The Bible Made Impossible (?), Conclusion

So I’ve run headlong into the hazards of reviewing books on a “let’s go through it together” basis. Stuff happens; reading interrupted. For those with the patience, here is the delayed conclusion to my review of Christian Smith’s book, The Bible Made Impossible.

In Part 1 Smith outlined the problems with biblicism as an accounting of biblical authority (Parts 1 and 2 of this review series). He began Part 2 by pointing to the necessity of seeing Christ as the hermeneutical key to the interpretation of scripture (Part 3 of the review). To reiterate, there is nothing particularly new in this suggestion, nor does the author want it to be understood as new, pointing to those who have articulated the same theme. In the final two chapters, “Accepting Complexity and Ambiguity” and “Rethinking Human Knowledge, Authority, and Understanding,” Smith lays out what he hopes will be building blocks or sketches of themes he believes to be important in the constructing of a better theory of biblical authority.

These chapter titles do indeed summarize the ideas that are offered. Chapter 6 invites the reader to accept the Bible as it is, with its often confusing nature. What he does not want is for us to deny the very plain fact that such confusion is there just to uphold a theory that does not itself do justice to what the Bible is and what purpose it is given to serve. He charges biblicists with wanting a different Bible from the one we have been given—they want a Bible that answers every question on every possible subject that will make them feel “certain and secure, even though that is not actually the kind of text that God gave.” Quoting Peter Enns, we are to place our trust in God who gave us Scripture, not in our conceptions of how Scripture ought to be.” Part of this reimagining of biblical authority will be assisted by taking more seriously a long-established idea regarding the inspiration of Scripture—divine accommodation. This means, among other things, that God did not correct every incomplete or mistaken viewpoint the authors of the Bible held in order to communicate with their readers. Just imagining the extent to which the text would have needed to be expanded is a virtual impossibility.

Even the ambiguities in the Bible should be seen as an encouragement to us to continue the hard work of seeking the Christological significance of problem texts and refusing to settle at a point of supposedly knowing the Scriptures throughly, right down to the point of knowing how to harmonize every inconsistent detail within the gospel accounts. He then pleads for a renewed commitment to learning how to distinguish among dogma, doctrine, and opinion for the sake of Christian unity and the for integrity of the Bible itself as given. Further, it is both impossible and undesirable to expect to repeat everything done by the first century church of which we get so limited a glimpse; they were working things out, as they needed to do, establishing something more like trajectories than timeless practices for all subsequent believers to follow. Attempting to dissect each passage for details no one else has properly understood leads all too many biblicists ignoring the obvious commands while straining over the supposedly hidden ones.

The final chapter offers some insights regarding what it means to know something, what it is to communicate in words, and what we mean by the term authority in the first place. In some ways this is an odd placement of such concerns, though I suspect it might owe at least partially to the fact that these topics are not those on which his field of study concentrate. It has been frequently noted that evangelical biblicism is more a product of the Enlightenment than those who practice it recognize. And smith finds it especially curious that this segment of Christians has fallen prey to a flawed theory of knowledge which has often attacked the credibility of Christian belief. The issue is foundationalism, which he (adequately, I believe) describes as “a conviction that rational humans can and must identify a common foundation of knowledge directly up from and upon which every reasonable thinker can and ought to build a body of completely reliable knowledge and understanding.” The results must be indubitable and universally accessible. Rationalists sought such ground in deductive reasoning; empiricists sought it in inductive study of the phenomena of nature; and biblicists sought it in the statements of the Bible. Notice that the theory of knowledge is accepted, even though Christians were at odds with its accompanying materialism, liberalism, relativism, and secularism.

To avoid this pitfall on one side and postmodern skepticism on the other, Smith encourages a critical realist approach, which he sees as one especially compatible with the nature of cooperative relationships fostered by the biblical narrative itself. It humbly recognizes perspective, but is confident in truth—for the Christian, because all has been grounded in God’s own being and communicating nature, even though our grasp is indeed quite limited. But this allows for Christ, through the Holy spirit to continue speaking to the church as we grasp for us and for our own day and challenges how wide and deep is the love of Christ—not as a proposition, but as a lived experience to be shared.

I would encourage the reading of Smith’s book. While the early chapters seem like overkill in driving the point concerning the ubiquity of biblicism, and while more attention might be desired to the suggestions for a better theory, he is giving a critique of our way of doing business that we need to take seriously.