The Bible Made Impossible (Book Review)

Introduction

BibleMadeImpossibleChristian Smith, professor of Sociology at the University of Norte Dame, has written a book entitled The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture. The book divides into two parts. In part number one, Smith defines his use of the term Biblicism and explains why its goals and tenets are impossible to accomplish for the Evangelical church. In the second part of his book, Smith offers a proposal for how Evangelicals ought to read the Bible instead. As a trained Sociologist, Smith does not present a theological analysis, but rather a critique of the social phenomenon of evangelical Biblicism.

Smith’s purpose in writing the book is to address what he understands as the evangelical tendency to regard the Bible in ways that make it impossible to follow. To do this he contradicts the work of various notable Evangelicals such as John Frame, Cornelius Van Til, J. I. Packer, John MacArthur, and distinguished denominations such as the Southern Baptist Convention. Much of the work is a polemic overlaid with a friendly and irenic tone. It is written on the popular level and makes for a stimulating and engaging read.

Summary

In the introduction Smith offers his definition of the word Biblicism. He states, “By ‘biblicism’ I mean a theory about the Bible that emphasizes together its exclusive authority, infallibility, perspicuity, self-sufficiency, internal consistency, self-evident meaning, and universal applicability” (viii). There is much to digest in that statement and to some degree that is exactly Smith’s point. Evangelicals load too much on the Bible’s plate. Smith identifies anyone with this opinion of Scripture as a Biblicist and charges the Evangelical community to be most culpable of this error. To assume that the Bible is divine writing, total representation, and complete coverage is not to talk the Bible up, but to reduce it down to the concept of an owner’s manual. And this, in Smith’s view, is an injustice to Scripture and constitutes the impetus of his writing.

Smith has great unrest in treating the Bible like such things as a map, a set of binoculars, a handbook, or a cookbook because everyone comes away with different results. This diversity of outcome is what Smith designates interpretive pluralism (17). This is the crux of Smith’s argument. It does not matter whether the Bible is everything that the Biblicists claim it is in theory since it yields divergent results in practice. Why call it a map when it does not lead to a single destination? Why treat it like a cookbook when all the meals come out different? Why talk of binoculars when everybody looks through the same lens and describes different things? These are the types of questions that Smith puts to the Evangelical community. Basically, interpretive pluralism is so deep and pervasive that it totally deconstructs Evangelical’s claims regarding the Bible’s nature. Any talk of biblical authority in this light seems for Smith a moot point. What is the sense of championing Sola Scriptura when it yields unclear results? Why claim biblical authority when Evangelicals cannot seem to agree about the mode of baptism, the nature of communion, the government of the church, or the sequence of end times? What kind of authority is that? It is these sorts of questions which Smith uses to take Evangelicalism to task.

In chapter 2, Smith tries to anticipate what the typical Evangelical Biblicist would say regarding this charge of pervasive interpretive pluralism. They would no doubt, says Smith, speak in terms of a deficient readership. This deficiency may stem from the readers problematic motives, interests, or skills, but especially from the noetic effects of the fall. Some may even blame pervasive interpretative pluralism (PIP from here on out) to the fact that we no longer possess the original manuscripts of the Bible (38-39). But, this begs the question of Smith, why does Scripture yield such a PIP? The author claims that this is simply the nature of texts. Following in the wake of hermeneutic scholars such as Paul Ricoeur and Hans Gadamer texts are to be considered “at least somewhat ‘semantically independent’ of their sources and so cannot be entirely controlled in their interpretation by the original authors” (50-51). All texts possess multivocality and multivalence; they accomplish more than one purpose. Texts have surpluses of meanings.  It is only within a well-developed community where meaningfully consistent interpretation can transpire (48). Another reality that the Biblicists do not account for, in Smith’s view, is the fact that many texts contain underdeterminated features. These are the aspects of any text that simply fail to provide the kind of evidence that helps the reader ‘nail down’ ambiguity in such a way as to settle a debate (51). To deny these features of multivocality and underdetermination “is to live in a self-constructed world of unreality” (54). This self-constructed world is, according to Smith, the world of Evangelical Biblicism.

Smith asserts that Biblicism (again read perspicuity, internal harmony, Sola Sriptura) is impossible to practice in actual experience because of this multivocality and polysemy of the biblical text. Evangelicals err when they march to the drum of “the Bible and nothing but the Bible.” Bible-onlyism is dictated by individualism and without an interpretive community, Christian tradition splinters in a thousand directions. Smith points out that the Universalists and the Unitarians have come to their conclusions using the Bible-alone method. Smith advocates (but only subtly) for the additional and capable guide of church tradition and creeds in the interpretive endeavors of the Church. Christianity cannot opt for a form of naïve primitivism which leap-frogs all of history to a Bible-only inductive method (86).

