I have just finished reading Christian Smith’s insightful critique of biblicism, The bible made impossible: Why biblicism is not a truly evangelical reading of scripture. You can read the introduction for free through the Amazon link. Here are two critiques worth reading (the first two that come up on Google), although they should not distract from the overall worth of the text, which I highly recommend. I would love also to lend it out but let it be noted that I’ll do so quite sparingly as I think it’ll be a lot of help for my assignments this year!
In the first part of the book, Smith defines biblicism as a distinctly American evangelical approach to scripture, based, give or take, on ten assumptions:
1. The words of the Bible are identical with God’s words written inerrantly in human language.
2. The Bible represents the totality of God’s will for humanity.
3. The divine will for all issues relevant to Christian life are contained in the Bible.
4. Any reasonable person can correctly understand the plain meaning of the text.
5. The way to understand the Bible is to look at the obvious, literal sense [intended by the author, possibly involving taking into account literary, cultural and historic purposes].
6. The [significance of any part of the bible] can be understood without reliance on creeds, confessions, or historic church traditions.
7. The Bible possesses internal harmony and consistency.
8. [Any part of historical teaching in the bible] is universally applicable for all Christians [unless superseded by later passages].
9. All matters of Christian belief and practice can be learned through inductive Bible study.
10. The Bible is a kind of handbook or textbook for Christian faith and practice.
(Retrieved here, linked earlier. I reworded a few because I think the reviewer missed what Smith was saying in a few places).
This starting point could stand alone as something deeply important. Many Christians I have read, hung out with, or known otherwise would subscribe to some if not all of these. Most I reject in some way but the one I am most sympathetic towards is #5, although I would be open to exceptions, such where an underpinning philosophy in a biblical text has implications that the original author may have not realised at the time of writing¹.
Smith then goes on to show that the primary problem arising from a biblicist approach to scripture is that of “pervasive interpretive pluralism”, or honest, Spirit-led, deep thinking Christians coming to very different conclusions on important theological matters:
[…] the doctrines of God, Christ, revelation, atonement, salvation, baptism, the Lord’s supper, creation, hell, war, divorce, and remarriage. On all of these biblical and theological issues, we can identify three or four different views, not because those who hold them are trying to be contentious but because they read the Bible and come away convinced that their different views are correct.
This is the main problem on which Smith bases his argument, although a later chapter is dedicated to “subsidiary problems with biblicism”, which looks at things such as the actual lack of a biblical basis for a biblicist approach to the bible (ooh!) and one which I personally identified with, “Setting up youth for unnecessary crises of faith” (p.88). If my whole faith is based on biblicism then when either myself or others pose the tough questions my only viable responses are intellectual dishonesty or an honest end to faith.
In the second part of the book Smith details a Christocentric hermeneutic, that is first and foremost basing our faith on God’s work through Christ to redeem creation. Once that is sorted, a good Christology should inform both our reading of the bible and our treatment of theological and moral issues. The obvious criticism to raise here is that all we know of Jesus is from the bible. But how much of it really is? I liked this quote:
Faith does not simply rest on texts, but — also and more — on persons and events. Faith stands or falls not with the status of a holy text… but the knowledge and meaning of these persons and events, which can be mediated by the text.
(p.118, quoting James Barr).
For me, and I suspect most (all) Christians, our understanding of Jesus is mediated not just by scripture but church history/tradition, the community we come to faith in, and, yes, the real person of Jesus intervening in our lives, among other things. Of course this is going to be messy but who says an absolute commitment to scripture is any better? This is not to denounce the role of scripture but to restore to its place as a part of the whole. It still maintains a high place in Christian revelation. I have however known, and people may come to your mind also, people with little biblical familiarity to be very Christlike and others with a lot of biblical familiarity but little Christlikeness.
Smith goes on to talk about accepting complexity and unanswered questions in our approach to scripture and a puzzling chapter on questions concerning epistemology and authority. It’s not completely necessary but it nonetheless adds to his discussion.
I really enjoyed the prophetic nature of the book in its call to put Christ at the center. Regardless of the problems people have with Smith’s reasoning, I think all Christians can agree on that. I thought also that the structure was a very easy one to follow (traditional polemic — critique, followed by expounding his own position), the arguments were clear, most times giving sufficient evidence/examples, and Smith is widely read, which is good for those who want to explore other writers on the topics he discusses.
