Monday, July 4, 2022

Biblicism, Confessions, Womanhood, & Christian Duty



It's becoming increasingly common for some theologians to mock individual Bible study. Picking up the word of God, reading it for yourself, and heeding what the Lord has said can be couched in language that makes the process sound like a fool's errand. These theologians will claim that without the help of historical secondary sources, it's nigh impossible for an individual to understand the biblical text in accordance with historic Christian orthodoxy.

Aside from essentially rejecting the perspicuity of Scripture, this understanding of the Christian faith generates more questions than answers. How do we know what heresy is? How are we to determine the fitness of those teachers who seek to influence our understanding of the Bible? What theology does God want us to presuppose in our Bible study, in contrast with the theology that is derived from Bible study?

(For some answers to that last question, check out clips from my podcast here and here.)

Proponents of the prioritization of historical secondary sources in Bible study encourage a person's theology to be mostly developed before he draws out theology from Scripture. If a person goes to the Word himself, they say, he is much more likely to conjure a variety of doctrines that are not in accord with sound teaching. Left to his own devices, the individual -- born-again or otherwise -- is missing out on the fullness of Christianity if he just has the Bible. He must be taught theology before he is sent off on his own in Bible study.

The Biblicism Boogeyman

As these theologians advocate for their doctrine to be taught to Bible students before they actually become Bible students, they say they do so in the name of guarding against "biblicism." Before the term is defined, it should be made clear that this is a made-up word that is meant to make people afraid of Scripture to some degree. This word means different things to different people, but the common thread is that it's a bad thing. So, here's my stab at a definition:

Biblicism is a method of personal Bible study that rejects pre-conceived systematic theologies in order to understand Scripture on its own terms.

With this definition in place, we can imagine a few reasons why certain theologians want to discourage biblicism. One noble and understood caution they have is that a "rugged individualism" approach to Bible study might lead to some disastrous results. Anyone who has spent any amount of time in Scripture and religious discourse knows that people can make the Bible say anything they want it to say. Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Muslims, Atheists, Scientologists, and the like will all reference the Bible to make a point -- yet they often do so without regard to context, meaning, or true faith. If that's "biblicism," then count me out of it.

So, this is the initial point of anti-biblicism: The Bible has been abused by false teachers; therefore, we must take steps to safeguard against repeating those same errors. Amen.

From there, anti-biblicist theologians, who are generally Reformed brothers and sisters in Christ, want the Church to be catechized in their confessions and systematic theology before She's released to explore the Word herself. At this point the conversation centers around a fundamental difference of hermeneutics, which is the interpretation of Scripture. They don't believe Scripture can and should be understood on its own terms by individual Christians who have the Holy Spirit, but it must be viewed through the lens of a pre-conceived theological framework. This is where I pump the brakes and say "If that's 'anti-biblicism,' then I guess I'm a biblicist."

So, this is the conclusion of anti-biblicism: The Bible is not sufficient in itself to safeguard the truth for us individually, even when it is interpreted in context; therefore, we must add formally written extrabiblical documentation to serve as a governing authority for our doctrine.

You see, it's critical to understand that the initial point above doesn't necessarily lead to the conclusion. In fact, if a person is regenerate -- born-again, truly saved -- then that person, in all likelihood, will not go on to believe, embrace, and endorse heresy. There are certainly times when God permits His people to dabble with and latch onto false teachings; however, through the teachers and leaders in the local church or via God's direct involvement, His people are always eventually corrected. Those who continue on in lies were never regenerate to begin with. The initial point does not necessitate or even provide a proper foundation for the conclusion; the conclusion is a new animal altogether.

To sum up, this movement's claim is essentially that without theological categories and definitions handed to a Christian before he reads the Bible, he will go on to be confused, inconsistent, and potentially heretical in his beliefs. These theologians do not believe that God will lead His people into the truth without the embrace of formally written, extrabiblical governing documents known as confessions.

Confessions: Resources, Guardrails, or Popes?

Here are two very important thoughts to hold in tension:

  1. Church history matters greatly and it serves students of Scripture in a variety of ways.
  2. Christians must be very selective about who or what they allow to influence themselves.

It is into this tension that we must consider the historic creeds and confessions of Christianity for a moment. Some Christians are "confessional," and they generally describe their confessionalism as an approach to Scripture that rules out the significance of individual conclusions from the Bible -- even when the reader is regenerate -- in order to make room for a governing document handed down through church history that provides a final say in certain areas of doctrine over one's personal interpretation of Scripture.

(Here are some basic overviews of confessions and articles of faith.)

In the video linked in the paragraph above, Steve Meister explains that the creed or confession you subscribe to as a confessionalist "distinguishes Scripture from what you believe Scripture to mean by what it says." The confession functions as the whole counsel of God, keeps Christians on the correct doctrinal track, and even serves as "pope" for confessionalists.

Confessionalism is diametrically opposed to biblicism, and confessionalists offer confessionalism to biblicists as the alternative to their approach to Scripture.

Confessionalists (of the Reformed Protestant variety, at least) still hold to the Bible's authority in all matters of faith and practice; however, when they make that point in this conversation, it is nearly always followed by a "but" or "however." For them, Scripture is authoritative, but it is not to be interpreted by any believer without the guardrails of a historic creed or confession. They claim their approach prevents people from twisting the Word and allows them to graze freely in the pasture of Christian orthodoxy.

No good confessionalist would ever say that the authors of their confession were inspired by God or that the confession itself is some inspired, untouchable document. However, many confessionalists tend to live that way. For instance, most confessionalists would instinctively recoil at the thought of creating a new and better confession that would supplant their current one. The mindset is basically that the confession they have now is the best it could ever be, which, in my mind at least, makes the document inspired and untouchable. When treated this way, the confession graduates from a guardrail and becomes a pope.

