Some thoughts on “The Bible Made Impossible” by Christian Smith

Christian Smith is a well-known sociologist of religion from the University of Notre Dame and the director of Notre Dame’s Center for Social Research and its Center for the Study of Religion and Society. As a recent convert to Catholicism, Smith has turned to evangelicals’ doctrine of Scripture and hermeneutics in his provocatively titled book “The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture” (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, 2011. Pp. xiv + 220. Hardcover. $22.99).

 

His basic argument is that evangelicals have a series of beliefs and practices that don’t hold water in light of what he calls “pervasive interpretive pluralism” or PIP. Biblicism, Smith’s word for evangelicals’ doctrine of Scripture and hermeneutics, collapses under its own weight in light of PIP. The many differences of interpretation on both primary and secondary matters found in the evangelical fold point, Smith seems to say, to a faulty doctrine of Scripture and hermeneutics. The remedy is a doctrine of Scripture oriented to the evangel and a Barthian Christocentric hermeneutics.

 

Smith defines “Biblicism” as “a particular theory about and style of using the Bible that is defined by a constellation of related assumptions and beliefs about the Bible’s nature, purpose, and function” (p. 4). Biblicism is further defined by ten interlocking features: (1) the Bible is divine writing such that its words are God’s words; (2) it is a total representation of God’s communication, (3) including complete coverage of the divine will; (4) it is perspicuous and thus open to “democratic” interpretation, (5) which proceeds by way of common- sense hermeneutics, (6) leading to a doctrine of  “solo” Scriptura (Scripture stripped of creeds and confessions); and (7) because the Bible possesses internal harmony (8) and universal applicability, (9) therefore, an inductive method is best suited to unearthing the Bible’s meaning, (10) which suggests a handbook model whereby the Bible is mined for its “positions” on everything from dating to gardening.(I am following Wesley Hills here. See footnote 2)

 

In his book, Smith wants to speak of evangelicals’ doctrine of Scripture and hermeneutics. While he does qualify his argument by admitting that his definition synthesises and sums up various approaches, he still practically, if unwittingly, assumes evangelicals are one in their doctrine of Scripture and hermeneutics, although, as PIP itself demonstrates, that is not the case. Evangelicalism is fragmented  not monolithic. His notion of Biblicism is therefore too broad and too narrow to properly describe evangelicalism in general. He wants to target the whole of evangelicalism, but in the end focuses his bullet on a much narrower, but, alas, popular segment of evangelicalism, its naive construal of Scripture and flimsy hermeneutics. Reformed formulations of the doctrine of Scripture and hermeneutics, coming from the pens of the likes of Vanhoozer, Poythress, Timothy Ward, while accepting some of the ‘biblicist’ beliefs Smith describes, are much more nuanced and tempered in their expectations from the biblical text than naïve literalistic hermeneutics.

 

One of the premises of Smith’s argument that I find highly problematic is that, “if this biblicist theory is correct, then it should produce (among those who hold it, at least) a largely shared understanding of what scripture teaches, an interpretive convergence, especially on central theological matters.”

First, this is a non sequitor. Interpretive agreement need not follow from a common subscription to the biblicist theory if we take into account (a) the richness of Scripture in terms of its genres and the meaning they each uniquely convey, (b) human finitude and fallenness as hermeneutical caveats and (3) Paul’s honest admission that, on this side of the eschaton, our vision is inevitably dim and our apprehension limited.

Secondly, while PIP no doubt exists, there is nevertheless some important agreement in evangelicalism: the divinity of Jesus, the Bible as God’s Word, the Cross as a saving event, whatever conceptualities are employed to parse out these convictions. Smith therefore overstates his case.

 

One question worth exploring further is whether evangelical identity should be established around a core of commonly held convictions (a doctrinally minimal evangelicalism?). Should we have a doctrinally minimal evangelicalism? John Stackhouse Jr. reckons we should, although reflection and debate is still necessary in order to agree which should be the core doctrines that would function as the basis of ‘generic evangelicalism’, as Stackhouse calls it.[1]

 

