Christian Smith: The Crumbling Foundation of Biblicism (Part 2)

After many years of having a personal interest in theology and biblical studies, I started seminary in 2001. In my very first course we read Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (Oxford University Press, 2001), co-authored by Michael Emerson and none other than Christian Smith. Their goal in that book was to convince evangelicals that, regardless of their sincere desire to eliminate racism in America, much of what they actually believed and practiced worked against such efforts. Smith is now doing something very similar in his latest work, The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture (Brazos, 2011). This time his target is a common understanding of the Bible among evangelicals, a view of Scripture that Smith refers to as “biblicism.” See part 1 of my review for a summary of this term.

Smith’s central claim throughout the first half of the book is that biblicism results in an irresolvable problem – “pervasive interpretive pluralism.” To attempt a succinct definition of this term is difficult, so I quote here the sentence that comes closest to a concise description:

“The very same Bible–which biblicists insist is perspicuous and harmonious–gives rise to divergent understandings among intelligent, sincere, committed readers about what it says about most topics of interest” (17).

Therefore, it is meaningless what biblicists contend in the theoretical realm. Practically speaking, the Bible produces a pluralism of interpretations. No matter how much they might say that the Bible is God’s unique, authoritative, perspicuous communication that can be understood by any reasonably intelligent person, the real-world, on-the-ground facts belie such a claim. Smith quotes the evangelical biblical scholar Robert K. Johnson to illustrate further:

“That evangelicals, all claiming a common biblical norm, are reading contradictory theological formulations on many of the major issues they are addressing suggests the problematic nature of their … understanding of theological interpretation. To argue that the Bible is authoritative, but to be unable to come to anything like agreement on what it says (even with those who share an evangelical commitment) is self-defeating” (18).

Some biblicists might object that this criticism is only relevant for peripheral matters. But Smith responds by noting that it applies to some of the most important theological issues, “including the doctrines of God, Christ, revelation, atonement, salvation, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, creation, hell, war, divorce, and remarriage” (24). The important thing to keep in mind is that ALL of the views of biblicists in these areas are claimed to be BIBLICAL, which is to say that Scripture teaches them as the correct belief or practice. Again, this is Smith’s notion of pervasive interpretive pluralism:

“[I]f 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?” (emphasis original, 26)

What follows is a relentless three-chapter onslaught of examples illustrating the extent of pervasive interpretive pluralism. To be frank, I thought Smith came close to “overkill” mode here, but nobody will be able to accuse him of failing to document his claims fully. To his credit he opens this section by confessing that what follows “may risk beating the proverbial dead horse” (28). Even the most sympathetic reader, such as I, was left begging him to call off the dogs and get around to the constructive task. But in this part of my review I will summarize the proverbial dead horse.

Biblicists have reached diverse conclusions on such things as church polity, free will/predestination, the morality of slavery, gender roles, war, charismatic gifts, atonement and justification, and more. There are six possible replies that might be made by biblicists to Smith’s critique, though only three are likely to be found. First, they might claim that “truly sincere and informed students can come to understand the single, harmonious truth that the Bible teaches–and some do–but that most Christians who study the Bible actually do so with problematic motives, interests, or skills that prevent them from seeing the coherent truth” (38). Second, it could be claimed that these interpretive problems would not apply to the original autographs of the biblical books. Finally, biblicists might respond by saying that the damaging “noetic” effects of sin have made it impossible for readers to recognize the single truth of Scripture. Smith’s response to these potential replies is important for understanding his overall thesis…

Smith concedes, and in fact hopes, that some of these reasons might be correct, but each of them should be unacceptable if we grant biblicist assumptions. For example, the “reader with bad motives” excuse in itself cannot account for the many interpretations of Scripture that exist among well-meaning Christians. Likewise, the “noetically-damaged-reader” response fares no better, since it implies that the biblicist assumption that Scripture is God’s plan of revelation has worked rather poorly for his people.

Smith traces the philosophical assumptions of biblicism through their roots in “Scottish commonsense realism” and the “Baconian inductive-empirical philosophy of science” exemplified in the theology of Charles Hodge and Benjamin Warfield. Calling these outdated and naive, he prefers an epistemology of critical realism. There is also a small section on sociological and psychological factors that might explain why¬† biblicists are not more troubled by pervasive interpretive pluralism, though it’s doubtful any biblicists would be persuaded that these are relevant.

Smith’s fourth chapter covers further miscellaneous problems with biblicism:

  1. Biblicists blatantly ignore some biblical teachings. For example, they do not greet one another with a kiss (cf. Rom 16:16; 1 Cor 16:20; 2 Cor 13:12; 1 Thess; and 1 Pet 5:14).
  2. Related to the previous issue, biblicists arbitrarily appeal to cultural relativism. They have no clear criteria for determining which biblical passages are 1) culturally relative, 2) binding in principle but expressed in different manners depending on cultural context, or 3) remain universally binding for all believers.
  3. Biblicists do not know how to handle certain “strange” passages. For example, the author of Titus 1:12-13 reinforces negative ethnic stereotypes. What does one do with this, granted that these are the very words God intended to communicate?
  4. There is nothing in Scripture that teaches biblicism. Smith discusses the five texts to which biblicists most often appeal in this regard (John 10:35; Rom 15:4; 1 Tim 4:13; 2 Tim 3:15-17; and 2 Pet 1:20-21), and finds each of them failing to do what biblicists want them to do.
  5. Christian theology needs concepts and categories that are extrabiblical. For example, the term homoousion is not biblical, but it is a valid development in Christian thought.
  6. Biblicism has a dubious genealogy. Most biblicists would be surprised to learn that it was heterodox liberal Protestants who first called for a return to the Bible alone, apart from any church tradition.
  7. Biblicism cannot provide one coherent, comprehensive social ethic.
  8. Biblicism sets up youth for unnecessary crises of faith.

