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
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.
- 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.
- “Something Close to Biblicism,” WTJ, 272.
- Ibid., 273.
- Citing Van Til’s The Defense of the Faith (Presbyterian & Reformed, 1963), 8.
- “Something Close to Biblicism,” 274.
- Ibid., 275.