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.
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