Tag Archives: the bible made impossible

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!


An Interview with Christian Smith on “The Bible Made Impossible”

For those of you who have been faithful followers of my blog, I wanted to let you know that I’m finishing up a grad degree this coming May. Most of my more recent posts have been longer additions in the form of academic papers. You can find them by clicking on the “Essays” tab. (I still have a couple more papers coming!) In the future, I’ll be archiving other posts.

Beginning this summer I plan on writing shorter blog posts a few times a month. I’m a busy guy, as I’m sure you can relate. I don’t want to be pumping out stuff daily or even weekly if I don’t feel like I have something to share that is worth my time and yours. I’m not doing this for blog ratings. I could be acting on the “strategery” (to borrow a term from George W. Bush) of the big time bloggers, but I don’t want to overwhelm you or myself. So, for now, if you’re looking for a few good posts a month, please consider subscribing to the blog by e-mail.

I like to reserve my blog for meaty stuff and edifying discussion. I like to use Facebook for everything else. So, I’ll begin posting more regularly in the coming weeks. I would like to begin sharing more frequently on issues that are especially timely and relevant to both the academy and the church. Have you read about the purpose of my blog? I will continue posting book reviews, sharing about my personal journey, and stirring up some good conversation as we all stumble forward in Christ together.

In the meantime, my good friend Frank Viola recently did an interview with Christian Smith, author of “The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture.” The title of Smith’s book is provocative enough! I own the book, and will be reading it soon. I may even review it here on the blog. I encourage you to check out the interview at Frank’s blog, “Beyond Evangelical.” And tell him I said “Hellooooo!” He likes that.

Read the complete interview with Christian Smith on “The Bible Made Impossible.”


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