When Rev. Jesse Jackson was running for president I told my mom that it would be good if Rev. Jackson was president, since he was a pastor so he would do what God wanted. Before I became politically or theologically aware, I would feel an immediate kinship with any public figure or business that included a Bible verse or Christian symbols in their rhetoric or advertising. It signaled to me that this was a person who could be trusted or a business that should be patronized, because God must be with them.
The people who operate the machines of political engagement are well aware of the marketing power of a well-placed biblical allusion. Efforts to appeal to Christian voters are often as simple as slapping some Scripture on a political position and calling it biblical. This simplistic appropriation of Scripture often finds one-to-one correspondence between specific Bible verses and American political issues, or equates biblical convictions (freedom from sin, for example) with American values (personal autonomy, in contrast), or identifies political personages with biblical figures. Once a Bible verse has been slapped onto a political position or a politician demonstrates their ability to “speak Bible,” many American Christians celebrate the triumph of Scripture in the public square, as if quoting the Bible were an anomaly in U.S. politics.
What is Biblicism?
Politicians using Scripture and Christians responding in this way is one manifestation of biblicism,* a deeply flawed understanding of the doctrine of Scripture that insists on the strictest biblical literalism. Biblicism takes the Protestant affirmation of Sola Scriptura – Scripture alone as the highest authority – and amplifies it to such a degree that all other sources of knowledge and discernment become unnecessary or even suspect. In this view the Bible was directly dictated to the human writers, or the writers were overwhelmed by the Spirit, but there is no mark of human authorship in the Scriptures themselves. Whatever can or should be said of God, believed, rejected, or practiced by Christians is contained in the pages of the Bible, which is God’s complete and final self-disclosure, to the exclusion of all other methods of revelation. At best, biblicism reduces the inspired and authoritative Word of God to a compendium of disconnected verses, that can be referenced, quoted, cited, or ignored from one situation to the next. At worst, biblicism elevates the Bible to such a high position of reverence that God’s revelation supplants God himself, resulting in idolatry. The biblicist can become so committed to following the Bible, that they stop following Jesus Christ.
Biblicism looks like insisting on citing specific Bible verses to prove claims, while being suspicious of nuanced interpretation of those same verses. God is confined to the words on the page, literally in black-and-white, and the plain reading of a single verse trumps the more nuanced reading of the entire Bible. Biblicism will not accept arguments based God’s character as revealed in Scripture, or based on the context of Scripture as a whole, or based on natural law or human reason. Two simple examples: Many Christians defended slavery based on the fact that there was no single Bible verse condemning it, and dismissed Christian arguments based on the arc of God’s justice as liberal and unbiblical. Likewise, many Christians deny that women can preach or teach on the basis of Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 2:12, and accuse people of twisting the Bible to suit cultural norms when they point out Paul’s own inconsistency on this point. Not everyone who held or holds these positions is a biblicist, but biblicists did/do hold these positions. The biblicist only needs to find the right Bible verse to be sure that he is correct about anything. The biblicist rejects any opinion or point of fact for which she cannot find direct biblical evidence. Biblicism is not only a theological error, it is also politically dangerous.
The Theological Errors of Biblicism
Why is biblicism theological error and not merely a difference of opinion about biblical interpretation? Biblicism is theologically problematic for at least two reasons: (1) it misunderstands the role of the human authors of Scripture, and (2) it becomes idolatry.
(1) The inspiration and authority of Scripture is a doctrine about which there is substantial disagreement among Christians. The basic question of inspiration is, To what degree does Scripture come directly from the Holy Spirit, and to what degree did the human authors influence the writing? There multiple orthodox answers to that question. Infallibility, on the one hand, affirms the truth and reliability of Scripture in matters of doctrine and life, while leaving room for the human authors’ limited knowledge, inconsequential lapses of memory, and the influence of their cultural contexts. Inerrancy, on the other hand, affirms that Scripture is true and accurate in all its attestations, and affirms that the perfect knowledge and sovereignty of God precludes any error in Scripture. Infallibility leaves more room for emphasis on the human role, while inerrancy emphasizes the divine authorship, but both affirm that the divine + human authorship of the Bible. Biblicism goes beyond inerrancy by excluding human authorship and making the Bible a book of solely divine provenance.