In the second half of the book, after describing Biblicism and interpretive pluralism, Smith advocates a Christocentric, Christotelic (Peter Enns) hermeneutic. Let me raise a few questions: Is a Barthian, Christocentric hermeneutics really going to solve the problem of “pervasive interpretive pluralism” (PIP)? Is there any evidence in this regard? Is PIP a distinctly evangelical phenomenon, the fruit of evangelical Biblicism? Isn’t there interpretive plurality outside the evangelical fold on topics such as women in ministry, predestination etc.? And what might a “Christocentric hermeneutic” look like as applied to the question of church leadership, for example? Can one offer a ready-made answer without engaging Scripture with diligence and sensitivity within the framework of the Gospel? In other words, as Wesley Hill puts it, “it does not seem that asking about Scripture’s viewpoint(s) on a given issue x really is so neatly separable from asking what it means to think about that issue christologically, as Smith’s argument implies.”[2]

 

Let me just clarify I have no issues with the suggestion per se of a “Christocentric hermeneutic”, but more with the way he understands it is to be practiced. Smith covertly pits Scripture’s christocentricity against Scripture’s sufficiency (Scripture as God’s multifarious communicative act, as Vanhoozer would say), that is, its applicability to all areas of life. This, we may suggest, is an imbalanced response to PIP. He charges, for example, Poythress for speaking both of Scripture’s Christ-centeredness and its ability to speak to and into all areas of life. In more traditional categories, we may say that, in light of PIP, Smith uses christocentricity to call into question the sufficiency of Scripture.[3] Here lies his greatest confusion, if indeed it can be shown to be a confusion. In light of his criticism of those who, while stressing Scripture’s christocentricity, continue to hold to the universal relevance and applicability of Scripture (e.g. Poythress), it becomes clear that he is not content to speak merely of hermeneutical fuzziness (and the rest of the explanations for why PIP arises and is so pervasive), but implies that Scripture itself is fuzzy, contradictory, disharmonious at an ontological level. And this raised for me an important question, namely whether we can continue to attribute the traditional qualities to Scripture (e.g. clarity, harmony, inerrancy etc.) at an ontological (for lack of a better term) level in light of PIP. In other words, is it tenable to affirm objective perspicuity in light of interpretive plurality? Should we distinguish between objective (ontological?) clarity and harmony and hermeneutical fuzziness and inadequacies? Or should we, as Smith suggests, abandon the core Biblicist beliefs in light of PIP? Is PIP a proof that Scripture is ‘ontologically’ insufficient/errant/disharmonious/errant? I say No, but I’m not really sure how to handle this conundrum. Your thoughts on this?

 

Further thoughts and conclusions in Part II of this post.


[1] See John Stackhouse Jr.’s proposal concerning evangelical identity and the scope and basis of evangelicalism in ‘Generic Evangelicalism’ in eds. Andrew David Naselli and Colin Hansen. Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism (Counterpoints: Bible and Theology). (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2011).

[2] Wesley A. Hill review of Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture in Journal for Scripture & Theology, Vol 1, No. 1 (2011), 503-504.

[3] See Timothy Ward, “The Sufficiency of Scripture”, Reformed Theology in Contemporary Perspective. Westminster: Yesterday, Today – and Tomorrow? (Edinburgh, Rutherford Press, 2006), 10-45; and also Timothy Word, Word and Supplement : Speech Acts, Biblical Texts, and the Sufficiency of Scripture (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2002). and Mark D. Thompson, A Clear and Present Word : the Clarity of Scripture (Nottingham,  England; Downers Grove, Ill.: Apollos ; Inter-Varsity Press, 2006).

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4 thoughts on “Some thoughts on “The Bible Made Impossible” by Christian Smith

  1. DanutM says:

    Reblogged this on Persona and commented:
    Natan Mladin promised to announce me when he puts on his blog these considerations on a very important book by Christian Smith.
    I will come back with some comments. Until then, enjoy.

  2. […] Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible was reviewed on the “Bartholomusings” blog. […]

  3. I agree with your analysis that Smith is addressing a small segment of Evangelicalism when he criticizes Biblicism.

    I’ve only read a small section of the book, so I can’t speak on much authority. One way of resolving the conundrum (just an initial idea) is to consider the possibility that PIP need not be overcome. The section I read was very adamant that polysemy, plurality exists. This goes against the grain of the traditional conception of sola scriptura. I’m not saying I endorse this idea but it is possible that God intended the Scriptures to be this way. This would require some redefinition of the concepts of clarity, innerancy etc. but it is at least a theoretically conceivable concept. Adam addresses this issue in his book Faithful Interpretation and suggests that we accept a kind of limited plurality as opposed to what he calls univocality – the assertion that the scriptural text can only mean one thing. If such a redefinition is possible I don’t know.

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