Deep vs. Shallow Biblical Grounding

We had some questions about an “atypical” book list. Our reasons for pushing for an “atypical” book is this: it is vital to the health of our church that we pursue deep biblical grounding rather than settle for superficial. This is how we see the difference.

Deep Biblical Grounding Shallow Biblical Grounding
  • Self-awareness of assumptions allows the text to exercise proper authority
  • Eisegesis, finding your own ideas in the text
  • Historical, literary, and grammatical awareness
  • Commonsense reading without resources
  • Aim: Pursue wisdom over a lifetime
  • Aim: Read for the daily nugget
  • Read widely to develop discernment
  • Read only the Bible
  • Embraces tough questions as opportunities for pursuing deeper wisdom
  • Avoids tough questions
  • Longstanding questions
  • Quick and easy answers
  • Macro applications: the Bible deeply forms your forms of life so that they are not merely a mirror of culture
  • Micro applications: application does not go beyond read your Bible, pray, and basic ethical distinctions
  • Biblical and theological depth
  • Proof texting

Another way of looking at shallow biblical grounding is the word “biblicism.” Christian Smith lays out ten principles (link, pg. 4-5) that together make up biblicism, but we will highlight just a few. I are concerned that biblicism contributes to shallow biblical grounding.

First, biblicism has a faulty view of what the Bible is, a faulty driving metaphor—the handbook. Smith writes that biblicism considers the Bible to be a handbook, or “a giant collection of timeless truths of doctrine or morality, which allow us to guide all of our daily decisions.” This obscures the fact that the Bible reads nothing like a handbook but includes history, poetry, genealogy, prophetic oracle, proverb, song, short story, visions, biography, parable, letter, argument, etc. The problem is that what you think the Bible is will drive the questions you ask it (e.g., search Amazon for the Bible and dieting).

Second, he writes that biblicism assumes that “The meaning and significance of the Biblical text is plain to anyone reading in their own language.” But interpretation is necessary, difficult, and vital if we want to avoid warping the authority of God’s word like the serpent in the garden. My fear is that we’re often not as serious about this as we need to be. It’s not the Bible is totally unintelligible to the average attender of Cornerstone. It is rather that interpretation is a task both for the individual and for the church. We read it in community and collectively need to pursue its wisdom (Proverbs 1-9).

Third, he writes that biblicism makes two related claims about the Bible:

  • Complete Coverage: All issues relevant to Christian belief and living wisely are contained in it.
  • Total Representation: The Bible represents the exclusive and total revelation of God to humanity.

Again, it is hard to affirm either of these things without further qualification. With regard to complete coverage, there are a number of issues that are relevant to living wisely that we know from the book of nature, how physiology contributes to depression, for example. There are a significant amount of questions which go beyond the scope of the biblical text that it would be nice to know something about. What do we do when the Bible does not make direct claims about these things? They require deep biblical grounding and the pursuit of wisdom. We must know both the text and the issue really well to apply it wisely. e.g.,

  • What governmental system is best?
  • Which economic system?
  • How to handle technology?
  • How should we think about mental illness?

With regard to total representation, not only has God spoken in many ways not recorded in Scripture (John 20:30), but he has also spoken clearly in creation (Psalm 19; Romans 1:18-20). The Bible is a sufficient revelation for his church in the sense that it tells us everything that we need to know for salvation and works in conjunction with his total revelation, both special and general revelation.

Protestant theology has always claimed that theology has multiple sources (or authorities), but only one ruling authority. The Bible is our supreme authority, but not our only source of truth. The image below is our diagram of the Wesleyan quadrilateral (the Reformed have spoken of the book of Scripture and the book of Nature).

These are the four traditional sources for theology among Protestants: the Bible (as norming norm), tradition (because the Spirit has been at work in his church), reason, and experience. I only add that experience has many layers. Scientific research tells us stunning things about God’s creation, including ourselves. That God has spoken in creation implies that we have a lot to learn from unbelievers who are also in God’s image.

