Christian Smith. The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture. Brazos Press, 2011 (220 pages)
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. | What follows is not an attack on Christian authority or the Bible. It is rather a critical interrogation of certain aspects of one specific account of biblical authority that I think reason and evidence show is impossible to defend and employ with integrity. (vii)
In order for evangelical biblicism to appear to work, therefore, those who believe in it have to engage in various forms of textual selectivity, denial, and contortion — which actually end up violating biblicist intentions. (viii)
…I am suggesting, therefore, that biblicism of the kind I describe below represents the epistemological center of gravity of much of American evangelicalism… (viii)
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. (viii)
..what I say here is simply that the biblicism that in much of American evangelicalism is presupposed to be the cornerstone to Christian truth and faithfulness is misguided and impossible. It does not and cannot live up to its own claims. (ix)
My line of reasoning in this book will run as follows. First, I will argue that most biblicist claims are rendered moot by a more fundamental problem (which few biblicists ever acknowledge) that undermines all the supposed achievements of biblicism: the problem of pervasive interpretive pluralism. [PIP] (x)
Having made that primary case, I will then turn more briefly to a subsidiary examination of the larger question of the defensibility of biblicism generally. My argument focuses on the fact that the Bible contains a variety of texts that are problematic in different ways and that biblicist (among other) readers rarely know how to handle. (xi)
In order not to let these problematic texts endanger their formal theory of the Bible, biblicists tend to respond in three ways. The first is simply to ignore the problematic texts, essentially pretending that they do not exist. The second is to “interpret” the problematic texts as if they say things that they do not in fact say. the third is to develop elaborate contortions of highly unlikely scenarios and explanations — of the sort to which nobody would ever resort in any other part of life — which seem to rescue the texts from the problems. (xii)
In addition, I will show, first, that biblicism itself is not a self-evident, much less necessary, teaching of the Bible about itself, and, second, that biblicism has some problematic, pernicious pastoral consequences for many thoughtful youth raised in biblicist traditions. (xii)
My proposals assume that biblicism can be escaped not by turning away from an evangelical approach to the Bible but rather by becoming even more truly evangelical in the reading of scripture. (xii)
Part 1: The Impossibility of Biblicism
1. Biblicism and the Problem of Pervasive Interpretive Pluralism
The “biblicism” that pervades much of American evangelicalism is untenable and needs to be abandoned in favor of a better approach to Christian truth and authority. By untenable I do not simply mean that it is wrong, but rather that it is literally impossible, at least when attempted consistently on its own terms. (3)
What is Biblicism? By “biblicism” I mean 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, purpose, and function. That constellation is represented by ten assumptions or beliefs:
- Divine Writing: The Bible, down to the details 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 humanity, 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.
The prior nine assumptions and beliefs generate a tenth viewpoint that — although often not stated in explications of biblicist principles and beliefs by its advocates — also commonly characterizes the general biblicist outlook, particularly as it is received and practiced in popular circles:
- (10.) 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.
…popular biblicism was driven not by fellowship with the historic church but by the particular sensibilities of life in a postrevolutionary, nineteenth-century, individualistic, republican democracy. (6)
Popular, local, folk, and personal biblicism, however, are not free-floating and self-generating. They are contextualized and cultivated, if not sometimes outright justified and authorized, by more formal, institutional, and scholarly expressions of biblicism on which they ultimately depend. (12)
Biblicist leaders and scholars at reputable Christian denominations, seminaries, colleges, and parachurch ministries may dismiss or disdain the popular biblicism embodied in folk Christianity, but popular biblicist kitsch is the fruit of the larger biblicist culture that at least some of those leaders and scholars sustain. (16)
The Problem of Pervasive Interpretive Pluralism. Consider the following four hypothetical scenarios. Imagine first an official state road map that four people all wanting to drive to the same destination consult for directions; each person decides on a different route as the best one to take to that destination. Picture next a pair of army-certified binoculars that five commanding officers who are meeting in war council use to assess their distant enemy’s position, strength, and movements; each officer reports quite different accounts of what they see of their enemy’s situation, and each one therefore recommends different battle strategies. Then imagine a manufacturer-authorized owner’s manual for a fancy new camera that all the shutterbug members of a family study carefully; each individual comes away insisting on very different methods for proper use of the camera. Finally, consider a well-known cookbook containing a recipe that all the contestants in a particular cooking-skills competition must prepare; the contestants, though they vow that they cooked up the same recipe from the same cookbook, each produce a dish that is in some way distinct from all the others. (16-17)
These four hypothetical scenarios depict something like the quandary in which biblicist believers find themselves. The very same Bible — which biblicists insist is perspicuous and harmonious — gives rise to divergent understandings among intelligent, sincere, committed readers about what it says about most topics of interest. Knowledge of “biblical” teachings, in short, is characterized by pervasive interpretive pluralism. | What that means in consequence is this: in a crucial sense it simply does not matter whether the Bible is everything that biblicists claim theoretically concerning its authority, infallibility, inner consistency, perspicuity, and so on, since in actual functioning the Bible produces a pluralism of interpretations. (17)
Furthermore and very importantly, none of the differences among users that arose in these scenarios will ever get resolved simply by their focusing and insisting on the believed official, certified, or authorized qualities of the road map, binoculars, owner’s manual, and cookbook per se. Merely Asserting those believed facts itself contributes nothing to solving the functional problems of multiple, diverse, and incompatible “readings” of or through them. Likewise, neither do increasingly insistent declarations of biblicist beliefs about the inerrancy, reliability, harmony, and perspicuity of the Bible actually address the fact and problem of pervasive interpretive pluralism concerning scripture, which is a major problem. (17)
