Are you a Biblicist? A Review of Christian Smith’s Impossible Bible

I recently read Christian Smith’s book The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture (2012) published by Brazos Press. My response was simultaneous recognition and alienation. Having grown up in fundamentalism, I understand the problem he is describing. At the same time, I often felt I was reading a book by an outsider who did not capture important nuances. 

What is Biblicism?

Smith defines biblicism as “a theory about the Bible that emphasizes together its exclusive authority, infallibility, perspicuity, self-sufficiency, internal consistency, self-evident meaning, and universal applicability” (viii). He lists ten assumptions of biblicism:

1. Mechanical dictation theory of the Bible’s creation. Every word in the text is God’s very own words (i.e. verbal plenary inspiration; deficient understanding of the human-divine dual authorship of Scripture. The Bible essentially “fell out of the sky.”)

2. The Bible gives us the totality of what God has to say to human beings (i.e. all revelation is confined to Scripture; science or experience cannot tell us anything new about God beyond what is in Scripture.)

3.  Any thing we desire to know about God’s will is found only in the Bible.

4. Anyone can read and easily understand what the Bible says. It does not require any special training.

5. The best way to interpret the Bible is to look for the plain, literal, obvious meaning of the text (and that does not necessarily mean knowing historical context.)

6. We can interpret the text on its own without any reliance on creeds, traditions, rules of faith, etcetera as hermeneutical guides.

7. Everything in the Bible can be harmonized. There are no contradictions in its instructions or details.

8.  Anything the biblical authors taught is still universally applicable today (for example, some congregations still have women wear head coverings.)

9. We can understand Scripture through using an inductive method of study (observing what is in the text, interpreting those observations, and then applying the results to one’s life).

10. The Bible is a handbook or textbook that gives inerrant teaching on all kinds of subjects such as science, economics, health, and politics. If you need an answer to your daily concerns, just open the handbook for the formula.

I recognize all of these. I was raised a biblicist. However, not all of these assumptions are representative of evangelicalism as a whole (as he admits). What he describes fits primarily those who are on the more conservative end of evangelicalism and adhere to such documents as the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (as it was originally understood and is still interpreted by folk like Al Mohler.) It should also be pointed out that these assumptions can be understood differently within evangelicalism. Smith tends to focus on the most rigid versions. In reality, some of the assumptions do not have to lead to the problems he describes. For example, the inductive method of observing, interpreting, and applying the text is not necessarily problematic in of itself. It does not have to be a reader-centric hermeneutic devoid of context. In my experience within a biblicist tradition, observation often included a close reading of the literary features and patterns of the text not unlike what many biblical scholars (who are not “biblicist”) employ.

Smith’s discussion can tend toward a black and white picture of biblicist views. For example, either the Bible is universally applicable or it is not, period. Either the Bible has a plain meaning or it doesn’t, period. But, many conservative readers acknowledge nuance—some things are universal and some things are not. Some things are easy to understand and some things are not (thus, the Westminster Confession says to interpret the more difficult passages in lighter of the clearer ones—a tradition of interpretation that stems from the early church.) In fact, one does not have to be a “biblicist” to acknowledge that an average person can pick up the Bible and understand certain things in it, even if they might not understand all of it. In addition, he gives a stereotypical view of the handbook assumption by choosing to cite several “how to books” based on the Bible (e.g. The Bible Cure for Cancer or Biblical Strategies for Financial Freedom). Yet, these types of books are more likely a product of modern American consumerist culture than necessarily an inherent outworking of believing the Bible provides practical wisdom for godly living. As a sociologist, I am surprised he did not acknowledge the pervasiveness of the self-help genre that is symptomatic of cultural trends and not biblicism.

