As there continues to be pushback against those of us who would refer to ourselves as “Biblicists” (or, better yet, as “Reformed Biblicists“), I have been looking at the history of the usage of the term. This is not very hard to do, yet some professors and pastors seem to have difficulty with it. In my previous article, which detailed the first usage that Matthew Barrett lists in his forthcoming Systematic Theology, I looked at its usage in 1827 by a Roman Catholic Priest. Dr. Barrett stated that “The earliest usage of the word ‘biblicism’ in English occurred in 1827 in a work by Sophei Finngan in criticism of ‘biblicism’.” I took his word that this was indeed the “earliest usage”. In that article, I also demonstrated that Finngan used the term to describe what we know as the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura. Of course, for Finngan, the positive doctrine of sola scriptura would be something of which he would provide criticism.

More recently, I have seen a blog post by Josh Sommer titled “Sola Scriptura & Biblicism: What’s the Difference” in which he critiques a modern-day iteration of “Biblicism”. I posted some initial responses to that post on Twitter / X here. Regarding the origins of the term, Josh wrote the following:

The term “biblicist” or “biblicism” evidently first appeared in the 19th century, notably used by Jon Jacob van Oosterzees and Thomas Carlyle. Both men apparently use the term derogatorily. Oosterzees defines it as “idolatry of the letter,” in his Dogmatics.[4] Carlyle uses the term in passing, either to characterize those opposed to England’s Lord Protector in the 1650s or the opposition to the crown during the 1640s.

We note that Matthew Barrett and Josh Sommer both mentioned Oosterzees. His usage is a mention, in passing, from his “Dogmatics” of 1874 (about 50 years after Finngan). There is no definition of the term offered. Josh also mentioned Carlyle. The usage was from Carlyle’s “The Life of Friedrich Schiller and the Life of John Sterling” from 1905. As a bit of a correction, Carlyle was actually quoting a letter written to him by John Sterling so it was Sterling who was using the term in passing.

After some further research, I would like to offer a few more examples of earlier and later 19th Century uses of the term “Biblicism”. Some of these have context which further demonstrates that Protestants used the term with good intentions and/or as shorthand for sola scriptura.

In 1821, a few years prior to the usage I have detailed from Finngan, Daniel Wilson used the term in a funeral sermon upon the passing of Rev. Thomas Scott. Wilson mentioned the “scriptural and moderate Articles of Religion” used by Protestant churches to “guard against the intrusion of heresy”. But he saw confessions and “articles of faith” as “only an outline”. He stated “that a scriptural divinity – BIBLICISM, if I may be allowed the term – is of the greatest importance, and will be most apparent. And I consider it as the harbinger of a better day for the universal church…that the Bible is the true point of union…” Further, it was Scripture itself and “not certain propositions deduced from it” which should be “the source and model of a scriptural theology”.

We never can expect a general and extended revival of pure primitive religion, till God in his holy book is more honoured, and man in his fallible systems less. I say not this to reflect on the scriptural and moderate Articles of Religion by which our own, or any other Protestant Church, endeavours to guard against the intrusion of heresy, and to perpetuate a succession of pure evangelical Ministers. Something of this kind seems a necessary part of discipline in every church. It is in the filling up of the picture, of which articles of faith are only an outline, that a scriptural divinity—BIBLICISM, if I may be allowed the term—is of the greatest importance, and will be most apparent. And I consider it as the harbinger of a better day for the universal church, that it seems to be the conviction of the most eminent persons, in common with our departed and esteemed friend, that the Bible is the true point of union, and that this book itself, and not certain propositions deduced from it, is to be the source and model of a scriptural theology.

Jean Henri Merle d’Aubigné wrote a book in 1851 titled “Rationalism and Popery Refuted: Three Discourses on the Authority of Scripture”. In this book, he mentioned “biblicism” several times. According to the Banner of Truth biography page, “Jean Henri Merle d’Aubigné (1794–1872), the most popular church historian of the nineteenth century, was born on 16 August 1794 into a well-known Huguenot family in Geneva.” In a passage on pages 25-26, d’Aubigné would write what we see below. He would repeatedly pronounce that “This is biblicism!” when he refers to Paul and Apollos reasoning directly from the Scriptures.

in his first epistle, he gives directions regarding the manner of acting in the church as stewards of the grace of God? If any man speak,” says he, “let him speak as the oracles of God.” This is thorough biblicism!
And Paul of Tarsus; how does he act? When he was at Rome, did he speak against biblicism, like Pius VII., Gregory XVI., Pius IX., and others? Oh, no! He appeals to the Bible. Amid the Israelites assembled in his house, he teaches them the things which refer to Jesus, according to the law of Moses and the prophets.” This is biblicism! When he writes to Corinth, how does he express himself? I delivered unto you, first of all, that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.” This is biblicism!
But, it is chiefly in teaching Christian doctrines, it is when they labour to prove that Jesus is the Christ, that the apostles recur to the Scriptures. Paul is at Thessalonica! How does he act there? Paul, according to his custom,” says Luke, his companion, “went in unto them, and three Sabbath days reasoned with them out of the Scriptures; opening and alleging that Christ must needs have suffered, and risen again from the dead; and that this Jesus, whom I preach unto you, is Christ.” This is biblicism!
But this is not the only case. Let us proceed to Corinth, and behold a man of great eloquence, who speaks in the assemblies. He is called Apollos. How does he act? He mightily convinced the Jews, and that publicly.” says Luke, “showing by the Scriptures that Jesus was Christ.” This is biblicism!

