Stop with Your Impossible Bible, Already (pt. 1)

A devoted Presbyterian (I think taht was me, once upon a time) moves from his confession of faith to the Bible. He had read about “the true and full sense of any scripture (which is not manifold, but one),” and embraced the parenthetical warning against multiple meanings. Then he looked up the OT passage from which a NT citation was drawn. One meaning? Uh oh…

Rachel Held Evans attempts a year of living biblically. As her year winds down, what does she have to say? That adjective “biblical” is really hard to pin down. Does biblical womanhood mean camping out in the back yard during your period?

We all think we know what biblical means. In our North American Christian context the word is thrown around as a way of demanding that all of life be lived in accordance with the Bible as the Word of God.

And Christian Smith is here to tell us that the two experiences summarized above are exactly what we should expect when we come to the Bible with the impossible demands of the biblicism of current evangelicalism.

His book is, The Bible Made Impossible, a book for which I shelled out my own money, so I am under no obligation by the Fed to make any disclosures to you about having my eyes blinded through having received it for free.

Smith affirms that the Bible is inspired by God. He recognizes its importance in the continuing story of the church.

But he also calls us to recognize that a “biblicist” view of scripture creates expectations that cannot be met, and that in the end it is an impossible theory to maintain in practice. And, in fact, nobody does.

So what is this impossible biblicism? Smith sees it delineated by these 10 claims / assumptions (pp. 4-5):

  1. scripture contains the very words of God (divine writing)
  2. the Bible is God’s exclusive means of communication with people
  3. everything God needs to tell us about belief and life is in the Bible
  4. anyone can read, understand and thus rightly interpret the Bible
  5. the Bible can be understood in its plain, literal sense
  6. we can build theology from scratch without creeds or confessions
  7. all the passages touching on the same topic can be brought together into a harmonious whole
  8. the Bible is universally applicable to people in all times and places
  9. inductive method leads to right hearing of the text
  10. the Bible, read this way, provides a handbook for living

Of course, no one person or group will necessarily hold to, or put on display, all ten.

These sorts of claims ring true to many of us: the big idea behind much of it is that if we sit down and read the text we can actually know what it says. God speaks in the Bible and we need simply to listen.

But there is one major problem: “pervasive interpretive pluralism.”

If the Bible is so easy to read and understand, why is it that Christians who hold to similar convictions about what scripture is nonetheless cannot agree on what scripture actually says.

This, claims Smith, is more than simply a phenomenon of people’s practice not reflecting the theory as well as it should. It is a determinative indication that the theory itself is flawed.

We do not simply read “what is there.” People interpret differently. People read preexisting theologies into and out of texts. Pluralism will not go away. And it does not simply touch on incidental matters such as whether or not we pass a holy smooch, this plurality extends even to such central ideas as what happens for our good on the cross.

And so, Smith will contend, the Bible is not what is so often claimed.

23 thoughts on “Stop with Your Impossible Bible, Already (pt. 1)”

  1. Ooo, I’m (very) excited to see this continued series, as I recently added this book to my Amazon wish list! :-D

    (And because I loooooooove Christian Smith. As in, some days I want to BE him… Basically my hero for the last six years.)

  2. Im with Ashleigh excited to see what Christian says. I just finished rereading McKnights Blue Parakeet and would love more perspectives on how the Bible can be understood

  3. I am definitely intrigued, but I find myself wondering. Does Smith propose a way forward for Evangelicals? I run the risk of getting a book that does nothing more than confirm ideas I already have, and I’m curious about the ways I might be challenged to go further.

  4. While I have not read the book yet, from your review as well as others, his approach seems to be:
    1. Set up straw man
    2. Knock down straw man

    I don’t know any evangelical who knows anything about biblical interpretation who would sign off on ANY of those 10 things you list.

    In addition, given his assumptions on interpretation, what is he doing writing a book assuming that we will understand whatever it is he is getting at since he says this is impossible. Using words and argument to subvert the fact that people can understand words and argument seems foolish, doesn’t it?

    1. Awesome, John. Just awesome. Let me give you a hot tip: If you have to start your criticism of a book with, “I have not read the book,” then just stop. Please.

      1. Actually Will, one can often glean enough from an accurate review to know whether one agrees/disagrees with the theses of a book. Secondly, this is not exactly a formal forum, so lighten-up.

        1. Really? Because it’s not a “formal forum” it’s ok to accuse an author of straw man arguments without actually reading the book?

          Daniel, I’ll just put the question to you: Do you have any issue with people criticizing the arguments you make in your Romans book without reading it first? I’m seriously asking.

          John Murphy says, “I don’t know any evangelical who knows anything about biblical interpretation who would sign off on ANY of those 10 things you list.” Yet Smith quotes multiple evangelical sources (well-respected ones, in fact) who DO agree to some or many of the items on the list.

          All I’m asking is for someone to actually read a book before being so critical of the author’s supposed arguments in the book.

    2. Well I just copied that list to a few people (with whom I am currently discussing gender issues) and every one of the gender-traditionalists basically said- I agree with all ten, what’s the problem?

      Perhaps the “who knows anything about biblical interpretation” is the kicker. But most people don’t, they just take what they’re given.

  5. One of the reasons Smith adopts his route for criticizing Biblicism is also why, I think, many evangelicals will misunderstand it. Smith is a sociologist, not a theologian. Therefore it matters little to him, when assessing evangelical biblicists as a whole, whether the theologians and academics among evangelicals (e.g., those properly categorizes as producers and more-intense consumers of theological discourse) articulate more nuanced models. If it is the case that 95% or more of evangelicals are not, in fact, able to put Biblicism into practice, then it is empirically a failure.

