Bible Made Impossible, The: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture Hardcover – Dec 2011
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From the Inside Flap
"Many books have been written either defending or detracting from an evangelical view of the Bible. Christian Smith, as a trained sociologist, offers a much-needed perspective: explaining evangelical biblicism as a sociological phenomenon. Smith demonstrates, respectfully but critically, that the type of biblicism that often characterizes evangelicalism cannot account for how scripture itself behaves. Biblicism is retained, however, because of its sociological value for 'maintaining safe identity boundaries.' Smith's analysis of the problem of biblicism and his offer of a way forward are important contributions to the current developments surrounding evangelicalism and the Bible."--Peter Enns, author, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament
"Christian Smith plainly says what so many others have been thinking or implying for some time--namely, that many strands of evangelicalism believe things about the Bible and theology that are simply impossible. Smith exposes the scholastic alchemy that holds this fragile theological edifice together and helps us understand that serious damage is done to the church and its witness when we perpetuate the errors of biblicism."--Kenton L. Sparks, Eastern University
"Smith vigorously presents a compelling possibility: The Bible could be more alive, the church could be more unified, those of us who care deeply about scripture could be less fearful about some collapse of authority and more honest about what is actually in the Bible if we simply began to listen with more humility and openness to what it is God seems most concerned to reveal. A great book for this time in the life of evangelicalism."--Debbie Blue, pastor, House of Mercy; author, Sensual Orthodoxy and From Stone to Living Word
From the Back Cover
"Evangelicalism is cracking apart not because of theological drift to the left but because the only theology that can sustain a genuine evangelicalism is--to use the only word appropriate--a catholic theology. Many who were nurtured in American evangelicalism (as Christian Smith was) and now find it seriously deficient (as Christian Smith does) seem to be those on whom the light has dawned. I first saw a chapter of this book and was stunned; I've now read it all and am delighted. Here is a genuinely evangelical catholic understanding of scripture."--Scot McKnight, North Park University
"Biblicism remains one of the most entrenched and pressing problems facing the church. In his characteristically lucid, direct, and fair-minded fashion, Christian Smith asks questions about biblicism that need to be answered. Smith also begins to articulate an alternative, Christ-centered approach to biblical interpretation that is supremely constructive--a truly evangelical account of scripture. Here his words fall like water on parched ground. We may expect the church to flourish as it reads them."--Douglas A. Campbell, Duke University Divinity School
"Ever the sociologist, Smith forces readers to confront and account for the stubborn fact that not everyone who ascribes supreme authority to 'what the Bible says' hears God saying the same thing. Even those, like me, who are not persuaded by his 'truly evangelical' alternative will benefit from this strong dose of realism about the way in which evangelicals actually interpret and appeal to the Bible."--Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Wheaton College Graduate School
"I do not think that biblicism has been quite as destructive as Christian Smith describes it in this book (for example, among evangelicals there is very little 'pervasive interpretive pluralism' in understanding John 20:31). Despite this reservation, I think Smith has written an extremely valuable book. Although his account of the problems besetting biblicism is devastatingly effective, his appeal for a Christ-centered approach to scripture is wise, encouraging, and even more effective."--Mark A. Noll, University of Notre Dame
Top Customer Reviews
Part 1 of the book is entitled "The Impossibility of Biblicism" and provides page after page of every factual and imaginable type of evangelical biblicism to the nth degree. Some would say that Smith overstates his case but others will recognize biblicism's pervasiveness. It is specifically an American phenomenon but does apply to some denominations worldwide. Part 2 is entitled "Toward a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture" and provides the author's suggested solutions to lessen biblicism's influence by educating Christians to evaluate and interpret scripture in a more spiritually honest and open way.Read more ›
There is also this idea of 'just taking the bible straight as it is'. This doesn't really exist . We all have our cultural biases and personal biases. Indeed this way of looking at the bible is more from 'Scottish common sense realism' or ironically since the Enlightenment with Classical Foundationalism. Christians are trying to prove things using this method that philosophers have given up on.Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
I was once satisfied with the Evangelical mantra so often used to excuse the diversity of Biblical interpretation - "In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things charity," but then, that was when I thought as a child. Smith has clearly debunked that common rationalization by carefully analyzing the axioms of Biblicism and finding them to be wanting as illustrated by the widespread interpretive diversity we find among Evangelicals even in the essentials.
