Sola Scriptura or Rationalistic Biblicism- “Me and My Bible”?

So just what is the difference between the reformation’s oft-repeated Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone) and the American perversion of the same, biblicism or Solo Scriptura?

We have talked around this a bit, but after reading the latest issue of the Nicotine Theological Journal I was reminded of the need for a post on the subject. DG Hart speaks of those who adhere to what has become known as the Federal Vision (FV) as biblicists and says, “…reverence for God’s holy word is a good thing and study of it is the life blood of the church. But biblical study isolated from historical theology, systematic theology, and church’s confessions is unhealthy.”

That is to say that we are all part of that holy catholic Church which makes up all of God’s saints since the Fall, and it would be foolhardy to think that we could study Scripture apart from the legacy left us by them all. Why would we think ourselves able to turn to the Scriptures today, passages that have been exegeted for at least a couple thousand years by saints far greater than we, and suddenly invent new teachings that have never occured to others? Certainly we are not condemned to the erroneous teachings of those who have gone before, and even the greatest of the Church Fathers had issues with their teachings as early as they were in development. However these issues have been worked out over thousands of years through Church courts, not by proclaimation of some guy in a Bible study or online chat room.

It seems to me that Biblicism is a tendency to think that one can approach Scripture without a set of presuppositions and craft worthwhile exegesis and doctrine all alone, hence the Solo. Those in the FV have shown themselves to wear this tendency as a badge of honor, but I was raised in a fundamentalist anti-tradition steeped in the same rationalistic presuppositions.

Take my cousin for instance. Her father is a minister in the little hyper-dispensational group I was raised in (held to the standard of the three marks of the true Church graciously 1/3, realistically 0/3), but she swore up and down that she had simply come to her conclusions “from the Bible alone”. Never did she mind the fact that there had been 2000 years worth of Church history in which no one else had come to those or even similar conclusions. Nor that the preaching and teaching she was recieving, the dogmatic system into which she was being catechized if you will, were all informed by the point of view she’d adopted as her own. That didn’t matter. The only influence upon her was Scripture… what I call Solo Scriptura. She was blind to her rationalism.

Of course ignorance of one’s own system is not the only mark of the biblicist. There are the condescending attitudes toward confessionalism and our subscription to standards. Not only was she unable to recognize her own preconcieved notions about Scripture before she approached it so as to be able to criticize herself, but she was willing to villify someone who was intellectually honest enough to admit that they subscribed to such a system. Of course, in her mind that was ok because there was no written evidence (ie: Standards, Confessions of Faith, Forms, Catechisms, etc) that she maintained such a system at all in the first place.

She assumed that the intellectual assent of those who subscribe to a historic confession was evil. My alliegence, it was said outright, was to my documents rather than to the Scriptures. She condemned the idea on its face as something antithetical to the Reformation’s promise to continue to reform, “semper reformanda”.

Of course, the point that is nearly always forgotten in the “semper reformanda” crowd is that nearly all of the reformers (and their predecessors) set about the business of forming doctrinal standards and catechisms. It was assumed that without such objective and written documents outlining correct doctrine individuals and small groups would run off in a corner with their Bibles and dream up some heresies like the Anabaptists (and dispensationalists, hyper-dispensationalists, etc. later on) did.

And that gets at another unfortunate error of the biblicist. “Semper reformanda” meant ‘continually reforming unto greater conformity with the Word of God,’ not just ‘reforming cuz those Papists are too damned formal’ and ‘traditions suck’. Continuing to reform is no excuse to view novelty as an end in and of itself, for the historic understanding of the Scriptures are to be our only guide. Standards force us to police the bounds of ecclesiastical uniformity in an attempt to keep all within the corral of Biblical Christianity. Without objective and formal statements around which we may congregate, the church (as exemplified in the US) will turn into a bunch of automotons deciding how to interpret this passage and that, and creating their own little movements (the Grace Gospel Fellowship, Berean Bible Fellowship, FV, etc) as opposed to churches, which have Standards.

This is the ultimate irony of the biblicist. While he despises Standards/Forms, it is those dreaded documents that hold the greatest promise for the well intentioned hope he has for the Church; that she would remain faithful to the Word of God and to Christ her Savior. The truly sad example of this truth is seen plainly in the tradition of the Fundamenalists. Only a generation ago the mantra had been a literal(istic) interpretation of Scripture, and a tight hold upon the belief that the Bible is inerrant and infallible. Today many have fallen into the mundane mediocrity of American Evangelicalism. Inerrancy and infallibility are relatively meaningless if not offensive doctrines, the Bible and its Gospel is reduced to a set of morals on how people can be nicer or have happier lives, sermons are messages (because the minister couldn’t possibly think he has something to “sermonize” on!) and ordained ministry of word and sacrament are thought to be papal doctrines. Popular ministers are dressing down to come to church, and the only thing more informal than the worship service with its praise and worship band is the message which is one long series of amusing stories (illustrations) with a few verses tossed in to help us remember how nice God wants us to be. It is, in other words, a message from the preacher rather than a message from our Lord and Savior whose keys have been given to the Church which ordained the preacher.