On this note, Smith transitions his argument into the second half of the book and attempts to construct a proposal for a better, more Evangelical reading of Scripture. Smith makes the somewhat bold claim that Evangelical Biblicism is not a truly evangelical way to read the Bible. In practice, Biblicism demeans Scripture. On the surface, Biblicism appears to champion a high view of the Bible, but its actual practices (individualistic handbook approach) betray a rather low view of the Bible (93). This is not in keeping with the Evangelical way. And because evangelical means good news, what is particularly good about the news of having a how-to manual on such things as running our finances or raising successful children? “Biblicism,” says Smith, “too often traps, domesticates, and controls the life-quaking kerygma (proclamation) of the gospel in order to provide the Bible reader with security, certainty, and protection that humans naturally want” (94). The Bible should not be made into a tool. Rather, Scripture is all and only about the work of God in time and space in the person of Jesus Christ for the redemption of the world (98). If Scripture is anything at all, Smith wants to draw attention to Scripture’s unique nature as witness – witness to Jesus Christ. Smith believes this central aspect has the potential of reorienting the Bible from being a source of discord to being a well-spring of unity. Christ can be a source of unity. Without Christ Scripture is flat and centerless. While Evangelical’s consider Scripture as command, Smith offers it as witness (110). Scripture is rightly about Christ, not church polity, end times, divine foreknowledge, modes of baptism, or destiny of the unevangelized. It is a witness to Jesus. A truly evangelical reading of Scripture (see sub-title) is a Christocentric reading of Scripture. The Bible is not a “how to” book; it is a “who is” book. One question the Bible does take pains to answer is this: who is Jesus Christ and who am I in relation to him? (177). This is the focus that Smith encourages Evangelicals to take in regards to Scripture.

Critical Evaluation   

While Christian Smith presented an interesting thesis and an engaging read, his book failed to persuade on many fundamental levels. His central argument ultimately failed in this reader’s opinion from a non sequitur judgment. The crux of Smith’s problem with Evangelicalism’s reading of Scripture is not their “Biblicist” tendencies; the source of his trouble is with interpretive pluralism. His argument goes something like this: there is interpretive pluralism; therefore we cannot trust the Bible to be authoritative. This betrays his notion that authority must guarantee uniform understanding. If this is the case then we would lack a basis for any authority at all. We would have no superiors (parents, teachers, managers, bosses, police) nor standards (national constitutions, laws) because they, at times, will be misunderstood. It does not follow that just because they are misunderstood that authority must be absent. I have three children. I am their father. I tell them to clean up the back yard (for instance). And one re-arranges the porch furniture, another shuts the shed door, and the third cries because he does not know how to start the lawn mower. They cannot just decide that dad no longer has authority because they misunderstood my instruction. (I happened to want them to pick up the yard toys.) Dad will hardly be amused to find out his word no longer has authority and may even scoff at their logic. Smith commits a logical non sequitur. It simply does not follow that authority fails in legitimacy because its subjects are not agreed. It seemed as if Smith was saying throughout the course of the book that because humans cannot come to agreement we should dispense of the notion of truth. Truth and divine authority are not subject to democracy. Given this logical fallacy, I felt like Smith’s argument disintegrated upon the outset of the book and never made coherent sense.

Regarding the Bible’s perspicuity, one has to agree that the Bible is not as clear as we would like it to be on some matters, but for Smith to claim PIP is to overstate his case (one even wonders if for the purpose of provocation). Regarding the historic and primary doctrines of the church (such as the trinity, deity of Jesus, salvation by faith, biblical authority, physical resurrection, etc) Evangelicals and Catholics alike have enjoyed impressive unity. It is the interpretation of what many would consider the secondary issues that Smith takes aim at (mode of baptism, nature of communion, church polity, end times, etc). So the charge of PIP also failed to persuade.

Lastly his proposal for “a truly Evangelical reading of Scripture” (see subtitle) was badly botched by his own premise. His proposal was that Evangelicals quit reading their Bibles to obtain answers for life and begin reading them as simply a witness to Jesus. But, one big problem, the Bible is unclear (per Smith). The subject of Christ in Scripture requires just as much discernment and interpretive judgment as any other question we bring to Scripture. His proposal has not escaped his own problem. What do we make of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Unitarians, Christian Scientists’, Oneness groups, and Rastafarians in regards to their witness of Christ? Have we cured Pervasive Interpretive Pluralism by becoming strictly ‘Christ-Centered?’ I do not concur.

Conclusion

Christian Smith’s recent conversion to Roman Catholicism (xiii) describes the sitz im leben of his writing. In a particular footnote, Smith intimates: “The Catholic Church itself professes a very high view of scripture and must reckon with the same interpretive challenges outlined in the following chapters, although it arguably brings to that task a fuller toolbox of resources” (180, emphasis mine). I think it is fair to say that Smith is referring to the Magisterium when he says “fuller resources.” This does not make it into the mainstream of his argument, but this sentiment, in my opinion, does betray an air of condescension that leaks into his writing throughout the duration of the book. And to be honest, it seemed strangely disingenuous that the author would desire to write a book to advise Evangelicals when he no longer wanted to be one himself.

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