It is his view that Evangelicals have to come to terms with the Biblicist model of the scriptures because that model can't deliver what it is supposed to be able to deliver. However, the fact that it can't deliver unity of understanding is not actually Smith's primary objection. His real objection is to the tenets of Biblicism that suggest that the Bible is so plain, uncomplicated, cohesive, and internally consistent that it SHOULD produce a consensus of meaning. He presents the challenge in this way: "If the Bible is given by a truthful and omnipotent God as an internally consistent and perspicuous text precisely for the purpose of revealing to humans correct beliefs, practices, and morals, then why is it that the presumably sincere Christians to whom it has been given cannot read it and come to common agreement about what it teaches?"
This is a valid question which, as Smith documents, has been raised by others as well, but has been swept under the carpet, ignored, or rationalized for a long time. Smith is convinced that it is high time for Evangelicals to confront the discrepancies of their Biblicist view of scripture. He does not promise, however, that a different view will remove interpretive pluralism. In fact, he suggests that we might just have to live with it, get used to some ambiguity, and stop pressing for harmonization in every detail. He offers the concept of accommodation (God's condescension to man) and a Christocentric approach to scripture as potential ways out of the conundrum.
Unless one takes the "dictation" approach to scripture, one must agree that the "very word of God" is packaged in a container of the "very word of man." If we recognize that God's revelation to man is limited by the nature of the finite beings he is dealing with, then we can understand that God's "perfect revelation" to man is framed by the intricacies of language, the complexities of culture, and the limits of finitude in understanding the infinite. In fact, these things are so limiting that God eventually "had to" represent himself in human form in order to be fully understood. Even so, "He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not." Not even the disciples "got it" much of the time.
This focal point, the Incarnate (W)ord, as testified to in the written (w)ord, Smith insists, is the only focus that makes sense and is actually perspicuous as the central theme of the Bible - that God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself. Instead of reading the Bible from the beginning, the reading of the Bible must happen from its central point, outward, toward its edges. We are to look for "Jesus reconciling the world unto God" in every page, even those that seem completely unrelated, but we are not to press to find him there if the text seems obscure. Where we cannot harmonize passages of scripture, we let them be. This is a fundamental departure from Biblicism because it does not insist that we find meaning where there is ambiguity or apparent contradiction.
Finally, Smith contends that the revelation of God may be complete, but our understanding of that revelation is not. The Bible is inspired and authoritative, but that does not remove the interpretive task that lies before each generation of believers. Indeed, each individual believer is faced with the challenge of mapping his own understanding of what the gospel means under the direction of the Holy Spirit. The gospel is dynamic and life-changing not just once, but every day of a believer's life. It is the pursuit of Christ that Smith calls us to in both our reading of the scriptures and in our everyday lives.
Christian Smith has ably identified the elephant in the room. Now, the question is, "What are we Evangelicals going to do about it?" We can pretend that it isn't there. We can notice it, and then ignore it. Or, we can realize that the elephant could overturn the hors d'oeuvre table and wreak havoc in the room. Together, we might be able to figure out a way to remove it. I say, let's try to figure out how to remove it from the room. Christian Smith has given us the first step - recognizing that it is, indeed, a very big elephant.
Steven A. Hunt
In Part 1, Smith spends four chapters talking about the problems of "biblicism." Biblicism consists of the constellation of beliefs and practices surrounding the way most Christians in the United States view and use the Bible. Among other concepts, biblicism contains the ideas of the Bible as the inspired Word of God, the inerrancy of Scripture, the ability of anyone to read and understand Scripture, the inductive method of Bible study to find the universal truth within Scripture, and above all, the idea that the Bible contains all the truth we need for Christian belief and practice.
Christian Smith shows convincingly that the goals and claims of biblicism have not worked, and so it is an impossible way of viewing and reading Scripture. It has great ideas and goals, but it just doesn't work.
His primary evidence for this is the wide diversity in opinions on all theological and practical matters among those who hold to biblicism. The claim is often made that we agree on the major issues, and only disagree on the minor. But this is demonstrably false, as Christian Smith shows. There is almost no agreement on any single issue.
The goals of biblicism have failed, and so biblicism as a way of approaching Scripture is false.
In Part 2, Christians Smith goes on to provide three suggestions for helping us view, read, and study the Bible in a way that allows for the complexity of Scripture while maintaining its authoritative role in our lives.