But the point of these ministerial authorities (serving sources) is that they serve the text by helping us to uncover our unconscious assumptions that warp the text. The danger is that when we read Scripture we read our own ideas into it (eisegesis).

For example, we might wrongly assume that when Jesus says “do not be anxious” in Matthew 6:34 that we can and must think away anxiety in every case because this is a command. A deeper understanding of how anxiety works helps us to nuance our view, but also helps us to appreciate the manner in which Jesus spoke these words, with comforting metaphors and a promise of presence and help. Learning about neuroscience helped me see the text better. It helped me to ask better questions of it.

So, we have two reasons for recommending books that are written by non-Christians (Bruce Perry and Angie Thomas) and by non-evangelicals (Jean Vanier). First, reading a book like Bruce Perry’s The Boy Who was Raised as a Dog might be a great opportunity to invite non-believers into a group to stimulate great and vulnerable conversations on the borders of your Christian faith. This could be a good way to deepen relationships and to share your faith. Bruce Perry’s book is really important for appreciating why moms are important. Second, these books can help to unsettle your assumptions about the world a bit so that you’ll be pushed to pursue deeper wisdom, wisdom that can only be achieved through self-awareness and deeper wrestling with the Bible.

Next, there might be an elephant in the room, the issues of mental health and social justice. I have a lot to say about this, but for brevity I will say three things: (1) I think the discussion about these issues in the evangelical church has become so polarized that it is nearly impossible for people to express nuanced positions. Wisdom is necessary here but it does not come by avoiding reading about the topics.

(2) There is a clear sense in which the gospel is “social.” Whatever you think goes wrong at the fall in Genesis 3 is set right by the gospel. The curse of Genesis 3 touches on three aspects—theological, social, and vocational. Upward, men and women are sent out from the garden and from fellowship with God. This is the theological aspect of the fall. Horizontally, the relationship between Adam and Eve is broken. This is the social aspect that is clearly illustrated in the murder of Abel by Cain. Finally, humanity’s relationship with the ground or earth, our first responsibility (Gen 1:28; 2:15) is frustrated. Unredeemed work is cursed. The gospel is the announcement of Jesus death and resurrection which reconciles our primary theological relation and inaugurates the kingdom as a foretaste of eternity. As such the kingdom is also deeply rooted in the way God managed the world in the Old Testament. Issues of social justice were a primary concern for the prophets. This fact was only reinforced by our teaching the Old Testament this semester (see for example Kevin DeYoung’s series on these prophetic texts). In the inaugurated kingdom, what was sundered socially is reconciled in the body of Christ, which is the temple of God (Eph 2:14-22).

(3) The church has an obligation to every member of the body. We do not have the luxury of not listening to or integrating others. Insofar as members of our body are hurting, we must embrace the responsibility to develop our empathetic imagination. Empathy is not sympathy. Sympathy is emotionally mirroring, putting on the right facial expressions or vocal tone to match someone you are interacting with. Empathy is the ability to imagine what it might be like to be someone else. I have a high regard for fiction at least partly because it an effective tool for enabling us to understand what it is like to be someone else (I have other reasons). Fiction books are very serious in this sense.

Finally, some of you might feel ill equipped to lead a group through one or two of these books. Please feel free to try another book if you desire. I’ve expanded (and very slightly modified) the list to include longer descriptions. If any of you want to go through Angie Thomas’s or Bruce Perry’s books, I know Joy or I would be willing to come to the first session to talk about it. I’m happy to try to mediate any conflict that were to arise over books like these. Not all conflict is bad, nor is all discomfort.

Again, I want to reiterate that we welcome all and any criticism and treat it seriously. A pastor needs not only to set clear direction but also to know the needs and worries of his flock. Our primary task during this season at Cornerstone is learning how best to help you to “add to your faith virtue, and to virtue knowledge.” Please let me know how I can serve you better.

“For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith virtue; and to virtue, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But whoever does not have them is nearsighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins. Therefore, my brothers and sisters, make every effort to confirm your calling and election. For if you do these things, you will never stumble, and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

2 Peter 1:5-11

– Matthew LaPine