By removing human influence from biblical authoriship, biblicism fails to understand the nature of God’s engagement with humanity. God created humanity with free will, which sets humans apart from all the rest of God’s creation. Free will is intrinsic to human nature. The Bible bears witness to humanity’s use and abuse of free will, and even as God grieves humanity’s abuses, God does not remove humanity’s freedom to obey or reject God’s law, love, or salvation. God did not diminish the humanity of the human authors of Scripture by reducing them to mere stenographers or recording devices. Biblicists are frightened by the idea of human authorship because it introduces uncertainty to biblical interpretation, so they remove the human factor completely. But removing the humanity from the human authors, literally dehumanizing them, is fundamentally inconsistent with God’s mode of engagement with humans as free creatures. The human authors of Scripture wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, freely choosing to respond to the Spirit’s prompting, and retaining their full humanity as they wrote. This does indeed introduce uncertainty, which is why faithful Christians can come to different conclusions about the interpretation and application of Scripture.
(2) Biblicism is prone to become bibliolatry, the worship of the Bible. Why is biblicism idolatry and not simply a different approach to biblical interpretation with which I happen to disagree? Biblicism confuses God’s revelation with Godself, and in so doing begins to worship the written word in place of the Incarnate Word. For a biblicist, the Bible is a container into which God fits. The Bible itself, the physical object and the words on the page, becomes an idol. Idols are tempting because they are tangible. We can see, read, and hear the Bible. We can Google “what does the Bible say about ___” and receive lists of verses based on keywords and conveniently separated from their context. For the biblicist, the Bible contains God. The biblicist reduces the God of the universe to the simplest and least nuanced reading of words on a page, eschewing any interpretive sources or methods that might complicate what seems plain. When contemporary issues arise that the Bible does not directly address, the biblicist is likely to dismiss them as a secular threat, rather than consider what Jesus would have them think or do. The biblicist seeks the right verse instead of seeking first the Kingdom of God and reduces discipleship to a keyword search. In short, the biblicist worships the Bible, instead of the God to whom the Bible bears witness.
I believe the best safeguards against biblicism are reading the entire Bible cover to cover as a single cohesive narrative, examining multiple interpretations of Scripture, and acknowledging that certainty is often rooted in pride or fear. Reading the entire Bible allows us to place individual passages in their proper context within the entire arc of the biblical narrative. We are less likely to misread and misapply specific verses if we understand how they function within the overall revelation of God’s redeeming work. We examine multiple interpretations because culture, word meaning, historical research, and linguistic tools all make advances over time, and different interpretive frameworks lend additional insight to the meaning of the biblical text in its original context and in the world today. We should embrace the nuance and complexity that comes from examining different angles on Scripture, while at the same time being aware that some interpretations do indeed fall outside Christian orthodoxy. And finally, we acknowledge the sins of pride and fear that influence our desire for certainty. Our pride prevents us from admitting that we might be wrong. Our fear prevents us from asking questions to which we might not want true answers. Studying Scripture faithfully should humble us before God. The biblicist is not humble about her or his understanding of the Bible.
The Political Dangers of Biblicism
Biblicism is politically dangerous for at least two reasons: (1) it is easy for politicians to exploit, and (2) it makes Christians susceptible to Christian Nationalism.
(1) In a country with declining rates of Christian adherence and a culture that is less shaped by Christian morality than [people imagine] it used to be, Christians can be eager to embrace a political vision that centers Christian identity. Christians’ desire to have power in American political culture has a dark side. It opens Christians up to exploitation, as our desire for leaders that share our faith can cloud our judgment when politicians abuse our faith for goals that actually contradict Christian convictions. Politicians (or at least their advisors) know that quoting the Bible is necessary if one wants to seal the support of the conservative Christian base. Not to interpret the Bible, not to offer thoughtful reflections on its role in their lives, not to live it out quietly and consistently, not to provide nuanced examination of the relationship between faith and politics. Simply to quote it. Politicians sprinkle their speeches with Bible verses, even if their unscripted speech belies the artificiality of their biblical allusions.
