The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture
Brazos Press, 2011
240 pp., $22.99
Robert H. Gundry
The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture is sure to sizzle before it fizzles; and fizzle it will, at least among the readers to whom it is primarily addressed: evangelical Christians. The author, Christian Smith, is a well-known sociologist who recently converted from evangelical Protestantism to Roman Catholicism but maintains the moniker "evangelical" and disclaims that the reasons for his conversion had very much to do with why he thinks biblicism isn't a truly evangelical reading of Scripture. But what does he mean by "biblicism," and by its making the Bible "impossible"? Biblicism makes the Bible impossible to put into practice, according to Smith; and as used by him, biblicism means an emphasis on the Bible's "exclusive authority, infallibility [or 'inerrancy'], perspicuity, self-sufficiency, internal consistency, self-evident meaning, and universal applicability," though not every version of biblicism contains all these ingredients, at least not all in equal measure.
How then does the foregoing constellation of emphases make the Bible impossible to put into practice? It does so by producing "pervasive interpretive pluralism," so that evangelical Christians differ widely on what they should believe and how they should behave; and their differences include important as well as unimportant matters. Thus "practice" includes belief as well as behavior, and "impossible" has to do with shared practices. For example, biblicists differ over human free will and divine sovereignty; penal satisfaction and Christus Victor; creation and evolution; sprinkling and immersion; divorce and remarriage; complementarianism and egalitarianism; just war and pacifism; pretribulationism and posttribulationism; amillennialism, premillennialism, and postmillennialism; everlasting torment and annihilation; soteriological exclusivism, inclusivisim, and universalism; and on and on. In other words, biblicism fails to produce the theological and behavioral unity that Smith thinks necessary to validate it. Furthermore, biblicism fosters using the Bible as a handbook for matters of diet, dating, gardening, good sex, alternative medicine, psychological counseling, business practices, and so on—all matters of little or no importance in the Bible, he avers.
Why then do biblicists go wrong? Because they mistakenly assume that the Bible contains no errors in whatever it says, always speaks clearly, and therefore can be understood correctly by any able- and fair-minded individual who reads it inductively. Giving rise to these assumptions have been the culture of American democratic individualism; the influence of Scottish commonsense realism and Baconian inductivism on and through Charles Hodge (1797-1878) and Benjamin War-field (1851-1921) at Princeton Theological Seminary (as though belief in the Bible's exclusive authority, infallibility, perspicuity, and other ingredients of biblicism don't date back at least to the Protestant Reformation!); the early 20th-century battle against theological liberalism on the part of Christian fundamentalists, who fathered (or grandfathered) current evangelicals; and the failure of early evangelicals (then called neo-evangelicals) to appropriate Karl Barth's nonbiblicist but antiliberal way of reading Scripture.
Undermining the biblicists' assumptions, according to Smith, are biblical texts that almost no reader, biblicists included, actually lives by, such as "Greet one another with a holy kiss"; that need explaining away by arbitrary appeals to cultural relativism, such as Paul's prohibiting women from braiding their hair; that seem so strange as to merit neglect, such as the statement, "Cretans are always liars, bad beasts, lazy bellies"; and that disagree with other biblical texts, such as the disallowing of women's speech in church meetings over against an allowance if their heads are covered.
How then does Smith propose to solve the problem of pervasive interpretive pluralism while maintaining a belief in the Bible's divine inspiration and avoiding a lapse into theological liberalism? His main answers: (1) by accepting the presence in the Bible of ambiguity, complexity, errors, contradictions, and thus the legitimacy of at least some different and even opposing interpretations of Scripture; (2) by importing extrabiblical theological concepts, such as that of the Trinity with its ontological categories of person and nature; (3) by submitting to "a stronger … ecclesial teaching office than biblicism has ever provided" (which answer, along with his book How to Go from Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic …, calls in question Smith's aforementioned claim that his conversion to Roman Catholicism had little to do with his rejection of biblicism); and, most important, (4) by reading Scripture christologically, à la Barth, so that its problematic passages and the different interpretations thereof recede in importance before the main message of salvation in Christ, the incarnate second person of the Trinity.