Interpretation and Scripture (review pt. 3)

Here’s where Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible is heading as it rounds off the first part of its discussion (the problems with biblicism): interpretive problems point to the reality that the Bible is not what biblicists think it is.

In other words, we cannot separate interpretive outcomes from our doctrine of scripture. When things that “shouldn’t be there” come up repeatedly in our interpretive endeavors, this points out to us that our doctrine of scripture needs to be reconfigured to match the reality of what the Bible is.

In the theological tradition in which I cut my teeth, this sort of relationship was acknowledged, at least in theory. The Westminster Seminary faculty put together a series of essays entitled Inerrancy and Hermeneutic that sought to articulate inerrancy in a way that did not prejudice interpretive outcomes.

Later, Peter Enns would elaborate on this tradition with his extended suggestion in Inspriation and Incarnation that the Bible we actually have should be shaping our understanding of what the Bible is.

Of course, this was the beginning of the end for Enns at WTS, as the theological and financial pull of biblicism was simply too strong to allow scripture to transform our understanding of what the Bible is. Indeed, it might have been expected: the commitment to inerrancy, for example, in American evangelical circles is often far too strong to allow the errors we discover in the Bible to override it.

This diversion into the world from which I came is to say that Smith is exactly correct in what he perceives to be an irreconcilable tension: there is the Bible that biblicists preach, and then there is the Bible that we hold in our hands. And they are not the same.

The Reformation tradition has nicely placed the Bible in everyone’s hands. This is a good thing. But with it has come the notion that anyone reading the Bible will be able to know what it says.

So why then is there pervasive interpretive pluralism if the Bible is so easy to read?

The point that Smith will come around to is that we need to rethink what the Bible is so that we read it differently, more in keeping with the Bible we actually have and its own stated purposes.

Protestant doctrines of scripture have told us, from way back, that what we need to know can be clearly read in scripture or deduced by good and necessary consequence. They have told us that the meaning of any passage is one. They have told us that there are inerrant autographs somewhere that contain the exact words God wanted us to have.

And each of these is either irrelevant and useless (inerrant docs we don’t have) or proven false (we don’t actually clearly see what must be known–we disagree).

Smith rounds off his discussion with some reflections on how a clearly false and impossible Bible manages to imbed itself in evangelicalism as though it is the Bible we actually have. He rightly points to both historical and sociological factors as creating both the perceived necessity of such a Bible and the plausibility structures within which such a Bible can be believed to exist.

In other words: when you hang around a bunch of people, be it in church or in seminary or in your denomination or at an Evangelical Theological Society meeting who not only believe the Bible is this thing, but who define themselves as holding to such a Bible over against the Bible-denying, God-hating liberals, it becomes quite easy to believe in the glorious garments of this particular, naked emperor.

This brings us to something Smith mentions only briefly but that, to me, is the most important reason we have to get beyond evangelical biblicism: it is pastorally disastrous.

Students who believe in this kind of Bible but then leave the world that makes it plausible by going to, say, a public university or a differently oriented seminary or, worst of all a PhD program and there encounter the real Bible for the first time–well, they lose their faith. Or, they have to go through so much intellectual reconfiguring of their faith that its persistence stands in question.

We have to start reading, thinking about, and talking about the Bible that we actually have. We have to recognize that there is no “one meaning” to be found in each passage, there is not “one theological system” to be gleaned from the whole, there is no “inerrant autograph” that is going to show us the truth that will eventually set us free.

We have to take responsibility for how we read, we must read in the right direction, for scripture to fulfill its purpose–which is a different purpose from that articulated by evangelical biblicism.

That purpose? Stay tuned…

23 thoughts on “Interpretation and Scripture (review pt. 3)”

  1. Our tradition would stress the intention of the Biblical author and also how the intended audience would have understood the material. This works easily for the epistles but takes more of an effort to understand the gospels or the OT in that same way.

    The next step is to understand how a contemporary community should read, understand, and apply a particular text.

    To the first step, there is a tremendous dependence on speculation (despite thorough and honest scholarly effort) and to the second, tremendous subjectivity.

    I would add to your list of pitfalls for Biblicists the ability to understand and appreciate the insight of non-Western Christian expression. If there is a “plain meaning” which is derived from the cultural assumptions and systemic logic, what do you do with an interpretation that falls outside? Heretical? Divergent? Primitive? Contextual (as a label only applied to the outsiders)?

    To assert a “plain meaning” as the only meaning will sanctify ones own biases and restrict one from learning from the experience of the diverse “other”- A passive rejection of the communion of the catholic Church and its ability to read scripture faithfully under the direction of the spirit of God.

    (For further interaction with global Christian perspectives, check out our blog project, )

  2. The frustrating irony as a pastor is when I hear the biblicist academics saying that folks like Pete are “destroying people’s faith.” In my experience, I have yet to find one person who has lost their faith because I told them that Genesis 1-11 isn’t factual history. Instead, many of them have mentioned that my discussions about the Bible have indeed salvaged their faith as they were (sometimes literally) about to walk out the door.