And lest the biblicist forget, “the word of God which is contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him.” My 5 year old son knows that… he memorized it in q/a #2 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, one form in our set of Standards that is meant to allow us to pass along the faith once recieved to future generations.

Praise God from whom all blessings flow for giving us His W/word, that great living and incarnate Son who dwelt among us to give us righteousness (Rom 1:17, WSC q/a #33) and to forgive our great iniquity, as well as this great revelation which points us back to Him until He returns to judge the living and the dead!

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17 Responses to Sola Scriptura or Rationalistic Biblicism- “Me and My Bible”?

  1. Zrim says:

    When the basic understanding is that faith is a deeply subjective experience, American religion is ready-made for forms of biblicism. Yes, faith certainly has an important private dimension (contra the wear-it-on-your-sleeveism so well demonstrated by just about every single Presidential candidate and the constituencies they mean to garner the God-vote from), but it also has an important public one. I think that it is this proper public regard that Hart is getting to.

    It is the private/public dimensions that the Evangelical Household, again, zigs where confessionalism zags.

  2. RubeRad says:

    Just think; if every church had a written doctrinal standard, there would be no need in presidential debates to ask about literalness of the Bible — if such a question came up, the candidate could simply say “You reporters have followed me around, so you know which church I am a member of, so go look up the answer yourself!”

  3. Zrim says:


    Maybe, but since most churches do have written statements of one kind or another something tells me it has more to do with a piety that is individualistic, subjective, rationalistic and experiential and not nearly so much churchly and confessional (the same thing that drives folks to descibe themselves as “devout” over against “observant”); that and the need for high TV ratings, etc.

    Do Roman Catholics get asked about papal authority?

  4. Echo_ohcE says:

    I’m with Zrim. Even the Assembly of God has a written doctrinal statement, yet everyone thinks they have to invent their own confession and hold to it loosely. Everyone thinks they have a right to an opinion, everyone thinks their opinion is just as valid as their pastor’s.

    Authority is such a helpful category. For the typical Evangelical today, to what authority do they figure they must submit in faith and practice? Their own wicked hearts. There simply is no category of authority ascribed to the minister, to elders, or to the church. Sure, they’re influenced by them, but they don’t deliberately and self consciously submit to them.

    Yes, democracy is a grand thing, ain’t it? Why didn’t we read Plato’s Republic a time or two before having a democratic country? Plato said, 2500 years ago, that a democracy will always tend towards, “Nobody can tell me what to do.”

    Evangelical churches today are simply democratic churches. I suppose it was inevitable.

  5. RubeRad says:

    Do Roman Catholics get asked about papal authority?

    JFK seemed to think so:

    I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials

  6. Zrim says:

    He wasn’t asked.

    Mitt piped up AFTER he was asked about the Bible.

    JFK addressed an implication about something that was already known.

  7. RubeRad says:

    You think back then the newspaper opinion/analysis editors (or (Christian?) journalists) were too circumspect to have been printing things like “How can we vote for a Cat’lick who takes his marching orders from the pope?” Or do you think there’s a difference between a direct question and a thinly-veiled public implication?

  8. efwake says:

    JFK’s need to answer for his religion was extremely reflective of the lack of understanding that Protestants had back then, but at least they lacked recognition of two kingdoms on a potentially substantial point of theology. Adherants to today’s “Christian Right,” many of whom are Roman Catholics, think more in the terms that Echo pointed out.

    A Roman Catholic guy I know once said something like, “I don’t know how you can get more Roman Catholic then me… but I don’t have any problem with birth control.” I just looked at him like, huh? Um… wouldn’t you be more Roman Catholic if you submitted to the Church’s authority and teaching on that?

    I think that the fundamental issue with Rube’s utopian dream in the second post is that the biblicist is in fact one type of rationalistic automoton among many in the Church today, and there is another type of biblicist. I dealt with these in the congregation of the PCA from which I just transfered. They had a form of subscription, but the only time it was mentioned or that you’d know that they weren’t Bible Church people who baptize infants and pay lip service to biblical presbyterian gov’t was when they installed new elders.

    In fact, when I asked questions that suggested that I believed our practice was out of line with the Standards to which we professed subscription, (as representative of the system of doctrine contained in Scripture, btw) I was told that I was holding the Standards over Scripture. Even before directly answering with a rationale as to why we were out of step on any given point, or how I was wrong in my interpretation of said point, and you KNOW that an accusation like that shut down debate immediately. Amazing.

    They just rolled their eyes when I suggested that they just stop subscribing and admit that the Westminster Standards weren’t the kind of priority they would be if those who subscribed REALLY believed that they reflected biblical doctrine. Such is the state of confessionalism these days… this from the supposedly “conservative alternative” to the PCUSA??

