Something Close to Biblicism

John Frame is one of my favorite theologians. One of the reasons I like Frame’s theological writings is the conspicuous commitment to the supremacy of Scripture (sola Scriptura) that underlies them all. Frame not only affirms sola Scriptura as one among many important doctrines. He believes the doctrine itself should control the way we think about and apply theology.

Frame articulates this conviction in an excellent essay entitled, “In Defense of Something Close to Biblicism: Reflections on Sola Scriptura and History in Theological Method.”1 “Biblicism,” as he notes, is not the same as sola Scriptura. It’s often used derogatorily and applied to

(1) someone who has no appreciation for the importance of extrabiblical truth in theology, who denies the value of general or natural revelation, (2) those suspected of believing that Scripture is a “textbook” of science, or philosophy, politics, ethics, economics, aesthetics, church government, etc., (3) those who have no respect for confessions, creeds, and past theologians, who insist on ignoring these and going back to the Bible to build their doctrinal formulations from scratch, (4) those who employ a “proof texting” method, rather than trying to see Scripture texts in their historical, cultural, logical, and literary context.2

Frame disavows this kind of biblicism. Yet he goes on to demonstrate that the Reformation doctrine of sola Scriptura is in fact something close to biblicism.

Sola Scriptura Something Close to Biblicism

Frame argues as follows:

First, we must interpret special revelation against the backdrop of general revelation. Hence, there’s a kind of interrelationship and unity that exists between biblical data and extrabiblical data. Nevertheless, “Scripture, and Scripture alone, provides the ultimate norms for our analysis and evaluation” of the extrabiblical data. Thus, while we may speak of extrabiblical data, we may not speak of any true knowledge as extrabiblical knowledge. All God-pleasing knowledge is conditioned by special revelation.3

Second, it’s true that God didn’t design the Bible to serve as a “textbook” for every conceivable area of human thought and life. The message of Scripture focuses on who God is, what He requires of humans, and what He’s done to redeem a fallen world through Christ. On the other hand, there’s a sense in which the Bible addresses every topic at some level. Frame cites his mentor, Cornelius Van Til:

We do not mean that [the Bible] speaks of football games, or atoms, etc., directly, but we do mean that it speaks of everything either directly or indirectly. It tells us not only who God is and whence the universe has come. It gives us a philosophy of history as well as history. Moreover, the information on these subjects is woven into an inextricable whole. It is only if you reject the Bible as the Word of God that you can separate its so-called religious and moral instruction from what it says, e.g., about the physical universe.4

Accordingly, we may say Christ and the gospel are the central message of the Bible in a way that football games and atoms are not. But like the biblicist, the Christian committed to sola Scriptura believes God’s written revelation addresses everything at some level and is foundational to all human knowledge.5

Third, sola Scriptura doesn’t disregard historical theology. As Frame remarks, “Certainly the Reformers did not … try to rebuild the faith from the ground up. They saw themselves as reforming, not rejecting, the teachings of their church.”6 But not withstanding their respect for tradition, the Reformers clearly treated it as subordinate to Scripture. And wherever church tradition—however ancient and venerable—conflicted with the teaching of Scripture, the Reformers endeavored to side with the Bible. As Frame aptly remarks, “sola Scriptura historically has been a powerful housecleaning tool.”7

Fourth, there is a kind of biblicism that abuses Scripture by citing verses or phrases out of context. But as noted above, we must interpret Scripture in the context of general revelation. What’s more, according to the doctrine of sola Scriptura, “the whole Bible [has] authority over any specific exegetical proposal.”8 In other words, Scripture is its own interpreter. Every specific text must be interpreted in light of its immediate and larger biblical context. When this rule is followed, proof texting is entirely appropriate. To be sure, “a theology worth its salt must always be prepared to show specifically where in Scripture its ideas come from.”9

Frame’s conclusion:

Although Protestant theology under the sola Scriptura principle is not biblicistic, it is not always easy to distinguish it from biblicism. We should expect that those who hold an authentic view of sola Scriptura will sometimes be confused with biblicists. Indeed, if we are not occasionally accused of biblicism, we should be concerned about the accuracy of our teaching in this area.10

I Want to be Something Close to a “Biblicist”

Like Frame, I believe the doctrine of sola Scriptura is foundational to all Christian thought and life. All human truth claims based on extrabiblical data (e.g., philosophy, science, history, ethics, etc.) must be assessed in light of the Bible’s truth claims. In fact, there are no truly “brute facts” since the Bible has something to say about everything, whether directly or indirectly. In the words of Abraham Kuyper, “In the total expanse of human life there is not a single square inch of which the Christ, who alone is sovereign, does not declare, ‘That is mine!'”

