This post is a review of Christian Smith’s recent provocative book, The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism is not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture. My thanks go out to Brazos Press for providing me a review copy of this text.
Christian Smith is a sociologist out of Notre Dame. Although I have dabbled just a little in sociology, Smith is seemingly one of the most prominent Christian sociologists alive. In this book, Smith approaches the topic of biblical inerrancy from the perspective of a sociologist. Throughout this book, he works in a very interdisciplinary way by weaving sociology, theology, and historical and literary epistemology. This book is broken into two major parts: “The Impossibility of Biblicism”, which will be defined below, and “Toward a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture.” The first part describes the problem; the second directs us in a constructive way forward.
Smith explains what exactly biblicism is and what he describes as the problem of pervasive interpretive pluralism. Before going further, it is critical to know what Smith means when he uses the word “biblicism.”
- 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.
- 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.
- Complete Coverage: The divine will about all of the issues relevant to Christian belief and life are contained in the Bible.
- 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.
- 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.
- Solo Scriptura: 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.
- 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 and wrong beliefs and behaviors.
- 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.
- 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.
The result of the above nine beliefs produce a tenth viewpoint:
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.
After defining what biblicism is, Smith introduces us to different institutions and denominations that affirm a biblicist view of Scripture in their statements of faith. As he later shows, one of the issues with biblicism is that it presupposes the Bible speaks to all issues that humans experience. Thus, there are books such as Bible Answers for Almost All Your Questions, Success in School: Building on Biblical Principles, and Gardening with Biblical Plants.
Smith introduces another important term that will be used throughout this book, “Pervasive Interpretive Pluralism.” Pervasive interpretive pluralism describes a true reality of the Church (proper): we cannot come to agreement on nearly anything. Smith poignantly notes that we might say “minor in the minors and major in the majors”, but in praxis, how often does this really happen? The Church is known much more its disagreements than its agreements. Smith proves that we agree on nearly nothing – and he shows this by listing many of the three, four, and five view books. We can’t even agree on important doctrine in Christian faith as the atonement, baptism, charismatic gifts, divorce and remarriage, and the Eucharist. Because we cannot agree on nearly anything, the pragmatic purpose in holding to inerrancy is seemingly devoid of actual reason.
Smith proposes that as Christians we need to embrace the multivocality, polysemy, and multivalency of the Christian Scriptures. Only a reading of Scripture that is formed out of the Princeton Fundamentalist/Modernist debate would assume such a wooden hermeneutic that rests, ironically, on the paradigm of modernity itself. Not only is this view philosophically dead, but by incessantly needing to base Scripture on modernity, it exalts modernity above Scripture itself. This leads to another point Smith makes: such a view of inspiration is entirely unwarranted. There have been many conclusions drawn from a few texts of Scripture that need to be rethought. It is our obsession with verification and knowing something as true through logic or science, that we have undermined the true authority of biblical Scripture, Jesus Christ.
In the second half of the book, Smith first proposes a theological/hermeneutical way forward and then an epistemic way forward. The first way forward is by adopting Barth’s Christocentric hermeneutic key. One of the most profound and freeing theological discoveries for me was the Christocentric hermeneutic key. As people who have the revelation of Jesus, Smith argues the need to interpret Scripture through the revelation that we have, not the revelation of the biblical writers. This is what Jesus did on the road to Emmaus. He diermeœneuoœ all the Scriptures concerning himself. For Barth, the Scriptures were not the central revelation of God. Rather, they were the witness to the logos. The logos was and is the true revelation of God and the Scriptures are the attestation to this revelation. Thus, when we view Scripture as attesting to the logos (in Old Testament and New Testament) we are released in assuming that Scripture speaks to all every-day issue that we experience. He contends that Scripture is not primarily there for that reason. Scripture is there to attest to what God has done and will do in Jesus Christ.
Smith argues that we need to learn to be fine with accepting the ambiguity of life and the ambiguity found within Scripture. The reason we’re not fine with this is because how heavily influenced we are by epistemic modernity. So what do we do about our obsession with a modernistic epistemology? We let go of it. The key thing matter of important is to swing to the other extreme. Smith says, “A more evangelical reading of scripture also requires Christians to break from modern epistemological foundationalism once and for all, but without sliding into a problematic postmodernism” (Smith, 149). Thus, he suggests we embrace a critical realistic epistemology (if you’re looking for a thorough treatment of critical realism, I highly recommend the first chapter of Tom Wright’s book The New Testament and the People of God).
In conclusion, I have found Christian Smith’s book to speak a lot of prophetic truth. Scripture does point to Jesus – this is the point that it’s there. Personally, as a Pentecostal, I think there needs to be a little bit more openness to Pneumatic interpretation. Reading Scripture Christocentrically and Pneumatically is not something I find to be in opposition to each other. A Christocentric hermeneutic paves way to a Pneumatic reading of the text that occurs within community and alone. Although I do not fully embrace every single thing said in Smith’s book, I do strongly recommend you pick it up, read it, wrestle with it, and apply it. This is no time for slacktivism – it’s time to do what Smith is prophetically saying to the church – to be unified despite differences.