In 2020, InterVarsity Academic Press published an anthology on the history of evangelical biblicism titled Every Leaf, Line, and Letter: Evangelicals and the Bible from the 1730s to the Present.
For this issue, Blake Adams interviewed Dr. Timothy Larsen, the editor of Every Leaf, Line, and Letter. Larsen is McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois. Much of his published scholarship concerns the global history of evangelicalism since its appearance in eighteenth-century England, and his expertise provides a historical bedrock for discussing biblicism today. Blake Adams is an associate at the Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois, and a copyeditor at Wipf & Stock Publishers.
What is “biblicism” in historical evangelicalism?
At its root, “biblicism” is about the Protestant conviction of sola scriptura: that the Bible alone is the final authority for Christian faith and practice. For evangelicals, sola scriptura does not have implications just for theology; it is also about worship. The right kind of worship service for the congregation is one in which Scripture is read and there is a sermon that expounds Scripture. It’s also about individual spirituality. What it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ is to have a discipline of regular Bible reading as an individual. Historically, evangelicals tended to emphasize family devotions, which included Bible reading. Often, you would have one member read aloud a portion of Scripture every evening to the rest of the family. This was a way of emphasizing the importance of Scripture at that level. The individual level, the family level, and the congregational level are all involved in a historic evangelical definition of biblicism. So, historical evangelical biblicism is both doctrine and practice.
In David Bebbington’s famous “quadrilateral,” biblicism was meant to emphasize that evangelicals are orthodox Christians. So, they believe what Christians have believed historically, which I think is right. There are other people who use biblicism in entirely different ways. Sometimes, they use it to mean a simplistic appeal to texts as a way to solve an argument. There’s a “proof-texting” connotation for some uses of the term. Bebbington’s use of “biblicism” does not mean that; he means a value that orients the Christian life.
You hit here on a common association between “biblicism” and “literalism,” or more negatively, a “simplistic reading of Scripture.” How would you parse those?
Biblicism does entail, I think, or at least heavily overlap, with an assumption that the very words of Scripture are the word of God. There are different ways and technical phrases that people hold to or dispute about what that means theologically, but I want to put it as encompassing pretty much the whole movement: the very words of Scripture are the word of God; and you have to attend to those words and submit to what God is saying to you.
Every word of Scripture matters, and the words themselves matter. It is a mistake to think you can extract from Scripture some kind of moral, lesson, principle, or truth and then dispense with the words because you think you’ve found their meaning. Obviously, not every word of Scripture is meant to be taken literally (meaning that there is nothing metaphorical, poetic, etc., also operative in the text). All of Scripture is meant to communicate truth to us, but we have to take Scripture on its own terms and understand the truth it is communicating, rather than impose on it questions it isn’t trying to answer or extract truths it’s not giving us. “The very words of Scripture are the words of God” is my preferred way of putting it.
It is not an option in historic evangelicalism to say, “Well, the Bible says that, but I don’t agree,” or “It’s wrong,” or “That’s offensive, so we should discard it.” The evangelical way is to say, “This is God speaking; therefore, it is my duty to hear what God is saying, and what God says is addressed to me as well as to the original audience.”
Your contribution to Every Leaf, Line, and Letter introduces readers to the life and teachings of Rev. Vernon Storr, an obscure figure today but in the early twentieth century something like a representative for liberal evangelicalism. In your study, you helpfully leverage Bebbington’s quadrilateral to show that Storr met all four points except, notably, biblicism. A pundit would say this makes Storr only three-fourths an evangelical. Yet your article seems to suggest that biblicism tends to be the point of division within evangelicalism; that is, biblicism is what really distinguishes one evangelical from another. Would you say this is true, historically? Is it true today?
That’s a fascinating and astute question. If we take Scripture seriously, as the way you solve or advance an argument, and if sola scriptura means that if authorities conflict then the final authority that trumps the others is Scripture, in the end, every argument is going to be a biblical argument. When evangelicals disagree on anything, they need to have a disagreement that is framed by Scripture if they are being faithful to their tradition. If you want to advance an argument for or against anything—to speak randomly: infant baptism, pacifism, or submission to the government, or whatever you’re concerned about—the way evangelicals argue means that if you argue long enough, you will get to Scripture eventually, because Scripture is the final authority. I think your observation is right. In some ways, biblicism creates the grammar or rules of an argument so that every evangelical argument, if it is true to itself, becomes a biblical argument.
Is that something more characteristic of evangelicals than other Christians? As you put it, biblicism in evangelicalism is diffused in congregational, family, and individual devotion. Is there a sort of artificiality that comes with this that forces an argument to be biblical when it doesn’t need to be?
The theological claim is correct that says Scripture is the final authority for faith and practice. But you’re certainly right that evangelicals tend to want to expand Scripture to be the final authority on anything. You often cannot get Scripture to answer questions it isn’t trying to answer. If your question is “Which chemistry experiment is better?” the answer is not going to come from Scripture because Scripture is not trying to answer that. But if the question is about faith and practice—the right ordering of Christian life—then Scripture is the final authority.
What would you say is the greatest misconception about biblicism among evangelicals today?
I think one confusion that a lot of evangelicals have is with the very phrase sola scriptura. Some evangelicals think Scripture is the only authority Christians have. Theologically, that is not true. Theologically, it means that if there is a dispute between authorities, Scripture alone gets the final word. But there are lots of other authorities God has given: church leaders, the tradition, the prompting of the Holy Spirit in our conscience, and so on. There are lots of other legitimate authorities that govern the Christian life and that have their role in guiding and safeguarding the people of God. It’s a wrong view of biblicism to obliterate those other authorities. But it is a right view to say that when it comes to a conflict, for example, if Scripture says one thing but your bishop says another—or if Scripture says this but you sense a prompting of the Holy Spirit that says otherwise—then sola scriptura means you follow Scripture.
