Christian Smith Makes the Bible Impossible
Christian Smith—professor at the University of Notre Dame, recently converted Catholic, and author of Soul Searching and Souls in Transition—has written a number of insightful, helpful books. This is not one of them. The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture is Smith’s attempt to prove that the way evangelicals approach the Bible in this country is wrong, and dreadfully so.
By his estimation, American evangelicalism is beholden to a biblicist hermeneutic. By “biblicist” he means “a theory about the Bible that emphasizes together its exclusive authority, infallibility, perspicuity, self-sufficiency, internal consistency, self-evident meaning, and universal applicability” (viii). More thoroughly, Smith asserts that biblicism is the constellation of ten different assumptions or beliefs:
1. The words of the Bible are identical with God’s words written inerrantly in human language.
2. The Bible represents the totality of God’s will for humanity.
3. The divine will for all issues relevant to Christian life are contained in the Bible.
4. Any reasonable person can correctly understand the plain meaning of the text.
5. The way to understand the Bible is to look at the obvious, literal sense.
6. The Bible can be understood without reliance on creeds, confessions, or historic church traditions.
7. The Bible possesses internal harmony and consistency.
8. The Bible is universally applicable for all Christians.
9. All matters of Christian belief and practice can be learned through inductive Bible study.
10. The Bible is a kind of handbook or textbook for Christian faith and practice.
While some evangelicals may downplay or deny some of these points, Smith suggests as long as you hold to some of these points you are still a biblicist (4-5).
At first you may be tempted to think Smith is targeting the silly extremes of evangelicalism. And he does do this often—criticizing the books that claim to give the final biblical word on cooking or dating or handling stress. Evangelicals can make the mistake of thinking the Bible says everything about everything. They can also be guilty of majoring on the minors or forcing the Bible to address matters it never meant to address. Smith is right to deconstruct these tendencies.
But he’s not just picking around the edges of the big tent. He’s gutting the center. He sees biblicism in the official doctrinal statements from the Southern Baptist Convention and the Evangelical Free Church. He finds it in the statements of faith from Wheaton, Moody, Gordon-Conwell, Covenant, Westminster, Dallas, Talbot, Concordia, and Asbury. He cites what he deems to be biblicist instincts in respected scholars like D.A. Carson, G.K. Beale, J.I. Packer, and David Wells. (Surprisingly, he targets Vern Poythress for criticism as much as anyone, leading me to wonder if Westminster—whose Board Smith likens to a “Reformed quasi-papal Magisterium”—is particularly in the crosshairs because they dismissed Peter Enns. [14, 109-110]) Even extremely nuanced documents like the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy are routinely criticized, even lampooned, as unworkable, naïve and biblicist. In short, pretty much every evangelical preacher, institution, and scholar (save for “evangelical biblical scholars” like Enns and Kent Sparks) are hopelessly and shamelessly entrenched in biblicism.
The main problem with biblicism (as Smith defines it), and the recurring theme of the book, is the presence of “pervasive interpretive pluralism.” Smith, who coined the term “moralistic therapeutic Deism” has a knack for labeling. I’m sure the phrase “pervasive interpretative pluralism” (or PIP for short) will be bandied about for some time. In essence, what Smith means is that biblicist approaches to Scripture cannot work because intelligent, sincere, fair-minded evangelicals can’t begin to agree on what the Bible actually says. If the Bible were really clear, internally harmonious, and univocal, we should be able to come to agreement on what the Bible teaches (25). But we can’t and never will, Smith argues. Instead, we have countless books that give multiple views on everything from the atonement to baptism to hell to the rapture to the historical Jesus (22-23). We disagree on periphery, but also on “essential matters of doctrine and faithful practice” (25). By Smith’s calculation, evangelical disagreement is so severe that we have created, in theory, more than five million unique, potential belief positions (24).
The solution to this intractable problem is to ditch biblicism altogether in favor of Christocentric hermeneutic. A truly evangelical approach to Scripture understands that the evangel is at the center of the Bible’s message. So we should be less sure and less concerned with most of the theological convictions dear to us. Instead we should “only, always, and everywhere read scripture in view of its real subject matter: Jesus Christ” (98). When we understand this, we will not expect the Bible to speak to all our questions, and we will not expect internal consistency (except, presumably, on the matter of the gospel). This is where Smith finds Karl Barth tremendously helpful. With Barth’s guidance, evangelicals can stop divinizing the Bible and realize the written word is meant only to point to the Word incarnate. We will hold tenaciously to Jesus Christ and loosely to everything else.
