The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture
By: Christian Smith
Brazos Press, 2012
Review by: Sten-Erik Armitage
Do We Make the Bible Impossible?
Christian Smith, a Harvard graduate, Notre Dame Professor of Sociology, and noted author, delivers a sociologically-tinged foray into bibliology with The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2011. 240pp). His stated intent is to demonstrate “that the American evangelical commitment to ‘biblicism’… is an untenable position that ought to be abandoned in favor of a better approach to Christian truth and authority” (vii). Smith points to what he calls “pervasive interpretive pluralism” as the “fundamental problem” that undermines biblicism.
Smith is not antagonistic towards evangelicals. In fact, until recently he counted himself one. His journey to Roman Catholicism can be recounted in How to Go from Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in 95 Difficult Steps (2011). The significance of the number of steps will not be lost on the attentive reader.
Problem in Particulars
In the first half of the book, we see that Smith’s problem with American evangelicalism depends on his complex definition of biblicism. For him, biblicism consists of a “constellation of related assumptions and beliefs about the Bible’s nature, purpose, and function.” He counts ten such assumptions: (1) Divine Writing—the very words of Scripture are God’s; (2) Total Representation—the Bible is the totality of God’s message and will for man; (3) Complete Coverage—all issues relevant to Christian life are present in the Bible; (4) Democratic Perspicuity—any reasonable person can derive the plain meaning of the text; (5) Commonsense Hermeneutics—the best way to read the text is at face value apart from any background or genre considerations; (6) Solo Scriptura—there is no need for creeds, traditions, or confessions; (7) Internal Harmony—from beginning to end themes and subjects fit together perfectly like a puzzle; (8) Universal Applicability—the teachings of the Bible are valid for all Christians regardless of century or location; (9) Inductive Method—all matters of Christian belief can be derived from the Bible alone; all nine of which lead to (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 text book 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” (4-6).
If taken in its entirety, this definition describes a slice of evangelicalism so thin that we would be hard-pressed to find any individual who ascribes to all ten points. To how many of these points must one hold in order to be considered a “biblicist” a la Smith? All of them? All but two? Smith does not address this question.
This inadequate definition serves as the foundation of Smith’s assertion that “biblicism” is untenable and must be discarded. As a result, the argument of Smith’s book fails. He cannot accomplish what he sets out to do because he is addressing a problem that may exist, but is not anywhere nearly as monolithic as he proposes. The institutions he calls biblicist would reject at least seven, if not more, of the points in Smith’s constellation.
With this flawed foundation in mind, Smith asks, “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?” (26).
Potential in Proposal
In the second half of the book, Smith proposes a solution to this pervasive interpretive pluralism. He points first to a Christocentric hermeneutical key suggesting that it is through the singular lens of Christ that the text must be read (94, 99).
Smith is spot-on in this suggestion. Scripture must be read Christologically/Christotelically. Yet how does this solve the problem of pervasive interpretive pluralism? Would not the staunchest Arminian describe his reading as Christocentric? Would not the theological determinist affirm the same? As essential as this principle is, it does not move us any closer to solving the problem.
The second plank of his platform is equally dissatisfying. Essentially Smith encourages us to be at peace with the complex and ambiguous nature of the text by not taking a position (131). Ultimately this fails at the pastoral level. How are we to baptize? Administer the supper? Govern our churches? Yes there are ambiguities, but we cannot function in the conversation without humbly taking a position within the spectrum of orthodoxy.
This accomplished sociologist has missed the mark in attempting hermeneutics. Dr. Smith’s presuppositions are flawed, and his solutions insufficient. He left evangelicalism because of many of these issues, but he would be wise to evaluate his new ecclesial tradition through the same lens. Are not the Roman Catholics also subject to pervasive interpretative pluralism, as demonstrated by debates and statements regarding modes of baptism, politics, and biblical interpretation? Might they not also be considered biblicist based on their claims that Scripture is inspired and inerrant? (See The Catechism of the Catholic Church, I.22.214.171.124.105-108)
Smith asks some important questions, and it behooves us to listen. But it is also important to recognize the American evangelicalism he takes to task is an entity that does not exist, at least not in the way he asserts.
– Sten-Erik Armitage