Vision for 21st Century Evangelicalism, Book Five

Christian Smith (PhD, Harvard University) is the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Sociology and director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame. He is the award-winning author or coauthor of numerous books, including What is a Person? Rethinking Humanity, Social Life, and the Moral Good From the Person Up and Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults.

While Smith is no biblical scholar or theologian, he is a gifted writer whose insights into the church are helping to reveal one of the greatest challenges facing 21st century evangelicalism.

That’s why I believe there is no better book to recommend as we complete this series of five books than Smith’s most recent work, The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture (2011).

Smith believes that American evangelicals are suffering from what he calls “biblicism.” This commitment to biblicism has led to what he calls, “pervasive interpretive pluralism.” Evangelicals are often guilty of misusing the Bible, even idolizing the Bible and their interpretations, and judging other Christians against their “plain” and “self-evident” readings of an ancient text. Therefore, leaving little to no room for unity among the Body of Christ.

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 application. Different communities within American evangelicalism emphasize various combinations of these points differently. But all together they form a constellation of assumptions and beliefs that define a particular theory and practice (p.4).

Smith doesn’t question the inspiration of Scripture, though he does call for a redefining and understanding of what “God-breathed” really means. Instead, Smith claims that the current theory and practice of biblicism is “misguided and impossible” to maintain. Smith says, “It does not and cannot live up to its own claims.”

Smith believes evangelicals have made all sorts of dangerous assumptions about the Bible’s nature, purpose, and function. He unpacks these assumptions and gives ample evidence of how evangelicals prove, by their endless divisions and factions, there is no consensus on what the Bible teaches about many issues.

Regardless of the actual Bible that God has given his church, Biblicists want a Bible that is different. They want a Bible that answers all their questions, that tells them how to have marital intimacy, that gives principles for economics and medicine and science and cooking—and does so inerrantly. They essentially demand—in God’s name, yet actually based on a faulty modern philosophy of language and knowledge—a sacred text that will make them certain and secure, even though that is not actually the kind of text that God gave (p.128).

He says, “Christians remain deeply divided on most issues, often with intense fervor and sometimes hostility toward one another.” If biblicists were correct in their assumptions about the Bible, then there ought to be a solid consensus on what it teaches, especially on the most important matters. But there isn’t, and there never will be.

What then is a truly evangelical reading of Scripture?

It means living with Scriptural ambiguities. It means dropping the compulsion to harmonize everything. It means being able to distinguish the difference between dogma, doctrine, and opinion. It means extending the right hand of fellowship toward all believers. It looks like a more inclusive study of Christian traditions and historical interpretations.

And it means moving beyond the biblical text onto Christ himself—the Word made flesh.

Smith says this would help to create an atmosphere where Christians could address disagreements in love and grace, “perhaps toward overcoming pervasive interpretive pluralism.”

If the early church lived without “the Bible” for nearly four hundred years, surely 21st century evangelicals can stop to consider “the role of the church, the Holy Spirit, and the “rule of faith” in the function of scriptural authority for Christians.”

Finally, Smith calls for a “Christocentric” hermeneutic. There is no way to hold to biblicism when the function of Scripture is soley to exalt the living Christ who can be known in the church today.

Perhaps, if and once people have really grasped the good news of Jesus Christ—what really matters, in light of which anything else must make sense—God is happy to let his people work their lives out in different forms of church government and using different modes of baptism, for example. Perhaps some diversity in such matters is okay. And perhaps God has not interest in providing to us all of the specific information people so often desire about the “end times,” divine foreknowledge, and the destiny of the unevangelized. Further, perhaps God wants us to figure out how Christians should think well about things like war, wealth, and sanctification, by thinking christologically about them, more than by simply piecing together this and that verse of scripture into an allegedly coherent puzzle picture (p.112).

The Bible Made Impossible will challenge you on many levels. I encourage you to consider what Smith has written about the problem of pervasive interpretive pluralism and the biblicists abuse and misuse of Scripture. And hear his evangelical alternative to a biblicist reading of the Bible.

If evangelicalism is going to take a step closer to the heart of God in Christ, we must deal with the division over the Bible that is ripping the church apart, and confusing a lost world. There is a better way.

Thanks for reading!

D.D. Flowers, 2012.

Attention: If you have followed this series, please remember to leave a comment letting me know that you have shared each post via social networking or your blog over this past summer. I will enter your name in a drawing for one of the five books, and I will announce the winner on Monday in the comment section below. Thanks!


About David D. Flowers

David received a B.A. in Religion from East Texas Baptist University and a M.T.S. in Biblical Studies from Houston Graduate School of Theology. David has over 20 years experience as a pastor and teacher in and outside the church. He currently pastors an Anabaptist congregation in Pennsylvania. View all posts by David D. Flowers

9 responses to “Vision for 21st Century Evangelicalism, Book Five

  • Seth

    This book looks very interesting and seems to touch on a very important topic. One that I find myself in the midst of. After going through many changes over the years this book looks like it would provide some help in clearing away the clutter. I look forward to reading it.


  • Chuck

    I have seen the book and thought that it could be a helpful read for the church.

  • Mac Dumcum

    Brother David,

    This book sounds amazing. It is definitely on my “to read” list.

    Also,I have followed all 5 posts in this series, and have posted links to all of them on Twitter (, and I would really like to be entered in tomorrow’s draw.

    Thank you for posting these excellent reviews. They have been insightful and compelling. Great work!



  • jhopping

    Interesting concepts… they reminds me of Stanley Grenz and John Franke’s book “Beyond Foundationalism” as they too call for a renewed focus on the Holy Spirit and Jesus instead of placing the Bible as the fourth member of the Trinity.

    FYI – Posts to all five reviews have been posted on Facebook with your name tagged…. hopefully the drawing is favorable. =)

  • Otto

    Great book review. I have to pick this one up!

  • David D. Flowers

    Alright, guys! I know there are others who shared each post, but they haven’t entered in the drawing by commenting. Mac and Joshua (jhopping), the coin flip was between you guys.

    And we have a winner…

    Joshua, you won!

    You get to choose the book you would like to have from the list of five that I have presented in this series. Which book would you like to read right away? Let us all know. You can email me your address and I’ll send it to you free of charge. Congrats!

    Thanks to all those who participated and helped to share these challenging books to the rest of the evangelical world. Please subscribe to the blog and stay tuned. I’ll be doing another book giveaway before the year is up.

    Don’t miss out on the chance to win!

  • jhopping

    Yay!!! Much happiness! Thanks David for reviewing the books and hosting the giveaway. =D

    Seeing how it is an election year once again, I think I would like to read Gregory Boyd’s “The Myth of a Christian Nation.” Perhaps it will help me find the words to explain some of the political/religious things bouncing around in my head… =?

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