If, by this point, one does not find any problems with biblicism, then the second half of the book will be of little value. I’m convinced that biblicism is highly problematic, though some of Smith’s points are less weighty than others. When I read his work on evangelicals and racism in Divided by Faith, I needed a lot of convincing, and I was persuaded to a certain degree that his ideas had merit. With this book, though, I needed no convincing and can only thank him for shining light on an area that will continue to be problematic for many unless there is a change of direction.

In the next part of my review we’ll find out what Smith proposes as a better alternative to biblicism.

Part 1

Part 3

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6 thoughts on “Christian Smith: The Crumbling Foundation of Biblicism (Part 2)

  1. Okay, this book has now made it on my must-read list. Sounds like Smith has pulled together in one place many of the things that have worried me about segments of Evangelicalism, but I didn’t have the time or wherewithal to write about myself. Thanks for the referral.

  2. I am reading the book along with your posts.

    What you call “overkill”, I’m tempted to call “going too far”, though at the same time I wonder if Smith is not going far enough. I’m not sure who is and is not a “biblicist” in Smith’s view. Clearly, much of Smith’s critique is aimed at a fringe of fundamentalism, those who believe that the Bible is a “handbook” for everyday life. But much of his critique seems fully applicable to mainstream Protestantism. If doctrines as fundamental as “the doctrines of God, Christ, revelation, atonement, salvation” cannot be answered by consulting the Bible alone, what’s left of sola scriptura?

    I am in the middle of Smith’s prescriptive solutions to biblicism. Unfortunately, none of his solutions are as encompassing as the problem he’s described. I loved Smith’s description of reading the Bible through a Barthian Christological lens, but that means that one’s Christological lens must be acquired from somewhere other than the Bible. Smith describes this lens as “the Word of God, Jesus Christ” … but where does this idea come from, if not the Bible. Smith describes this lens as “Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity” … but if the Nicene conception of God cannot be derived from the Bible, on whose authority do we rely for a Trinitarian God?

    Moreover, while it may be better Christianity to read the Bible through a Christological lens, there’s no guarantee that doing so will eliminate interpretive pluralism, or even reduce it. Again, I like Smith’s idea of distinguishing dogma, doctrine and opinion, and reading the Bible to minimize dogma and push as much as possible into the category of opinion. Of course, no clear line can be drawn between these categories, and even Smith might find himself fighting to keep certain concepts in the dogma basket (for example, Smith would clearly resist the efforts of a Unitarian to classify the Trinity as an “opinion”). It’s universal for religious liberals to push for dogmas and doctrines to be recategorized as opinions, and for religious conservatives to push back; it’s also universal for old-line liberals to be outflanked on the left by new-line liberals, and for the old-line liberals to react like conservatives. No solution emerges from this religious dynamic.

    Personally, I see this question as an issue regarding authority: if fundamental and universal doctrines do not emerge from a close reading of the Bible, then these doctrines must be set (indeed, they must have already have been set) by some other authority or combination of authorities. This may be Smith’s point, best understood: sola scriptura is something of a myth, and the authority for Christian doctrine is (and has always been) a polyglot mix of human conscience, direct divine ongoing mystical revelation, tradition, extra-Biblical creeds, academic “expert” authority and ecclesiastic church authority … plus, of course, the authority of the Bible as diversely understood.

    This leaves the question of whether sola scriptura is a harmless myth. There’s generally a gap between why we believe and why we think we believe. I’m rarely troubled by this. When it comes to religion, I usually like it when people acknowledge their personal responsibility for the content of their belief … but I’m probably getting too far afield.

    • I think Smith would say that we still get our information about Jesus primarily from the Bible. That would probably fall into the “dogma” category. He doesn’t want to throw away the Bible, just put it into what he considers the proper context for formulating Christian theology.

      As for “sola scriptura,” Smith doesn’t believe in such a thing anymore, although he’s careful not to shout that detail from the rooftops anywhere in the book.. But then the first wave of reformers (Calvin, Luther, Zwingli) meant something very different by “sola scriptura” than what most evangelical biblicists today mean by that term.

  3. Pingback: Christian Smith: The Crumbling Foundation of Biblicism (Part 3) | Earliest Christianity

  4. Pingback: Christian Smith: The Crumbling Foundation of Biblicism (Part 1) | Earliest Christianity

  5. Pingback: September 2011 Biblical Studies Carnival – Early Edition | Exploring Our Matrix

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