Reconceiving the Bible (review pt. 4)

“I can just pick up my Bible, read it, and know what God has to say to the church.”

“The Bible speaks to all areas of life. If you want relational, financial, sexual, or political guidance, the Bible is the place to go.”

“The Bible is the owner’s manual.”

“The Bible contains the system of doctrine that God’s people should know and believe.”

“No,” says Christian Smith. “And no. And no. And no.”

The subtitle of The Bible Made Impossible is “Why Biblicism is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture.” The gospel is the good news, the good news is the word of Jesus Christ. To be an evangelical is to be one who promotes the good news of Jesus Christ.

And, a truly evangelical reading of scripture is one that recognizes that the point of the Bible is the saving word about Jesus Christ.

To read the Bible as an evangelical is not to read it to assemble a whole series of doctrines; it is not to read it as a compendium of life advice. Evangelical reading of the Bible is reading so as to discern in both Testaments the witness to Jesus Christ.

Or, as I put it so often here: we must imitate the NT writers in their employment of a Christological Hermeneutic.

What the Bible is “about” is not everything, it is about God’s salvation of the world through Christ. We should therefore seek this message, and discover the Bible’s unity, around this saving story.

In other words, there is a unity to scripture. But it is not the unity of a wholesale theological system; it is not the unity of agreement on what every passage means; it is not the unity of a transhistorical law which God reveals piecemeal over time.

The unity is what makes us Christians: the common affirmation that this is the story of God’s reconciling the world to Himself in Christ.

This understanding of what a Christian reading of the Bible looks like is not only as ancient as Jesus’ words in Luke 24 or John 5. It is also what we find advocated by John Stott (“Our savior Jesus Christ… is Scripture’s unifying theme,”) and the Dutch Theologian G. C. Berkouwer (“the significance [of scripture] can never be isolated from the redemptive-historical work of Christ”) (p. 103).

One of the crowning moments of the chapter on Christocentrism was an assessment Smith made of a sermon he heard on James. I’ve dabbled in and wondered about how we should be reading and preaching James–a virtually Christ-less book in the NT. My thought? We need to read it with the same strong Christological hermeneutic we are charged to bring to bear on the OT. Smith said essentially the same thing.

So my love fest with The Bible Made Impossible continues. Smith has rightly focused our attention on what the Bible is, and what it is for–and these mean that other ways of thinking about, reading, and applying scripture are shown up as misguided at best.

As an aside, I should say that the Westminster Seminary that died in the early 2000s had previously taught me just this way of thinking about the unity of scripture. It was the story of the work of God to save a people to God through Jesus Christ. The replacement of that Christological commitment with a version of evangelical biblicism is testament to the counter-intuitive nature of Smith’s proposal for many in the evangelical world.

Also, so you know: all is not pure unadulterated love. Smith keeps saying that a Christological reading is according to the rule of faith and Trinitarian, to which I of course say “No and no.” However, the overall import of what he is advancing is so crucial that I overlook this quibble and embrace Smith’s work for the greater good.

Aside 3: this program of Smith’s also finds a strong ally in Karl Barth and resonates strongly with what I’ve been posting in the Barth reading group posts over the past couple of months.

12 thoughts on “Reconceiving the Bible (review pt. 4)”

  1. One of these things is not like the other….

    “I can just pick up my Bible, read it, and know what God has to say to the church.”

    “The Bible speaks to all areas of life. If you want relational, financial, sexual, or political guidance, the Bible is the place to go.”

    “The Bible is the owner’s manual.”

    “The Bible contains the system of doctrine that God’s people should know and believe.”

    It seems to me that the first quotation is different in kind than the other ones. The other three get at the problem that evangelicals put the Bible into the category of some panacea or book that has the definitive statement about all matters of life. But with the first quotation: “Looosy, you have some ‘splainin’ to do!”

    Does not the Bible speak to God’s people? Or is it only certain ones of God’s people who can “correctly” read the Bible? As with comments on one of the previous posts, this looks a bit like eliteism. It may be that knowing the word God has for the church is difficult to sort out, and that it takes discussion and discernment, etc. But, a simple “no” to the first statement, whether from Smith’s voice or any other, needs a lot more ‘splainin.

    If the rejection is to its simple confidence in the face of what is clearly a much more complex interpretive endeavor, then a modified “no” is in order. But such a simple “no” to the first quotation is nearly as troubling as the naivety of the quotation itself. Kirk’s disagreement with aspects of Smith’s interpretive paradigm illustrate this. But, to take the Bible out of the hands of the everyday reader and the voice they contribute to contemporary interpretations (which can be a very instructive and illuminating voice) is not what we want.

