Why Biblicism?

Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible, Chapter 3: Some Relevant History, Sociology and Psychology

In this short but technical chapter, Smith explores from where the thinking behind biblicism came.  He anchors the rise of biblicism in “Scottish commonsense realism and the Baconian inductive-empirical philosophy of science” that were the reigning philosophies explaining how one thinks and develops understanding during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (p.55).  Smith also adds into the mix a “picture theory” of language, which argued that words represent knowable objects and can easily be known and accepted.  Altogether, biblicism arose from a milieu that held the human mind in high esteem as an impressive instrument with which to study objectively the unbiased facts of reality through systematic grouping, inductive investigation, and deductive reasoning.

The problem, though, is that philosophers of knowledge and learning no longer believe these philosophies accurately describe the thinking, learning, and knowing process.  Most questionable is the emphasis on objectivity and systematization.  Maybe the most valuable paradigm shift that came with the now-reigning system of understanding we sometimes call “postmodernism” is the degree to which the thinker, learner, scientist, scholar, reader, etc. colors the interpretations of information.  True objectivity is wishful thinking.  The person and context of a situation can never be taken out of the task of interpretation.  And try as we might, so many things in the world resist neat categorization.  Simply put, biblicism is based on outmoded ways of thinking.

So, why do people still hang on to biblicism seemingly unnerved by the problem of pervasive interpretive pluralism?  Smith argues the answer may one of the following reasons:

  1. Sociology teaches us that “birds of a feather flock together.”  Then, one’s belief system is bolstered the more those in one’s social circle believe what you do, which naturaly happens the more homogenous our social circles remain.
  2. There may exist a tendency to minimize the degree and significance of difference between people.  In an effort to cooperate and work together for the sake of God’s mission, evangelicals tend to deny that interpretive differences really matter.
  3. Groups tend to solidify their own personality in contrast to opposing groups, so diversity can actually be seen as an asset to some.  Usually, though, the differences in understanding are reduced to caricatures and not fully understood and addressed.
  4. Overcoming differences sounds like ecumenism, which sounds like compromise and theological liberalism.  It is better to be committed to the truth and stay fragmented.
  5. Psychologically, there are groups of people who fear chaos and error.  Thus, they seek order and security and a vigilance to keep things the way they should be.  The structure, certainty and explicability of biblicism is a source of comfort and control to those afraid to lose these core values.

Of course, why an individual person adopts biblicism (besides the easiest answer: they were taught to and have simply accepted that without question) is beyond what a sociologist like Smith wishes to do in a book like this.  He is paining in broad brush strokes.  What I gather from this chapter is that the reality is never as easy as we might want it: I believe the words of the Bible because the truth is that simple.  Probably not.