The Bible Made Impossible (?), Part 2

The previous post began consideration of Christian Smith’s recent book, The Bible Made Impossible. Its thesis is that biblicism—a very popular way of accounting for the Bible’s authority described in some detail in that prior post—cannot fulfill its promise and should be abandoned for a better way of grounding that authority. Very simply, the premises of biblicism as Smith describes them cannot stand when confronted with the undeniable fact of pervasive interpretive pluralism.

This post will give an overview of the remainder of Part 1 of the book, which delineates the problem; Part 2 then offers a better way, according to the author, to view the authority of scripture from an evangelical perspective. Chapter 3 is Smith’s attempt at tracing the lines of development of biblicism. It should be noted that some of those whom he associates closely with biblicism attempt to demonstrate that there is a longer-standing heritage of biblicist tenets than what this book delineates. Smith locates the origins of biblicism in the early 19th century movement known as Scottish commonsense realism, which he describes as the notion that all people have the capacity to grasp the essential nature of the objects they perceive. Out of this knowledge, science classifies these perceptions; when coupled with a corresponding “picture theory” of language (words are directly connected to what the mind perceives). These ideas were assumed by individuals such as Charles Hodge and Benjamin Warfield, who applied them to the Bible. The result is a view of the Bible which sees the text (especially as verses) as the raw data out of which doctrines and other truths about the world are drawn.

This theory, however, does not accommodate the pervasive interpretive pluralism that is the undeniable experience of those who follow the biblicist model. And at least one of the possible answers is ruled out; specifically, we cannot appeal to the noetic effects of sin if we are appealing to a commonsense philosophy, which requires that we can indeed perceive what is there directly. But that is not the only difficulty by any means. This philosophy and its theory of language have not survived philosophical scrutiny; indeed, they appear rather as blips on the screen when placed alongside other theories in the history of knowledge. Are biblicists insisting on being tied to what is almost universally regarded as a failed philosophy, one no one else holds to? It might work for the truly committed; but when taken on the road, it would seem to require that a person must first accept an anachronistic philosophy in order to make sense out of the book that has all the truths we need for life and godliness.

Smith also points to difficulties of a sociological and psychological nature. While these are admittedly speculative in nature, they are also quite plausibly true; and we need to keep in mind that it is a professional sociologist who is doing the speculating. On one hand, people do tend to stay within homogenous groups, where shared beliefs maintain a “plausibility structure” that works only inside the group; on the other hand, that group needs to have an “other” against which to identify themselves–and having different interpretations marks off different groups, and possibly reinforcing the rightness of one’s own.

Chapter 4 (“Subsidiary Problems with Biblicism”) offers the thought that, “most evangelical biblicists today somehow manage to continue to pretend that pervasive interpretive pluralism does them no harm, but that denial extracts heavy costs in undercutting intellectual honesty and theological credibility.” Now that raises the stakes considerably. If it can be demonstrated, as Smith is committed to doing, that any of these charges is true, it does indeed place a burden upon those evangelicals who care about the integrity of both mind and witness. While it may not be too far off that many evangelical believers do not care about the first of these, the second is at the heart of evangelicalism.

What sounds good in theory and what has been proclaimed through many a pulpit and classroom as foundational to the faith—biblicist principles of the authority of scripture—is not actually what is practiced by virtually any of its proponents. There are blatantly ignores teachings in the Bible; there is what can only be described as arbitrary usage of “cultural relativism” when applying scripture; and it is clear that something other than the text is determining the approach to the text in practice. Smith marshalls significant instances and passages in which these factors are demonstrated, using specific applications of “biblical principles” which have no direct textual grounding—including the well-known matter of the Trinity and of the homo-ousia formula which played such a pivotal role in understanding who Christians believe Jesus is.

Perhaps the two most important points come at the close of Part 1. The first is the author’s emphatic affirmation of divine inspiration of Scripture; challenging biblicism is not tacitly denying this doctrine. He notes that the five classic texts that are used to support biblicism do tell us important things about scripture; but they do not give us biblicism or its cousin, inerrancy. The second point is one on which the chapter closes, and to my mind is one evangelicals have ignored to their own great and painful loss. While the biblicist paradigm is easily upheld in the circles in which it is promoted, it fares poorly outside; and that exposes the youth of theses churches to a whole new set of intellectual challenges for which they are ill-prepared, and against which they usually fall. The rate at which teens of evangelical churches reject the faith is alarming; and while there are undoubtedly multiple causes, the undermining of their assumptions about the Bible is principle among them. Can we do better? We must. And that’s where Part 2 will turn.