The Bible Made Impossible (?), Part 1

In a series of posts this week we will be looking at Christian Smith’s book The Bible Made Impossible. My intent is to think through the issues as they are raised by the author without jumping ahead to anticipate what will come later in the book, and without attributing to him arguments he is not making. We’ll begin by noting that Smith claims to be an evangelical believer who has recently joined the Roman Catholic Church; I take the first part at face value and find the second quite understandable, given what he has to say in the first two chapters, which will be the focus of Part 1 of this review.

Part 1 of Smith’s argument is given to the premise implied by the book’s title. He argues that the major problem of most evangelical approaches to the Bible is that of biblicism (Part 2 will attempt to sketch out a better way of conceiving the Bible nature and status). Chapter 1 is given to a definition of what biblicism is and of how extensively it pervades evangelical thinking. His description of biblicism is extensive, encompassing much of what many Christians take for granted about the Bible. I include his “nine points” and the “viewpoint” which he believes they generate at length here:

1. Divine Writing: The Bible, down to the details of its words, consists of and is identical with God’s very own words written inerrantly in human language.
2. Total Representation: The Bible represents the totality of God’s communication to and will for humanity, both in containing all that God has to say to humans and in being the exclusive mode of God’s true communication.
3. Complete Coverage: The divine will about all of the issues relevant to Christian belief and life are contained in the Bible.
4. Democratic Perspicuity: Any reasonably intelligent person can read the Bible in his or her own language and correctly understand the plain meaning of the text.
5. Commonsense Hermeneutics: The best way to understand biblical texts is by reading them in their explicit, plain, most obvious, literal sense, as the author intended them at face value, which may or may not involve taking into account their literary, cultural, and historical contexts.
6. Solo Scriptura: The significance of any given biblical text can be understood without reliance on creeds, confessions, historical church traditions, or other forms of larger theological hermeneutical frameworks, such that theological formulations can be built up directly out of the Bible from scratch.
7. Internal Harmony: All related passages of the Bible on any given subject fit together almost like puzzle pieces into single, unified, internally consistent bodies of instruction about right and wrong beliefs and behaviors.
8. Universal Applicability: What the biblical authors taught God’s people at any point in history remains universally valid for all Christians at every other time, unless explicitly revoked by subsequent scriptural teaching.
9. Inductive Method: All matters of Christian belief and practice can be learned by sitting down with the Bible and piecing together through careful study the clear “biblical truths that it teaches.

These principles generate the following:
10. Handbook Model: The Bible teaches doctrine and morals with every affirmation that it makes, so that together those affirmations comprise something like a handbook or textbook for Christian belief and living, a compendium of divine and therefore inerrant teachings on a full array of subjects—including science, economics, health, politics, and romance.

The issue, after all of this stated, however, is not that such biblicism is expressly articulated, but that different elements of it permeate the landscape of so much evangelicalism. This presents one of the difficulties with Smith’s description. As stated, I don’t think I would consider myself a biblicist—not that I do not accept some, or most of the basic ideas, but I accept none of them as stated. But he then proceeds by interpreting them very broadly, so that they encompass virtually every statement about the Bible pronounced by virtually any evangelical denomination, seminary, college, author, parachurch organization, etc. What he does in the process, however, is overlook the fact that statements very similar to the ones he cites in the remainder of the first chapter can be found in decidedly non-evangelical bodies as well. In fact, they do not differ as much as he might like from statements within Catholic documents.

But that is secondary to his point (perhaps: let’s withhold critique on that aspect until he has given his own proposal). The major problem with biblicsm is “perpetual interpretive plurality.” The very premise of biblicism is that the Bible is clear, easily understood, and interpreted; the reality is that so many understandings and interpretations have been offered, many of which are incompatible with one another. The point is driven home at great length, citing so many documents and writers as to be quite repetitive. But that seems to be a deliberate strategy—he seems to believe that evangelicals will need to have the idea very prominently displayed before they catch how it undermines the very ideas of biblicism.

Chapter two offers more of the same, but this time moves from a focus on statements to a focus on actual issues in which the plurality of interpretations is most obvious, and ought to cause a reconsideration of the concept. And his list is impressive; it does, indeed, need to be taken to heart by those who have insisted on an easy move from text to fixed doctrine. Nor will it do to dismiss the differences in interpretation as belonging to the category of minor matters. To illustrate the inadequacy of such a defense, he offers areas such as church polity, predestination and free will, Sabbath observance, sacraments, gender difference and equality, and a host of others which cannot rightly be dismissed as trivialities within a grand unity. Even atonement and justification cannot escape as central, agreed upon matters that we can discern from the clear sense of scripture. Sobering list, indeed.

Smith then turns to options available to those who are willing to face the truth of persistent interpretive plurality, yet still find it needful to defend biblicism. One is to say that truly informed students of the Bible can indeed come to understand the single, harmonious sense of the Bible, but that most Christians who study the Bible actually do so with problematic motives, interests, or agendas. We’re right; the rest are wrong, even if sincerely so. A second option is to appeal to the original autographs (the ones biblical writers actually penned) as the location of the true meaning and sense; but, of course, this does us no good since they are unlikely ever to be found. Third, we can appeal to the effects of sin on our understanding, so that we will always struggle to find the meaning that is there. His rejoinder to this approach is to question just how the scripture with the characteristics biblicism assumes has failed to overcome this “noetic” deficiency. These first three options have names and identifiable adherents. The other offers of a way out come from his own speculation (actually, some have espoused forms of these positions). The first is to say that God only wants some Christians to actually understand the truth of the Bible, but not all. The second says that the single meaning is very complex and multi-dimensional, and when seen perfectly, will be shown to encompass all of the interpretations now seeming contradictory to one another–there’s a higher synthesis than what we can now see. Or, one might conceivably argue that God has been purposefully ambiguous in the scripture so that we will exercise humility, openness, and grace with one another in different interpretive camps.

Chapter two closes with a discussion of the differences between interpretive camps, which develop by viewing the whole of scripture through a particular lens (covenantal, dispensational, non-violent, holiness, etc.). The chosen lens always leaves out or grossly distorts those portions which do not fit the chosen paradigm; and the parts left out by one camp seem to be central to another. Is this the picture that biblicism paints with its premises? Smith says this plurality—undeniable, persistent, doggedly stubborn as it is, should cause evangelicals to abandon biblicism and seek a better understanding of what God’s Word really is.

A much more extensive post than usual for this site. But Smith does give a lot of things for us to think about, or to think about the way we think about the Bible.