Of course, very few evangelicals I know would disagree with the notion of a Christocentric hermeneutic. In fact, nothing in recent years has been talked about more in evangelical circles than the gospel itself. We have Together for the Gospel and The Gospel Coalition and umpteen books with the word gospel in the title. We have conferences on preaching the gospel from the whole Bible and homiletical models that emphasize seeing Christ as the hero in every story. We even have children’s books serving the same purpose. So I’m not sure why Smith thinks a Christocentric reading of Scripture stands in opposition to what he dubs “biblicism,” especially when he admits to seeing it in people like John Stott and in the SBC “2000 Baptist Faith and Message” of all places (103, 108). A Barthian view may be missing from evangelical hermeneutics, but increasingly Christocentrism is not.
But there are bigger problems with Smith’s proposal than overlooking good examples of his best ideas. For starters, the book is littered with straw men. Smith frequently attacks ideas that none of the mainstream institutions, documents, or persons he criticizes holds. He opposes mechanical dictation theory, admitting that “most” thoughtful evangelicals do not hold to it (81). I can’t help but wonder which thoughtful evangelicals do? He chides biblicists for things I’ve never seen anyone do, like worshiping the Bible (124) and thinking that fellowship with God comes through paper and ink (119; see the quote from John Frame later in the review for a more sophisticated response). Likewise, he mocks the logic of biblicism for being equally certain about the divinity of Jesus as it is about the ethics of biblical dating (137). But who actually espouses any of this? These are simply cheap shots.
At other times it seems that Smith is ignorant of mainstream evangelical theology. He frequently attacks the notion that the Bible is completely clear, but then in the end he says the Bible is perfectly clear when it comes to the important stuff of the gospel (132). This is not very different from classic notions of perspicuity, which always pointed out that the Bible is not equally clear in every matter. Smith accuses evangelicals of buying into foundationalism whole hog (150), seemingly unaware that very few evangelical scholars today (including those he critiques as biblicists) defend full blown foundationalism in the way he understands it (for a careful, if now somewhat dated, interaction with postmodern thought and what to do with foundationalism see Reclaiming the Center: Confronting Evangelical Accommodation in Postmodern Times). Smith frequently gives the impression that no one has ever considered the problems he sees, as if no one has ever thoughtfully dealt with problems of harmonization, genre, or questions of culture and context. He goes on about how words have a semantic range and how certain passages have layered meanings. This is basic stuff taught in almost every “biblicist” seminary. In another place Smith launches a tirade against the word “inerrancy,” saying it “is far too limited, narrow, restricted, flat, and weak a term to represent the many virtues of the Bible that are necessary to recognize, affirm, and commend the variety of speech acts performed in scripture” (160). Again I ask, where are the evangelicals writing books saying inerrancy is the only word we can use in talking about the Bible? I wonder whom is Smith arguing against when he says the Bible is much more than a collection of “error-free propositions with which to construct indubitably true systematic theologies” with “helpful tidbits” for how to dress, garden, cook, budget, parent, and run a business, but is instead a book that promises, confronts, commands, comforts, and commands.
Some of Smith’s most important arguments rest on false dichotomies. Consider this paragraph.
The Bible is not about offering things like a biblical view of dating—but rather about how God the Father offered his Son, Jesus Christ, to death to redeem a rebellious world from the slavery and damnation of sin. The Bible is not about conveying divine principles and managing a Christian business—but is instead about Christ on the cross triumphing over all principalities and powers and so radically transforming everything we consider to be our business. Scripture, this view helps to see, is not about guiding Christian emotions management and conquering our anger problems—but is rather about Jesus Christ being guided by his unity with the Father to absorb the wrath of God against sin in his death and conquering the power of sin in his resurrection. Scripture then ceases to be about teaching about biblical manhood and womanhood or biblical motherhood and fatherhood—and becomes instead the story of how a covenant-making and promise-keeping God took on full human personhood in Jesus Christ in order to reconcile this alienated and wrecked world to the eternally gracious Father. (111)
Amen to all that, but why all the “not this, but that” language? Of course the Bible is not about biblical manhood and womanhood if “about” means “this is the main point.” But doesn’t the Bible have something to say about being a mom, or running a business, or going on a date? Or do only biblicists try to apply the Bible to all of life?
