Those Tricksy Biblicists
Several weeks ago I posted a critical review of Christian Smith’s new book The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture. Since then, Peter Leithart also posted a largely negative review. Joining the fray with a devastating rebuttal of Smith’s book is Robert Gundry’s excellent article in Books and Culture.
Not surprisingly, Christian Smith does not agree with these criticisms. His main rejoinder is that Gundry, Leithart, DeYoung have failed to deal with the main point of his book, namely, that pervasive interpretive pluralism (PIP) undermines biblicism. Responding to Leithart’s review, Smith contends that “his response essentially dodges rather than engages my book’s central argument.” Similarly, commenting on my blog, Smith argues, “Most problematically, DeYoung’s review in the end simply EVADES rather than resolves the central problem of PIP. He does not squarely address and answer the key challenge of my book, namely, that PIP shows biblicism, as a theory about scripture, to be impossible.” In the same vein he concludes: “So, what on first read appears to be a careful book review actually turns out to be scatter-shot and evasive. DeYoung is clearly quite caught up in trying to catch me in (alleged) inconsistencies, meanwhile he never actually responds to the central question of the book. Does that tell us anything?”
Those who agree with my review are not simply mistaken. They are positively reactionary. Again, on my blog, Smith writes, “So, if you simply want to participate in circling the wagons one more time and hunkering down to defend the familiar theory, which simply does not work, then let yourself be satisfied by DeYoung’s review.” Likewise, after highlighting four approaches that could be used to counter his arguments, Smith concludes (in his response to Leithart): “Lots of luck with any of these. Making [arguments] one and three stick require taking leave of reality. Two and four might only be demonstrated by eliminating some key parts of biblicism, which would turn it into a quite different theory. If someone can accomplish any of these, I’d like to see that magic performed. But I see none of it in Leithart’s response.”
Along the same lines, Scot McKnight argues that Gundry, Leithart, and DeYoung do not “engage the issues at hand.” Instead, our reviews are “an attempt to sabotage the book by dealing with issues that are not central to the book.” In missing the forest for the trees, McKnight suggests our arguments are “evasive tricks of avoiding the central theoretical issues at work in this book.” As often as Calvinists are charged with being rhetorically strident (and sometimes they are), it is worth noticing that for Smith and McKnight their objectors in this case are not just mistaken. We are guilty of evasion and sabotage. Those who agree with us are simply circling the wagons and hunkering down. While those who dare to disagree with Smith must conjure up magic or take a leave of reality to do so. It seems as if we are the evangelical version of Gollum’s Hobbits—wicked, tricksy, and false.
Charge #1: Biblicism
Smith and McKnight agree that the main issues—ones they say we’ve avoided—are biblicism and pervasive interpretive pluralism. The problem in particular is that the presence of PIP makes biblicism impossible; hence, the title of Smith’s book. I don’t agree with the charge of evasion (in particular, I don’t see how someone could read Gundry’s review and think he was avoiding the real issues). But given the rejoinders it seems appropriate to deal with these two issues more explicitly.
Let’s look at the charge of biblicism first.
Smith defines biblicism as the constellation of ten assumptions and beliefs. Forgive the long block quote, but it’s best to read Smith’s definition in his own words.
1. Divine Writing: The Bible, down to the details of its words, consists of and is identical with God’s very own words written inerrantly in human language.
2. Total Representation: The Bible represents the totality of God’s communication to and will for humanity, both in containing all that God has to say to humans and in being the exclusive mode of God’s true communication.
3. Complete Coverage: The divine will about all of the issues relevant to Christian belief and life are contained in the Bible.
4. Democratic Perspicuity: Any reasonably intelligent person can read the Bible in his or her own language and correctly understand the plain meaning of the text.
5. Commonsense Hermeneutics: The best way to understand biblical texts is by reading them in their explicit, plain, most obvious, literal sense, as the author intended them at face value, which may or may not involve taking into account their literary, cultural, and historical contexts.
