The Bible Made Impossible (?), Part 3

In this serial review of Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible, we have looked at Part 1, which is an extended description of and complaint over biblicism, a phenomenon of conservative evangelical Christianity which expects things from the Bible that cannot be delivered. In Smith’s judgment, the ever-present debunker of the theory itself (not just its flawed application) is pervasive interpretive pluralism. In my personal judgment, Smith’s analysis is difficult to refute, though he may be somewhat justly charged with painting with a very broad brush when applying the biblicist label.

But smith is not interested in liberal solutions to the difficulties he has listed, not least of which is the inability of practioners to consistently operate under the implied procedures. He wants to offer an evangelical alternative, one which centers on the very heart of Christian faith. The Christian gospel is good news, specifically, that God in Christ is reconciling the world to Himself. Chapter 5 begins the process of spelling out not a new theory, but of lines along which a better description of biblical authority might be more fully proposed by scholars whose field this is. And the central line must be Jesus Christ himself, not propositions.

In proposing “The Christocentric Hermeneutical Key” as the to the understanding and the very purpose of the Bible, Smith is not claiming to make any sort of new and profound suggestion. He cites such well accredited persons as Charles Spurgeon, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, John Webster, Peter Enns, John Stott, G.C. Berkouwer, Vern Pythress, Kevin Vanhoozer, and Donald Bloesch as among those who have clearly articulated the ides that Jesus is the central point of the whole Bible, and is the One in light of whom all else is to be interpreted. He believes this has the advantage of overcoming the (Kantian) divide between spiritual and physical reality, for in Jesus alone all things hold together (Col. 1:1-15). Further more, Jesus himself seems to have said as much when talking to the two unsuspecting disciples on the road to Emaus and to the Pharisees in John 5, to whom he announced that all the scriptures they were searching were about him.

Essentially, then, “what holds scripture together is not simply accurate information or inerrant propositions about God, life, and the world. What holds it together is the reality of Christ himself, the living, eternal Son through whom God reconciles the world to himself in love.” This, then guides the right interpretation of scripture; no interpretation which does not ask how the proposed meaning of a text relates to Christ is of any value. Again, Smith points approvingly to the “2000 Baptist Faith and Message” statement from the Southern Baptist Convention and the “Essentials of Our Faith” from the Evangelical Presbyterian Church as recognizing the centrality of Christ in biblical interpretation.

The problem, however, is that such statements are all too often accompanied by other statements which return to the biblicist mindset. The difficulty is that they do not take seriously the disconnect between the two sets of statements. The remainder of the chapter is then given to digging more deeply into the meaning of Christ as the hermeneutical key. He insists (rightly) that it is Christ in trinitarian context who is in view. Here, in an important portion of the chapter, Smith pleads for the reader to begin with God, not independent statements about God that are not at the same time flowing from the trinity. What he seems to be advocating is what James Sire insists on with equal force: ontology must precede epistemology. Simply stated, we must begin with the God who is and out of His nature reveals Himself to humanity–and not with statements about Him, as though they exist independently of Him and point to Him on their own status. His complaint against limited focus on Christ within the Trinity extends to, or perhaps is illustrated by, a test of evangelical preaching: could what is said from the pulpit be equally said by a Unitarian or Jew? If so, it is not preaching that centers all interpretation in Christ.

This is the sort of Christocentrism that does not seek specific instruction for adiaphora–things incidental to the faith, things about which inquiring minds may wish to know. Smith leaves generous room for disagreement on a range of items for which biblicists continue to seek the biblical answer (eschatology, the nature of sacraments, worship, etc.). It’s a range wider than the comfort zone of many evangelicals, but he claims that the more centered we truly are on Christ, the more he will matter to us and our lives lived in his imitation and the less the other questions will divide us.

He closes with a discussion of Karl Barth which I will not entertain here; for Barth readers, that conversation can be engaged outside this forum if you are interested. Tomorrow, the continuation of the lines Smith wants to follow in constructing or reconstructing a doctrine of scripture.