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…