For this “Bible Week” on IM, I am reading some books I’ve not had a chance to look at before about how Christians relate to and deal with the Scriptures. Tonight I finished Christian Smith’s brand new book, The Bible Made Impossible, The: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture.
Scot McKnight commended this book with these words of high praise: “Here is a genuinely evangelical catholic understanding of scripture.” Scot has been doing a series on Bible Made Impossible over at Jesus Creed, which has prompted some interesting discussion.
In the introduction, Smith sets forth his purpose in writing:
This book addresses Christians, especially evangelicals, who believe that the Bible is a divine word of truth that should function as an authority for Christian faith and practice, and who want to espouse a coherent position that justifies and defends that belief. My contention here is that the American evangelical commitment to “biblicism,” which I will define and describe in detail below, is an untenable position that ought to be abandoned in favor of a better approach to Christian truth and authority.
• Bible Made Impossible, p. vii
More on the problems of “biblicism” later, and the “better approach” Smith commends. First, we need to see how he defines this “biblicism” he says is practiced by many American evangelicals.
Smith understands that this term is often used pejoratively, but he states his intention to use it in a more neutral way, to describe his observations about the way a broad swath of American evangelicalism actually views, speaks about, and practices its approach to the Bible. The “impossible” of the title refers to Smith’s claim that the “biblicism” he sees in the evangelical world “does not work as proposed and cannot function in a coherent way” (p. viii)
Christian Smith gives a precise description of “biblicism” so that the reader is clear about the particular theory and style of dealing with the Bible that he is critiquing. In his view, there are ten related assumptions and beliefs to biblicism.
Our task today is to think about his list and discuss whether or not he is giving an accurate picture of a view that is indeed pervasive throughout the American evangelical world.
Here are Smith’s points, as he summarizes them in Bible Made Impossible (p. 4f)—
- Divine Writing: The Bible, down to the detail of its words, consists of and is identical with God’s very own words written inerrantly in human language.
- Total Representation: The Bible represents the totality of God’s communication to and will for humans, both in containing all that God has to say to humans and in being the exclusive mode of God’s true communication.
- Complete Coverage: The divine will about all of the issues relevant to Christian belief and life are contained in the Bible.
- Democratic Perspicuity: Any reasonably intelligent person can read the Bible in his or her own language and correctly understand the plain meaning of the text.
- Commonsense Hermeneutics: The best way to understand biblical texts is by reading them in their explicit, plain, most obvious, literal sense, as the author intended them at face value, which may or may not involve taking into account their literary, cultural, and historical contexts.
- Solo Scriptura: The significance of any given biblical text can be understood without reliance on creeds, confessions, historical church traditions, or other forms of larger theological hermeneutical frameworks, such that theological formulations can be built up directly out of the Bible from scratch.
- Internal Harmony: All related passages of the Bible on any given subject fit together almost like puzzle pieces into single, unified, internally consistent bodies of instruction about right and wrong beliefs and behaviors.
- Universal Applicability: What the biblical authors taught God’s people at any point in history remains universally valid for all Christians at every other time, unless explicitly revoked by subsequent scriptural teaching.
- Inductive Method: All matters of Christian belief and practice can be learned by sitting down with the Bible and piecing together through careful study the clear “biblical” truths that it teaches.
- Handbook Model: The Bible teaches doctrine and morals with every affirmation that it makes, so that together those affirmations comprise something like a handbook or textbook for Christian belief and living, a compendium of divine and therefore inerrant teachings on a full array of subjects—including science, economics, health, politics, and romance. (This model is not really a separate characteristic, but rather the outlook generated by the first nine points.)
Smith understands that this is not a “formal” position held by evangelicals, and that different people and groups hold and emphasize various aspects of these points differently.
The point is not that biblicism is a unified doctrine that all of its adherents overtly and uniformly profess. The point, rather, is that this constellation of interrelated assumptions and beliefs informs and animates the outlooks and practices of major sectors of institutional and popular conservative American Protestantism, especially evangelicalism.
• Bible Made Impossible, p. 5
• • •
So, what do you think?
- Is Christian Smith fairly characterizing the view of the Bible held by “major sectors” of American evangelicalism?
- Is he overstating his case with regard to any of these points?
- Even if you don’t think all of Smith’s points are accurate, are there any that you would highlight as particularly troublesome for a healthy and robust view of Scripture?
- How might you qualify or change what he says with regard to any of these points?
- What examples can you suggest that you think either confirm or undercut his observations?