    Give ’em 20 yrs and we’ll mourn them like we do the Politically Correct USA.

  9. I think you guys have stumbled into some valid criticisms of non-denominational churches here. When our members move to a different area and they ask me what church they should attend, I usually think about whether I have any friends or contacts in the area, then usually suggest a particular denomination, because you know what you’re getting with a brand name (usually).

    We, of course, have a statement of faith, based, like most, on the Apostle’s Creed, but we should be more systematic in our doctrinal instruction (although we are improving).

    I think you already know what I perceive to be our strengths over denominationalism, but that’s another discussion.

    This thread actually challenged me to stretch for more excellence…well done.

  10. Echo_ohcE says:

    Standing ovation for Albino on that one!

  11. Zrim says:

    Before you get too giddy, Echo…

    From a confessionalist viewpoint, “striving for excellence” is simply more biblicism, only much more friendly. There is friendly biblicism and hostile biblicism, but both still are anti-confessional. For my money, I will take a pass on either.

    Al’s comments actually remind me of what is happening in my CRC in the proposed change in the FOS; the deceiving thing about it is how glowing it is about the forms; it is friendly anti-confessionalism. But we confessionalists don’t want a high opinion of the forms but rather a high view; a high view certainly includes a high opinion, but a high opinion does not at all mean a high view. Al would find much to applaud in the proposed revision because it is a move, as Scott Clark would say, in that “trajectory toward broad Evangelicalism,” which simply seeks to “strive for excellence.” But striving for excellence is a far cry from rightly dividing the Word of truth. Al, I think, is still saying, “very, very nice, but certainly not definitive or normative.”

  12. Hmmm…I’ll take the standing ovation.

  13. Zrim says:


    I don’t blame you. Bet you never thought you’d fit so well in the CRC, did you?

  14. Echo_ohcE says:

    Albino said: “I think you guys have stumbled into some valid criticisms of non-denominational churches here.”

    Echo: Albino is a pastor of a non-denominational church.

    Albino said: “This thread actually challenged me to stretch for more excellence…well done.”

    Echo said: Standing ovation for Albino!

    Why did Echo say “Standing ovation for Albino”? Because Albino has been a very big man and admitted that someone had something to say to him, a critique that challenged him. He said essentially, “You guys have a point.” That takes courage, and it takes some level of maturity.

    Zrim said: “Don’t get too giddy, Echo, Albino’s still just a biblicist, and what he means is more of the same.”

    Echo: Maybe. But I can applaud a man for behaving like a MAN can’t I? After all, I’m a man, and I can appreciate manly virtues when I see them.

    I don’t suspect I’ll ever have a conversation with anyone like Albino that turns their whole world view upside down overnight. I’m not so naive. But when someone recognizes that someone’s got a point, and admits it, then the opportunity for a real conversation entailing real interaction can take place.

    I can respect him as a man, can’t I, even if he and I vastly disagree on matters theological?

    Let me take a far more extreme example. Rick Warren recently gave a pep talk to a bunch of Jewish leaders in So Cal. See the story here:

    Now let’s say I went to Rick Warren and said, hey Rick, I don’t think that was such a good idea to do that. Aren’t you betraying the cause of Christ? I’d be right to say it.

    Now let’s further suppose that Rick Warren said, “You know, you’ve got a point there. I shouldn’t have done that. You’ve challenged my views here.”

    How should I respond? Should I say, “Yeah, but you’re still a false prophet and a liar and stealing souls and dragging them down to hell with you”? Is that how I should respond?

    If so, then what was the point of my rebuke to him? Just to belittle him? To make him feel stupid? If I were to rebuke Rick Warren for his actions, wouldn’t I be doing so in order to try to get him to admit that what he did was wrong? And if he admits it, can’t I be glad for it, instead of responding with cynicism and bitterness?

    Albino is no Rick Warren, so the example is a vastly blown out of proportion example, but it was intended to be.

    Albino says he was challenged, and I rightly applauded him for it, and I am sincerely glad for it.

    Albino, I hope this whole discussion isn’t too offensive to you. That’s not my intent. Consider my audience.


  15. efwake says:


    A genuine thanks for the kudos.

    Don’t forget Nicea, nor Trent. One unites us in catholicity, one unites us in protest.

  16. I still have the Te Deum memorized from singing it every week in Lutheran parochial school as well. Any points for that?

  17. Zrim says:


    I’ll see your point and raise you four more, plus all the points Dr. Muller makes beyond them.

    If you ever tire of getting chased around and being blamed for consistently speaking in accord with your tradition (I feel your pain, bro, straight above), stop by for some cider and ale. We may not be able to spill wine around the communion rail, but my dinner parties could use another Revivalist (with a Lutheran background to boot!); I know the perfect spot for you right next to Joe Roman Catholic and Sylvia Russian Orthodox who both sit straight across from Mitt Mormon and Tom Secularist.

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