Review: ‘The Bible Made Impossible’ by Christian Smith

Introduction

If you want to know why you should read Christian Smith’s book The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture, then I have a challenge for you: go find 10 Christians, ask them what a “biblical” view of a particular topic is, and then count how many differing answers you get.

The Bible isn’t much use as an authority in people’s lives if Christians can’t agree on what it says. Most Protestants would probably agree that the Bible is accurate in everything it says—right before they disagree about 90 percent of what it says on women in ministry, speaking in tongues, abortion, eternal security, homosexuality, and so on.

Smith’s book challenges what he calls biblicism (definition below). I think his work does a good job of both critiquing the prevailing view of so many churches as well as providing a better alternative for reading the Bible.

Before We Begin

The disclaimer: this book was sent to me by Baker Academic as part of their blog review program. I was not chosen to review this book because I’d give it a favorable opinion, and I was not paid for my comments below.

A quick note: this won’t be an extensive review, as I have neither the room nor the will to record everything that Smith argues. I’ve done my best to faithfully present the message of his book, but I wanted to make it clear that the chapters usually had more information in them than what I noted in my review.

Now that we’ve gotten those things out of the way, on to the book!

The Book

In his chapter “The Impossibility of Biblicism”, Smith defines biblicism is “a particular theory about and style of using the Bible that is defined by a constellation of related assumptions and beliefs about the Bible’s nature, function, and purpose” (4). That constellation, he goes on to write, is comprised of the following:

  • Divine writing
  • Total representation
  • Complete coverage
  • Democratic perspicuity
  • Commonsense hermeneutics
  • Solo Scriptura
  • Internal harmony
  • Universal Applicability
  • Inductive method
  • Handbook model

These ten things are actually what a good number of Christians hear in church. The Bible is God’s own words, contains all necessary and relevant material for Christian life, and is best understood by a “plan, most obvious, literal sense” that doesn’t necessarily include the culture and literary context of the time in which it was written (4). Anything taught in the Bible is applicable for God’s people at all times. All passages fit together into a consistent body of instruction (5). As for “democratic perspicuity”, Smith defines it as the following:

“Any reasonably intelligent person can read the Bible in his or her own language and correctly understand the plain meaning of the text” (5).

Smith goes on to note how pervasive biblicism is in evangelical culture in general and conservative Christianity in particular. He lists both popular-level examples as well as statements from various denominations and colleges (the Evangelical Free Church in America and Dallas Seminary, to give two examples).

Now, all ten of these make up biblicism, but in my opinion, the idea of democratic perspicuity is the one that is the most targeted in this book. Why? Because Smith argues that the presence of pervasive interpretive pluralism undermines the claims of biblicism. That’s another way of saying that if the Bible was so clearly and easily understood as biblicists claim, then they wouldn’t disagree on what the Bible says.

“So the question is this: if the Bible is given by a truthful and omnipotent God as an internally consistent and perspicuous text precisely for the purpose of revealing to humans correct beliefs, practices, and morals, then why is it that the presumably sincere Christians to whom it has been given cannot read it and come to common agreement about what it teaches? I know of no good, honest answer to that question” (26).

It needs to be pointed out–because a lot of people tend not to make this distinction–that by questioning biblicism, Smith is not denying the divine inspiration or authority of the Bible. He is criticizing a particular method of seeing and reading the Bible, not the authority of the Scriptures themselves.

In “The Extent and Source of Pervasive Interpretive Pluralism”, Smith provides further examples of the many interpretations Christians have of various issues, such as the free will of man, whether to obey the Fourth Commandment, and equality of the sexes. In further response to people who insist that it’s okay to disagree on non-essentials, Smith also notes that Christians disagree on the Atonement, which stands at the heart of the Christian faith. Smith also critiques possible responses to his claims and elaborates on how he thinks Christians arrive at different conclusions when interpreting a biblical passage.

In “Some Relevant History, Sociology, and Psychology”, Smith explores the foundations of American biblicism, which he traces back to Charles Hodge and Benjamin Warfield and the influence that Scottish commonsense realism had on how people read the Bible. That philosophy, Smith argues, emphasizes the capacity of human beings to grasp the nature of an object (55). “Happily, this assumed philosophical background guaranteed that the biblical facts—represented in passages of scripture—would be self-evident and clear, even univocal, in their meaning, their relation to other biblical facts, and their relation to the world” (56). Smith proposes critical realism as a better alternative to reading the Bible than philosophical influences that have proven to be false. Smith also explores the psychological and sociological reasons as to why pervasive interpretive pluralism is not more troubling to biblicists.