    Criticisms of Smith that defend Biblicism and traditional-evangelical models of biblical authority through recourse to the nuanced articulations of some evangelical scholars betray their idea of what true and faithful Christianity “is.” They implicitly hold that in order to be a true, faithful, and effective Christian reader of the Bible one has to be among the minority of evangelicals who have seminary educations and (likely) further specialized theological and academic training in order to be able to understand and put into practice these nuanced models.

    IMO, this recognizing this often un-acknowledged underpinning to this line of criticism should give us pause – and here I shift more into my own theologizing. Do we really want to say that in order to be a faithful reader of the Bible one has to grasp the ins and outs of theological and hermeneutical ideas that require specialized training and that is practically unavailable to the vast majority of Christians? Most Christians lack the time, resources, and even practical interest to attend seminary for 2-5 years and/or become dedicated intense consumers of specialized theological discourse (e.g., VERY theologically-interested layfolk).
    Not surprisingly, many seminary trained folk (and thus many of the recognized leaders of the evangelical world) presume the naturalness of this intensely intellectualized model of what Christianity “is.” Afterall, it defines a significant amount of what Christianity is in the practical realities of their lives: studying the Bible theologically and academically, preaching/teaching the Bible from these specialized standpoints, knowing how they have grown and been edified much through such theologizing, approaching Christianity often through the lens of viewing problematic versions of Christianity from the standpoint of their theological deviance, etc.
    I suspect that the further one gets from seminary and the more involved in the practical realities of other Christians’ and peoples’ lives s/he becomes, the less this intellectualist model of Christianity seems the most natural. This is not to reject the importance and place of theologizing and intellectualizing of the Gospel. Acknowledging that, however, differs from inscribing an uber-intellectualized model for Christian faithfulness as the ideal for what Christianity most basically “is.”
    Lastly, studies in neuroscience, psychology, and sociology are relevant here. For example, our brains do not operate in such centralized thoroughgoing consciously intellectualized ways. It take TONS of cognitive energy both to learn and to maintain the coherent theological systems (such as those taught in seminary) that are full of (often highly) counter-intuitive positions. It takes exponentially more cognitive energy, furthermore, to consciously maintain those systems within the practical realities of everyday life. That’s one reason why so few (if any) people consistently live out the nuances of their theology in all the basic realities of day-to-day life. There are actually published studies on this in sociology and religion journals, in case one’s own daily experience and observation of others isn’t enough to grasp this point.

    1. Stephen, don’t you think it might be possible to think that most people don’t have the education or tools they need to read (a lot) of the Bible properly… but for that to not mean that everyone HAS to go to seminary? I would argue that if we’re going to fix this problem, the real imperative is for seminary-trained individuals to actually offer useful information and tools to those they are leading. The problem is that we supposedly teach people how to read the Bible well in seminary, teach them the languages, expose them to the relevant conversations about various texts, etc… but then too often they’re going into churches and preaching cute 5-point sermons with rhyming words (i.e., setting a bad example with their own mediocre exegesis) and remaining completely uninterested offering any sort of opportunities for lay people to engage with the basics of Bible study. I mean, for goodness sakes, my Intro to the NT class in college had first-year students in it. If people straight out of high school can understand the basic concepts, why do we think they are beyond the grasp of their parents? Or even their siblings in middle school?

      1. Ashleigh,

        Apologies for the delay in replying. I agree with your points about how seminarians should serve others more effectively and (for that matter) usefully.

        What, however, do you mean by reading the Bible “properly”? What is the “problem,” in your view, that needs to be fixed?

        1. Oh, I don’t know, just pre-critical approaches, cultural biases, lack of familiarity with history and customs, being too ignorant of ancient languages to even follow an argument about interpretation based in the Hebrew or Greek (the sort of argument that sounds be followable if presented in clear English what is happening in the passage), complete confusion about genre (from Genesis to Revelation)…

          Obviously people come away from the Bible with different interpretations, and while I don’t think all of those interpretations make sense, I recognize them as legitimate–if misguided (from my own perspective, obviously)–options which other educated Christians hold. But even recognizing this room for difference, I just don’t think we would have quite so many pre-millenialists who believe in a literal six-day creation making a fuss over the NIV2011 and talking about “going to heaven” when they die if even a small portion of the evangelical community were being helped to read their Bibles intelligently given the scholarly tools available.

  6. I liked the book and recommend it. My take is one needs to decide which of the 10 presuppositions one needs to either discard or modify.

  7. This book sounds magnificent. As a departed Christian, now-non theist I always felt that the forming of a single theology from the whole Bible was an exercise in building a Frankensteins monster.
    As an act of violence against literature let alone scripture it was appalling. So much had to be distorted.
    And then to put the events of the gospels on the same footing as Pauls statements about women’s leadership which themselves are squished to fit our time… it was crazy.
    I’m no seminary trained scholar either. Based on my experience if people can read the Bible outside of theological communities without the pressure of fitting in then non-biblicist readings just need permission to value scripture without the “Gods preservation” of every word in its order.
    Really the idea that God has stored away a message in say Isiaih for our time that only you have figured out, should be recognized as unlikely. If its needed to unlock the meaning of another verse in Acts highly unlikely… and yet that’s all too commonly what I notice.

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