In this, our second installment in review of Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible, I wish to begin by underscoring that he is not dealing with “strawmen,” as has been suggested in the comments to installment one. He does not insist that all 10 of his descriptions of evangelical biblicism are present in any one person’s thinking; he does, however, demonstrate that these are the kinds of assumptions driving not only popular but also scholarly engagements with Christian issues.
On the level of popular slogans, we have everything from “God said it, I believe it, that settles it!” to “Vote Responsibly–Vote the Bible!” to “Confused? Read the Directions! [picture of the Bible]” Evangelical biblicism is reflected throughout its kitsch culture (pp. 7-8).
Of course, it is elaborated at greater length in books: Bible Answers for Almost All Your Questions, Biblical Principles for Starting and Operating a Business, How to Make Choices you Won’t Regret, Esther’s Secrets of Womanhood (pp. 8-10). The point: we treat the Bbile like it’s about everything–a handbook that answers all our questions. We treat the Bible like it’s a clear, direct word from God to us about how to live our lives. These assumptions are upheld by others such as, “If we read the Bible aright, it can perform this function for us.”
In the more technical theological realm, the idea of scripture’s unity and internal consistency are the points that come more to the fore, but still in ways that lead one to think that the Bible should be able to be heard with relative clarity on all that it speaks of. In particular, biblical statements about the Bible deny contradiction in scripture (which must all be consistent because it is God’s word, after all), or state that anything we need to know is either laid down in scripture or may be deduced by good and necessary consequence.
In fact, the more theological sophisticated versions make the Bible less a practical handbook for daily living and more a box of puzzle pieces to be rightly ordered into a system of doctrine. Both, however, depend on the same way of understanding the Bible as the word of God.
So what’s the problem with all this?
The single greatest problem Smith sees is proliferating interpretive pluaralism. In other words: people don’t agree with each other on what the Bible says. Not only this, they don’t agree about what the Bible says about significant, defining issues of faith and practice. This is because the Bible is not, in fact, univocal on important issues.
Here again, Smith points to publishing. You know all those awesome and helpful “Four Views” or “Three Views” books? Their very existence is an exhibition of the irreducible interpretive pluralism that will always beset the church so long as it thinks that “just believing the Bible” is what is required for faith and practice.
Note how important the topics covered are: Atonement, Baptism, the Doctrine of God (!), Hell, Divorce and Remarriage, The Lord’s Supper, Historical Jesus, War, Women in Ministry, Predestination, Christ (!).
So besides, Jesus, God, and how the cross works, we agree on all the “important” stuff?!
Smith insists, and he is correct, that at the root of this is a way of seeing and understanding what the Bible is, which is demonstrated to be false because we who read the Bible with honesty and integrity cannot agree on what it says. The theory is rendered false by the results it has produced.
Next time, we’ll look at how a theory that is falsified daily manages to keep such a strong hold on the church and also survey some of the other problems with evangelical biblicism.