The Problem of Pervasive Interpretive Pluralism

The heart of Smith’s argument rests on the problem of “pervasive interpretive pluralism.” He argues that a biblicist understanding of Scripture does not work because diverse interpretations of the text exist. His primary concern is the biblicist assertion of only one possible meaning in the text (i.e. we cannot know the truth and God’s will for our lives if we don’t figure out the one intended meaning.) He rightly notes that this post-Enlightenment fixation on a singular meaning has led to incredible divisiveness within the Protestant church with more than 30,000 denominations. Each denomination feels it has arrived at the one “right” interpretation and everyone else is wrong. In other words, there is deficient appreciation for ambiguities and difficulties in the text that might make finding the “one true meaning” of a particular passage impossible. He believes that the ten assumptions listed above fuel this trend. For example, the idea that Scripture is “plain” and “obvious” can lead to a belief that definite meaning is always possible with proper prayer and effort. I agree with him in many respects. However, I don’t believe all the assumptions necessarily lead to his understanding of a singular meaning. And one can hold a hermeneutic of singular meaning without any of the ten assumptions, as evidenced by some secular historical-critical scholars. In other words, the correlation between each assumption and his primary concern is not always maintained.

As his book progresses, Smith leaves behind discussion of the ten assumptions and moves into his primary concerns. He doesn’t believe biblicists offer clear enough guidelines for interpreting the Bible with principled consistency. Given the multivocality of Scripture how can we view it as authoritative for Christian life and practice? He believes authority and definitive guidance “is precisely what pervasive interpretive pluralism precludes” (xi). If Christians cannot agree on what the text says (e.g. can women teach in church or not?) then how can we be sure we are practicing truth? Each biblicist group will claim they have discerned the correct teaching, leading to division. Smith proposes a solution to the problem of interpretative pluralism. Specifically:

1. We need to read Scripture through a Christocentric lens. All of Scripture points to Jesus. Everything in the text must be understood in light of the work and person of Christ. Similarly, Jesus, and not Scripture, is the highest revelation. That means we will learn about the will of God not just from the Bible but from the real and active living presence of Jesus among believers. The Bible is not always crystal clear in relaying God’s will for all circumstances. Thus, we need to discern some things, with the help of the Holy Spirit, apart from any definitive Scriptural direction. We have to learn what it means to be a Christian and then figure out what a Christ-follower would or should do. In some ways, his view seems to be summed up in the What Would Jesus Do (WWJD) approach.

2. We need to accept ambiguity and mystery. Scripture is not always perfectly clear. He proposes an accommodation view held by the early church. God accommodated to the limitations of human beings when writing Scripture. Thus, it has human fingerprints. It is a human and divine document. It is okay to say we don’t know the answer to something. We don’t have to feel compelled to harmonize every difficulty or discrepancy in the text. The acceptance of ambiguity means we distinguish between dogma, doctrine, and opinion rather than treating them all the same. Dogmas are nonnegotiable for all Christians (e.g. Nicene Creed), doctrines (e.g. forms of baptism) are negotiable and should not divide Christians, and opinions are just that, opinions. In other words, he seems to suggest that most beliefs beyond the Nicene Creed should not lead to division. They are disputable matters. For example, presumably, he would put the hot topic of same-sex relationships in the disputable matters category.

3. We should not begin our concept of Scripture’s authority in a theory of inspiration. Instead of asking about inspiration, we should simply go to the texts to see “what they say,” how they came to exist in the first place, and how Christians throughout history have interpreted the texts. We should not think of all of Scripture as didactic, and therefore, authoritative in giving specific instructions and rules. Instead, we should think of the authority of Scripture in light of its “transformative capacity” (165). For Smith, this means we are constantly learning and growing. We can still learn new truths today just as the early church developed creedal concepts over hundreds of years. We should have a “historically progressive understanding of gospel implications” (171).

