Chapter 3 of Christian Smith's The Bible Made Impossible describes how we got to biblicism today. Charles Hodge and Benjamin Warfield, two American theologians during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, ended up influencing modern evangelicalism with their "objective" views about knowledge.
One view, Scottish common-sense realism, believes humans can directly grasp the meaning of what we perceive - whether it be objects or words. Words are directly knowable and directly represent objects and ideas, which our minds can know with certainty. Another view, Baconian inductive-empiricism, is similar - it's gathering "natural specimens" as facts and arranging them to reach an understanding.
These contrasted with the subjective enlightenment idea that the "knower" has authority to define the "known" through his or her individual perceptions. Hodge and Warfield took their views for granted when they discussed theology: the Bible contains all the facts we need to know, and our job as Christians is to collect and order them.
Smith points out a contradiction, because the Calvinist Hodge strongly believed in the fallen human nature, which should have prevented him from thinking we can simply know the Bible's propositional truths directly, without bias. Although inconsistent with Calvinism, this framework thrived because it was a great weapon against the encroaching theological liberalism.
Smith acknowledges he pulled from Hodge and Warfield's least-sophisticated works, but only because such weaker ideas shaped later evangelicals. I agree, as I see that many modern evangelicals still believe the Bible's truths are objectively evident. They portray challenges to their "objective" view as a dangerous relativism and a capitulation to postmodernism.
As is clear to most of us, Hodge and Warfield's views are problematic: "Perception, knowledge, science, and language do not function in the real world the way these theories say they do." Language and words are highly contextual, ambiguous, complex, and can mean many things at once.
"Facts" are not obvious, unmediated entities. Instead, we actively interpret and mediate what end up as facts from various possibilities and meanings. "All interpretations are also shaped by the particular historical and cultural locations and interests of the interpreters."
The naive view that words are directly knowable has long been abandoned by informed thinkers. Why, then, aren't more biblicists worried their interpretive framework might be problematic? Smith describes their attitude as "unperturbed confidence." This is when Smith's sociological expertise proves valuable, as I doubt a theologian or biblical scholar could provide such an astute assessment.
Smith has several theories, but my favorite is his depiction of the strong, close, social networks among biblicists as a force in keeping biblicism alive, in spite of glaring problems. Living in a relatively small, homogeneous, comfortable subculture means your inconsistencies will rarely be challenged. Lest Smith come across as elitist, he notes even the most cosmopolitan form these close social groups. However, research shows evangelicals in particular tend to create more homogeneous environments compared to other U.S. Americans.
Such strong group identity means that differences with outside groups become magnified. Vilifying "the other" means biblicists ceased to
understand the other's reasons, perspectives, and beliefs, or to honor them as fellow believers and come to a deeper understanding and perhaps resolution of differences. The point, rather, is to remain on guard from being contaminated by the out-group or allowing them to grow in influence. And in that process the other is very easily turned into an impersonal, two-dimensional caricature. Out-groups are reduced to an abstract "them" whose beliefs are abridged into a few bullet points of greatest disagreement, which need not actually be taken seriously on their own terms but rather simply need to be refuted and discredited as a means to validate the views of one's own group.
Under this rubric, "the other" becomes easily dismissed. Before even coming to the table, your group has decided "the other" is already wrong. Not compromising or agreeing to a wishy-washy ecumenism is a badge of honor.
Any thoughts? Is Smith's portrayal of biblicists fair?