Appeal for Radical Biblicism

by Jack Crabtree


I have followed with interest the latest battle for the Bible. The committee of scholars that determines the text of the New International Version of the Bible has apparently been working on a revision. In this revision they intended to bring their translation into the 1990s by purging it of language that might denote one gender to the exclusion of the other. World magazine, getting wind of the proposed revision, created quite a stir by publicly criticizing it.

Both sides frame the controversy as a debate over what constitutes an accurate translation. But in truth, neither side’s preferred translation is more accurate than the other. The NIV’s original translation of Genesis 1:26-27 (“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image….’ So God created man in his own image…male and female he created them”) is no more nor less accurate than the gender-neutralized translation (“Then God said, ‘Let us make human beings in our image….’ So God created human beings in his own image…male and female he created them”). If one translation is preferred over the other, it is on grounds other than accuracy.

The real issue is not accuracy of translation. It is disagreement over what values a Christian ought to embrace; and more specifically, it is a subtle disagreement over how a Christian ought to determine what worldview to hold and what values to embrace.

On the surface, it may appear that “biblical” Christians all agree: we derive our values and worldview from the Bible; our common ground is an attitude of submission to the Bible. But, in fact, among “biblical” Christians a wide gulf separates two radically different approaches to the Bible. I have coined labels for them, radical biblicism and neo-biblicism, by which I mean to convey the attitudes I shall now describe.

Radical Biblicism & Neo-Biblicism

An earlier battle for the Bible was waged between “total inerrantists” and “limited inerrantists.” Total inerrantists insisted that the Bible is accurate and true in absolutely all that it affirms; and the worldview that informed everything the biblical authors said is, in its entirety, an accurate understanding of reality–it is God’s own understanding of reality. Limited inerrantists, on the other hand, held that the important, infallible, divinely-revealed truths the Bible conveys are intermingled with factual errors and misconceptions that the human authors introduced.

The current feud is a new one. While radical biblicism presupposes “total inerrancy,” neo-biblicism is not “limited inerrancy,” although there are some important correlations. Most neo-biblicists gravitate toward limited inerrancy, but ultimately neo-biblicism and limited inerrancy are distinctly different attitudes. A neo-biblicist can be a card-carrying, statement-signing total inerrantist and yet not manifest the distinctive attitudes of a radical biblicist. For the sake of clarity, in the ensuing discussion I shall oversimplify and assume that both the radical biblicist and the neo-biblicist affirm the total inerrancy of the Bible.

To articulate the distinction between radical biblicism and neo-biblicism is not easy. I shall attempt to clarify the distinction by discussing seven important points of contrast:

(1) The radical biblicist does not trust his own convictions when they are not clearly and confidently derived from the teaching of the Bible. He knows that his judgments about what is true or good are vulnerable to being skewed by his innate sinfulness. Consequently, his convictions can be tainted by his own sin and the sinful culture around him. Hence, the radical biblicist does not trust his convictions. If they are not directly derived from the Bible, they are not reliable.

This same mistrust is not a compelling factor in the neo-biblicist’s thought. He basically trusts his convictions–independent and underived though they may be. If they are not explicitly derived from the Bible, he expects the Bible to confirm them eventually–if not by explicit teaching, then by underlying assumptions implicit in the Bible.

(2) The radical biblicist is never fully content with the present level of his understanding. He is always keenly aware that his current beliefs may need correction. The neo-biblicist, on the other hand, is basically content with his faith. He understands and believes what Christians ought to believe. He must strive to live his life consistently in the light of his beliefs, but what to believe is a finished work for him.

(3) Both approaches can agree that the biblical teachings are informed by and embody a uniquely true worldview. Ideally, an accurate grasp of the biblical text’s meaning would result in a grasp of this TRUTH, this one uniquely true understanding of reality. But is the grasp of this TRUTH attainable? The neo-biblicist is skeptical: this TRUTH–though it exists–is fundamentally unattainable; no human being could ever grasp it in this lifetime. More importantly, it is a mistake to set for oneself the idealistic goal of grasping this TRUTH.

