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.

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