    1. Good points.
      I would add that if you did find someone whose faith was destroyed by the kinds of things people like Enns point out about the Bible, the fault, if you will, resides more with the inerrantists and traditionalists. They’re the ones in the lives of such Christians who have most energetically propagated the idea that our faith is in vain if the Bible turns out to be different than they have taught it must be.

    2. J. Byas I could not agree more. As a pastor in San Francisco, it is exactly what Pete Enns says in his book, that I learned at Reformed Theological Seminary from my very popular OT professor in the late ’80s, that has enabled me to see not only faith salvaged in many but also faith begun.

  3. Did you read Gundry’s review of the book in “Books and Culture”? Not having read the book, I don’t know how telling his criticisms are, although they seem, in sum, to dismiss the book more than they acknowledge the problems that the book points out.

    I have a counter-question for the book: given the diversity and fallenness of mankind, how could there not be a plurality of interpretations of scripture, even among the orthodox? And given that, how can the existence of that plurality (on its own) amongst the biblicists be a condemnation of their view of the scriptures?


    1. You rightly interpreted Gundry’s review; I found it an ironic choice since Gundry was driven out of the ETS for some of his interpretations of Matthew, highlighting the very issue that Smith is addressing.

      Smith attempts to answer your proposed analysis of pervasive interpretive pluralism in chapter two, but Roger Olson’s (in his multi-part review on his blog that is well worth reading) raises the same objection. Though not fully endorsing the view, Olson suggests that a biblicist might respond: “the Bible is a historical document and, though verbally inspired, harmonious and perspicuous in and of itself, due to our distance from it and our human limitations of finitude and fallenness we will never come to full agreement about everything it teaches and should come to terms with that while striving to arrive at as much consensus as possible.”

      While I acknowledge the problems Smith raises, as a historian I do find this objection important. Has there ever NOT been pervasive interpretive pluralism? Daniel, any thoughts on Yates’s question and Olson’s response?

      1. As I indicated above, I think that Smith is correct that the pluralism is inherent to the text itself and ourselves as interpreters. Therefore, we need a “doctrine of scripture” that accounts for it or else our doctrine of scripture is useless and/or simply wrong. Maybe the very thought that we should be able to agree on everything is a misunderstanding of how scripture is supposed to function. Yes, we should strive for unity, but is that the same as striving for a consensus on theology or biblical interpretation? Or should we distance those things?

    2. John, I don’t think I’ve read Gundry’s review.

      Where Smith is going is to advocate for a unifying hermeneutic that will still allow for multiple interpretations. The problem isn’t polyvalence of the biblical texts, the problem is a theory of what the Bible is, or how it’s supposed to work, that denies such polysemy.

  4. “Protestant doctrines of scripture…” should probably read “Reformed doctrines of scripture.” For Luther the Bible was only the word of God in as much as it bore faithful witness to Jesus and his teachings and the primacy of salvation-by-grace-through-faith.

    Luther, though he may at times have said some strong things in favor of the truth of the Bible, was not an inerrantist, as can be seen by the fact that he argued against the reading and teaching of the Epistle of James. Luther called the Bible “the manger in which Jesus lay”–a very earthy thing indeed!

  5. “No one meaning” for a passage, just as…ahem…there is no one meaning for the words of your blog post…or for Mr. Smith’s book? When you write your argument, you assume that we will interpret your words to understand your planned meaning, just as I am sure the biblical writers did, and any other author for that matter. To argue anything else is to descend into silliness because one has to argue with…words.

    As John Stott said, “we bow to the authority of Scripture because we bow to the authority of Christ.” We find Christ returning again and again to the authority of the Scriptures, and this, ultimately is where we begin to build our doctrine of Scripture.

    1. John,

      What is “the one meaning” that God wishes to convey during the confession of Peter at Caesarea Philippi? Is it that Peter is awesome and the rock on which the church is built? Is it that Peter, and all the disciples whom he represents, are impediments to Jesus’ mission? That being Christ means suffering? That being a disciple means suffering? That the insiders are the least likely to understand the work of God?

      It’s not that an infinite number of interpretive options are possible for a sentence, but that the point of a story or sentence in a paragraph might be very much disputed. And, many good readings exist.

      Or, to take something more directly theological: does Hebrews 6 really teach that you can lose your salvation? Does Mark 3 really teach that there is an actual unforgivable sin that was committed by some of Jesus’ contemporaries? Does Rom 9 really teach double predestination?

      The point is that our theology controls our reading of scripture more than biblicist paradigms recognize. We need to be, then, more intentional about what theological paradigm we hand such control to, and what we can and can’t expect the Bible to be and say in light of such diversity.

  6. I have seen many college students (including me) go through much unneccesary pain and doubt. It’s not that the Bible is the stumbling block, but the church tradition. One is left with the impression that too radical a change in thought will leave us outside orthodoxy, and therefore the church body (or even God’s grace!). This leaves us with many people who are “spiritual” but not “religious” (code for no church). We need to allow for healthy doubt and open perspectives in order to be a more vibrant church. God isn’t nearly as concerned as we are. He will speak for Himself.

