An odd type of insult: – On being a Biblicist

Well, I’ve dipped my toe a little into the Wayne Grudem debate on twitter and re-shared a couple of posts linking to the longer debate. If you are new to this and trying to get your head round things, here’s a summary.

  • Christians over many centuries have tried to provide structured teaching of our core beliefs, this resulted in creeds, confessions, statements of faith, catechisms and books of “Systematic Theology.”
  • The most popular systematic theology in Evangelical circles over the past 30 years has been one by a theologian called Wayne Grudem.  His aim was to provide something accessible to the wider church as many Systematic Theologies are lengthy and reply heavily on technical language.
  • There has also been a debate going on for a few years now about how we approach the doctrine of God.  This has pitted some Systematic Theologians against people like Grudem as well as John Frame and Don Carson.  The debate is to do with both methodology and content. Those disagreeing with Grudem, Frame et al are arguing that they have abandoned classical theology. Classical Theism is rooted in the work of Thomas Aquinas and other medieval theologians known as the scholastics.  They relied heavily on philosophy (particularly Aristotle) for the methods.

And this is where the insult comes in. What do you think is the biggest objection to Frame and Grudem? The answer is that they are “Biblicists.” Biblicism is defined as taking a literal interpretation of Scripture but it also is being used now to define methodology.  Do we define who God is and what he is like based on Scripture alone or do we need philosophy and philosophical method to help us do this?

To give an example. Scripture talks about God acting, God showing emotions including compassion, anger, mercy, forgiveness etc.  However, a philosophical, reasoned understanding of God sees that if God is to be truly independent of his creation and sovereign therefore, he cannot change and emotions sound like things that involve change. Therefore, God cannot on that basis have emotions and the Bible cannot really means what it says.[1]

Now, to give the Classical Theists their due, what we have seen throughout history is that people have picked up on isolated Bible texts to argue for heresy. Arius used Scripture to try and prove that Jesus was a created being and not fully God. In recent times open theists, prosperity teachers and the likes of Steve Chalke and Rob Bell have all claimed Biblical support for their positions. So, it isn’t enough to say “we believe the Bible.” 

Furthermore, the early church Fathers including Athanasius, Augustine and Hilary used the terminology and even methodology of the dominant philosophy of their time in countering Arius.  So, there seems to be a reasonable place for those things.

However, whilst we may use the language and methodology of philosophy, I would argue that the problem with Arius, Pelagius, Steve Chalke and co is not that they haven’t got to grips with philosophy but rather that they haven’t really got to know their Bibles.

Why is it that we can say that Jesus is fully God, that his death was a penal substitution and that he does not change? The answer is not that we are drawing on Aquinas or Aristotle. Rather, it is because the Bible tells us those things. So, when we read one scripture, we have learnt to interpret it in a way that is not repugnant to the plain meaning of the rest of Scripture. This means that when I come to a passage that describes God as repenting, relenting, being sad etc then I cannot read it in a way that contradicts those passages that show that he does not change, has no rivals and cannot be overwhelmed or manipulated.

This is why I find the “Biblicist” insult so weird. Systematic Theology has gotten a bad name because too often it sounds like it has nothing to do with feeding on God’s word and being discipled. Yet it should have everything to do with that. Our Systematic Theology should quite simply be a form of Bible teaching.

So, if you are looking for a label to insult me with, I would love to be called a Biblicist.


[1] This is pertinent to the debate between John Frame and James Dolezal. In an article for Tabletalk, Keith A Mathison upbraids Frame for describing scholasticism as a theology. Properly speaking, it is a methodology and you can have Reformed Scholastics such as Turretin as well as Catholic ones. However, I think Frame is spot on in describing it (meaning specifically the approach associated with Aquinas) aa a theology because our methods for knowing God are as much a part of our theology as the end content and furthermore, the methods will affect the outcome (Hence most heavyweight Systematic Theologies start with a prolegomena setting out their epistemology).

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