In “Subsidiary Problems with Biblicism”, Smith explores the other problems that come from biblicism. I’ll list three of them here. Ignoring the commands of certain texts—greet each other with a holy kiss, for instance—is one of them. So is making an artificial determination of what passages are still applicable and which ones were only culturally relevant for their time. It also doesn’t know what to do with a passage like Titus 1:12–13, in which Paul appears to display ethnic prejudice. Biblicism also does not take into account that the Bible does not contain everything Christians have needed to articular their faith, which is why the word “trinity” is not found anywhere in its pages. Smith also notes that the first people to rely on a solo Scriptura reading of the Bible were people who were opposed to the First Great Awakening (85). He writes:

“The liberals’ motive was usually to overthrow what they viewed as the thick and oppressive dogmatic systems of orthodox Calvinism. To do so, these liberal Protestant leaders of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries hammered away against doctrinally concerned evangelicals with the slogan of returning to ‘the Bible only’ as a means to purify theology in order to survive at the simplicity of biblical beliefs” (85).

Sound familiar?

In “The Christocentric Hermeneutical Key”, Smith argues for an approach to the Bible that sees Jesus Christ as the center of the story.

“Truly believing that Jesus Christ is the real purpose, center, and interpretive key to scripture causes one to read the Bible in a way that is very different than believing the Bible to be an instruction manual containing universally applicable divine oracles concerning every possible subject it seems to address” (98).

This means, among other things, that we don’t first start with getting our theology about Christ right before we “move on” (my words, not Smith’s) to other matters to try and decide how to do the “Christian” thing in a given situation. In my experience, it’s easy to start with Christ and then move on to treat the Bible like a moral handbook. Christ is the purpose of Scripture, and the purpose he must always be.

“The Bible is not about offering things like a biblical view of dating—but rather about how God the Father offered his Son, Jesus Christ, to death to redeem a rebellious world from the slavery and damnation of sin. The Bible is not about conveying divine principles for starting and managing a Christian business—but is instead about Christ on the cross triumphing over all principalities and powers and so radically transforming everything we consider to be our business. … Scripture then ceases to be about teaching about biblical manhood and womanhood or biblical motherhood and fatherhood—and becomes instead the story of how a covenant-making and promise-keeping God took on full human personhood in Jesus Christ in order to reconcile this alienated and wrecked world to the eternally gracious Father.” (111)

Smith doesn’t say that this Christocentric approach will solve all of our interpretative problems. However, “it reorients our approach to scripture in a more truly evangelical direction that promises to change the grounds upon which we approach differences in understandings about Christian faith and practice” (121).

In his chapter “Accepting Complexity and Ambiguity”, Smith argues that we need to accept the Bible for what it is, not what we want it to be. The real matter of Scripture is clear—that is, the message of the Gospel—but most issues are not. We need to live with that complexity. “When scripture is sometimes internally at odds with itself, even apparently self-contradictory, we would do better to let stand the tensions and inconsistencies than to force them into an artificial harmony” (133). This can also help Christians to be more humble toward those groups with whom they disagree, as well as realize that not everything that was commanded in the Bible at one point in history needs to be obeyed at all points in history. (My personal example: God’s test of Abraham in Genesis 22 is not a timeless command to all fathers to sacrifice their sons on an altar.)

In “Rethinking Human Knowledge, Authority, and Understanding”, Smith suggests ways Christians can better engage the Bible. He notes that evangelicals have bought into the thinking of the Enlightenment in general and epistemological foundationalism in particular. The latter is “a conviction that rational humans can and must identify a common foundation of knowledge directly up from and upon which every reasonable thinker can and ought to build a body of completely reliable knowledge and understanding” (150). Writes Smith:

“Because of the taken-for-granted dominance of foundationalism until recently, few evangelicals even noticed that this move was self-defeating, since biblicism requires that scripture’s authority be validated by scripture alone and not a secular modern philosophy of knowledge” (151).

Instead of starting with the inspiration of the Bible, Smith suggests that readers not only start with both the content of the passages but also learn how the Bible came to be assembled and how Christians of different time periods have interpreted it.

What I Like

What’s not to like?

–  Smith is absolutely right: the Bible is not clear on matters, and if you need any more proof of that, just look at how many biblicists span how many denominations. Christians believe in inerrancy and perspicuity but will then disagree on what the Bible is supposedly clear about. The claims of biblicists do not hold up in practice, and that’s because the claims themselves are faulty.

–  The writing in the book is wonderful. It’s also complex enough that I had to re-read several sentences to grasp what Smith is saying. (Like the Bible itself, The Bible Made Impossible is not always perspicuous.)