The radical biblicist, on the other hand, is idealistic. He embraces the ideal of biblical TRUTH. He aims all of his study at achieving a full understanding of the biblical text and, thereby, a full understanding of the TRUTH of God Himself.

The radical biblicist’s idealism in this regard is not inconsistent with his self-mistrust described in point one above. His mistrust follows from his awareness of his inherent sinfulness. His idealism follows from his confidence in the Bible–not only in its authority and infallibility, but also in its accessibility and knowability.* He does not trust beliefs that have not been derived from biblical instruction, but he does trust those that have been. He is confident that, due to the work of God’s Spirit and in spite of his sinfulness, the Bible’s truth is ultimately accessible to him. And when he comes to understand the Bible, he can be confident that he knows the TRUTH. The neo-biblicist does not share this confidence.

(4) These two different approaches employ different criteria for judging an interpretation valid. The radical biblicist judges an interpretation valid only if it understands the biblical text to say exactly what its human author meant it to say. Similarly, a worldview is validly biblical only if it conforms exactly to that worldview the biblical authors held. The neo-biblicist employs a different, more permissive criterion. For him, an interpretation can be considered valid if it is logically possible and more or less plausible. (What constitutes a “plausible” interpretation is constantly changing. It is determined by unspoken rules created and enforced by the Christian community to which one belongs.)

(5) For the neo-biblicist, a “biblical” doctrine falls within a large, vaguely defined range; specifically, somewhere within the rather permissive boundaries established by the particular Christian tradition to which he belongs. For the radical biblicist, “biblical” does not designate a range of acceptability; it designates a precise pinpoint. Either one has achieved the uniquely true understanding of reality the biblical text embodies, or he has not. If he has not, then his understanding is not biblical to the extent that he has not. Whereas two mutually contradictory doctrines could both logically qualify as “biblical” according to the neo-biblicist’s meaning of that term, according to the radical biblicist’s use of the term, they could not.

(6) For radical biblicism, the fundamental task is to use reason and commonsense to grasp the meaning of the biblical text that its author intended. For neo-biblicism, the fundamental task is to interpret the Bible “in good faith”; that is, to interpret the Bible in accordance with rules of evidence and principles of reasoning and interpretation acceptable to the relevant Christian community. Whether through such means he grasps what the biblical author actually intended is not ultimately important to the neo-biblicist, for that is an idealistic, unattainable goal. It is enough that he has in good faith employed acceptable means to draw plausible conclusions from his encounter with the biblical text.

(7) A neo-biblicist establishes a doctrine as “biblical” in order to show that he has permission to hold it. A doctrine’s being “biblical” does not require one to embrace it; it merely makes it permissible to embrace it if, on some other grounds, one wants to. The neo-biblicist, therefore, must find other grounds upon which to choose one “biblical” doctrine over another “biblical” doctrine when the two are mutually incompatible. Typically, he finds those other grounds in his own independent judgment. (See point one.) The radical biblicist, on the other hand, seeks to determine what doctrines are “biblical” in order to determine what doctrines must be believed. For him, a doctrine’s being “biblical” is all the grounds one needs for embracing it. Not only that, being “biblical” also imposes an obligation to embrace the doctrine.

Neo-Biblicism’s Concept of “Biblical”

According to neo-biblicism, all we can require of other Christians is that they play by the rules–staying reasonably within the rather permissive boundaries of what qualifies as acceptable theological method. As long as one stays within the requisite parameters, one has considerable freedom to think, to reason, and to believe as he wants. The neo-biblicist’s commitment to being “biblical” is easily compatible with a number of different, mutually exclusive conclusions with regard to what the Bible teaches.