Two of his best points was that we must read everything in Scripture as pointing to Jesus Christ, that the complexity and ambiguity of Scripture must be accepted and embraced. About both of these points, Smith writes that "All Scripture is not clear, not does it need to be. But the real matter of Scripture is clear... that God in Christ has come to earth, lived, taught, healed, died, and risen to new life, so that we too can rise to life in him. On that, the Bible is clear" (p. 132).
I believe that in time, this will become the prominent view of Scripture. It is becoming increasingly obvious to more and more people that the way we have viewed and used Scripture for the past 500 years is severely deficient. But what Scripture does provide, it provides amazingly well, if we can learn to read it properly.
Scripture is not clear on how we continue the work of Jesus in our life, or what it will look like, but that is where the ambiguity, flexibility, freedom, and creativity of Scripture come in.
If you want to be challenged about how you read the Bible, and how to use it, I highly recommend "The Bible Made Impossible."
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.
These are not meant to be taken as necessary and sufficient conditions for biblicism; rather, they constitute a cluster of popular beliefs that are held by the Southern Baptist Convention, the Evangelical Free Church, and the Presbyterian Church of America. They can also be found in the doctrinal statements of Wheaton, Moody, Gordon-Conwell, Covenant, Westminster, Dallas, Talbot, Concordia, and Asbury. The Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy is a paradigm example biblicist commitment.
What disposed me to like Smith's book is that he rightly lampoons instances of biblicist excess in books with titles like Queen Esther's Secrete of Womanhood: A Biblical Rite of Passage for your Daughter; The Biblical Guide to Alternative Medicine; The Bible Cure for Cancer; Gardening with Biblical Plants; or Biblical Strategies to Financial Freedom. Other examples could be multiplied, but the point is clear: the Bible was not written to satisfy anyone's curiosity about these topics. These are clear examples of the "handbook" model of Scripture, a view that defectively presumes that the Bible has a definitive answer to whatever question we bring to the text. What Smith has to say about this faulty view of Scripture is timely and appropriate, "Go find any one of the user's manuals or handbooks in your garage or closet and think for a moment about whether even a divinely inspired manual for living would really amount to gospel-like news. It wouldn't."
So why didn't I like it? There are three reasons. First, his call for a return to a Christocentric hermeneutic (reading the Bible with Jesus in view) is something that is already widely practiced within the institutions that Smith criticizes. Second, the problem of pervasive interpretive pluralism, as he presents it, is not as problematic as Smith makes it out to be, and the problem that it does present, is left unexplained. Third, Smith's call for evangelical Bible scholars to abandon classical foundationalism for critical realism isn't all that applicable. I'll explain these in more detail in that order.
First, if there is anything that disparate segments of evangelicalism agree on, it is placing the Jesus and the gospel at the center of their interpretive frameworks. The third article of the 1982 Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics says,
WE AFFIRM that the Person and work of Jesus Christ are the central focus of the entire Bible.
WE DENY that any method of interpretation which rejects or obscures the Christ-centeredness of Scripture is correct.
Yet this strong statement of Christocentrocism is not something we should expect to see in any of the Chicago statements if Smith is correct, because in his view, the Chicago documents are the apogee of biblicist reasoning. Furthermore, if one looks at the trends of evangelicals fairly, one will find that everyone from left-leaning "emergents" to conservative Calvinists gravitate towards reading Scripture with things like the gospel or the kingdom of God in view. Of course, what they disagree on, is the content of these things.
This brings us to the second, and most interesting argument Smith makes: the argument from what he calls "pervasive interpretive pluralism." What he means by this is that, "The very same Bible--which biblicists insist is perspicuous and harmonious--gives rise to divergent understandings among intelligent, sincere, committed readers about what it says about most topics of interest." Think of all the different "counterpoints" or "four-views" books out there; if the Bible really was a clear and inerrant authority, wouldn't we be able to determine what it says? If not, then it seems to be no better than a map that would lead competent map-readers to different locations after they tried to follow it. The topics discussed in the "multiple views" books are enough to show that highly trained scholars who have a high view of Scripture do not agree on what seems to be central doctrines. Topics like the atonement, justification, and baptism are just a few. Ethical concerns are just as variegated: divorce, women's roles, and the morality of warfare are subject to wide interpretations with far-reaching consequences.