    1. I think you underestimate the degree to which popular readings of the Bible are dependent on (not elitism but) leadership from scholars and pastors.

      On the pastoral level, people read their Bibles to find answers to all of life’s little problems because that is that their pastors teach and model. In other churches, people read the Bible to find the doctrines to believe because that is what their pastors and teachers model.

      Conversely, people can also learn that the point of the Bible is the saving story of Jesus and to read all of scripture as heading in that direction.

      On the more academic level, every act of Bible reading requires academic mediation: the compilation of Greek and Hebrew texts as well as their translation into English determine what we read as the Bible itself.

      Also, people know that they can’t just pick up and understand everything, which is why people buy study Bibles, Bible dictionaries, books on what the Bible says about x, y, and z, and the like.

      I don’t see this as changing the form of what we do, but as a call to fill that form with better, more biblically faithful content.

      1. I don’t think I underestimate the dependency on scholarship and pastors’ work. The problem I have is that the first statement is very different than the other three, and a simple no to it needs more explanation. The other three get more at how we conceive of the Bible. But the first statement threatens to squash the voice of the everyday Christian.

        What I am asking is: “why “no” to the first quotation?” It may be a matter of fact that the readings of everyday Christians are dependent on scholarship, etc. This would mean, then, that the quotation and the “no” in response to it are saying that “no, you can’t because, in fact you do not” rather than “no, you can’t because you don’t have the education.” If so, then fine. Or is may be that the “no” is because so many people read the Bible from the frameworks espoused in the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th statements. If this is the connection, then fine. But, even then, this is a sweeping generalization that I think is unfair to many faithful readers of the Bible who lack any more “sophisticated” theories or education.
        I used to say a simple “no” to the view espoused in the first quotation. Experience in teaching and working in churches has gently told me I cannot–especially if I plan on bridging academia and church.

  2. “the story of God’s reconciling the world to Himself in Christ … the story of the work of God to save a people to God through Jesus Christ”

    These two don’t look necessarily the same to me!

    1. I think, Davey, on the surface this may be true. But a closer reading of Paul’s letters (esp. 2 Corinthians) reveals that for Paul they are the same thing, or at least part of the same fabric. If anything, the second is part of the bigger mission of the first.

      1. Thanks, Kyle. My concern (maybe the same as Daniel’s in some respects, even!) is that the ‘people’ will be a monolithic homogenous body requiring of the members everything being the ‘people’ means and everything they should be and do – or even the purportedly most important things that should be common to them.

  3. “Smith keeps saying that a Christological reading is according to the rule of faith and Trinitarian, to which I of course say ‘No and no.’” — Can you elaborate on this? Are you saying “no” to the doctrine of the Trinity? (I’m a little late to your blog, so you may have spelled out your views on this before. If so, please lead me to the pertinent link(s).)

    1. Nina, thanks for your question.

      No, I’m not denying the Trinity. I believe in the Trinity. But I think that reading the Bible as a witness to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is a more fruitful and biblical paradigm for developing a Christian hermeneutic than giving a Trinitarian reading.

      That is: we read the Bible as a witness to salvation in Jesus Christ. Sometimes this points us toward a divine preexistence of Jesus, most often it doesn’t. It’s the story of Jesus on earth that, according to Luke 24 for example, is the content of the OT witness to Jesus. 1 Peter makes a similar claim.

      Here are a couple of posts that deal with the issue:

      http://www.jrdkirk.com/2011/09/12/christ-or-trinity/
      http://www.jrdkirk.com/2011/08/29/when-i-say-god/

  4. The Bible does speak to God’s people, God’s missional people actively engaged in working with God toward God’s missional goals. For churches not so engaged (for whatever reason)the Bible cannot but misspeak or seem silent or be misused in some of the ways specified in Daniel’s post. Or so it seems to me.

    Lee Wyatt

  5. Daniel,
    I’ve read Smith’s book and buy his critique. His way forward on the issues of exegesis seem to parallel thoughts of Ed Clowney that I learned along with you at a seminary that no longer exists. Do you see the “Clowney Rectangle” http://www.bible-resources.org/dox/BI363_Clowney_triangle as a helpful device for moving forward on the issue of interpretation? BTW the one insight I’d add to Clowney is in the application movement to make sure to include a good survey of the history of interpretation from a variety of orthodox traditions.
    Thanks for hosting this conversation!
    Sam

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