Some rather absurd doctrines have been accepted as “biblical” in accordance with this approach. In the mid-1970s I read Sex for Christians by Lewis Smedes, a professor at Fuller Seminary. (It has been re-released under a new title.) Smedes arbitrarily–and rather inanely–defined sexual intimacy as the penetration of a woman’s vagina by a man’s penis. Accordingly, unless actual penetration is taking place, one is not committing what the Bible calls fornication. According to Smedes, therefore, the Bible does not forbid petting (a dated term for sexual foreplay) between a man and woman who are unmarried. Smedes–apparently desiring to be more circumspect than the Bible–cautioned his Christian readers to practice pre-marital sexual foreplay “responsibly.” Their foreplay should not be casual or promiscuous; but done “responsibly,” it is morally permissible.

I have waited two decades for some Christian leader–within or without Fuller Seminary–to express outrage at the immoral sexual ethics Smedes advocated. To date, I have not heard a whisper. From all appearances, Smedes’ sexual ethics were presented as “biblical” and widely accepted as such by the modern evangelical church.

How could the church accept a conclusion that pre-marital sexual foreplay is morally appropriate? The answer, I think, lies in neo-biblicism, which is increasingly the perspective of modern biblical Christianity. Smedes obligingly connected his sexual ethics, however loosely, with biblical texts. In accordance with neo-biblicism, then, they are entitled to be accepted as “biblical.” Even though Smedes’ ethical views are patently false, destructive, and contrary to everything the Bible actually teaches about sexual ethics, neo-biblicism could never disallow them. What matters is that Smedes is a card-carrying member of Bible-believing Christianity. As long as he has the appropriate credentials and plays by the (rather flexible) established rules, we must acknowledge his views as “biblical.” We need not agree with them; but we must respect them and allow them a hearing.

As a radical biblicist, I find the neo-biblicist approach absurd. A biblical doctrine is not one that falls within certain acceptable parameters; it is one that conforms exactly to what the biblical authors themselves held to be true. A worldview is not biblical because he who espouses it has somehow connected it to biblical revelation; a worldview is biblical when it describes reality exactly as the biblical authors would describe it. “Biblical” does not define a range of options for us to choose among; it defines a specific and unique set of doctrines. Either our beliefs are right because they conform exactly to what the Bible teaches, or they are unbiblical and wrong.

Radical Biblicism as an Attitude

Can we prevent blatantly immoral uses of the Bible (like Smedes’) being accepted as “biblical”? It is tempting to think we could. We could spell out principles of interpretation, evidence, and reasoning and deny the description “biblical” to any conclusion not derived by means of those principles. But that would be an impossible task. Though it presupposes a particular theory of the Bible, radical biblicism is not primarily a theory; it is primarily a spirit, a frame of mind. It is an attitude of absolute respect for the Bible alongside an attitude of profound mistrust for one’s own convictions. Radical biblicists cannot be definitively identified through doctrinal statements; the attitude which makes one a radical biblicist can only be seen in practice, in the ongoing dynamic of his wrestling with the biblical text.

The attitude which distinguishes the radical biblicist from the neo-biblicist becomes most apparent in their respective approaches to “problem” texts–that is, texts which appear to contradict certain convictions one has. Problem texts are not a significant difficulty for the neo-biblicist. As long as he can plausibly construe “the overall tenor of the Bible’s teaching” to support his convictions, a few awkward passages will not deter the neo-biblicist. If he can offer some logically possible explanations for why the “problem” passages do not contradict his convictions, then he feels perfectly justified in dismissing those passages; he has, after all, the whole tenor of revealed truth on his side.

The radical biblicist views a “problem” passage very differently. He encounters it as a huge difficulty–one that he must face squarely and honestly. Ever aware that his current beliefs may be wrong, he can never say, “Oh well, somehow this passage is consistent with what I believe. Whatever it means, it cannot refute what I know to be true.” A passage that appears to conflict with his prior beliefs is a direct challenge to those beliefs; for ultimately those beliefs must bow to what the Bible actually teaches. He is not at liberty simply to construe the text so that it confirms what he already believes. Any one of his beliefs could very well be nothing but a reflection of the godless culture in which he lives. Hence, he lives in an uncertain and insecure dialectic: on the one hand, he will and must seek to understand his Bible in the light of what he currently understands to be true; on the other hand, he dares not ever rest content with the conclusions to which his current beliefs lead him. “Problem” passages, therefore, will always remain difficulties for him. They may be problematic precisely because the prior beliefs he is trying to see in those passages are false beliefs he needs to abandon. He must always live with the tension created by this possibility.