6. Solo Scripture: The significance of any given biblical text can be understood without reliance on creeds, confessions, historical church traditions, or other forms of larger theological hermeneutical frameworks, such that theological formulations can be built up directly out of the Bible from scratch.
7. Internal Harmony: All related passages of the Bible on any given subject fit together almost like puzzle pieces into single, unified, internally consistent bodies of instruction about right and wrong beliefs and behaviors.
8. Universal applicability: What the biblical authors taught God’s people at any point in history remains universally valid for all Christians at every other time, unless explicitly revoked by subsequent scriptural teaching.
9. Inductive Method: All matters of Christian belief and practice can be learned by sitting down with the Bible and piecing together through careful study the clear “biblical” truths that it teaches.
10. Handbook Model: The Bible teaches doctrine and morals with every affirmation that it makes, so that together those affirmations comprise something like a handbook or textbook for Christian belief and living, a compendium of divine and therefore inerrant teachings on a full array of subjects–including science, economics, health, politics, and romance. (4-5)
Smith is to be commended for laying out such a clear explanation of what he means by biblicism. Unfortunately, it is not as clear how many of these “interrelated assumptions and beliefs” must be affirmed in order to be a biblicist. Smith acknowledges, “Different people and groups emphasize and express a variety of these points somewhat differently. Some may even downplay or deny particular points here and there…The point is not that biblicism is a unified doctrine that all of its adherents overtly and uniformly profess” (5). Fair enough, but how many points must be professed to still be an adherent of biblicism? Smith and McKnight want to know whether we affirm biblicism or not. Well, that depends on what kind of biblicism you’re talking about.
For example, I agree with point 1 and would affirm points 2, 7, 8, and 9 with the right nuance. But I disagree with points 5 and 6, and I am not comfortable with the wording in 3, 4, and 10. I am very interested in “rescuing” the inerrancy, clarity, necessity, and sufficiency of Scripture, but have no interest in promoting a biblicism that eschews church tradition, cultural context, and a christocentric reading of Scripture. Does that make me a biblicist? Or maybe it means, like Smith concedes relative to J.I. Packer, that I am “no simple-minded biblicist,” not “a straight-out, hard-core biblicist” (180).
The problem in evaluating the charge of biblicism is that many of the biblicists Smith cites dislike many of the same points Smith dislikes. Are we really to think that “biblicist” institutions like Wheaton, Trinity, Covenant, Westminster, and Gordon-Conwell or “biblicist” scholars like Carson, Beale, and Poythress want to defend all of Smith’s ten points just as he’s defined them? There may be everyday biblicists who like all of Smith’s points, but none of the informed biblicists I know would.
In many cases, Smith finds his notion of nefarious biblicism where it isn’t there. For example, he says, “biblicism pervades a large amount of ‘expository preaching’ from evangelical pulpits, which generally 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 members of his or her congregation [4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10]” (11-12). I would guess that most evangelical preachers would agree with that sentence. But many of us would wonder why that sentence is the same as affirming points 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, and 10 in Smith’s list of definitions. Evangelical preachers believe that all Scripture is God-breathed and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16). So we do believe that every passage of Scripture is relevant to our lives. But this is not the same as saying we do not have to take into account context, genre, and historical formulations.
Or to take another piece of Smith’s evidence, let’s consider the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, what Smith calls “another example of biblicism” (14). No doubt, this statement gladly affirms some of what Smith defines as biblicism. But Smith also reads into the document affirmations that aren’t there. When the Chicago Statement says, “Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching” Smith sees an affirmation of Point 10. But would those who crafted the Chicago Statement really be comfortable saying the Bible is a handbook on romance?
