too. There’s a very famous work of Systematic Theology that approaches the Bible like this (if you know you know) and its method is the biggest issue with it. I love the attention to the text of the Bible, but we can look at story, structure and rhetoric as well as specific sentences. The Bible is not like a set of pick up sticks where you fish out the right verses to make the answer, and it has more in common with literature than with a dictionary.

It’s this desire to read the Bible in its richness that means I rarely cite verses at the end of statements. I’m not sure this is an especially good reaction (my senior pastor has often said to me about something I’ve written for internal use, “that’s great, could you add some references”) but if we’re doing our theology well we should be able to cite a long string of references some of which won’t appear obvious without some explanation. It’s why on this blog I’m tending to cite a chapter reference instead of a verse reference—if you want to follow along you need to read what’s to be read in its context.

In the last year I’ve also read a secular self-help book. It’s written by an academic psychologist for a popular audience and is chock full of references to studies and explanations for what they found. I agree with less of it, but its much less frustrating to read as I can see where the ideas are developing from and its even-handed in its attempt to deal with criticisms of them. Its also easier for me to assess the ideas, search them for wisdom and come to conclusions about them. This is the way.

Could I recommend the secular book in an unqualified way? No, not really, though I do think some of its ideas (especially its scepticism about how easy it is for people to change) are more Christian than some of those in the Christian books. The thing is, I couldn’t recommend the Christian books in an unqualified way either.

To sum up, we need to teach people how to read the Bible carefully, properly for themselves. I can’t really pin this on the authors. If our people can’t see the difference, that’s our fault. It’s our failing. It’s my failing.

Photo by Rachel Strong on Unsplash