Radical biblicism is an ideal attitude. Any actual person will repeatedly sin against the radical biblicism he embraces. Being a fallible human being, he may not always adopt that attitude toward the text, even though he knows that attitude to be right. Nonetheless, we can distinguish between a radical biblicist who is transgressing his own convictions and a bona fide neo-biblicist. Neo-biblicism is not merely a failure to put one’s radical biblicism into practice; it is an approach to the Bible that the neo-biblicist would defend. The radical biblicist who transgresses his radical biblicism in practice does not ultimately believe that his inappropriate use of the Bible is defensible. The neo-biblicist, on the other hand, would defend the approach he takes to using the Bible in practice. Ultimately, he resorts to a rather skeptical defense: he is perfectly within his rights to conclude what he does from the Bible; “perfectly godly people who are committed to the authority of the Bible will always disagree on such matters.”

Radical Biblicism and the Gender-Neutral NIV

What does all this have to do with the current feud over a gender-neutralized NIV? The critics of the gender-neutral NIV strongly suspect that the revision is not motivated by a desire for greater accuracy. They suspect that it is an attempt to engineer a change of attitudes among modern Christians. Specifically, they suspect that it is an attempt to subtly indoctrinate contemporary Christians in egalitarianism (the view that there exists no created priority of any kind between husband and wife). The critics’ problem is not with egalitarianism per se; it is with the perceived source of egalitarianism. Egalitarianism is not derived from the Bible’s teaching, they suspect, but from the accepted mores of the godless culture around us. Presumably, if the Bible unmistakably taught egalitarianism, there would not be the same cause for alarm.

Proponents of the new NIV are, of course, outraged by such a suspicion. How could these critics challenge their impeccable credentials as “biblical” Christians? While they may have reached different conclusions about what the Bible teaches, surely their beliefs are no less “biblical” because of that.

This feud over the NIV is ultimately a conflict between radical biblicism and neo-biblicism. The critics of the proposed NIV typically employ the radical biblicist’s conception of “biblical”; proponents of the revision typically employ the neo-biblicist’s conception of “biblical.” Accordingly, they will continue to talk past each other–without understanding one another–until they realize what radically different approaches to the Bible are at work.

Should this proposed revision of the NIV alarm the radical biblicist? Its critics think it should. I have to disagree. I am familiar with the revision only through a few citations in World. From what I have seen, the revision strikes me as tame, cautious, conservative, and completely unnecessary. Undoubtedly it is annoying in places; but not dangerous. What is far more dangerous is the climate of neo-biblicism that spawned the desire for such a revision in the first place. Keeping the current version of the NIV will not solve that problem. We need a radical overhaul of the minds and hearts of American Christendom before the real problem will be solved.

My Appeal

Modern Christianity must renew its commitment to radical biblicism. The real issue is not whether a doctrine is affirmed by every Christian everywhere, nor whether it is officially orthodox according to the historical creeds, nor whether it is unofficially orthodox according to the fashions of contemporary Christian thought. The only real issue is whether a doctrine is BIBLICAL–as a radical biblicist means “biblical.” There is no more sound approach to the formation of our beliefs. Radical biblicists belong to a shrinking minority, but I believe their approach is the right one. The death of radical biblicism, should it come, will be the death of truly Christian belief altogether. One can be saved without being a radical biblicist; but one cannot be truly Christian. This is the choice that lies before us: either we will commit ourselves to radical biblicism, or we will commit ourselves to some false alternative.

*A full discussion of how one can “know” the Bible’s meaning is not possible in this article. A book two of my colleagues and I wrote, The Language of God: A Commonsense Approach to Understanding and Applying the Bible, is available in the Community Bookstore.

Copyright August 1997 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

Jack Crabtree