Again, Smith quotes from the Chicago Statement: “The authority of Scripture is inescapably impaired if this total divine inerrancy is in any way limited or disregarded, or made relative to a view of truth contrary to the Bible’s own.” Smith sees this statement as an affirmation of his Point 6. But saying the truth of the Bible trumps all other claims to truth is far from suggesting that biblical formulation can be built “from scratch” or that “any given biblical text can be understood without reliance on creeds, confessions, historical church traditions, or other forms of larger theological hermeneutical frameworks.” Likewise, the Chicago Statement explicitly states “Although Holy Scripture is nowhere culture-bound in the sense that its teaching lacks universal validity, it is sometimes culturally conditioned by the customs and conventional views of a particular period.” Chicago’s formal “biblicist” statement does not agree with much of Smith’s biblicist definition.
At times Smith attacks the heart of mainstream evangelical scholarship and theology. On other points, it seems that he can’t distinguish between center and fringe. For example, on Point 5 (Solo Scriptura) Smith, in a footnote, provides one example of the “nuda scriptura” approach characteristic of biblicism. “Among popular evangelical writers on the Internet,” Smith notes, “one can find explicit praisings of ‘nuda scriptura,’ as with this gem offered by ‘Christian Fellowship Devotionals’” (181). The quote that follows is truly bad, but since when is “Christian Fellowship Devotionals” considered “among [the] popular evangelical writers on the Internet”? Go to the site and see for yourself. I have no doubt some evangelicals approach the Bible with a Solo Scriptura perspective, but most of the theologians, scholars, pastors, and institutions Smith criticizes do not.
The point in all this is that it’s hard to know whether we should defend the word “biblicist” or not. If PIP overturns books on Christian diets and exegetical approaches that ignore Christ, context, and church history, then let biblicism be bashed. But if Smith thinks PIP nullifies the belief in Scripture’s perfection, its relevance to all of life, and its internal consistency, then we have something to talk about.
Charge #2: Pervasive Interpretative Pluralism
The central thesis of Christian Smith’s book is that the American evangelical doctrine of Scripture is impossible given the presence of so many varied interpretations of Scripture. If the Bible were really what biblicists say it is–universally applicable, internally consistent, clear, and the very words of God–then Christians of sound mind and good hearts would agree on what it says. That’s the problem of pervasive interpretive pluralism. How should we respond?
Let me outline a constellation of interrelated assumptions and beliefs that can help make sense of this phenomenon.
1.We need a proper understanding of the sufficiency of Scripture. The Bible does not tell us everything we want to know about everything. It does not give explicit instructions for many of life’s dilemmas. Wisdom is required. But we do believe, “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture” (WCF 1.6).
2. We need a proper understanding of the clarity of Scripture. “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed fro salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them” (WCF 1.7). (For more on the clarity of Scripture see this post and the related links.)
3. We need a proper understanding of Sola Scriptura. We do not interpret Scripture apart from creeds, confessions, and the traditions of the church. Indeed, we ought to put the burden of proof on any who would overturn the historic consensus of the church. But in the end everything—tradition and historical formulations included—must be tested against the final authority of the Bible.
4. We must maintain some sense of proportion with our beliefs. Some doctrines are clearer than others. Some are more central than others. Keep your dogmas and your dogmatism in order.
5. Christians come to different conclusions on Scripture for several reasons. As Carson points out in Exegetical Fallacies, sometimes Christians disagree on interpretations because we have not looked hard enough at an issue or a text; sometimes we disagree because we are too bound to our own tradition or too eager to please our friends (dead or alive); sometimes Christians disagree because the effects of sin distort our interpretive abilities. And sometimes Christians disagree because one is wrong and the other is right. Hopefully I’m humble enough to remain open to correction and learning new things. But I also hope to be forthright enough to say, yes, I do think Mormons, Arminians, Egalitarians, and Dispensationalists are wrong—not equally wrong by any means, but on certain matters wrong nonetheless.
