Bible Made Impossible: Final Reflections

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been offering my engagements with Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture.

You can find the first four installments here (pt 1), here (pt 2), here (pt 3), and here (pt 4).

My enthusiasm for Smith’s assessment and proposal continues in this final installment. He has put his finger on the problematic treatment of the Bible in evangelical circles, calling out the ways in which its understanding of scripture is insufficiently biblical, and insufficiently defined by the gospel.

Chapter 6, “Accepting Complexity and Ambiguity,” is bookended by two fantastic paragraphs that clearly articulate the problems with “evangelical biblicism”:

Ironcially, while biblicists claim to take the Bible with utmost seriousness for what it obviously teaches, their theory about the Bible drives them to try to make it something that it evidently is not. (127)

And then this:

The Anglican divine Richard Hooker put this well when he said about the Bible, “We must… take great heed, lest, in attributing unto scripture more than it can have, the incredibility of that do cause even those things which indeed it hath most abundantly, to be less reverently esteemed.” In other words, the more we try to make the Bible say allegedly important things that are in fact subsidiary, nonbinding, or perhaps not even clearly taught, the more we risk detracting form the crucial, central message of the Bible about God reconciling the world to himself in Jesus Christ. (148)

Biblicism, by insisting on the equality of every chapter and verse, creates a world in which everything we believe takes on equal significance. Deny the necessity of homeschooling and you’ve rejected the gospel. The importance of the Christological hermeneutic is that it allows back seat issues to stay in the back seat.

A final chapter from Smith works hard to articulate a third way between the conservative posture of biblicism and the strategies of liberalism or full-blown postmodernism. It is important for readers to appreciate that critical realism is, in fact, a true third way. No doubt it will be described as opening the back door for liberalism by many who hold to the position Smith wishes to advance. But that is plain wrong.

This final contribution is an accessible crash-course in hermeneutics and has the power to destabalize how we think about the Bible as an authoritative text. How do we, in fact, condemn slavery as morally reprehensible when the biblical writers seem so accepting of it? There are good reasons for our difference–and these are instructive for us when we think about what the Bible is and what we should be doing with it.

Smith’s book comes on the scene at an opportune time. As the evangelical right tightens its grip on evangelicalism more broadly, an tremendous number of believers are slipping through their fingers. Whether the conservative resurgence shows itself to be less-than-biblical because of a particular issue (e.g., the earth’s being 6,000 years old) or because of a holistic and yet inconsistent way of attempting to apply the Bible as an equally authoritative voice to all of life, those who leave biblicist worlds behind are reconfiguring what it means to confess that the Bible is the word of God.

So even though Smith will not doubt become another point at which the biblicist world points to encroaching liberalism and thereby solidifies anew its identity over against “them,” it also provides an invaluable tool to those who know that the biblicist Bible is, in fact, impossible–but who continue to believe that the Bible we have is, in fact, the word of God given to bear witness to the Word of God.

9 thoughts on “Bible Made Impossible: Final Reflections”

  1. I’m fairly new to this idea – and wondering … is there any place where the Bible claims to be written by more than humans?

    1. There are a couple of go-to passages:

      14 But you must continue with the things you have learned and found convincing. You know who taught you. 15 Since childhood you have known the holy scriptures that help you to be wise in a way that leads to salvation through faith that is in Christ Jesus. 16 Every scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character, 17 so that the person who belongs to God can be equipped to do everything that is good. (2 Timothy 3:14-17, from the CEB)

      Notice that it speaks of “inspiration,” but also that the point is to demonstrate that scripture therefore has a purpose: to make people wise for salvation in Jesus. That’s the sort of reading strategy Smith is encouraging us to adopt: read scripture to recognize the saving story of God in Christ.

      The other is 2 Peter 1:
      20 Most important, you must know that no prophecy of scripture represents the prophet’s own understanding of things, 21 because no prophecy ever came by human will. Instead, men and women led by the Holy Spirit spoke from God. (2 Peter 1:20-21, CEB)

      This passage, too, is about being sure that the message we have about Jesus is true. Jesus is the subject of OT prophecy. Smith’s point is that too often folks build from a theory of “inspiration” that fails to take note of the end for which inspiration is asserted; namely, we can have confidence that the scriptural story about God’s saving work in Christ is true.

  2. “Biblicism, by insisting on the equality of every chapter and verse, creates a world in which everything we believe takes on equal significance. Deny the necessity of homeschooling and you’ve rejected the gospel. The importance of the Christological hermeneutic is that it allows back seat issues to stay in the back seat.”

    This is so true. I think this also feeds division within the Church. Because every issue becomes of creedal importance, churches increasingly divide over non essentials.

  3. Does Smith refer to N.T. Wright’s first NTPG volume (esp. the first 150 pages or so)? It seems, from your summaries of Smith’s book, that much of what he has suggested has already been said. (As an aside, I have also thought your “storied theology” hermeneutic has roots in or is very similar to what Wright articulated almost 20 years ago. Even Wright was not quite breaking new ground then, either). Like Smith, Wright uses “critical realism” as an important piece of his hermeneutic between “history” and “theology”. Wright, it seems, is dealing with a slightly different issue than Smith. Upon closer reflection, however, the issues they both address are very much related, I think. I just seems that Smith has taken more space to articulate the particular problem (at least as he sees things).

    1. I’m not sure if Smith cites Wright at all (the book has endnotes, so I didn’t look at much in the way of references). He has done his own work on critical realism, and cites a longer engagement with this philosophical position that he himself has penned. I’m not sure which book of his it is, though.

      As for me, I confess to building on the best of what I was taught not only by N. T. Wright and Richard B. Hays (peace be upon them) but also by the Westminster Seminary (may she rest in peace) that had a strong biblical theology tradition.

  4. Hey Daniel,

    Thanks for posting about this book. I’ve been pretty dissatisfied with fundamentalism and liberalism and am pretty glad there’s a third way.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.