The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture.
Christian Smith, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame deliberately leaves his chosen field behind for something more theological in this slim and very interesting book on biblical authority. The book is about why one understanding of biblical authority is incoherent and finally fails (Part 1) and what can be done about it (Part 2).
In part 1, readers are introduced to that understanding under the label, Biblicism, which Smith deploys as a descriptor that holds together ten assumpsions about the Bible:
1. Divine Writing: The Bible, down to the details of its words, consists of and is identical with God’s very own words written inerrantly in human language.
2. Total Representation: The Bible Represents the totality of God’s communication to and will for humanity, both in containing all that God has to say to humans and in being the exclusive mode of God’s true communication.
3. Complete Coverage: The divine will about all of the issues relevant to Christian belief and life are contained in the Bible.
4. Democratic Perspicuity: Any reasonably intelligent person can read the Bible in his or her own language and correctly understand the plain meaning of the text.
5. Commonsense Hermeneutics: The best way to understand biblical texts is by reading them in their explicit, plain, most obvious, literal sense, as the author intended them at face value, which may or may not involve taking into account their literary, cultural, and historical contexts.
6. Sola Scriptura: The significance of any given biblical text can be understood without reliance on creeds, confessions, historical church traditions, or other forms of larger theological hermeneutical frameworks, such that theological formulations can be built up directly out of the Bible from scratch.
7. Internal Harmony: All related passages of the Bible on any given subject fit together almost like puzzle pieces into single, unified, internally consistent bodies of instruction about right and wrong beliefs and behaviours.
8. Universal Applicability: What the biblical authors taught God’s people at any point in history remains universally valid for all Christians at every other time, unless explicitly revoked by subsequent scriptural teaching.
9. Inductive Method: All matters of Christian belief and practice can be learned by sitting down with the Bible and piecing together through careful study the clear “biblical” truths that it teaches.
. . .
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 textbook 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. (pp. 4-5)
I have taken the space to reproduce this constellation of assumptions hopefully to show that Biblicism is not intended to carry any prescriptive or pejorative force. Smith has in view a particular web of beliefs about Holy Scripture and practices arising there from, both of which most evangelicals will be very familiar. While they are explicit in evangelical theology, Smith shows just how they are at work at all levels of the movement—from the popular to the academic.
Further, Smith writes not as an unfamiliar outsider, but as an evangelical. There is a wrinkle here, however: after completing the book, Smith joined the growing number of evangelical or traditionally-minded Protestants who have become Roman Catholic. I’ll say more about that below. For now, it is worth noting that while Smith says he wrote his book as an evangelical, it is very clear to me at least that he wrote as an evangelical who was already on his way somewhere else.
Be that as it may, it is Smith’s contention in the remainder of Part 1 that Biblicism fails on its own terms. It fails because of pervasive interpretive pluralism. In other words, when the 10 assumptions are actually practiced, “sincere, committed readers” nevertheless come to “divergent understandings” on most topics of interest. This is, of course, not a new criticism. Smith acknowledges this, tracing it to the mid-19th century, and the writings of Mercersberg theologian, John Williamson Nevin. Chapters 2-4 detail just how widespread the problem is. One cannot help but conclude that one reason why more evangelicals are not perplexed by pluralism’s presence is that it is ubiquitous. There is no issue on which there are not “three views,” with evangelical publishing houses, for example, publishing treatises in what has become a never-ending game of theological ping-pong.
Part 2 then turns to the constructive element of Smith’s argument. If pervasive interpretive pluralism is the theological Achilles’ heel for Biblicism, what can be done? Smith finds resources in Barth in chapter 5 as he argues that the Bible is, in the end, a book that bears witness to a person—Jesus Christ. As a result, first, Christology should provide a hermeneutical key for the reading of Scripture. When read in this way, the saving message of the Holy Scriptures come to the fore while more minor matters—he returns several times to “greeting each other with a holy kiss”—recede.
Second, Smith argues that we should read the Bible without assuming beforehand that it will always agree with itself. The Bible is at points irreducibly complex and at others, utterly ambiguous. Rather than play hermeneutical twister, tying ourselves up in knots trying to resolve perplexing passages, we should acknowledge memories, ambiguities and contradictions that will not yield, on the basis of a biblicistic hermeneutic, a unified or harmonious theology.