And on pages 58-59, d’Aubigné mentioned Catholics stating things to the effect that “Biblicism is the scourge of the church!” He would ask if a proper “deference to the authority of the Bible, that biblicism” is indeed a scourge of the Church.

Thus, while treating of the authority of Scripture, Roman Catholics and Rationalist Protestants toss the ball between them—neither party will retain it. That authority, according to each of the two parties, is an invention of the other. In our day, and among ourselves, the ideas Of Lessing and of Staphylus have been renewed regarding the recent invention of the authority of Scripture. Let us try to ascertain the mind Of the first ages; and, upon this subject, let us see if they believed — yea or nay — that deference to the authority of the Bible, that biblicism, in short, is the scourge Of the Church.

He would also pick the discussion of biblicism back up on page 73 where he mentioned Wycliff’s translation – which was a “biblicism” which the Roman Church did not like. And, finally, he would state the following on page 95. He believed that “biblicism is the salvation of the Church.”

If there be a salvation for the church, it is needful that the church recognise that salvation ; and in order to such a recognition, she must have a revelation from God to announce it. If there be no Word of God in the world, there is no salvation. It is necessary that a message come from heaven to earth, or never will my soul be raised from earth to heaven. Christian instruction should be founded on the Bible. Its substance should be biblical. Without that holy, without that living biblicism, we cannot have a saving communication Of eternal truth.
Yes, my brethren—that is what I ask of you—biblicism is the salvation of the church. Servants of the Word of God, and private believers, we have all been remiss in this respect. It is requisite that every one begin anew the study Of the Bible, as if he had never studied it before. We must not adhere simply to the grammatical or edifying interpretation of the isolated meaning of a single passage, as the Christians of our day too exclusively do; we must examine the order, the connection of the passage—the relation of each passage of the Bible to the entire system of the Bible.

Dr. William Garden Blaikie wrote in “The Catholic Presbyterian” in 1880 that he wanted to focus on some “chief characteristics of the Reformation three centuries ago.” He proceeded with a discussion of six characteristics which he stated were: 1. Nationalism, 2. Biblicism, 3. Confessionism, 4. Intellectualism, 5. Fraternalism, and 6. Liberalism. According to the Banner of Truth biography page, “Dr William Garden Blaikie (1820-99) was Professor of Apologetics and Pastoral Theology at New College, Edinburgh, from 1868 to 1897….He was Moderator of the General Assembly in 1892.” He wrote the following on page 244:

2. Biblicism — The Reformation was eminently a Biblical movement. It sought an authority external to that Church which had overlaid and stifled the Gospel by ifs traditions, and it found that authority in the Bible. Therefore, to translate the Bible, to circulate it, to interpret it grammatically and honestly, to read it in churches in the vulgar tongue, were objects of the greatest the strongest weapons to be found against the Church of Rome. Luther, Calvin, and Tyndale took the right way to counteract all the decretals and menaces that Rome could issue. They caused men to know the Holy Scriptures, and to bow down before the supreme authority of the Word of God. By this Word, Popes and Councils, decrees, traditions, usages, ceremonies, dogmas — all were to be tried and judged.
Is this characteristic fading from our modern Protestantism? Does not the Bible retain its place of authority on our reading-desks and pulpits? Is it not road in our families and schools as the incomparable and inspired Book? Yes.

And then, on page 246, we read the following:

The interpretation of the Bible is not with us fixed and perfected. There is a science of Hermeneutics—a living: progressive science. We encourage our scholars to devote themselves to this science, and hold that each generation should make an advance in exegetical accuracy. We also most anxiously desire that our divines should so handle the Bible as to exhibit its organic unity under diversity; state correctly, and neither overstate nor understate, what is meant by its being Theopnoustic – man-written but God-breathed; and apply a true historical perspective to what is really a series of compositions stretching over a very long period in the authorship, and avowedly referring to a succession of religious dispensations. The Biblicism of the future may not quote texts exactly in the same way as that of the Reformers or of the Puritans; but Biblicism there must be, or Protestantism dies, and infidelity and superstition divide the world between them.