Although I respect church tradition, I don’t want to accord any ecclesiastical tradition the level of authority that belongs to Scripture alone. Consequently, I strive hard not to interpret the data of Scripture through the lens of my theological tradition (however venerable that tradition may be). Instead, I endeavor to view all tradition—even my Reformed tradition—through the lens of Scripture. Insofar as the tradition is consistent with Scripture, I can affirm it as biblical. But where it’s out of accord with the Bible’s teaching, I need to be willing to “reform.” In this respect, I see the Reformation principle of semper reformanda (“always being reformed”) as a corollary of the doctrine of sola Scriptura.

Finally, I’m aware that Bible-believing Christians have sometimes interpreted texts of Scripture out of context. No doubt, I’ve sometimes been guilty of this mistake though I don’t think I’ve done so intentionally. I don’t believe the solution to improper proof texting, however, is to reject all proof texting. Rather, I think we should strive, by God’s grace, to develop a sound theology on the basis of ‘careful exegesis and a context-sensitive interpretation.

For these reasons, I’d like to think of my view of Scripture and the way it governs my study of God and the universe He’s created as “something close to biblicism.” So if you call me a “biblicist,” I might just take it as a compliment.

Bob Gonzales

  1. The essay was first published in Westminster Theological Journal 59:2 (Fall 1997): 269-91. Frame republished the essay as an appendix in his book Contemporary Worship Music: A Biblical Defense (Presbyterian & Reformed, 1997).  An online version can be accessed here: http://www.frame-poythress.org/frame_articles/Biblicism.htm.
  2. “Something Close to Biblicism,” WTJ, 272.
  3. Ibid., 273.
  4. Citing Van Til’s The Defense of the Faith (Presbyterian & Reformed, 1963), 8.
  5. “Something Close to Biblicism,” 274.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid., 275.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.

4 thoughts on “Something Close to Biblicism

  1. Enjoyed the article. I wonder what error looks like in this context? How would those that lean toward a more rigorous view of sola scriptura, ignoring the acceptable latitude of biblicism behave or look like? Is this the no creed but the bible crew?

    • Paul,

      Thanks for visiting the site.

      I think Frame is trying to steer a middle path between full-blown biblicism, on the one hand, and traditionalism, on the other. In Frame’s view (and mine), sola Scriptura, which is the Reformed doctrine of Scripture, is not biblicism but something close to biblicism. As such, something close to biblicism certainly has a place for creeds and confessions. But it maintains a “Berean watch” over tradition.

      Hope that helps.

  2. Having a comprehensive understanding of Christian epistemology by virtue of a robust doctrine of divine revelation is the key to Christian orthodoxy. This includes an understanding of the first three chapters of Romans as well as John’s first letter. In these we can piece together the foundations of a certainty of understanding with the true knowledge of our own salvation in the desire to be aligned with God’s righteousness and an understanding of his proactive design in our regeneration and sanctification.

    This continues through a rich history that provides a self-reference for the progressive nature of the revelation of God in the creation of the canon of Scripture. That is to say that God superintended the writing, early redaction, transmission, and translation through human authors and scribes in their various contexts. This provides a unified metanarrative and the means for understanding what was written.

    Additionally, it takes into account what we might understand in some part as Anselm’s fideism, that understanding of the text comes through faith, and conversely that a lack of faith results in the larger meaning of the text being inaccessible. Truly, these proverbial pearls cannot be trampled by swine. But it also means that an understanding of portions of the Scriptures are unavailable to believers who are yet weak in some aspects of their faith, and that this includes those who have the greatest faith, although those aspects of scripture are like tiny cracks between the slats of an otherwise solid floor that it cannot be said that we are some sort of gnostics in this matter. The same Scriptures are available to all and can be used to verify or deny any supposedly new teaching from them. Great understanding is not available only to the most educated, but to all those whose faith is active and growing as it is daily tested with many trials. This is a self-denying faith on an important level such that one so faithful is not satisfied with having just enough faith, but that such a one can only be satisfied in Christ.

    And so the practical intellectual tools we use to understand the meaning of Scripture are directly based on these things. The context of Scripture is not greater than Scripture, but provides the cultural languages (because a language should never be divorced from its culture) necessary for God to communicate objectively with his subjective people. If I understand this article, and Frame as well, I think this is what he is getting at and I agree.

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