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The Psychology of Biblicism
Robert M. Price
For many years I have studied the theology underlying biblicism, the fundamentalist belief in the absolute authority of the Bible in every aspect of life, only to conclude that it is not theological in nature at all, but rather entirely psychological. That is, biblicism is not, as its adherents claim and think, an implication of a set of beliefs about the Bible but rather the outgrowth of a particular frame of mind. I am not impatient with theological claims; I just do not think they are the real source or motivation of biblicism, and this becomes evident once we discover certain inconsistencies in biblicism which make nonsense of its theological claims but are quite consistent with the psychological function of biblicism. If it were a matter of theology, surely biblicists would notice the problems. But since biblicism does the job biblicists want it to do, they simply never notice the problems.
Biblicism, again, is the term for that stance toward the Bible whereby a believer intends to obey whatever the text tells him to do, and to believe whatever the text asserts. If occasionally the commands of the Bible (say, to give away all one’s possessions) seem just too outrageous, biblicists may rationalize them away, but even this does not mean they are not taking them seriously; a non-biblicist would say he rejects the command of the Bible and leave it at that. And there are more liberal Christian theologies which do not entail biblicism, managing, as Reinhold Niebuhr said, to take the text seriously even if not literally. So what is it that attracts many people to biblicism?
Faith as Skepticism
First I think we may identify the fundamentalist’s, the biblicist’s, desperate felt need for “a sure word from God.” Why do we need God to break the silence of the ages with a revealed word, an inspired book of infallible information? Perhaps paradoxically, this need stems from a kind of skepticism, a lack of confidence in the ability of the human mind to discover necessary truth by reason alone. This is a very different stance from that of the old Deists who believed in a divine Creator but who did not believe in the inspiration of the Bible. Not only did the Bible appear to them a poor candidate for an inspired book, but they believed the Creator had written the only revelation book human beings needed in the world itself, nature, not scripture. And he had given us reason as the only spectacles needful to read and understand it. The biblicist, however, is flustered by overchoice, the condition of being faced with too many options, each with plausible arguments and spokespersons. How is he to decide between them? Suddenly, a religious claim that God has tossed confused humanity the Bible as a life-preserver sounds pretty good. The problem, of course, is that there are just as many competing revelation claims vying for our faith, and one is left without a clue as to deciding between them!
But whence the urgency of arriving at true and sure beliefs about all ethical and theological questions? Why not emulate the ancient Skeptics? Like fundamentalist fideists today, the Skeptics viewed the conflict of dogmas from the sidelines and despaired of joining any particular team with confidence. But their conclusion was that such answers, such knowledge, must not be either available or necessary, that one can live perfectly well in this life on the basis of common sense and mere probabilities. Why does our biblicist not adopt the same attitude? I think it is because he holds an unexamined assumption, perhaps a vestige of childhood catechism, a picture of God as some sort of punitive theology professor who stands ready to flunk you if you write the wrong answers on your theology exam. You die and appear at the Pearly Gates, and God hands you the blue book. You do your best on the Theology and Metaphysics final, but if you make enough mistakes, the floor is going to open beneath your feet, as it did beneath old Korah’s, and you are going to slide down the shaft to Hell. This is a God who does not excuse honest mistakes. Again, I can understand this obnoxious God-concept only as a matter of psychology, not as the implication of any orthodox theology. What element of theology implies that God should be unfair, even peevish? To think him so is to project a childish fear of retribution which can only stifle intellectual growth. Surely it is a legacy of retrograde education, whether religious or secular.
A prime example of this fearful skepticism that needs God’s word to settle issues too important for mere human minds to decide would be abortion. It is a difficult matter precisely because of the ambiguities of the issue. Strong cases may be made on various sides of the issue. That fact alone inclines many of us toward a pro-choice position. But some fundamentalists feel the stakes are high enough that those on the wrong side of the issue, especially abortion doctors, may be justifiably murdered. How can they be so sure they are right? Because God has told them so in the Bible. And this despite the fact that the question of abortion never even comes up in the Bible. The need for the Bible to adjudicate the subject produces the optical illusion that it does.