Conclusions

There is much I agree with in what Smith says. I agree that the fixation on one single meaning can be problematic. Albeit not always–as he acknowledges, there are some things Christians agree on. But, he is right that Scripture can have multiple meanings. That is a reality that was understood by most Christians throughout history until the Enlightenment. Biblicism, as he describes it, can lead to sinful divisiveness. There needs to be greater humility around differences. At the same time, I am not sure Smith provides an adequate solution. First of all, biblicists already interpret Scripture from a Christocentric perspective. So, that is not really a new suggestion. The real distinctions in his view have to do with relying on the Holy Spirit (apart from Scripture), choosing unity despite significant differences, and being open to new truth. I agree with him to a degree. But, he does not address the concerns biblicists would have. For example, what is to prevent certain groups from discovering “new truth” that is actually contrary to Christ? Smith would suggest we have to risk being wrong or not knowing for certain. But, ironically, he leaves us with little guidelines. He seems to believe Jesus as hermeneutical key is explanation enough. But, his solution is entirely theoretical and abstract. He doesn’t provide any practical examples or descriptions of what it means to “apply Jesus,” so to speak. Different views on the person and work of Jesus and what it means to imitate him are a dime a dozen.

Similarly, I am not sure there is so clean a difference between what he describes as  the lack of a “biblical view” of dating or business, and what he proposes as having a “theologically informed moral and practical” view of dating or business (111). He rejects “gathering and arranging scripture texts” relevant to an issue, but doesn’t suggest how one would engage in biblical interpretation on a topic so as to be “theologically informed.” Perhaps, he is thinking of something along the lines of virtue ethics. But, if so, he doesn’t mention it. So, while I am sympathetic to his concerns, he doesn’t seem to take us much further. I am also concerned that he succumbs to a faulty bias that history is progressively more enlightened over time. I am not convinced that is always the case.

In closing, I offer one more critique. Smith begins his introduction by saying that he is aware “biblicism” is often used pejoratively but that he intends to “use the term here in a rather more neutral, descriptive sense” (vii). But his discussion does not come across neutral. First, it is probably not wise to use a knowingly pejorative term in a “neutral” way. The negative connotation is already there. Second, Smith comes across judgmental at times. Part of this stems from his choice to refer to people instead of ideas. Instead of merely talking about the concept of biblicism, he frequently refers to “biblicists” as a third-person party who are not privy to the conversation. In other words, he is not directly addressing biblicists, but rather talking about biblicists. And he can be condescending in how he does so. For example, he indicates biblicists are not yet enlightened to the naivety of their views (60), the “more unsophisticated of biblicists do not know that they must back away from these simplistic notions” (81), “biblicists are shamefully untrusting and ungrateful when it comes to receiving God’s written word as God has chosen to confer it” (128), and biblicists “will have to learn” to accept the Bible as it is (128), etc. Given that Smith has legitimate and important points to make it’s unfortunate that his attitude toward biblicists likely prevents such individuals from being receptive to his concerns. I see this happen far too often among writers who seek to criticize the more conservative segment of evangelicalism. The result is broad stroke caricatures that lack nuance. Smith seems to think he has everything to teach biblicists and nothing to learn from them. This is accentuated by his Afterword wherein he reacts strongly to his critics without finding any feedback he might learn from.

Smith’s work would have been more constructive if he had engaged biblicists directly and from a place that was more sympathetic to the understandable reasons biblicists hold the views they do. Instead of dismissing biblicists as naïve or just committed to group think, he would have done better to acknowledge that biblicist assumptions are driven by a sincere desire to hear from God and do everything possible to follow God’s will. Within more conservative circles this desire can be tainted by fear of disappointing God. The need to find definitive answers is often tied to this fear. If we don’t know what God wants, God will be angry or disappointed. Thus, if any headway is to be made with his concerns, Smith might help these particular Christians know how great and wide is God’s love for them. It is only in the security of knowing God’s love that one can risk “disappointing” God if one cannot definitively discern what God’s will is in a particular situation. Unfortunately, Smith’s judgmental tone only reinforces to biblicists that they are failures.

Thanks to Baker Publishing who, upon my request, provided a complimentary copy of this book so I could review it.

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