What are we to make of this? It's hard to know, because Smith blames this problem on biblicism, and if we just stopped being biblicists, it would go away. Yet the problem is not biblicism per se; it is the authority of Scripture itself! Hence, his call to abandon biblicism does nothing to save the authority of Scripture, something he is very interested in maintaining.
Nonetheless, I think there is something in Smith's analysis that is too quick. The underlying assumption seems to be that pervasive interpretive pluralism is equivalent with peer disagreement. With this in mind, the argument can be read like this: (1) if there is peer disagreement among biblicists, then biblicism undermines the authority of the Bible; (2) there is peer disagreement among biblicists; (3) therefore, biblicism undermines the authority of the Bible. Yet, there is no good reason to think that premise (2) is true, and biblicicts are not the sort of people who accept what usually passes for `peer disagreement' so easily. In fact, biblicists are hesitant to believe that the following three propositions are compatible: (A) I have good reasons for my beliefs; (B) you have good reasons for your competing belief; and (C) I am right and you are wrong. This is often true of the scholars Smith thinks are biblicists: Wayne Grudem, G.K. Beale, and Vern Poythress. In cases when these scholars come to hold these three propositions together, they are quick to hold that their epistemic relationship with their interlocutors is an asymmetrical one: they believe they have access to better knowledge than their opponents. But in this way, they are not unlike the scholars Smith holds up as exemplary non-biblicists: Peter Enns, Kenton Sparks, and John Goldingay. Therefore, as formulated above, the argument from peer-disagreement fails.
Nonetheless, it is possible that biblicism is true and the interpretive methods of biblicists themselves are hopelessly compromised. Try as they might, they cannot exclude their personal or political concerns from the process of exegesis; in essence, they read their agendas on to the text despite their best efforts to the contrary. While the Bible remains our authority, our confidence in getting at the truth it reveals is functionally undermined. Affirming the existence of objective, inerrant truth revealed only in Scripture is of no use for those who have no access to it. This, then, is the real problem of which pervasive interpretive pluralism is the evidence.
How could it be solved? Smith's call for the abandonment of classical foundationalism and the embrace of critical realism is meant to right the ship. The story has been told many times. Starting with Old Princeton, modern evangelicals drunk deeply from Enlightenment rationalism in search of absolute certainty, which they tried to derive from the promise of Scottish commonsense realism. Like Descarte, they were committed to an epistemological program that would base Christian belief on a solid foundation of indubitable beliefs. The doctrine of revelation provided this in an inspired Bible, and the doctrine of inerrancy was formulated so as to ensure the proper outcomes of evangelical theology. Of course, this has been an abject failure, and we ought to return to the more modest proposal of critical realism. Smith describes it well,
Critical realism brings to the table a number of crucial metatheoretical understandings about reality and knowledge that tend to foster openness and humility in inquiry, criteria for sorting through more and less compelling interpretations of evidence, and truly personal (not merely abstract cognitive) involvement in the process of pursuing truth without falling into individualistic subjectivism.
If only evangelicals would embrace this view, the problem of pervasive interpretive pluralism would no longer be a problem.
My response: this is a good story, but it's not true. While it is true that Old Princeton scholars like Charles Hodge made use of the metaphor that the Bible was a 'storehouse of facts' of which the theologian, like a scientist, tried to explain, it hardly follows that they were doing the same sort of thing Descartes was doing. Nor do I know of any classical foundationalist among the number of Christian philosophers or Bible scholars; rather, the best representatives of foundationalism insist on a modest version that postulates basic beliefs that are fully defeasible. In this sort of approach, the inerrancy of Scripture is not presumed, but understood conditionally: if the Bible is inerrant, then it is a source of testimony that can be believed in a properly basic way.
Lastly, the disagreement found in the multiple perspective books need not be taken as problematic. Anyone who takes the time to seriously work through the arguments of the counterpoints books has two options: either judge one (or none) of the views right and the others wrong or suspend (or soften) one's judgment and wait for better arguments to made in the future. Learning how to do this is to evangelicalism's benefit, so perhaps interpretive pluralism is a sign of health, not a disease. To be sure, our beliefs about the perspicuity of Scripture need some revision if they are the kind that assume that Scripture is perfectly clear on every topic it touches on. But I'm not sure how pervasive this belief is to begin with.