The need for a sure word from God may simply stem from the kind of intellectual laziness posited by Ludwig Feuerbach. We feel we need to know certain things but are too lazy or impatient to try to figure them out, and the belief in a divine revelation is all too convenient. Convenient both for the lazy one who wants to be spoon-fed, and for the authorities who view themselves as far more capable of finding truth than the laity. But in any case, whether it is a matter of fear or of laziness, I think we may chalk up the desire for “a sure word from God” to a low tolerance for ambiguity.
This is clearly seen in the advice given to pastors and students for studying the Bible. Suppose one is reading the text, seeking divine guidance for one’s own life or scriptural grounding for one’s beliefs (predestination or free will? Pre- or Post-Tribulation Rapture?). One will shortly discover ambiguity, individual passages that seem to point in one direction or another, or where things are just not so clear. One must then make one’s best exegetical judgment call, and then go forward confident that one has achieved the truth. The biblicist awards himself a license for dogmatism, heedless of the necessary tentativeness of one’s results. One intends to be dogmatic about whatever conclusions one will wind up embracing. It is just a question of which dogma one will promote.
A fear of ambiguity is the chief reason any definitive biblical canon was ever stipulated in the first place: to limit the options for textual divination. God’s word and will must be sought only within certain limits. Similarly, this is why the Roman Catholic authorities sought to limit access to the Bible to properly catechized priests who could be trusted to read the text through the spectacles of church tradition. Protestants believed all Christians should be welcomed to read the Bible, over-optimistic that the central gospel truth would be clear to all readers. It wasn’t, and immediately Protestants had to frame their own creeds to regulate how the Bible might be read and understood. The trend continues today as various Evangelical seminaries and denominations draft statements of how the Bible may and may not legitimately interpreted. The goal is to get everyone to agree with the traditional interpretation of the sponsoring group. “Heresy,” after all, simply means “choice,” the idea being that it is effrontery to choose one’s own beliefs rather than submit meekly to spoon-feeding.
What a Tangled Web We Weave When We Practice to Believe
I mentioned above that there are liberal theologies of biblical authority that do not entail biblicism. Such theologies often accommodate the possibility that the Bible writers may have contradicted each other. A more liberal theologian might observe that Paul and James disagree over whether faith is sufficient to save one’s soul, or whether faith must be realized through works. Such a theologian would consider neither Paul nor James mouthpieces of revelation, both as possible sources of religious wisdom. The theologian’s task would be not to submit to either Paul’s or James’ teaching, but to draw upon both in the process of forming his own (tentative) beliefs. The fundamentalist theologian, by contrast, dismisses the liberal’s form of faith as mere speculation, worthless in the face of the ultimate question of salvation. With one’s eternal destiny at stake, one must know. And thus one needs revelation, not mere speculations whether ancient (James’ and Paul’s, if that’s all they are) or modern (one’s own). Since he wants revelation, that is what he is determined to find in the ancient text.
The fundamentalist cannot even recognize that Paul and James contradict one another, since if he did, this would disqualify either or both as mouthpieces of revelation. One might be accepted as a true prophet, the other rejected as a counterfeit, but then who is to decide, and how? Martin Luther had no hesitation in relegating James to the status of a mere appendix to scripture, but most are not so bold. A statement is authoritative for the fundamentalist simply because it appears somewhere in the canon of scripture, all canonical texts being equally authoritative. This is what the slogan “plenary inspiration” means. Unlike in liberal theology, no parts of the Bible are deemed superior or inferior to others. The biblicist, remember, wants to be able just to open the Bible and find his answer. If it is up to him and his meager human abilities to weigh and choose, he is back to square one. He does not want to have to make decisions like this! That’s the whole point!
