Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone) Does Not Mean Solo Scriptura (Scripture Only – Biblicism)

What is Biblicism?
To be Protestant is to believe in biblical authority. However, biblical authority and biblicism are not synonymous. Biblicism moves beyond believing in the final authority of the Bible to imposing a restrictive hermeneutical method onto the Bible. Biblicism can be identified by the following symptoms:

(1) Ahistorical mindset: Biblicism is a haughty disregard (chronological snobbery in the words of C. S. Lewis) for the history of interpretation and the authority of creeds and confessions, chanting an individualistic mantra, “No creed but the Bible,” which in practice translates into “No authority but me.” Sola scriptura is radicalized into solo scriptura. As a result, biblicism fails to let theology inform exegesis, which is designed to guard against heresy.

(2) Irresponsible proof texting: Biblicism treats Scripture as if it is a dictionary or encyclopedia, as if the theologian merely excavates the right proof texts, chapter and verse, tallying them up to support a doctrine. Biblicism limits itself to those beliefs explicitly laid down in Scripture and fails to deduce doctrines from Scripture by good and necessary consequence.

(3) Anti-metaphysics: Biblicism undervalues the use of philosophy in the service of exegesis and theology. Biblicism is especially allergic to metaphysics, failing to understand how the study of being should safeguard who God is (e.g., pure act) in contrast to the creature. As a result, biblicism conflates theology and economy, as if who God is in himself can be read straight off the pages of Scripture when these pages are often focused on historical events.

(4) Univocal predication: Biblicism assumes language used of God in the text should be applied to God in a direct fashion, as if the meaning of an attribute predicated of man has the same meaning when predicated of God. By consequence, biblicism risks historicizing God by means of a literalistic interpretation of the text.

(5) Restrictive revelation: Biblicism is a suspicion or even dismissiveness toward the diverse ways God’s has revealed himself, limiting itself to the book of Scripture while shunning the book of creation. Biblicism is often suspicious towards natural theology. [Caveat: I prefer to use the term “natural revelation” rather than “natural theology” (NKW)]

(6) Overemphasis on the human author: Biblicism neglects the divine author’s intent and ability to transcend any one human author. As a result, biblicism struggles to explain the unity of the canon and Christological fulfillment, nor does it provide the metaphysic necessary to explain attributes of Scripture like inspiration and inerrancy…

As for the origins of the word, “The earliest use of the word ‘biblicism’ in English occurred in 1827 in a work by Sophei Finngan in criticism of ‘biblicism.’ In 1874 J. J. van Osterzee defined it as ‘idolatry of the letter’ ”…

As for authority, the Reformers were not advocates of the contemporary fundamentalist mantra “No creed but the Bible” but were determined to retrieve a right view of tradition (ministerial) over against Rome’s faulty view of tradition (magisterial). The Reformers stood on the supreme authority of the sacred Scriptures, but only a Scripture rightly interpreted by the church and with the church catholic (universal. The Reformation did oppose Rome’s elevation of tradition as a source of infallible revelation—one equal to and sometimes an interpretive authority superior to Scripture. But the Reformers also opposed the radical Reformers’ rejection of tradition as both an authority and source for theology and exegetical guidance. In contrast to both groups, the Reformers affirmed tradition as a ministerial authority for the church, holding the church accountable to its creeds and councils, guiding the church in a sound, orthodox interpretation of Scripture. As David Steinmetz observed,

While it is true that the reformers were at first optimistic that it would be possible to teach and preach a theology that was wholly biblical, they rarely intended to exclude theological sources that were non-biblical. Sola scriptura generally meant prima scriptura, Scripture as the final source and norm by which all theological sources and arguments were to be judged, not Scripture as the sole source of theological wisdom.

In other words, sola scriptura did not mean Scripture was the only or sole authority—that was the position of radicals. Rather, sola scriptura meant that “only Scripture, because it is God’s inspired Word, is the inerrant, sufficient, and final authority for the church.”

Source: Matthew Barrett, The Reformation as Renewal (Zondervan, 2023), pp. 21, 25-26.

Related Posts:
Part 1: The Crisis of Creedless Evangelicalism
Part 2: Confessing Creeds and Evangelicalism