Strangely enough, Smith begins the next paragraph by admitting, “That is not to say that evangelical Christians will never have theologically informed moral and practical views of dating and romance, business dealings, emotions, gender identities and relations, and parenting” (111). So maybe the Bible is kinda sorta about handling our emotions after all, even if no one would say that’s the main point.
Several times, Smith backtracks from his most provocative assertions. He bashes biblicism, only to come back to a proposal that sounds very much like what he calls biblicism. For example, he criticizes evangelicals for insisting on the Bible’s internal consistency, but later says “we must believe in some kind of internal biblical coherence or unity” (102). At times he speaks of the Bible’s contradictions and how its parts cannot be put together like a puzzle, but elsewhere he says the Bible is “apparently self-contradictory” (132, emphasis mine). Usually, for Smith, harmonization is what rationalist systematic theologians do, but he also acknowledges, “In some cases, to be sure, harmonizations of biblical accounts may actually be right.” The problem is when they are forced or implausible (134). No “biblicist” scholar I know would disagree.
Likewise, early in the book, Smith rejects the slogan “in essentials unity; in non-essentials liberty; and in all things charity.” He says it doesn’t work because no one can agree on the essential doctrines or even on which doctrines are essential. But later (acknowledging apparent inconsistency on his part) he introduces the categories of dogma, doctrine, and opinion to help sort through which issues in the Bible are most important (134-38). Smith claims that biblicists have no way to interpret problem texts like those that deal with slavery. But then he handles the slavery question with the same approach I’ve seen from dozens of “biblicists” (167). Smith is critical of those who make the Bible into a how-to book with instructions for managing our Christian lives, but then he says we obviously should focus on loving God and our neighbor (143).
Over and over, Smith settles back on “biblicist” ways of reading the Bible. When it suits his rhetorical aim, Smith makes a big deal about the multiplicity of interpretations among evangelicals. But when he wants to make a point important to him, suddenly the Bible speaks clearly. For example, Ron Sider’s book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger makes “a clear biblical case about poverty and hunger” (32). Similarly, the commandments that instruct Christians to give away their money generously are “pervasive, clear, straightforward, obvious, and simple” (144). He’s radically uncertain of a lot of things, but he can conclude that Genesis 1-2 was written to banish rival pagan accounts of the world’s origins (161). Even though PIP exists when it comes to issues of poverty and generosity, just like it does with baptism or the Lord’s Supper, in cases like these Smith is eager to find a “proper interpretation” (95).
This gets to the Achilles heel of Smith’s argument. His reliance on “pervasive interpretative pluralism” is not pervasive. The theory comes and goes. Smith argues that Jesus Christ is the center that holds the Bible together, that everything in the Bible should be read through the lens of the gospel, that we should all agree on Nicene orthodoxy. But surely Smith realizes there is no uniform agreement on these matters either. You can find professing Christians—sincere, intelligent persons—who disagree on the divinity of Christ, the reality of the Trinity, and the resurrection. So can we still hold to these doctrines even when so many people disagree? Or is that biblicism?
Smith seems to think everyone can, will and should agree on the matters he thinks are most essential. But as for the rest, PIP makes those relatively unimportant. To cite but one example, Smith says penal substitution should not be placed at the level of church dogma (135) and that with his approach to Scripture we don’t have to lose anything of the gospel (176). But what about those who think penal substitution is at the heart of the gospel? Aren’t they in danger of losing everything? Smith argues that we must have a canon within a canon if we are to interpret Scripture correctly (116). But what if Christians can’t agree on that inner canon? It’s hard not to conclude that in most cases PIP proves that we are asking the Bible questions it never meant to answer, but when it comes to doctrines or methods Smith thinks are central, then PIP is not insurmountable. There really are right interpretations that everyone should recognize, whether everyone does or not.
Look at these two quotes.
