Stop With the Impossible Bible, Already! (pt. 2)

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.

8 thoughts on “Stop With the Impossible Bible, Already! (pt. 2)”

  1. “Contradiction is not a sign of falsity, nor the lack of contradiction a sign of truth.” –Blaise Pascal

    There is a paradox in this in that attempts by “Biblical Christians” to reconcile contradictions lead to wildly disparate positions depending on what is emphasized.

    The ancients held some contradictions in tension which is why the Proverbs are written as they are. I think one of the best examples of this theologically is the Christian faith is neither monistic nor dualistic which creates all sorts of problems for most standard versions of philosophy.

  2. I think the question, “What is the Bible?” is one of the most important unasked questions for the Church. Smith is finally getting to the right question, the one most of the Church has neglected–or assumed–for a very long time.

  3. “Proliferating interpretive pluralism.” Seriously? What is new about this? Exhibit A: Calvin/Luther; Exhibit B: Calvin/Arminius. That faithful Christians have disagreed about what the Scriptures say is not new. The fact that people don’t agree what it says about the essentials of the faith? Not new either. Heck, the church spent the first several centuries of the faith trying to agree on what the Bible DOES say. If it is getting any worse than normal historically, I suspect it is because his cultural place (America) is drifting AWAY from the faith so everyone is “doing what is right in his own eyes” and calling it biblical.

  4. Glad you are blogging on this, Daniel. Smith’s book is spot on, of great importance, and the criticisms have, in my view, largely demonstrated his point. What evangelicalism expects their BIble to do, it doesn’t do. The fact that Smith is a sociologist brings the entire issue to the level of sociology, community narratives, etc, is which is the proper arena to discuss evangelical biblicism. John, I appreciate what you are saying, but you are now expanding the problem beyond evangelicalism to Protestantism—when the Bible is expected to function as a final, infallible authority, it obligates one to say what it means. Those answers are never a matter of simple exegesis or theology, but a host of other factors (psychology and sociology). You can be sure that Calvin and Luther did not just see things differently or disagree–when they differed, they thought the other was wrong. That is where Smith is coming from.

  5. “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.”

    What a great post! That’s such a great point. I think you’ve finally articulated why some of those kitschy items have always rubbed me the wrong way.

    I’m happy for some people that it’s that simple, but the Bible has never seemed that straight-forward or easy for me. I appreciate someone trying to understand the difference between these two approaches.

  6. The problem? I teach my students that all of this “biblicism” is wrapped up in a perfect storm of: 1) cultural individualism, 2) understanding the Bible as the “Word of God”; and 3) a gospel message that focuses on “Jesus for you the individual”. When you put these together, you get some form of the “biblicism” you have described. All three of these must be dealt with if we are to really deal with the problem of the “biblicist” view of Scripture.

    I sometimes add a fourth element to this perfect storm: the need to “defend” the veracity of the Bible against historical or scientific study/claims. We’ve begun to see Scripture from the perspective of other canons, rather than listening to what the Biblical writers themselves say/suggest they’re doing. This, also, I think contributes to the problem.

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