The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture by Christian Smith

I liked this book. I know that in many quarters it has been panned, but equally so it has received good reviews from people I admire and respect. The reason for why it was panned by some was the perceived ‘attack’ Smith makes on the Biblicist position. What is the Biblicist positions? Well, why don’t we let Smith define it for himself:

By “biblicism” I mean a theory about the Bible that emphasizes together its exclusive authority, infallibility, perspicuity, self-sufficiency, internal consistency, self-evident meaning, and universal applicability.

The basic thesis of this book is that the biblicist position is untenable and Smith attempts to show why.

What I liked about this book is that Smith is not afraid to face some of the issues that many liberals attack conservatives about head on – and in doing so he has no fear that by saying “this theory does not hold up” that the rest of his theology becomes suspect. Smith is no liberal. He clearly says this:

I view the program of liberalism as an unworthy corrosion of historically orthodox, evangelical (again, in the best sense of that word) Christianity. I view theological liberalism—despite its good intentions—as naive intellectually, problematic in its typical ecclesial expression, and susceptible to unfortunate and sometimes reprehensible social and political expressions.

Smith sees the problem as one of pervasive interpretive pluralism. What does this mean. Smith defines it thus:

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. If the Bible is all that biblicism claims it to be, then Christians—especially those who share biblicist beliefs—ought to be able to come to a solid consensus about what it teaches, at least on most matters of importance. But they do not and apparently cannot.

Some examples are: Church Polity: Does the Bible teach a free-church congregational system, a Presbyterian church government, an Episcopal church polity, or something else?

Free Will and Predestination: Christians, especially Protestants, with any awareness of church history and theology know about the apparently irresolvable debate between believers over human free will versus the bondage of the will.

The Fourth Commandment: “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.” All Christians agree that this is one of the Ten Commandments. What does the command mean? What practically does it require? And, for that matter, which day of the week actually is this day to be kept holy?

The Morality of Slavery: The bloodiest and one of the most tragic episodes in all of American history was a civil war fought by myriad Bible-believing Christians on both sides, many of whom were equally convinced that the scriptures taught the rightness of slavery, on the one hand, and the imperative of abolition, on the other.

War, Peace, and Nonviolence; Charismatic gifts; atonement and justification.

On all these issues biblical christians disagree – and sometimes very strongly.

It is for this reason that Smith rejects the biblicists position. It is important to note that Smith is not ANTI Biblicist, just that it does not hold up to scrutiny:

“Biblicism is thus not so much directly “proved wrong” as a theory, as it is simply never achieved in real life. It is therefore self-defeated in relevance.”

One of Smith’s responses to the Biblicist position, and the one I think is most important and a good response, is to encourage evangelicals to make clearer distinctions between Dogma, Doctrine and opinion. He says:

“The problem is that Christians have an extremely strong tendency to inflate the centrality, sureness, and importance of their doctrines so as to turn them into dogmas. They also tend to do the same thing with their opinions by elevating them to the level of doctrine.”

“What I am suggesting here, then, is this: Christians, including evangelicals, need to learn better, first, how to put and keep their dogmas, doctrines, and opinions in their proper places, and then, second, to stop excluding, dismissing, discounting, and ignoring other Christians who do not deserve that kind of treatment. Everyone needs to take a hard look at their own rankings of their own beliefs and work on pulling down to their proper levels the doctrines that they tend to treat as dogmas and opinions that they tend to treat as doctrines or dogmas.”

This was a very helpful and useful discussion. Below I will give Smith’s other responses to the Biblicist position, but I will not comment on them – read the book to see his arguments:

1. The Centrality of Jesus. Here he takes Barth’s position – the Bible is God’s written Word but Jesus is THE Word. Everything has to be read in a Christological focus.

2. Embracing the Bible for what it Obviously Is:

3. Living with Spiritual Ambiguities – i.e. there are some tough things in Scripture which we may not be able to solve and that’s OK.

4. Dropping the Compulsion to Harmonize

Apart from (1), the Centrality of Jesus in the Scriptures – which is obviously right and paramount to any biblical reading of the Bible, Smith’s last three responses are not necessarily more superior to the biblicist position. However, I think this is a valuable book to read because it does face important issues which we need to understand head on and this book gives a great framework in tackling some of these issues.

I actually came to this book a Biblicist and I have come away a biblicist. But because of Smith I am now a biblicist which understands the weakness in my position and it has challenged me to not be too dogmatic, obnoxious and inflexible in defending a ‘theology’ when instead we should be defending a person – Jesus Christ the Creator of the Universe and Lord of All!

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