6. We should recognize that PIP is a problem for everyone everywhere. Are there not multiple interpretations on Chaucer, the Emancipation Proclamation, the 1919 Black Sox, Christology, and the nature of the gospel? Perhaps authoritative Church Tradition can solve the last two problems (and those like it). But moving to a Magisterium only pushes the problem back another level. PIP exists for papal encyclicals as much as it does for evangelical theology. Wherever there are humans there will be disagreements about what things mean. That should make us cautious about concluding from PIP that something is necessarily wrong with the Bible or evangelical notions of its authority.
7. We should realize that PIP is not a new phenomenon. PIP has always existed in the history of Christian interpretation. But the church fathers, just to cite one example, still believed the Bible was harmonious and believers should and could affirm the right doctrines in all areas of faith and practice. Augustine’s “On Christian Doctrine” is all about how to interpret the Scripture correctly. While I may not agree with every point of his method, he certainly believed applying the right methods would get you to the right truth (see especially NPNF 2.539; 2.556). “What difficulty is it for me when these words can be interpreted in various ways,” Leithart quotes Augustine as saying, “provided only that the interpretations are true?. . .In Bible study, all of us are trying to find and grasp the meaning of the author we are reading, and when we believe him to be revealing truth, we do not dare to think he said anything which we either know or think to be incorrect.” PIP was no deal-breaker for Augustine. It did not undermine his confidence in the understandability and internal consistency of Scripture. Likewise, Justin Martyr was “entirely convinced that no Scripture contradicts another” (ANF 1.230) and Origen affirmed that “Scripture is the one perfect and harmonized instrument of God, from which different sounds give forth one saving voice to those who are willing to learn” (ANF 9.413). The Fathers believed the Bible was internally consistent and that they had understood it correctly while their opponents misunderstood it. Evangelicals say the same.
8. Despite the widespread existence of PIP, at some point everyone wants to say that Scripture says something clearly, whether others disagree or not. Smith concludes that Ron Sider’s book is spot-on and that Nicene Christology is true and nonnegotiable. Many people—sincere intelligent people—disagree. There are lots of interpretations out there about the person of Christ. So how do we determine which is correct? If we conclude that a certain interpretation is right about the person of Christ (or Ron Sider’s claims for that matter) and that others are wrong, is that biblicism? In the end, no one thinks PIP completely undermines the clarity, consistency, and relevance of Scripture.
9. We must distinguish between meaning and significance. Smith lists seventeen different “readings” he’s heard or seen on John’s story about the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-42). But almost none of these “readings” are mutually exclusive. Most of them either fairly exegete the text or fairly seek to express the significance of the text for contemporary believers. Just because different sermons come up with different homiletical points does not mean PIP has eviscerated an evangelical approach to Scripture.
10. We should be a biblicist in the same way Jesus was. He believed that the entire Old Testament came from the mouth of God (Matt. 4:4). He believed that for Scripture to say something was the same as God speaking (Matt. 19:4-5). He believed the inspiration of Scripture went down to the individual words (John 10:30). He believed that Scripture cannot fail, cannot be wrong, and by implication cannot ultimately contradict itself (John 10:35). He believed that the apostolic teaching–what is now preserved in the words of the New Testament–would be divinely inspired by the Spirit (John 14:26; 15:26; 16:12-15). He settled disputes on all kinds of matters, from Christological to ethical to political, by appealing to Scripture, often “prooftexting” from a single verse (see Matt. 41-10; 19:1-7; 22:32). He believed there were correct interpretations to Scripture that others should recognize even in the midst of interpretive pluralism (Matt. 5:21-48; 22:29).
PIP can point out problems with some fringe elements of evangelicalism. It can also highlight some more common popular-level mistakes in handling Scripture. But at the heart of an evangelical doctrine of Scripture is the belief that the Bible is all true, that it tells us everything we need to know to be saved and to please God, that it never makes a mistake and never contradicts itself when properly interpreted, that it has principles that speak to all of life, that the most important parts can be clearly understood, and that in all its parts God means to point us to Christ. Whether that is biblicism or not I’m not sure. But it’s the way Jesus approached the Bible, and that’s good enough for me.