Dear Conservatives: Biblicism Won’t Stop Social Justice

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“The Reformation doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture does not claim that Christians need only Scripture and not natural revelation, but that Christians need only Scripture and not other kinds of special revelation.”

-David VanDrunen


 

“The Bible is enough” isn’t going to stop Christians who claim they see Social Justice and Intersectionality in the Bible.

Here are some thoughts on the danger of the Conservative Baptist Network’s new attempt at combatting Critical Race Theory / Social Justice / Intersectionality (CRT/SJ/I) by appealing to the slogan “Sufficiency. The Bible alone.” 

The Conservative Baptist Network has been formed by conservatives concerned about the liberalizing trend in the Southern Baptist Convention. In this context, a slogan of “Sufficiency, the Bible alone” ought to raise some questions. The Bible is sufficientfor what? Sufficientas what? Sufficient as that which the church should be teaching? But how does that constitute an answer to those Christians who claim they find social justice and intersectionality being taught by the Bible?

In the context of the ongoing controversy over CRT and other quasi-Marxist analytical tools being applied by Christians, to posit “Sufficiency, the Bible alone” as a remedy is to suggest that the CRT/SJ/I advocates are failing to uphold the traditional doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture in some important way, whereas the conservatives are correctly upholding that doctrine. And it suggests that the way to combat CRT/SJ/I and other anti-Christian ideologies in the church is to affirm the sufficiency of Scripture. It is as if they were claiming that CRT/SJ/I is a direct attack against the principle of Scripture’s sufficiency, and that by upholding this doctrine they can defeat CRT/SJ/I.

But CRT/SJ/I is not a direct attack against the Scripture’s sufficiency, traditionally understood. It is an indirect attack. CRT/SJ/I contradicts Scripture’s content, and in that way it does constitute an indirect attack on Scripture’s sufficiency. But that is not the kind of argument the Conservative Baptist Network seems to be attempting to make. In what follows I will show why the Conservative Baptist Network seems to be imagining Scripture’s sufficiency as being a different kind of principle than the one held by Martin Luther and John Calvin and recorded in the historical confessions. I will show that the Network seems to be holding to the errors of “nuda scriptura” and “biblicism” and incorrectly calling these errors by the name sola scriptura.

Sola scriptura?

It is a common misunderstanding today that the doctrine of Scripture’s sufficiency (or the broader idea of “sola scriptura”) means that the Bible is the only basis for moral truths. This view would fit better under other names, as I will explain below. On this mistaken view of the doctrine of Scripture’s sufficiency, if the Bible is silent about a moral question, we cannot know whether one or another choice is morally right or wrong. On this view, it is not possible for people to come to a knowledge of some moral rights and wrongs by observing nature. People who advocate this view will often agree with David Hume that we cannot get an “ought” from an “is,” and they will reject the concept of natural theology.

This view should not be called “Scripture’s sufficiency” or “sola scriptura.” It does not harmonize with the way Luther, Calvin, or other reformers would have understood these concepts. “Sola scriptura” is the reasoned conviction that the Bible must be “the sole infallible rule of faith for the church.” The principle was put forth as a counter to the idea that the Roman Catholic Church’s tradition had equal authority with the Scripture. The advocates of sola scriptura held that only Scripture was the spoken word of God to man and that the Pope’s decrees or the church’s traditions were not authoritative in the way Scripture is.

“Sola scriptura” was not intended as a statement about whether or not God had also revealed important truths (even moral truths) to man through nature, known as God’s general revelation (as opposed to special revelation in the form of Scripture). In fact, the confessions teach that the light of nature does reveal important truths.

WCF 1.1:

Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men unexcusable; yet they are not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of His will, which is necessary unto salvation.

WCF 1.6:

“The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word: and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.”

The WCF, the LBC, and John Calvin, and the Bible (see Acts 14:17 and the discussion of it in Calvin’s Commentaries) make it clear that God has revealed much to us through the light of nature and that even the Bible is to be understood in light of what is known from nature. For instance, we learn the principle of non-contradiction from nature. We then apply that idea (learned from nature) in order to gain understanding of the Bible. It is from our natural knowledge of the world and of language and of concepts that we are able to make sense of the words on the Bible’s pages. 