But he cannot escape the horns of dilemmas like this. Fundamentalists follow Martin Luther in wanting to interpret the text of scripture literally, or according to the “plain sense,” what it apparently means by straightforward exegesis, such as one would apply to any ancient text. The Bible is inspired, but this only means that its message, once determined by exegesis, must be heeded. Inspiration does not entitle us to read the Bible in some esoteric way, as medieval Catholics did, discerning all manner of secret meanings between the lines. If the Bible may be taken to mean just about anything, then the Bible becomes a Rorschach blot. Again, as a literalist, the biblicist wants to banish ambiguity. Reading the text in a careful and “literal” way, however, sooner or later discloses “apparent contradictions” like those between Paul and James. And at this point the biblicist abandons literalism, falling back to a less-than-literal reading. Suddenly one may and must read between the lines after all. An exception to the straightforward reading is allowed when otherwise the two texts would negate each other’s authority and inspiration, a collapse that would take the whole canon with it!
But the cure is worse than the disease! Whatever a “real contradiction” might be, “apparent contradictions” are quite sufficient to vitiate a doctrine of biblical authority that is based on the supposedly “apparent” reading of the text. And it is not just a technicality. For the poor biblicists finds himself situated like the proverbial donkey between the two haystacks: he must decide whether it is Paul or James who is to be taken literally, and which is to be read in a looser way as if he agreed with the other. Though the phrase used is that one must “interpret the less clear texts by the more clear texts,” the biblicist is really interpreting the text he doesn’t like as if it said the same thing as the one he does like. In short, he is in precisely the same position as the liberal theologian, choosing between biblical voices; he just doesn’t realize it.
How can he continue in such self-deception? Simply because his choice is an automatic one, determined in advance by his particular church’s tradition of interpretation. If he were a Catholic, he would read Paul as agreeing with James. As a Protestant, he reads James as echoing Paul once you “really understand” him. The biblicist is submitting to authority, all right, but it is not as he imagines the authority of the text but rather that of his church. And this, too, is fatal, since the first principle of the biblicist is Sola Scriptura: “Scripture alone!”
It is such gross, vitiating contradictions that reveal the origin of biblicism to be essentially nontheological. If it had been theological in origin, it would have more consistency. To call on a related field of supernaturalist belief, we might compare biblicism to astrology. A survey of horoscope readers in Britain revealed that most of them admitted the newspaper predictions proved accurate less than half the time. Why then did they continue to read the horoscope? If it were a matter of theoretical consistency, the utter failure of astrology would have been quickly evident. But it was not a matter of theory. It was a matter of psychology: the astrology believers really sought, not knowledge of the future, but rather peace of mind for the night, permission to sleep well in the confidence of being forewarned and thus forearmed for the morrow. When the morrow came and the prediction, probably forgotten, turned out not to prepare them for events, it hardly mattered. They were competent to deal with the day’s surprises, but the night before they felt they needed an edge, and reading their horoscope allowed them to imagine they had it. Even so with the biblicist. What he wants from the Bible is not so much a coherent system for divining infallible revelations, but only the permission to dogmatize, whether the goal is to quiet his own fears or to push others around.
A Mighty Fortress Is Our Mentality
Once one has adopted the belief that the Bible must function as the final authority in all matters, some strange results follow. Above, I gave abortion as an example of how the desire for a sure word of revelation leads some biblicists to imagine that the Bible speaks to issues of which it is in fact innocent. To do this is what I call hermeneutical ventriloquism. The biblicist may chant “The Bible said it! I believe it! That settles it!” But in practice this often amounts to “I said it! The Bible believes it! That settles it!” One does the scripture the dubious favor of attributing to it one’s own beliefs. The (psycho)logical process goes like this: “My opinion is true. The Bible teaches the truth. Therefore the Bible must teach my opinion.” One suspects that the dogmatist has simply become so accustomed to dogmatizing that appealing to the Bible is just his way of asserting the truth of his opinion, wherever he got it. Saying “The Bible says” is tantamount to saying, “Verily I say unto thee...”