These confessions haven't been around forever, though. There were confessions that preceded them and confessionalists believe that the confessions they hold to at the present are better than those that came before them. For many confessionalists, the evolution of confessions has reached its apex and any new proposed governing document would only be a step down from where they are. Thus, the confession is considered more than a mere resource; it is spoken of as a guardrail and it is given the authority of a pope.

With all that said, there's a fundamental error in all of this that shouldn't be missed: Confessionalists have a desire for formally written, extrabiblical governance. This is a dangerous desire and it has actually led many people away from biblical truth.

In the second point I made above, I highlighted the need for Christians to be very careful and selective about the influences they let into their lives. Here, I'll go a bit further and say that the desire for a formally written, extrabiblical governing authority must be repudiated. This is not to say that doctrinal statements are bad (all good churches have them); however, confessionalism goes beyond the existence of agreed upon doctrine in local churches and creates an authority that functions as the last word over and against personal Bible study, or even group study for that matter.

Can you imagine what would have happened if Luther would have given in to Rome's insistence on their confessions?

Consider John MacArthur's answer to a woman who asked how much authority pastors have in the church. The offices of the local church, and certainly the written documents of men, only have as much authority as they have Bible. Individual believers are able to understand the Scripture and where a teacher or document strays from biblical teaching, believers are responsible to confront and/or abandon the one in error.

Womanhood as a Test Case

Lately, there's been no shortage of chatter regarding the God-given role of women in the home and church. Aimee Byrd is one of the more interesting cases, as she has transitioned away from the more conservative view of gender roles to a more liberal position. In a recent article titled, "That Was Then, This Is Now," Byrd explains how her aversion to biblicism actually led her to a new understanding on gender roles. Here is a sampling of quotes from the article with emphasis added. (For context, you can, of course, view the article in full via the link above.)

The thing is, biblicism doesn’t get to the heart of the matter in Bible interpretation. We need to read the Bible together with a rich biblical theology. I believe that the Holy Spirit still guides the church to the truth in the unity of faith through our reading of Scripture together (John 16:12-15). The metanarrative of Scripture isn’t that men are in charge and are the only ones we should hear about God and his word from. The Bible closes with the voice of the bride, joined with the Spirit, calling her brothers and sisters to the living waters.

Do I care about rights and equality? Yes. And egalitarians have shown me much more kindness as a whole—and actual public support. I am thankful for my egalitarian friends and the scholarship of those I am still learning from. So I do not take it as an insult to be called an egalitarian. I think the whole soft and hard complementarian categories are silly. Soft is used as an insult and egalitarian is used as a moral category. It isn’t a moral issue, it’s a matter of biblical interpretation on a second-order issue.

I don’t fit nicely into these boxes and I am good with that. I am looking at this all more with a typological/theological understanding.

What is going on here?

To put it simply: Aimee Byrd has given over authority in her theological understanding to a group of people, rejecting the notion that Scripture alone is enough for her to understand what God has said about gender roles. She has outsourced her interpretation of the Word to liberal theologians.

Here is a clear example of the fundamental error of searching for formally written, extrabiblical governance. If the extrabiblical governance disagrees with the biblical revelation, that governance is no good. Yet, if you're fundamentally opposed to individual Bible study and the deductions thereof, you'll never know if the extrabiblical governance is unbiblical. All a person can ever do is choose a different extrabiblical governing authority.

Biblicism would have stopped Aimee Byrd's liberal drift. If she would have appealed to Scripture as her final authority instead of seeking out a metanarrative handed down to her from a group of people who have no authority, she would be in a much better place today. However, due to her presupposition of anti-biblicism, she has abandoned Scripture's clear teaching on gender roles.

Christian Duty

One may conclude from my words here that I believe Christians should be free of all formally written extrabiblical documents, but this is certainly not the case. What I stated parenthetically above I'll make explicit here: All good churches have doctrinal statements. It is undoubtedly prudent for a local church to group together their beliefs and post it publicly. It is also wise for believers to study church history and learn from God's people who, throughout the ages, have warded off heresy by getting together and articulating truth in written form with modern language.

Additionally, Christians should not be free of all extrabiblical human influences. God has graciously and necessarily provided His church with teachers. Bible study is not an activity that should take place in a total vacuum. Christians are placed in God's household upon salvation and together we live and learn, which establishes the proper context for each individual believer to go to the Word and take in what God has for him. Faithful teachers and preachers in the church are used by God to help His people understand what He has said, as Ephesians 4:11-16 makes clear.

Furthermore, Christians are not to seek to come to the Bible without any theological presuppositions whatsoever. In fact, it's impossible to do that. These presuppositions must be boiled down, as far as it depends on us, to the most basic realities. God exists, God has spoken in a preserved Word, and God causes us to understand His Word as we read it in faith. In this way, we can be open to whatever the Lord instructs us.

So, what's the problem with confessionalism?

This is the issue: There is no formally written document in existence that should supplant the authority and presentation of Scripture on its own terms or overrule the power of God's Spirit in teaching, illumining, and guiding the individual Christian in Bible study.

Therefore, the duty of all Christians is to go to the Word and hear from God Himself in order to test all things by His plain, clear revelation (Acts 17:10-12). Call this biblicism and make it a boogeyman if you wish. In my view, this is just the fundamental duty of Christian living: To know the Word, to do it, and to teach it to others (Joshua 1:8, Ezra 7:10, 2 Timothy 3:16-17).

Good Christians will certainly continue to disagree on this issue, but my hope is that the conversation will evolve into something more productive than where we are now. For one conversation starter, check out this episode of the Do Theology Podcast where we discuss Tests of Orthodoxy.

God bless.

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