When we seek to understand Scripture, we bring our knowledge of words and concepts, and we bring the premise that the author has not contradicted himself. We also rely on common sense principles such as taking account of the historical context and the original purpose and audience for which words were written. We compare each passage to the surrounding passages and the broader corpus of Scripture to check whether words are being used in more than one sense, to seek to reconcile apparent contradictions, and to allow some statements to qualify or clarify others.

It is by these common sense, natural principles that we may either approach Scripture logically and honestly, or illogically and dishonestly. We bring these principles to the text. The text itself does not teach them to us. Only by having an adult understanding of the logical use of language and of “logical consequence” can we reason about what the “good and necessary consequences” of a passage are.

What is nuda scriptura? Or SOLO Scriptura? (aka biblicism)

Contrast the above common sense approach to the interpretation of Scripture with the idea we could humorously name “SOLO scriptura.” Other terms overlapping with this one include “nuda scriptura” and “biblicism.” Nuda scriptura is the idea that naked/bare Scripture is the Christian’s only theological resource. (More on that here and here.) Biblicism is “the attempt to understand Scripture by one’s self and by itself, i.e., in isolation from the history of the church and in isolation from the communion of the saints” (Clark). Luther and Calvin were not biblicists. They found it important to argue from nature and from historical precedent in establishing doctrines.

Compare this approach with the idea, seemingly upheld by the Conservative Baptist Network, of affirming the “sufficiency of the Bible in all facets of life and application”—no qualification, no context given. Such an idea differs from the idea of the Scripture as the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience.” (LBC 1.1)

With that wording in a statement of purpose, and with the slogan of “Sufficiency, the Bible alone” being offered as a remedy to the liberalizing trends in the church, what can we conclude, but that the Conservative Baptist Network intends to fight against CRT/SJ/I by appeals that will resemble “SOLO scriptura”? Either their motto of “the Bible alone” is meant to be a solution to CRT/SJ/I, or it is not. And if it is meant to be a solution, then, to be functional as a solution to CRT, doesn’t it also by logical implication have to amount to a rejection of natural theology? That would be a cure worse than the disease.

The Conservative Baptist Network seems unaware (or unconcerned) that they are using an approach that disagrees with the historical confessions and that disagrees with the idea that general revelation is also authoritative revelation from God. Pay attention to the method by which members of the Conservative Baptist Network are critiquing CRT/SJ/I. They seem to want to put analytical frameworks, as such, on the chopping block. 

This is a dangerous way to argue. 

The Conservative Baptist Network is not saying CRT/SJ/I is bad because it is an “anti-biblical” framework. They are saying it is bad because it is an “extra-biblical” framework. The silent premise is that ALL extra-biblical frameworks ought to be rejected. But is that the case?

If upholding the sufficiency of Scripture means that we must reject all analytical tools not found in the Bible, then wouldn’t we need to reject the Grammatical-Historical method of hermeneutics? Isn’t that an analytical tool not found in the Bible? Or what about Aristotelian logic and the principle of non-contradiction? Are we now to stop applying that framework within our hermeneutical approach? That change would have drastic effects on our Christology and other areas of theology.

Those in the historical school of Christian thought understand that the problem with CRT/SJ/I is not merely that it isn’t found in the Bible. (After all, Aristotle’s logical rules are not explained in the Bible, but Christians have affirmed the organon as a useful analytical tool). The problem with CRT/SJ/I is not merely its extra-biblical origin. The problem with CRT/SJ/I is that the ideas contradict both God’s special revelation to us in Scripture and his general revelation to us in observation of the natural world.

To show the CRT/SJ/I advocates why they are wrong, we need to show them the actual teaching of the Bible and point out that the policies they advocate are contradictory to specific biblical principles. We ought to do better than to make the imprecise claim that the social justice agenda is a “distraction” from the gospel. “Distraction” suggests the social justice advocates are not necessarily wrong about the topic, but they are simply giving it too much emphasis. In truth, the modern concept of social justice is an attack on the gospel and it is an attempt at rewriting the gospel. Modern social justice notions are not merely extra-biblical. They are anti-biblical. We must show how this is the case—how egalitarian social theory contradicts principles in Leviticus and in Acts, and so on.