–  Smith deals with a number of difficult passages that biblicism is unable to determine whether they should be followed today. Can Christians eat pork or have tattoos? Those are two of the many, many examples that Smith cites on pages 70–71.

–   Smith rightly contests the idea that the Bible’s claims to inspiration are synonymous with the claims of biblicism.

“What is clearly correct in biblicism, according to the Bible’s self-attestation, is scripture’s divine revelation. Nothing in this book has questioned that belief. But none of these biblical passages themselves obviously or necessarily teaches divine writing, total representation, complete coverage, democratic perspicuity, commonsense hermeneutics, solo Scriptura, internal harmony, universal applicability, inductive method, or the handbook model (as I described them above) To get from the apparently relevant scriptural texts to any of these ten biblicist beliefs requires supplementary argumentative work that relies on inferences and employs additional scriptural texts.” (pg. 81)

–  On pages 113–114, Smith correctly notes that every Christian, everywhere, is in the process of interpreting the Bible: “The only question is how honest or in denial about that fact we are. Biblicism is a strategy that pushes us toward denial.” (114)

–  Smith is clear when he says that he’s not challenging the idea that Scripture is divinely inspired but rather, an erroneous view that evangelicals have taken to it. It’s good that he says this (more than once), because our Christian culture in America is such that if you challenge a particular view of the Bible, then there’s a good chance that someone’s going to question whether you think the Bible came from God. A lot of people do not make the distinction between the inspiration of Scripture and what they interpret Scripture to mean.

–  Smith rightly says we should learn from the early church not only what books belong in the Bible but also what those books mean. In my experience, Protestant churches have largely divorced themselves from church history and instead focus on the Protestant Reformation to our present day. That’s 1,500 years of Christian theology and experience that rarely gets discussed (and I suspect it’s because a lot of what Christians believed then is not what Protestants believe now).

–  On page 117, Smith writes that it is Jesus Christ, not the Bible, is the most important revelation of God. I loved this part of the book. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard someone say that the Bible is the ultimate authority (as Michael Kruger does in Canon Revisited; click here for my review) and wanted to shout, “But what does that make Jesus?!” Smith says that this view is unbiblical, and there’s no limit to the number of “Amens!” I want to give to that point.

“The Bible is of course crucial for the Christian church and life. But it does not trump Jesus Christ as the true and final Word of God. The Bible is a secondary, subsidiary, functional, written word of God, the primary purpose of which is to mediate, to point us to, to give true testimony about the living Jesus Christ” (117–118).

–  I really like this quote:

“Regardless of the actual Bible that God has given his church, biblicists want a Bible that is different. They want a Bible that answers all their questions, that tells them how to have marital intimacy, that gives principles for economics and medicine and science and cook—and does so inerrantly. They essentially demand—in God’s name, yet actually based on a faulty modern philosophy of language and knowledge—a sacred text that will make them certain and secure, even though that is not actually the kind of text that God gave” (128).

What I Didn’t Like

–  Smith’s solution to Biblicism is to promote a Christocentric way of looking at Scripture, instead of treating the Bible like a spiritual how-to book. The problem is, I’ve seen biblicists insist that we need to read the Bible by using Jesus as our lens and understanding that the Scriptures are ultimately about him. (Kevin DeYoung of The Gospel Coalition makes a similar point in his review of the book. His critique is far less favorable than mine.)

Smith does address this critique:

“Nobody ends up explicitly denying that Christ is the purpose, center, meaning, and key to understanding scripture. But in actual practice Christ gets sidelined by the interest in defending every proposition and account as inerrant, universally applicable, contemporarily applicable, and so on, in ways that try to make the faith ‘relevant’ for everyday concerns” (109).

– A potential problem with the Christocentric approach—and this “problem” might actually be my having not thought through this enough—is what to do with passages in the Bible that seem to go against the character of Jesus. Take, for instance, the book of Joshua in which the Israelites are commanded to kill their enemies. That doesn’t sound like Jesus. So if the Bible points to Christ and should be understood through him, then what do we do with the passages that seem to violate Christ’s principles? Are they not to be included in the canon? Are they to be reinterpreted? (Should Joshua be read as an allegory and not as a literal account?) Smith’s book didn’t address this.

Conclusion

Smith’s book is a must-read for Christians, both for those who have been questioning their traditional understanding of the Bible and for those who see no problem with their model at all. It challenges how you think about Scripture without denying its authority. It not only adequately critiques biblicism but also offers a different (and better) model in its place.

Do yourself a favor: pick up this book. You won’t regret it.

Book Details

Publisher: Brazos Press, 2011

Pages: 220, including footnotes and the index

Hardcover

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