All in all, Smith's book is a provocative and interesting read as he names names, points out embarrassing curiosities, and writes punchy footnotes. As usual, he exposes some frustrating features of the evangelical landscape, but in the end his positive argument doesn't amount to much.
*FULL DISCLOSURE* This review was written while I was attending the Talbot School of Theology.
Christian Smith has a provocative thesis. Essentially he says that in the attempt to hold scripture against the modernists, many Evangelicals have become "Biblicists" and have placed on the bible a role that Smith believes is inappropriate. Some biblicists have replaced the Holy Spirit with the Bible as the third member of the trinity. Some Biblicists use the bible as a rule book or instruction guide and attempt to force a single view of theology on it. Others try to reconcile all of the issues within scripture and create a bible that was written primarily for the 21st century understanding of history, science and theology.
He summarizes the problem as Pervasive Interpretive Pluralism. As Christians if we believe that scripture is God's word (dictated by God) then we should have a single interpretive framework and it should be easier for us to agree what the Bible actually says. Smith says that is clear that we do not have that, so instead we have Christians creating frameworks and then pushing the evidence of scripture into a particular framework. His best illustration of this of a bunch of puzzle pieces without a picture. Many people make many different pictures out of the pieces, but no system uses all of the pieces or creates a whole picture without damaging some of the pieces.
Overall I agree with many of the complaints that Smith has. But I believe that he is needlessly antagonistic toward many that would benefit from reading this book. The tone of the first half is fairly harsh and while I understand why it is harsh (he seems to have been hurt and somewhat persecuted because he is trying to push through and find a real understanding of scripture that fits with the evidence that he finds in scripture), I still think that if he had a co-writter or editor that had helped tone down that rhetoric a bit, it would have been a better book. I believe that there are enough intellectually honest Evangelicals that a presentation of the evidence really would be enough to convict many.
The second half of the book is Smith's attempt at solving the problem. 1) Smith says we just need to get over the fact that there seems to be contradictory points in scripture. He encourages us to view scripture progressively. In the example of slavery, scripture does not condemn slavery, but does move in the direction of increasing human rights and pushes the cultural boundaries of the times when scripture was being written. So over time, most Christians have come to believe that scripture really does lead us to condemn slavery, even if the condemnation is not expliciet within the pages of scripture.
2) Smith believes that scripture should be read Christologically. The way we should understand all of scripture is by looking at it through the lens of Christ's incarnation. Scripture is the story of God's creation, the fall of humanity, God's choosing and work through Israel, Christ's incarnation, death and resurrection and God's work in the church and the hint of Christ's future work of his second coming and the recreation of Earth under Christ's future reign. (This is very similar to the way NT Wright says we should understand scripture.) Smith believes that looking at scripture Christologically will diminish (but not eliminate) many of the minor issues that are debated among Christians.
3) His third point is that we need to read scripture in community. For Smith this means converting to Catholicism to maintain a interpretive framework around scripture to prevent errant readings. The vast majority of Evangelical readers will not do this (and he really does not talk about it here, but this is what Smith has done.) I wish he had written a bit more about this third suggestion. In general, I agree with it, but the problem I see is that some will chose church community options that allow them to reject the teaching of scripture that they find inappropriate or difficult. So Southern Baptist Churches broke away from Northern Baptist churches because of a different of understanding about slavery. Lutherans and Presbyterians have a different understanding of the sacraments. The result of a greater lay reading of scripture is that we have at least 35,000 different denominations now. But I still think that he point is basically right, even if it is not specific enough.
There are several other suggestions that I think are useful but less important (deciding what beliefs are more important, get comfortable with mystery, stop looking for all information within scripture and allow for more understanding of general revelation, etc.)
On the whole, I really think that Smith make some good points about how we inappropriately use the bible. My problem with the book is that he is better at tearing down the inappropriate use of scripture than building up the appropriate use of scripture. (I think that is just part of the problem. It is harder to do it right than it is do complain about others doing it wrong.) I also am a bit concerned about the tone, but others that I have read this with were less concerned about the tone. So maybe it is my problem more than the books problem.
I have read this after reading a number of other books on scripture recently. If I had not read Walton's Lost World of Genesis One, Peter Enn's Inspiration and Incarnation, Wright's Scripture and the Authority of God and The Challenge of Jesus, and others I do not believe I would have been ready to read and receive the message of this book.
Originally published on my blog Bookwi.se