If scripture is as authoritative and clear on essentials as biblicists say it is, then why can’t the Christian church—or even only biblicist churches—get it together and stay together, theologically and ecclessiologically? (175)
It should be possible for all sorts of Christians, if they really grasp the difference and importance of these three distinctions [dogma, doctrine, opinion], to agree on a short list of beliefs that genuinely belong at the level of dogma. (136)
On the one hand, biblicists naively think the Bible is clear and authoritative on essentials. On the other hand, all sorts of Christians should be able to agree on essential beliefs. So is it right or wrong to insist that the Bible speaks clearly and authoritatively on doctrinal essentials? Or perhaps the unstated assumption is that official Church Tradition can define our essential beliefs. But given the divisions and serious disagreements within the Catholic Church (despite external organizational unity), why shouldn’t the problem of PIP also blow up a biblicist approach to Church Tradition?
A Few More
There are other problems I could mention. Like the fact that Smith is unduly focused on American evangelicalism. He wants to lay all our problems at the feet of Old Princeton and commonsense realism. But go back to his first definition of biblicism in the book’s preface: biblicism is “a theory about the Bible that emphasizes together its exclusive authority, infallibility, perspicuity, self-sufficiency, internal consistency, self-evident meaning, and universal applicability” (viii). Is it really the case that African evangelicals don’t think the Bible is infallible, or that British evangelicals don’t believe in its internal consistency, or that Korean evangelicals don’t believe in its universal applicability? Not to mention the fact that the basic contours of a biblicist hermeneutic can be found in the likes of everyone from Augustine to Aquinas. Decades ago John Woodbridge demonstrated that the Reformers and the Church Fathers did not sharply distinguish between the saving truth of Scripture and all the other matters on which it speaks (e.g., history, science, ethics). If Smith wants a Bible that doesn’t speak authoritatively to all of life, he’ll have to swim upstream against the current of church history.
Smith’s view of biblical authority is also troubling. While he often states that his aim is not to address the issues of inerrancy or scriptural inspiration, he nevertheless espouses a lower view of biblical authority than most evangelicals. When he states, “there is a lot of room between lying and complete and total inerrancy in revelatory communication,” it’s easy to see Smith is no fan of inerrancy (81). According to Smith, Scripture is only a subsidiary revelation. Its function is simply to point to Christ and testify to him (117, 120). But this does not do justice to the biblical reality that God also manifests himself through his word. The language of “the word” is used because it refers to God’s self-disclosure. The Bible is the word of God inscripturated that continues to make Christ, the Word of God incarnate, available and knowable to us. In Matthew 10, Jesus equates rejection of the disciples’ words with rejection of him (14-15, 40). In John 15, Jesus equates his words abiding in us with him abiding in us (4-5, 7-8). In Exodus 19, Israel’s relationship to God is determined by their relationship to his words (v. 5). In Exodus 33, Moses asks the Lord to show him his glory and the Lord responds with words. First he declares his sovereignty (“I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious” 33:19). Then he proclaims his name and character (“The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger” see 34:5-7). In other words, God is where his word is. As Timothy Ward says, “God has invested himself in words, or we could say that God has so identified himself with his words that whatever someone does to God’s words (whether it is to obey or disobey) they do directly to God himself” (Words of Life, 27).
To say the word of God is only a pointer to the Word Christ is saying far too little. God is near to his people in the nearness of his words (Deut. 4:7-8; 30:11-14); God’s Spirit is present where his words are present (Psalm 33:6; Isa. 34:16; 59:21; John 6:63); the speech of God has divine attributes (Psalm 19; 119); and the word of God does things only God can do (Heb. 4:12-13). We should not cower at the charge of bibliolatry, let alone water down our view of Scripture. Of course, we do not worship paper and ink or parchment or pixels on a screen or any other finite, created medium. But as John Frame points out, “The psalmists view the words of God with religious reverence and awe, attitudes appropriate only to an encounter with God himself. . . .This is extraordinary, since Scripture uniformly considers it idolatrous to worship anything other than God. But to praise or fear God’s word is not idolatrous. To praise God’s word is to praise God himself” (The Doctrine of the Word of God, 67).
