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.

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7 thoughts on “The Bible Made Impossible (?), Part 2

  1. i can’t keep up with you on this book, so I haven’t seen his Trinitarian commentary. While still admitting that the doctrine of the Trinity took development, and that most of the NT canon looks binitarian in many ways, Revelation 1:4b-15b does not, where Seven spirits (aka a perfect Spirit), Jesus messiah, ruler of kings of earth are all present. Taking Baukham’s view that Revelation was read and performed and essentially dramatically entered into in worship in the early Church, an immersive trinitarian stratum, well outside of any platonic/neo-platonic influence, was present.

  2. I don’t know if it is my own expectations clouding my understanding of what he is writing, but I am still seeing a very broad stroke in his classification of biblicism. He does preventive striking with his mention of certain counter points that may come up, discrediting them on grounds of over use. No different than discussing origins with a secularist who has already decided if the flood is mentioned he’s out.

    My problem, if he wants to be over inclusive with who and what biblicists are, he must then accept some of these counter claims. For example much of what he is placing on biblicists is in fact flawed biblicism(under the broad stroke), an argument he discredits.

    If a math class of twenty students all came to different answers for a difficult equation, is mathematics then insufficient?

    Once again reading it I know this is not his intention, but I cannot help but see it affecting his arguments.

    • His definition is a bit too inclusive, as I mentioned in the first installment. But I’m not sure the math analogy holds. The equation there is a given. In what he’s asking, it’s more like asking whether there is a better way of getting the answer we are looking for than the use of this particular equation. Then again, it’s biblicism itself that should not yield this kind of pluralist interpretation, because the principles indicate that the answer is readily available–not the difficult equation model, but one anyone can see. When that doesn’t happen, it’s reasonable to ask whether the right formula is being used. Maybe we’ll conclude that it is; but it’s surely within reason to see if there is another way; we can always reject it after we’ve heard and considered it.

      • Yes, and I am not trying to be antagonistic or over analyze him simply to refute him. My struggle is Chapters 1-3 took an almost contradictory path to what the introduction implied. Chapter 4 is much more coherent and in line with what I was expecting and anxious to read, I am just having trouble separating it from what I now assume to be his ideology from the previous three. The blame I guess lies on me for that. That is why I am glad to be going through the book along with this thread, should help to break through any bias.

      • On a less critiquing stance, and more on discussing the book. I don’t really disagree with the ten principles he lays out at the beginning concerning the Bible. Am I correct that his problem/concern is not necessarily with what he is calling biblicism but rather the fundamentalist(word for word literal) spin on those nine/ten principles.

  3. I have not read the book, but I have been reading the blog review, and I am aware that one of Smith’s central concerns could be summarized by his question, if the Bible really is as perspicuous as we claim, then ” . . why is it that the presumably sincere Christians to whom it has been given cannot read it and come to common agreement about what it teaches?”

    Without going into the incredibly deep discussion apparently encouraged by the book, I would suggest an admittedly simplistic answer to the question, and it has nothing to do with the perspicuous or infallible nature of the Bible, but rather with the nature of mankind.

    When otherwise learned people take bits and pieces of scripture to defend their point of view, or take a portion of text and use it to pursue a tangent not intended by the author, the resulting confusion is not a judgment on the Bible. One example is the horrendous misuse of Jesus’ words in John10:10 by the Manhattan Declaration. Others are the (in my opinion) absurd conclusions about afterlife, eternity and resurrection drawn by scholars such as N.T. Wright, resulting from severe over-study of a few mostly insignificant details.

    I would agree that such instances are evidence of “pervasive interpretive pluralism” and maybe we need to exercise more caution with regard to our teaching. But my impression is that the Smith book is just another example of Christians focusing too much on extraneous matters, causing good people to spend valuable time on things other than what we are supposed to be about. If we were all out there living the lives Christ taught us to live and loving others as He expects us to, we would not have time for these debates :)

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