18 December 2023
Evangelicals have long issued a clarion call to return to scripture. With culture and values consistently shifting in society, this call has never been more urgent and needful. Yet, in advocating a need to be grounded in scripture or the Bible, a potential danger for ‘biblicism’ exists. By ‘biblicism’ I do not simply mean ‘a particular regard for the Bible…a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross’ as defined by the historian David Bebbington (Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain, 2-3). Rather, what I have in mind is a narrowly focused view of scripture that draws no distinction between interpretation and the text of scripture. ‘Biblicism’ in this sense not only insists on looking exclusively at the words of scripture and nothing else, it also develops an allergic reaction to anyone who tries to separate the text of scripture from interpretation. Although ‘biblicism’ often arises from a good place, namely, a desire to be faithful to the biblical text, in this article I seek to highlight why such an approach to scripture is not just untenable, but even problematic.
Debating the Divinity of Jesus
In most churches today, Jesus’ divinity is often taken for granted. Even for churches that do not regularly confess the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed, it seems almost too obvious to us that this is who Christ is. Jesus is not like God, he is God. To doubt the full divinity of Jesus would be to doubt scripture. And yet, in the first four hundred years of the church, the fullness of Christ’s divinity was hardly apparent or immediately obvious.
Some groups, whose views were later condemned for heresy, maintained that Christ could not be God given that he was of the flesh, suffered, and clearly differentiated himself from God. More contentious was a scriptural verse like Prov 8:22, which even though was often used to refer to Christ, nevertheless seemed to indicate that he was created thereby disproving his divine status. At the same time, given the multiple scriptural verses of Christ’s supremacy, not many were willing to affirm that Christ was just like any other creature. Through the testimony of scripture, they concluded that even though Christ was indeed created, his lordship and primacy had to be affirmed.
In contrast, what later came to be known as Christian orthodoxy acknowledged that Jesus Christ did take on flesh and suffered. Yet this did not disprove his divinity. The reason for this conclusion had less to do with simply appealing to a couple of biblical texts. Indeed, such an approach could not be taken for the obvious reason that the same scriptural verses were being appealed to in the very first place! Instead, the argument had to be based on whether one’s interpretive concerns were in line with the ‘mind’ of scripture (Young, Biblical Exegesis and the Formation of Christian Culture, 29-45). This involved recognizing the unity of scripture in witnessing to the person of Christ and the work he would do for us (Athanasius, Arians, 1.54). Within this framework and understood from the perspective of the cross, one could see that Christ though made known to us first as man, was truly God who accomplished salvation for us. As Athanasius would say:
Nor did he [Jesus Christ] cause creation itself to be silent, but what is most amazing, even at his death—or rather at the victory over death, I mean the Cross— the whole of creation was confessing that he who was known and suffered in the body was not simply man, but the Son of God and Savior of all. For the sun turned back, and the earth shook, and the mountains were rent, and all were terrified; and these things showed that the Christ who was on the cross was God and that the whole of creation was his handmaid and was witnessing in fear to the coming of her master. So in this way God the Word revealed himself to men through his works (Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 19).
This unveiling of Christ’s identity through his passion also meant that there was a ‘double account concerning the Savior’ (Athanasius, Arians, 3.29). Jesus Christ is God who became man. By implication, this necessitated a ‘partitive exegesis’ whereby what is said in the economy of salvation should not be read as a description of Christ’s divine being without any differentiation ‘from what belongs to him by virtue of the economy, what he has done for us.’ (Behr, The Nicene Faith, 213). The failure to recognize this ‘double account’ will inevitably lead to a misreading of Christ where descriptions of his suffering, human limitations, and even the scriptural use of ‘created’ are taken as proofs of his inferior divine status.
The arguments put forth by various church fathers concerning the full divinity of Christ is far more comprehensive and nuanced than space would allow us to explore here. But what is clear from this short review of one early Christological debate is that being scriptural meant far more than just appealing to a couple of scriptural texts. It involved learning how to correctly interpret a text based on the discerned ‘mind’ of scripture as testified by the apostles. In fact, there was a recognition that pointing to scriptural terms alone was not enough as those who denied the full divinity of Christ also had no issue with using the same scriptural titles that spoke of Christ. In the case of Christ’s divinity, the term homoousios which is often translated as ‘same essence’ was introduced. Even though foreign and external to the text of scripture, in the eyes of someone like Athanasius, this was a necessary move in order to ‘stabilize and fix the “sense of Scripture” in the face of a conflict of interpretations’ (Anatalios, Retrieving Nicaea, 127).
The history of this early Christological debate thus teaches us a humbling lesson for it suggests that the task of deriving doctrine from scripture can at times be complicated and not as clear as we often like or make it out to be. What this means is that a return to scripture is indeed important but only if that means learning how to read and interpret it correctly. And what better way to do that than to read it with those who have fought hard for what we now call orthodoxy today?