For some time now, I have been aware of the interpretive quagmire that exists in the Protestant world, but I have been unable to construct a model that fully explains it. Christian Smith's book has done that for me. I limit my remarks to the Protestant world, because it is that world that proclaims the principle of sola scriptura yet cannot find common agreement. (The Catholics and Orthodox have their own set of problems to deal with.)
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.