How have evangelical attitudes toward the Bible changed in your lifetime?
What has really changed is practice. Not the attitude, officially; maybe, it is an unwitting change in attitude. But evangelicals have increasingly allowed a less and less biblically literate culture to be a part of congregational life and discipleship. The obvious part of this is how the spiritual formation of children and teens happens, which deals with big cultural forces. I sympathize, and I understand what the pressures are, but we’ve moved as a whole culture from a culture in which you tell children and youths to do things because they are good for them, to one where you try to cater to what they want and desire. This has led, for example, into a greater emphasis on the importance of having fun; whereas in the past, the building up of scriptural knowledge was central to what it meant for children and youths to meet in a Christian context. That has eroded significantly over my lifetime.
What’s an old practice you’d like to bring back or a new practice you’d like to implement to correct this erosion?
I think for all—not just children and youths, but for the whole congregation—either you encounter the whole of Scripture or you don’t, and that difference is huge. If you have a policy, even if it’s implicit, that you won’t let people encounter anything too confusing or unsettling, the half-life of that policy becomes shorter and shorter. More and more texts become things that now look confusing because you haven’t explained other texts, so you shrink down the canon enormously. It reaches the point where you might offer little more than a few biblical parables about being nice to other people—something people can still comprehend. You have ensured that most of Scripture remains bewildering. Scripture can be bewildering, but what the church has always done in response to that has been to patiently train people to become familiar with the world of Scripture and understand what’s happening. If that’s not your first instinct, the category of what you must avoid gets vaster and vaster. There has to be some way for all the congregation to hear all the Scriptures. Practically, this begins at the level of preaching. Texts should regularly come from the Old Testament as well as the New and should be chosen from across all of the literary genres in Scripture.
When did the Bible become no longer part of our culture?
That’s an important question. The change is still happening by gradations as one generation gets older and another dies off. I think the beginning was in the 1960s with the “new process,” when children began to be allowed to decide what they wanted to do, rather than parents deciding what’s good for them. It’s not that parents decided that they didn’t want their children to know the Bible; they just decided not to argue with them when they tried to wake them up early enough to go to Sunday school. Point is, it’s not about a conscious new view of the Bible. It’s about the inability to inculcate things that are good for you that take some discipline and fortitude.
When President George W. Bush was inaugurated, he alluded to “the Jericho Road,” Jesus’ setting for the parable of the Good Samaritan, a major commentator on a leading news network said openly he had no idea what Bush meant. The parable of the Good Samaritan is not obscure!
That said, the young Christians I meet today are just as zealous, passionate, and sincere in their faith as any Christians I’ve met in my lifetime. They are deeply desirous of finding a way to make their lives count for Christ, and they are willing to do that as sacrificially as anyone has in history. So, I do not see any kind of declension in faithfulness to Christ and the desire to serve him at a cost.
What happens throughout church history is that by emphasizing one thing, you let go of another. One generation will emphasize holiness (which, between you and me, might be due for a comeback), but that can metastasize into judgmentalism and legalism. The rising generation then notices that this emphasis on holiness creates a barrier that makes us less capable of rescuing those who are fallen or lost. It shortens the supply of grace and openness that converts messy lives into the faith. But that reaction can veer into cheap grace. So some of the ways in which biblicism became less emphasized were for good things that were being emphasized; namely, that Christianity is a living relationship with a living God. A lot of spiritual formation focused on an intimate relationship with God. With this, there was some reaction against the spiritual formation practices of the past that emphasized rote memorization, for example. But I do think that we’re due for a renaissance of biblical literacy, and that it will start in the church.
What is distinctive about American evangelical biblicism as opposed to biblicism elsewhere?
It overlaps with a deeply American idea of individualism and self-sufficiency. We are a vast continent. There are significant chunks of American history when people were unable to attend church because the population density wasn’t great enough to have one. That’s partly why camp revival meetings emerged: you needed the equivalent of a country fair for church life, because people were too dispersed to meet as a congregation. That was a necessity. But it became a value that people assigned for themselves: “My spiritual life is between me and God.” The idea of sola scriptura has at times degenerated in American thought to “me and my Bible alone against any other structure, including the body of Christ, the church.” I think other evangelicals across the world have a stronger sense of the Christian life as a corporate life: of us together, as the people of God, hearing Scripture and obeying it; and since I am but a small part of the body and not the whole, I cannot even faithfully discern what the Scriptures mean if I don’t hear and interact with the other parts of the body, all of whom bring things I would not see, feel, or prioritize by myself.
What is one thing you would like evangelical readers to take away from this book?
A sense of the inexhaustibility of Scripture because Scripture is the living and active word of God. When I was maybe seventeen years old, I read Augustine’s Confessions for the first time. Augustine talked about his love of the Psalms, and it was so powerful to me. It was like, “Oh, this living thing that I’ve touched, you’ve touched. I recognize that life in you. You’re a fourth-century African, but we both have felt the power of the living word of God, and I recognize that in you.” As a historian, I’ve learned to read someone in a different time or place or denomination. Although I might be bewildered by some of it, all of a sudden, they’ll start talking about Romans or Genesis and I realize: “The living Word of God has connected with you.” If we come to Scripture with a desire to hear from God, his grace will meet us there.