For some Christians, quoting the Bible can be ingratiating without sealing the political deal. For biblicists, well-placed Bible quotes serve as sufficient proof that this politician must be God’s candidate. Once a biblicist is convinced that their candidate is the “biblical” choice, it is extremely difficult to convince them otherwise. Since the Bible itself is the biblicist’s God, the politician who uses the Bible in a biblicist way is aligned with God. This alignment can become so fixed that questioning the candidate’s use of the Bible is tantamount to questioning God himself: the Bible, God, and the politician or political position are all of a piece, nearly interchangeable. In this way Christians who might otherwise be politically disengaged become convinced that their politics are a matter of biblical faithfulness versus apostasy. You cannot be a Christian and vote for ____; if you are a Bible-believing Christian, you have to vote for ___. Political machines are built for exploiting this kind of automatic alignment, whether the politician is a Christian or not.
(2) Biblicism is dangerous because it makes Christians susceptible to Christian Nationalism. Christian Nationalists and biblicists use the Bible in similar ways, albeit for different reasons. Both tend to quote Bible passages out of context, draw simple correlations between biblical and contemporary or personal events, and misappropriate biblical themes for personal or political ends. Biblicists do this because they adhere to the Bible more strictly that they adhere to Christ; Christian Nationalists do this because they believe Christian identity is intrinsic to American identity and must be restored or protected. When the Christian Nationalist quotes the Bible, the biblicist takes comfort and joy in the elevation of Scripture, instead of assessing the Christian Nationalist’s interpretation and application of the biblical text. When the Christian Nationalist draws inappropriate contemporary correlations, the biblicist takes them at face value, instead of asking whether that passage has any relevance at all to American politics. Instead of recognizing the misappropriation of the text, the biblicist is convinced that application of Scripture automatically aligns the speaker with the perfect will of God. Since Christian Nationalists quote the Bible plentifully in defense of their claims about America being God’s chosen nation, biblicists are inclined to agree with this plain reading and straightforward application. They then follow what the Bible says according to Christian Nationalists, even when that appropriation of the Bible runs counter to the love of God and neighbor. Christian Nationalist rhetoric and events, therefore, have an easy appeal to biblicists.
This alignment between biblicists and Christian nationalists is dangerous, not merely unfortunate. Religious belief is an extremely powerful motivator and unifier, capable of bringing out the best and the worst in humanity. When we believe that God is on our side, we can do and justify nearly anything with zealous confidence. When biblicists become convinced that Christian Nationalism is biblical, they are capable of overlooking the white supremacy that is endemic to Christian Nationalism, capable of condoning violence perpetrated by Christian Nationalists, capable of disregarding simple facts in favor of Christian Nationalist conspiracy theories, even capable of partnering with far right terror networks if they share Christian Nationalist goals. All that may sound extreme. It is. It is religious extremism. Not all biblicists succumb to it by any means, but biblicists are more susceptible to it. The biblicist’s certainty in the godliness of their political cause or candidate can drive them to willful ignorance at best or violence at worst, and the biblicist may not realize the trajectory they are on until it is too late.
As you listen to politicians or follow political events, watch for biblical allusions. How are they employed? What is their rhetorical function? What response is the allusion intended to evoke, and is that response consistent with a Christian ethic? What connections or correlations are being drawn between the Bible and contemporary issues or people (e.g. do they treat the United States and biblical Israel as synonymous)? Is the Bible being wielded in support of goals that actually contradict Christian convictions?
A high view of the inspiration and authority of the Bible should lead us to be more critical and discerning of how and why Scripture is employed in the public sphere.
*Biblicism is also commonly used to describe Evangelicals’ emphasis on the Bible as the primary source and norm for faith, most notably by David Bebbington. Bebbington is using the term in a more positive sense, describing emphasis on Scripture, but the way I am using it here is the more widely familiar connotation today.