Still earlier, we find in “The British Review, and London Critical Journal, Volume 16” of 1820 a review and discussion of “Horae Homileticae; or Discourses (in the Form of Skeletons) upon the whole Scriptures” by Rev. C. Simeon, M.A. Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge. The identification of the author of “The British Review” appears to be lost to us, but his description of “biblicism” is interesting, nonetheless. Some of his statements from pages 137-138 are quoted below. It seems that one of his concerns is that Simeon “still uses without hesitation or constraint all the hortatory, and alarming language which the Scriptures furnish.” in order to arrive at his conclusions. Yes, this author was alarmed that Simeon used the language of Scripture! And later on page 141 he mentions that an excess of Simeon is his “over-statement” and that “the danger which would otherwise arise from this excess, is, moreover, very much neutralized by the leading characteristic of the work, to which we have before adverted – it’s biblicism.”

It is of course impossible for us to present our readers with any thing like a detail of such a copious store of theological topics. We will advert to a few leading points.
On the main characteristic endeavour of the whole work, BIBLICISM, if such a word may be forgiven, we find perpetual examples of the most free and unfettered discussions of man’s fall and impotency, and of his duty and obligation to repent; of the universal redemption by Christ, and its efficacy to the believer only; of the importance of the sacraments, and yet their inutility if improperly relied on; of justification by faith alone, and the necessity of abounding in every good work ; of the Divine purposes, and man’s free agency; ot the promises of God to the humble Christian that he shall continue unto the end, and the cautions, warnings, and alarms, which are addressed to him. On this latter topic we are disposed to think the merits of our author to be more considerable than on some others; and we mention it, because, after all, it is perhaps the most important point in the practice and application of religion, and that on which, theoretically, divines have been found the most widely to differ. Our author, holding, as he does, the doctrine of the perseverance of the sincere Christian in faith and holiness, and conceiving this to be secured by the promises of God and the intercession of the Mediator, still uses without hesitation or constraint all the hortatory, and alarming language which the Scriptures furnish.

Finally, in “The New Annual Register” of 1804, there is a passing mention of “biblicism” on page 365 in a discussion of “Foreign Literature, Biblical and Theological”. This may be the first mention of the term, at least in the 19th Century. This first chapter is brief and does not lend us much in the way of a definition of “biblicism as a science”.

On page 364 there is a discussion of “the different ramifications of the Kantian school” as there has been some attempt at an “amalgamation”. It was stated that “the gospel can gain nothing from transcendental philosophy.” He then goes on to mention the expansion of the Gospel in Germany and England. There is mention of missionary work to the Cape of Good Hope “and it is to this church also that the missionary society of the established church of England has applied for adventurous legates. While neither Spain, Portugal, nor Italy has offered us any thing worthy of individual enumeration, biblicism as a science has occupied but little attention in France. The religion which has once more come an engine of this last State, has merely presented to the hands of its votaries new editions of books that were formerly in esteem, and of which many ought never to have sunk in the public estimation.”

In summary, we have seen Matthew Barrett mention the earliest uses of Biblicism being by Finngan (1827) and Oosterzees (1874) and Josh Sommer mentioned Carlyle’s use quoting Sterling (1905). All of these “earliest” and “first” uses of the term are related to us in a way which is meant to scare us. Finngan was “in criticism”, Oosterzees said it was “idolatry of the letter” and Sterling’s use may have been in opposition to the English civil leadership. But these examples arrive quite short in giving an objective picture of the earliest usage of the term.

To conclude, allow me to summarize some of the data we have found in the following timeline from the 19th Century. There are seven uses of the term from the 19th Century which we have detailed (I also noted some other 19th Century Catholics using it derisively, but which do not have any bearing except in seeing that the Catholics continued, after Finngan, to use the term as synonymous with sola scriptura). Five of them are positive uses and two of them are negative. It should be noted that only the two negative uses were mentioned by Matthew Barrett. This would have the effect of leaving his readers with a skewed understanding of the earliest uses of the term in English.

1804 – “The New Annual Register” in passing referred to it as “Biblicism as a science”
1820 – “The British Review” referred to it as using “without hesitation or constraint all the hortatory, and alarming language which the Scriptures furnish” and saw Biblicism as a safeguard for the potential danger of Simeon’s overstatements
1821 – Daniel Wilson, in a funeral sermon for Rev. Thomas Scott stated that “Biblicism, if I may be allowed the term – is of the greatest importance, and will be most apparent. And I consider it as the harbinger of a better day for the universal church…that the Bible is the true point of union…”
1827 – Sophei Finngan, Catholic Priest, was indeed critical of Biblicism – because he saw it as being equivalent to Protestantism’s sola scriptura
1851 – Jean Henri Merle d’Aubigné referred to Paul’s (and others in the NT) quotation and “appeals to the Bible” under a constant refrain of “This is biblicism!” He would also note the Catholics’ derisive usage of the term.
1874 – Oosterzees labeled biblicism as “idolatry of the letter”. However, he saw that it was far better that the simple man read Scripture than the Roman Catholic Church’s prohibition against allowing the church to be read in the vulgar.
1880 – Dr. William Garden Blaikie referred to Biblicism as a “chief characteristics of the Reformation” and a way to prevent Protestantism from dying!

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