How then will readers attain to harmony? Smith answers that a better route to this goal lies in a better understanding of the need for a theological hermeneutic and a stronger understanding of the teaching office of the church. Theological constructs—the doctrine of the Trinity is a good example—teach readers which passages of Scripture to focus on, and which ones ought to serve as guides to the reading of others whose meanings are more murky. With regard to teaching authority, Smith does not simply contend that Biblicists must frankly acknowledge that some readers of Scripture are better than others and ought to be acknowledged as master readers, who carry more authority than others. Rather, he wants to rehabilitate some sort of ecclesial teaching office.
One reviewer has taken particular umbrage with this last position, but not on its merits or lack thereof. Smith’s call for a stronger ecclesial teaching office, says Robert H. Gundry, along with Smith’s later book recounting his reception in the Catholic Church, is prima facie evidence that Smith is being less than honest when he says that his rejection of Biblicism came prior to his leaning toward and eventual conversion to Catholicism. I don’t think we need to accuse Smith of dishonesty, as Gundry comes quite close to doing, to recognise that the desire for dogmatic peace and clarity has been drawing conservative Protestants at least toward Rome (Nevin) if not into her arms (Newman) for some time. I’ll say more about that in a moment.
For now, I want to turn to Smith’s problem with Biblicism—namely, pervasive interpretive pluralism. Having taught theology in the Christian academy let me say that in my opinion, Smith’s diagnosis is accurate. There are few things more frustrating and discouraging for a theology professor than the casual dismissal of hours of exegetical and historical and dogmatic work in a lecture with “that’s not what the Bible says to me,” by a freshman. But, as accurate as the diagnosis is, I’m not sure the cure that Smith calls for will actually work. And this is the case for two reasons.
The first is largely cultural. The rejection of ecclesial authority (or authorities) that was one of the defining planks of the Reformation has, over the last 500 years, broadened to become the rejection of almost any authority. That is to say, pervasive interpretive pluralism is not simply the problem for Biblicists as for Western culture as a whole. Pervasive interpretive pluralism—at least in matters spiritual and moral—is a consequence of modernity’s turn to the subject and is a matter of concern both inside and outside the church. In that sense, Alastair MacIntyre’s post-apocalyptic dystopia in After Virtue is an apt description of where we are when it comes to moral discourse in our culture. Moral argument is but half-remembered phrases wrenched from a framework in which they make sense trotted out to confirm what one had already decided to do based purely on personal preference. If that defines the wider popular culture, it is hardly surprising to find it in Church.
Which brings me to my second reason: even if one deploys Smith’s threefold programme for curing pervasive interpretive pluralism entirely, it will continue to exist. We need only look at the Roman Catholic Church to find that, a Christological or soteriological reading of the Scriptures, an acknowledgement of textual complexity and a (much!) stronger ecclesial teaching office does not solve the problem. Even the full exercise of that authority whether positively (requiring Catholic theologians receive a mandatum from their bishops) or negatively (refusing to acknowledge certain theologians who are Catholic as Catholic theologians) guarantees a harmonious reading of the Scriptures.
So, as much as I believe Smith is right in his assessment and as much as his solution is attractive, I do not hold out hope (a) that it will be embraced by the target audience—evangelicals or (b) that it would work were it to be adopted.
Finally, I want to return to Smith’s embrace of Catholicism, which, if Gundry’s review is any indication, will be the undercurrent for many Protestant readers and will be a reason for many to dismiss him, to their loss.
Smith is one of a significant number of evangelical or traditional Protestant academics who have found Protestantism ultimately untenable and sought refuge in Roman, Anglican or Orthodox communions. R. J. Neuhaus, Robert Louis Wilken, Reinhard Hütter, Douglas Farrow, Edith Humphrey—I could continue, but you get the point. Why?
Is it, as Gundry implies, a perceived need for authority to settle disputes? If so, Gundry is right to point out that the stronger Episcopal authority in Orthodox and Roman communions at least won’t actually provide the relief these scholars are looking for. Of course, for one—like me—to become an Anglican is to seem to embrace the worst of both worlds. I am in a church where pervasive interpretive pluralism is rampant and where, despite appearances, the authority of the ecclesial teaching office is often weaker than it is for many free-church traditions.
The need for authority may be one reason—it certainly was for evangelicalism’s most (in)famous convert, John Henry Newman—but in my view, it is not the only one or even the most important one. Those who wish to cast aspersions on Smith, and others like him, who have left evangelicalism would do better to find out why than to sniff—as Gundry comes quite close to doing—“Well, what would you expect from a Catholic?” and drop the matter.