One’s imaginary possession of the word of God, or the mind of God, allows the biblicist to wield what I call the Prophetic Ramrod, an attitude of invulnerable narrow-mindedness: “Friend, there is your view, and then there is God’s view.”
Such dogmatism may even rub off onto areas where the biblicist feels no especial need to quote the Bible or knows he cannot, areas such as party politics or even selling merchandise. Whether one is “witnessing” to the glories of Christian salvation, Amway products or May Kay Cosmetics, one uses the same methods (as Southern Baptist salesman and evangelist Zig Ziglar freely admits in his book Secrets of Closing the Sale).
The Sliding Scale of Biblical Inerrancy
Another anomaly resulting from the psychological, not theological, basis of biblicism is the shifting opinion of biblicists over the years as to what is the allegedly infallible teaching of the Bible is when it comes to the world of nature. There was a time when readers of the Bible could see quite well that it “taught” (or presupposed) a flat earth that floated on water, covered by a solid firmament (dome) that kept out another ocean above. The earth was orbited by the sun and supported by pillars. And every Bible reader understood this. In the name of the infallible Bible, religious authorities opposed the progress of science. Today, most fundamentalists reject evolution because it contradicts the Bible. But only a tiny minority still believe the earth is flat. A slightly larger minority believe that the sun orbits the earth. Most fundamentalists believe that the earth is round and that it orbits the sun. And they do not even realize that the biblical picture of the earth contradicts these notions. Their religious upbringing has told them that the Bible contradicts science only at the point of evolution. As for the rest, they have even been told that the ancient writers of the Bible miraculously foreknew what it took modern science centuries to learn, that the earth is round, that it orbits the sun, etc. These assertions are read into the Bible by forced and implausible readings of various passages out of context, akin to attempts to show that the Bible writers knew about flying saucers. The true teaching of the Bible on these matters, they say, could not be understood until modern science allowed us to understand the relevant texts correctly! This is very close to (but also very far from) a frank admission of the game of catch-up being played here.
But what makes the difference between whether one recognizes contradictions between the Bible and science or one pretends the Bible anticipated modern science? It is simply peer pressure, massive and permeating public opinion. Ancient biblicists lived in a peer group (a “plausibility structure,” as Peter Berger would call it) that believed in a flat earth orbited by the sun, created in a week. It would have been hard to believe anything radically different. As the plausibility structure shifted, so that most people in the culture no longer took the ancient world-picture seriously, it ceased to be an option for biblicists to retain the biblical cosmology. They couldn’t withstand the cognitive peer pressure. And today the great majority, including biblicists, believe in a round, sun-orbiting earth, but it is not so obvious to the great majority that all life forms gradually evolved from a common ancestor. One still has breathing room on that point; one can still afford to recognize what the Bible says. One can still, for the time being, reject evolution and not seem a freak. The fundamentalist dreads the time when universal belief might turn to accept evolution, and so they seek to defer that day by means of public debates, censoring biology textbooks, etc. Their effort is not to persuade the intelligensia (scientists) of the truth of anti-evolutionism, but rather to appeal to the gallery in the manner of a political campaign,. They are looking for votes in order to retain an amenable plausibility structure. It is all psychological, not theological, since what the Bible says or does not say about the natural world is utterly beside the point. The day will eventually come when biblicists will reinterpret Genesis to teach evolution and will claim that God had revealed it to the ancient scriptural writers ages before scientists supposedly discovered it. And these new scriptural “insights” will have come not from exegesis but solely from social peer pressure.
If one wishes to get anywhere reasoning with fundamentalists and biblicists, I suggest one try to determine the emotional issues that attach believers to their beliefs. The beliefs themselves are, I think, a function of certain psychological needs that would be better met in other ways. But until those psychological needs are identified and met in other ways, we will have no way of getting believers to budge from their beliefs, and we might not even have the right to do so.
Robert M Price
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