Most disappointing of all is the way Smith resorts to psychological explanations for the foolishness he sees in evangelical biblicists. He not only thinks biblicism is horribly misguided; he practically labels it an emotional disorder:
I have no interest in psychoanalyzing individual biblicists, but I think it is fair to say that the general psychological structure underlying biblicism is one of a particular need to create order and security in an environment that would be otherwise chaotic and in error. That orientation seems itself to be driven by fear of disorder and discomfort with things not being “the way they ought to be.” (64).
At a more academic and official levels, it might consist of establishing and defending watertight theological systems that provide all the answers (for those who believe them) and thus produce cognitive and emotional security in a very insecure world. (95)
American evangelicalism as a developing subculture simply had difficult shaking various analogous forms of flashbacks, anger, hypervigilance, and unwarranted fear of ideas and people associated with trauma. (122)
Thus, it is hard to conclude otherwise than that biblicists are shamefully untrusting and ungrateful when it comes to receiving God’s written word as God has chosen to confer it. (128)
Given all our dysfunctions, it’s strange that Smith still seems to care about being in the big tent of evangelicalism. He is always careful to refer to scholars that agree with him like Kent Sparks and Peter Enns as an “evangelical” or an “evangelical biblical scholar.” What we see with this book is the coalescing of scholars like Sparks, Enns, Smith (and judging by the back blurb, Scot McKnight) who are dissatisfied with the traditional evangelical approach to Scripture. They are quick to employ Mark Noll’s thesis about the baleful effects of Scottish commonsense realism on Old Princeton (a conclusion forcefully challenged by Paul Kjoss Helseth) and eager to adopt a neo-Barthian view of Scripture along with a “postconservative” epistemology. Whether these views are “evangelical” or not depends on how you define the terms, but it’s clear that those challenging traditional evangelical views of Scripture are loathe to give up the term themselves—even if their approach to the Bible flies in the face of nearly every evangelical institution and formal evangelical statement. One of Smith’s apparent aims is to critique most evangelicals without alienating all of them. He even went so far–in a move that now appears to be retracted–as to review his own book on Amazon (and give it five stars!) as a kind of preemptive strike against evangelical criticism.
In the end, I wonder what pastors are left with after they lose their “biblicism.” I am all for gaining a Christocentric hermeneutic and keeping the main thing the main thing. But in Smith’s mind the big problem with “expository preaching” today is that it “proceeds on the assumption that a minister can select virtually any passage of scripture and adduce from the text an authoritative, relevant, ‘applicable’ teaching to be believed and applied” by the congregation (12). I’m not sure what the alternative is—proceeding on the assumption that most passages of Scripture yield interesting stories that are more or less irrelevant to what we believe and do? I agree that evangelicals sometimes make Scripture speak definitively on matters it doesn’t mean to address. But Smith’s radical ambiguity about most doctrinal matters doesn’t work in the real world. It is, to borrow a phrase, “the Bible made impossible.” At some point, even with “pervasive interpretative pluralism” on the issue of divorce and remarriage, as a pastor I need to tell people what I think about their impending breakup. I can’t fall back on PIP when deciding whether I will baptize a baby or ordain a woman elder. If a college student asks me for guidance in his dating relationship, I’m going to try to show him what it means to go out with this girl as a follower of Christ. If he wants to date a guy, well, there are Bible verses about that too—whether “good people” disagree on them or not. When I come to passages about election and predestination I’m going to preach them like they communicate something meaningful. When our people read through the Bible in a year, I’ll encourage them to plow through the strange or boring parts because every part of sacred Scripture is profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and for training in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16).
And later this fall, when my evening preaching series brings me to Titus 1:12-13 (where Paul says “all Cretans are liars”) I’m certainly not going to conclude that “making such a proclamation violates many of Paul’s own moral teachings in other Epistles” and that his harsh words about the Cretans (through the words of one of their poets) means Paul “still needed sanctification from the sin of ethnic prejudice” (73). I will approach the text understanding the Bible is consistent with itself and has something to say to all people in all places at all times. I will see how the passage points to Christ and how it applies today. I will use the best tools available to ascertain the correct meaning of the text, believing that texts do have meanings and they can be understood. In short, I suppose I will approach those verses like a biblicist. And I’m ok with that.