The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture
Brazos Press, 2011
240 pp., $22.99
Robert H. Gundry
But will these maneuvers work to solve the problem of pervasive interpretive pluralism? Smith himself admits that "various parts of scripture [such as the 'nasty things' said about Cretans in Titus 1:12-13] … do not clearly fit its gospel message centered on Jesus Christ." So he backtracks from reading in Scripture "every narrative, every prayer, every proverb, every law, every Epistle … always and only in light of Jesus Christ and God reconciling the world to himself through him" and says that the christological thread runs "more or less explicitly" through the Bible's "sometimes-meandering story" (emphasis added). To resist universalizing certain passages on the ground that they "do not clearly fit" the gospel doesn't solve the problem of pervasive interpretive pluralism, however, so long as opinions differ on what fits and what doesn't fit. Furthermore, though wanting to rein in pluralism by interpreting Scripture always and only in the light of the gospel concerning salvation through Jesus Christ, Smith lists this very salvation among the topics plagued by pervasive interpretive pluralism because of what he sees as Scripture's multivocality. You also have to ask whether a christological reading doesn't produce its own such pluralism in attempts to relate somehow to Christ the Cretan passage, the "grab-the-hot-looking-woman" passage (Deut. 21:10-14), imprecatory passages (e.g., Psalm 137:7-9), and other passages also cited by Smith as problematic for biblicism. And will whatever relations to Christ might be drawn seem any less strained than biblicists' using Scripture for guidelines on dating (to cite one of the many examples that Smith describes as kitschy)?
By the way, why shouldn't Scripture be mined for Christian behavioral guidelines relevant to this and that? No less a personage than Carl F. H. Henry, hardly a kitschmonger, once asked me face-to-face how I thought Christian young people should and should not behave on dates; and though Smith declares that the commands to greet one another with a holy kiss are "much more overt" than scriptural teachings against premarital sex (but what about the multiple prohibitions of fornication, a general term for extramarital sex?), Smith himself gives ground: "That is not to say that evangelical Christians will never have theologically informed moral and practical views of dating and romance [exemplary of 'further insights and implications of what the gospel means for belief and life in the world' for 'every new generation of believers'] …. But the significance and content of all such views will be defined completely in terms of thinking about them in view of the larger facts of Jesus Christ and the gospel—not primarily by gathering and arranging pieces of scriptural texts that seem to be relevant to such topics." Well and good, yet do the larger facts ever erase the pieces of scriptural texts ("pieces of" being pejorative, because Smith doesn't like prooftexting except when the texts feature God's reconciliation of the world to himself through Christ)? If not, those pieces retain every ounce of applicability. But if so, we're back to the plurality of differing opinions on applicability, as when—despite admittedly specific biblical statements to the contrary—Smith declares that larger scriptural implications "clearly favor" egalitarianism over complementarianism. Why doesn't he ascribe egalitarianism along with biblicism to American democratic individualism instead, unless his own individualism leads him to ascribe only his dislikes to American democratic individualism?
Nor does this failure of a christological reading stop at "strange" texts in the Bible's margins. For early on, Smith emphasizes that "[o]n most matters of significance ['essentials'] concerning Christian doctrine, salvation, church life, practice, and morality, different Christians—including [but not limited to] different biblicist Christians—insist that the Bible teaches positions that are divergent and often incompatible with one another." In the early church, Christology itself fell prey to pervasive interpretive pluralism, and increasingly does so again among nonbiblicist Christians. When it comes to such pluralism, then, reliance on a christological reading of the Bible proves just as "self-defeating" as biblicism does according to Smith.