In conclusion it was theologically challenging and I see it as an important contribution to the discussion of what role the bible has to play in faith. Smith makes clear throughout that alternatives are still being worked out but his critiques of biblicism still stand. If you need me to explain anything or would like to discuss some of Smith’s ideas which I here present in a very limited sense then take me up in the comments section =)
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I have now two minor critiques. If you wanted to know about the book or what I thought about it then you can go home now. You get an achieved. This next section is extra for experts. My first critique is Smith’s use of Roger Olsen’s distinction between dogma, doctrine and opinion (cited on p.135):
Some Christian beliefs are non-negotiable for any believer — such as the dogmas of the Trinity and the Nicene Christology. Other beliefs are those to which groups of Christians adhere with firm conviction but also disagree over with other kinds of Christians — such as Calvinist or Wesleyan systems of theology. Still others are beliefs that some Christians hold, sometimes with strong feelings, but that are far from being central, sure, and most important in the larger scheme of Christian belief and life. Examples of the latter include a preference for baptism by immersion or sprinkling, the commitment to homeschooling versus sending them to Christian or public school, and so on.
Smith’s argument follows that we need to learn to distinguish between the three and call each other Christian based on a shared adherence to dogma, with openness regarding doctrine, and especially opinion. At the risk of sounding heretical, I would actually go for a more open view of dogma, which I know is dangerous considering the wide witness to things considered dogma throughout church history (the trinity is one example). But the reason I say this is that even considering the great historical importannce of certain dogmas such as those laid out in the Nicene creed, to take an absolute stance on them excludes such contributions to theology as unitarianism and preterism, among others. I’m not saying that I support either of these theologies but I am saying both that Jesus can be found authentically in the lives of many who do not hold to the dogmas of the wider and historical church and that I would personally like to maintain an openness concerning heterodox beliefs. Maybe this is my sympathies with postmodernism coming through contra Smith’s critical realism (p.152).
My second critique is much more minor than the first and it’s only implicit in the book rather than a major point he makes. Throughout the work he makes continual reference to liberalism (in theology and our approach to the bible) as something to avoid. I was beginning to get annoyed at these mysterious mentions until he qualified them:
Theological liberalism is all about rethinking Christianity from an anthropological perspective, making it essentially about human consciousness and experience and progress. The view just elaborated — in which everything is all about its definition and existence in relation to the reality of Jesus Christ — offers the starkest contrast to liberalism imaginable. Liberalism wants to reconfigure Christian faith and doctrine in terms of modern, human categories and concerns. The view just elaborated says that every category, concern, idea, and identity must itself be reconceived in light of the ultimate fact of Jesus Christ. Liberalism wants to “demythologize” Christian stories and beliefs in view of “modern” scientific knowledge and plausibility systems. But the view elaborated here tells us that every knowledge system — including, if not especially, modern epistemologies — is literally lost and needing to be rescued and reoriented by the living person of Jesus Christ.
(pp.118-119, emphasis original).
Ultimately I am probably in agreement with Smith here in adherence to a Christocentric hermeneutic as opposed to a humanist or scientific materialist, etc³, but I don’t want to brush off ‘liberal’ theologies so quickly. I think an openness to and exploration of liberal theologies is a part of our humanity, which is a part of our faith. This might include the likes of biblical criticism or a death of god theology. Zizek, a marxist philosopher who makes use of Christian theology in his philosophy is relevant here in constructing a Hegelian Christology:
[…] the Greek gods appear to humans in human form, while the Christian God appears as human to himself. This is the crucial point: for Hegel the Incarnation is not a move by means of which God makes himself accessible/visible to humans, but a move by means of which God looks at himself from the distorting human perspective.
(pp.81-82, emphasis original)²
The point I am making is that as much as Christ was human it is important to entertain ‘human’ responses to him, however heterodox they may be, not with a desire to tickle our ears but with Christlike love to see God and the world from others’ perspectives, examine validities here and there, and take on that which is important.
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¹One example, depending on your theological persuasions, would be Gal 3:28 where the egalitarian ethic does not appear fully realised in other texts.
²Zizek, S. (2009). The fear of four words: A modest plea for the Hegelian reading of Christianity. In C. Davies (Eds.), The monstrosity of Christ (pp. 24-110). USA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
³Perhaps maintaining sympathy towards postmodernism…