This book review is a significantly shortened and edited version of work for my most recent (February) Doctor of Ministry residency at Lipscomb University in Nashville, TN. For more information on their program, click here.
In The Bible Made Impossible Christian Smith, a sociologist at the University of Notre Dame, challenges the constellation of evangelical assumptions about the Bible that fall under the heading of “biblicism.” His book contains two parts, the first describes the problem with biblicism and the second describes his proposed way forward. Smith is sure to emphasize throughout the book that he agrees that the Bible is a divine word that has authority for Christian faith and practice. However, he sees biblicism as unable to defend the authority and relevance of scripture. For Smith, biblicism is not just wrong; it is impossible and incoherent, even taken on its own terms.
Chapter One goes on to list ten reference points for biblicism. Smith also provides numerous examples of this composite picture of biblicism, from popular level sayings, t-shirts, and billboards to institutional statements of faith. With this definition of biblicism in mind, Smith then lays out its fatal flaw: “pervasive interpretive pluralism.” That is, the fact that the Bible “gives rise to divergent understandings among intelligent, sincere, committed readers about what it says about most topics of interest.” (17) Even among biblicists, there is a lack of interpretive agreement.
Chapter Two provides further evidence of the problem of pervasive interpretive pluralism. Biblicists explain away the diversity of possible interpretation through a variety of strategies – such as blaming deficient or damaged readers or the translational distance from the original manuscripts. But within the biblicist paradigm, these strategies should not be allowed, and using them is self-defeating.
Chapter Three briefly explains the history of biblicism, which finds its basis in Scottish commonsense realism (which should be familiar for Restoration Movement folks), Baconian science, and a picture theory of language. Each of these viewpoints have since fallen out of favor in their own disciplines, but are being held on to by biblicists, even in the face of pervasive interpretive pluralism (“proof” that biblicism is untenable). Smith also reviews a few sociological principles that might explain why biblicists hold on to their approach to scripture despite the fact that it is impossible (such as “homophily,” or the love the familiar).
Chapter Four contains a few additional nails in biblicism’s coffin. It relates types of biblical texts that are problematic for various reasons. For instance, there are texts biblicists ignore (greeting each other with a kiss), texts they declare culturally relative for arbitrary reasons (not wearing sandals when you evangelize), and texts that are just plain strange (Cretans are liars). This chapter also discusses the trouble of “biblical self-attestation,” that is, the fact that the Bible does not claim or command biblicism (but biblicism claims that all its beliefs have their authority in the Bible). The weight of this first half of the book is that biblicism inherently “dies the death of a thousand qualifications” (endnote p. 217, from p.81)
In the second part of the book, Smith proposes a reading of scripture that he believes is more truly evangelical, arguing that leaving biblicism behind strengthens evangelical readings of scripture. Chapter Five proposes the recovery of the Christocentric hermeneutical key, from the theology of Karl Barth. Barth argued that the Bible is not the central revelation of God; Jesus is. Therefore, the Bible’s job is to point to Jesus, not to speak to every-day issues that we experience. The Bible exists to attest to what God will do (Old Testament) and has done (New Testament) in Jesus. The Bible is not a “how to” but a “Here is Who” book.
Within this worldview, Chapter Six argues that we must accept the Bible that God gave us, with all its complexity and ambiguity. Biblicists, on the other hand, try to turn the Bible we have into a Bible that answers all their questions. By so doing they reject the gift of the Bible as God gave it. Biblicists have trouble accepting the ambiguity of scripture because of how influenced they are by modernity, especially modern epistemology. We need to break from modern epistemological foundationalism.
However, Chapter Seven argues that we must do so “without sliding into a problematic postmodernism.” (149) Smith suggests critical realist epistemology as a third way. Regarding authority, this enables us to approach the Bible as it is, rather than beginning with questions of inspiration and reading the stories through that lens.
Smith’s book is well written, easy to follow, and helpfully organized. His sociologist’s approach to a theological topic is a refreshing change of pace from the usual arguments, and enables an interdisciplinary approach that weaves together relevant sociology, theology, and history, and epistemology.
Although I agree with ideas underlying his reintroduction of the Christocentric hermeneutic key, I would also have liked him to suggest something like “pneumatological guidance” and “communal accountability.” The role of the Holy Spirit in leading Christians to faithful interpretation receives little attention in this book. Also, the importance of reading scripture in community rather than individually (another fault, in my opinion, of evangelical biblicism) is not discussed. That being said, the idea that scripture does not point to itself or to our world but to the mission of God through Christ is central for reframing this conversation.
The view of the Bible that Smith represents or proposes came as such a relief to me when I first began to think of it this way. It was as if something suddenly clicked, I realized that the Bible could not be the main thing if the first century church (who Churches of Christ were trying to hard to imitate) lived without “the Bible” as we know it. But I have had difficulty when teaching undergraduate courses in helping students see the Bible in a different way. I never know if it is best to tackle their assumptions head on (say by assigning this book, or summarizing its content, or lecturing content similar to this) and then display a hermeneutic that replaces it, or just to model that new hermeneutic and hope some of them get it. Addressing the issue “head on” seems to raise people’s defenses and lose my hearing. But hoping that a few keen students will recognize a new view in action and leaving the rest to their devices makes me feel like I am not doing my job. I continue to wonder how to approach this.