Our response to CRT/SJ/I should not be: “Ideas from outsiders will not be discussed here because we simply preach Christ.” Liberals and even moderates will ridicule that approach. They have been doing so for 18 months. And rightly so. They will answer: “If you really preached Christ, then you would tell people to do what Christ would have them to do, and God obviously wants his people to seek justice.”

We need to fight the battle over what God actually says is just. What does the Bible actually teach us to do? We can’t brush aside the discussion by an appeal to the genealogical fallacy and say: “That concept came from a non-Christian, so we will just ignore it.” We ought to argue positively: The Bible demands each person be accountable individually for his actions (If a man will not work, he shall not eat). We ought to teach that private property is to be respected (Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal?). If the Bible is true, then most of the distinct ideas within the social justice movement are false.

If in your critique of the social justice advocates you do not explain the Bible’s clear promotion of free markets, property rights, and individual accountability, then you are not offering a robust, Bible-honoring response. You may be correct that CRT/SJ/I isn’t explicitly taught in the Bible. But go further. Show why Christians cannot uphold it anyway. Show what we should uphold instead.

Man up. Are you brave enough to use the word “capitalism”? Or will you simply wave the phrase “The Bible is enough” around like a magic charm (a charm that, ironically enough, is itself a framework that we are bringing to the Bible)?

Decades ago, it was possible to fight the battle against the modernist controversy by championing Inerrancy. But the battle against the post-modernists will be won by men who champion Epistemology and Hermeneutics, as the ground for fleshing out the political implications of the Bible’s teaching. When you have to defend Epistemology and Hermeneutics, recognize that these are not discrete doctrines like the doctrine of Inerrancy. They are methods. And, as methods, they are not directly contained within any particular claim found within the Bible. The cry of “back to the Bible” will not phase Russell Moore. It never has.

To answer those who say (or imply) they can find intersectionality in the Bible, we need to show how they are treating the Bible illogically, and we need to defend our logically consistent approach to the Bible as the only honest approach. They may say logic is a western analytical tool. We must be willing to say yes, and it is a GOOD one.

To defend our logical and honest approach to the Bible, it is not sufficient to say the Bible has many examples of logical thinking and honesty in it. We need to insist on bringing to the text our own fundamental commitment to logic and to honesty, or nothing can keep postmoderns from having their way with Scripture.

Reading Bible verses to Beth Moore has not silenced her, nor given her any pause. 

Before we can even have a logical discussion about the meaning and application of Scripture, we must first agree that authors mean what they mean and it is not allowable that each modern reader should insert his own experiences and meanings into the text as he seeks to understand it. There are logical principles we should follow in order to read the Bible honestly. If we do not come to the Bible with honest intentions and principles already in hand, nothing will stop us from doing what we want to the Scripture and calling that exegesis. 

But principles of logic and of proper hermeneutics are extra-biblical in their origin. If we reject analytical tools of extra-biblical origin, then we will be rejecting logic, as such, and hermeneutics, as such. Moreover, we will be rejecting general revelation and natural theology. The only thing left will be biblicism.

Method of argument matters. If we conservatives march under a banner that looks like “SOLO scriptura,” then we will have ceded the battle at the start. The CRT/SJ/I advocates will claim conservatives have abandoned the confessions (and even observation and logic as such) and they will be right. CRT/SJ/I advocates will claim we conservatives are hiding our unwillingness to give state welfare to “the least of these” behind a flimsy appeal to the Bible never saying we have to do that. And they will be right.

The Conservative Baptist Network is mistaken in its approach. It is upholding a strange and ahistorical idea of what the “sufficiency of Scripture” means. When conservatives say we should reject CRT/SJ/I because we uphold the sufficiency of Scripture, that is the wrong reason. The right reason to reject CRT/SJ/I is simply that it contradicts Scripture.

Be careful with your words. It is true that the Bible is sufficient as the only source of spoken words from God. It is false that the Bible is the only authoritative revelation from God. In your enthusiasm to fight against liberalism, do not throw away the historical confessions and the knowledge contained therein. Why should a new statement contradict the old confessions? Why should conservatives commit to such an embarrassing error of tactics and of principle?

Will our battle cry be “Scripture alone, so we don’t have to care for the least of these”? That is the recipe for a liberal field day.

There are better answers to CRT/SJ/I in the church. We will find them when, instead of rejecting the light of nature, we learn to embrace it.

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