  7. Multiple options don’t make them all true, intended, etc. The existence of multiple options shouldn’t surprise us. There are 1) noetic effects of the fall and 2) so many variables – grammar, syntax, translation, narrative structure, allusions, etc. that must be taken into account. Smith seems to be setting forth issues to be addressed, but his own pluralistic tendencies are finding all the wrong answers. What he seems to be arguing for (based on the reviews I’ve seen) is a form of Christianized pluralism. Let’s not mistake the difficulties involved in interpreting the Bible discourage us from actually interpreting it. Let’s stand under and not over God’s revelation.

    1. How are we going to interpret it, Andrew. What are we looking for? In today’s post, I summarize part of Smith’s constructive proposal. We look for the saving story of Christ.

      Also, even when each passage on its own is clear, the parts don’t make a coherent whole. Can anyone snatch someone from Jesus’ hand? Are we predestined from before the foundations of the earth? Are we all legitimately summoned to repent? Can you fall away forever, having once been a participant in God’s saving grace?

      Depends on which passage you’re reading.

      Which probably means that the Bible God gave us wasn’t for the purpose of revealing a system of doctrine.

      1. The fact that they are complicated does not mean that we get a pass on interpreting them rightly or that they necessarily contradict. All of the issues you cited can be reconciled. Not attempting to see how they fit together is not good exegesis. It’s laziness. I don’t think anyone is saying that it is not hard work to interpret the Bible. Perhaps this is what some mean by the perspicuity of Scripture, but this is not my understanding.

        1. I think the more significant issue to explore is that you are approaching the Bible with an assumption that these things should/must/can be reconciled. Why? Why not instead say that the Bible reflects/contains multiple theologies? John, for example, doesn’t like Mark’s / Matthew’s theology of a struggling, suffering son: “What shall I say, ‘Save me from this hour?’ No! This is the hour for which I came.”

          If we’re being biblical in our expectations, we allow the Bible to show us what it is. Multiple theologies is part of the package, and an indicator that expending our energies for unity is about our own, probably wrong, preconceptions, rather than what we should/ can/ must be doing if we want to be faithful readers of the Bible.

          1. Except now you’re positing either 1) two different Jesus’ or 2) that one of the Gospel authors is not being truthful. Why can we not rather say that they are emphasizing different facets of Jesus’ character for pastoral reasons? For instance, Matthew seems to often correct ways people may misread Mark (and probably did). John seems to do the same with the other Gospels. It’s as if each one wants to say, “No, no, no, that’s not what _________ meant when he said that. He meant…” This gives us a coherent Bible without the need for multiple Jesus’ or deceitful authors.

            Jesus was biblical. He said that not a word of Scripture may be broken. Why break it because you can’t figure it out?

            1. They can disagree–and be truthful about it. Again, the whole set of assumptions behind why you would want to take such a tack doesn’t jive with the Bible we actually have. Why, for instance, give us four Gospels that interacted with and changed each other, if the point is to give us one, identical story? There are, in fact, multiple, different, varied witnesses to the one Jesus. God didn’t canonize the one historical Jesus or the one theologian’s Jesus. If the NT is the book we’re to learn from, we have to accept that we have four different, sometimes complementary, sometimes at odds, accounts of this saving work. This isn’t deceitful. Indeed, it’s much less deceitful than pretending that they say the same thing, or creating a 5th Gospel that is not the canonical witness God gave.

              Implicit in your last question is that “breaking it” means creating a Bible that does not exist, where everything is in harmony. I could turn the question back on you: why are you breaking the Bible just because you think you’ve got it figured out?

              1. Why give us four Gospels? Because each is a different contribution to the whole picture. That’s like asking why you have multiple pictures on your wall of the same people. The question itself shows an underlying assumption that is flawed. If this assumption were true, why bother with sermons? Why bother with teaching at all? Why didn’t the Apostles just write a unified curriculum, send it out to all the churches, and consider their job finished? Why not? Because people misinterpret things. You are putting forward those misinterpretations and blaming it on the author. I’m placing the blame where it lies – on the reader.

                The Gospels aren’t necessarily interacting with each other. That itself is an assumption. It is more likely they are interacting with the interpretive community – correcting misinterpretations. The epistles do this frequently – i.e. Paul writing to the Thessalonians to get back to work or correcting the Corinthians misunderstood sexual ethics. Why should the Gospels not do the same?

                I’m not breaking the Bible by thinking I have it figured out. All I am saying is that it is there for us to figure out. We’re not left to our own devices to wrestle with conflicting accounts of who Jesus is. We don’t need to save the Bible from itself, just like we didn’t need to save Christianity from itself when Schleiermacher came around.

                At the end of the day, what do all four Gospels agree on? That John the Baptist was preparing the way of Yahweh Himself, who would come to save His people from their sins through his death and resurrection.

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