Evangelicals, all claiming a common biblical norm, are reading contradictory theological formulations on many of the major issues they address … If evangelicals cannot discover a way to move more effectively toward theological consensus, can they still maintain in good conscience their claim to biblical authority as a hallmark? – Robert K. Johnston
According to Tertullian, scriptural “ambiguity” and the possibility of reading the Bible in different ways means that “a controversy over the Scriptures can clearly produce no other effect than help to upset either the stomach or the brain.” (21)
It will not suffice to respond simply by reciting the mantra, “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, charity,” because may of these matters that sustain multiple “biblical” views that cause division are essentials — particularly as viewed by many biblicists. (24)
Such four-views and three-views books may provide theological inquirers helpful surveys of historical Christian disagreements about matters of significance — which does serve a good purpose and can be interesting. But in the end the books themselves may distract us from the larger, more serious problem they represent: that on important matters the Bible apparently is not clear, consistent, and univocal enough to enable the best-intentioned, most highly skilled, believing readers to come to agreement as to what it teaches. That is an empirical, historical, undeniable, and ever-present reality. It is, in fact, the single reality that has most shaped the organizational and cultural life of the Christian church, which now, particularly in the United States, exists in a state of massive fragmentation. (25)
Recall that among committed inerrantists we find those who believe in “predestination” and “free will,” in “premillennial” and “postmillennial” eschatology, in “infant baptism” and “believer’s baptism,” in the “elder rule” and “congregational rule.” On almost every important interpretive question in every biblical book, we find a wide variety of “inerrantist” readings. So it is clear that inerrancy does not guarantee a correct reading of Scripture, nor does it prevent all sorts of exegetical tomfoolery … Even though evangelicals deny the diversity of Scripture, the theological diversity within evangelicalism is a good and ready indicator of Scripture’s truer nature … It is hardly conceivable that evangelicals could assent to so many differing and contradictory viewpoints if the Bible spoke as clearly and univocally as we are wont to suppose. – Kenton Sparks
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)
…the actual functional outcome of the biblicist view of scripture belies biblicism’s theoretical claims about the Bible. Something is wrong in the biblicist picture that cannot be ignored. (26)
2. The Extent and Source of Pervasive Interpretive Pluralism
…the differences cannot be ignored, dismissed, or minimized. They are real and concern important matters. The following examples indicate only some of those differences.
Church Polity (28); Free Will and Predestination (29); The Fourth Commandment (29); The Morality of Slavery (30); Gender Difference and Equality (30); Wealth, Prosperity, Poverty, and Blessing (31); War, Peace, and Nonviolence (32); Charismatic Gifts 933); Atonement and Justification (33); God-Honoring Worship (34); General Christian Relation to Culture (36);
Given this pluralism of arguments, we might ask: in what sense does or can the bible actually function as an instructive, issue-clarifying authority for the open-minded Bible believer who simply wants to know what the scriptures teach about gender roles, marriage relations, and the place of women in church ministry? In actual practice, it does not and apparently cannot serve as such an authority. (31)
…apparently smart, well-intentioned scripture scholars in fact do read the same set of texts and come away making arguably compelling cases for opposing if not incompatible beliefs on a matter of significance for Christian personal and church practice. (31)
What is clear in all this, however, again, is that, upon a careful study of the biblical bases of the various alternative positions, it is entirely possible for well-meaning and informed students of scripture to justify very different “biblical” views on the matter — it actually happens, and has so for centuries of church history. And, given biblicist assumptions, fully embracing any one “biblical” position on war also necessitates ignoring, discounting, or dramatically reinterpreting those scriptural passages that inconveniently contradict the position embraced. Biblicism is thus again skewered on at least one of the many horns of the beast of pervasive interpretive pluralism. (33)
The debates, in other words, are both biblical and (I think) metabiblical — which helps to explain why they are so interminable. (36)
In truth, there is no such thing as evangelicalism. [It is made up of] extremely diverse coalitions dominated by scores of self-appointed and independent-minded religious leaders. – Nathan Hatch
American evangelicalism, I maintain, lacks a positive, shared, biblically grounded belief system and identity. The view of evangelicals in Britain, apparently, does not look much better. Therefore evangelicalism has often, unfortunately, held itself together as a movement by reliance on the negative forces and mechanisms involved in fighting against alien groups and movements that seem threatening, such as liberal Protestantism and “secular humanism” (and, although to a lesser extent lately, Roman Catholicism). Yet that dynamic does not reflect well the original vision of neo-evangelicalism’s founders, such as C. F. H. Henry, Harold Ockenga, and Edwin Carnell. Something is wrong with this picture.
Considering Possible Biblicist Replies.
…blame-the-deficient-readers answer (38) [I'm right. They're wrong.]
…lost-original-autographs explanation (38) [None of these interpretive problems would apply to the "original autographs".]
…noetically-damaged-reader reply (38) [The effects of sin -- that is, the corruption of their capacities for inner thought and knowledge.]
…supernatural-confusion explanation (38) [God desires only some of those who call themselves by the name of Christ to understand biblical truth and so withholds the illumination of the Holy Spirit from many, but not all Christians, so that some cannot understand scripture rightly.]
…inclusive-higher-synthesis response (39) [The single, coherent divine word of truth in the Bible is so complex and multidimensional that it actually encompasses and is reflected in all the divergent and seemingly incompatible views of the truth that different Christians read in the Bible.]
…Purposefully-ambiguous-revelation thesis (39) [God has intentionally provided and ambiguous scripture that would purposively cause disagreement and division in order to achieve some greater good...]
Biblicism as a theory contains flaws that it cannot explain away, and such flaws seem to make it impossible for its believers to put it into practice with integrity and coherence. The problem of pervasive interpretive pluralism calls into question at least some of the beliefs of biblicism because it reveals how biblicism sets up expectations that simply are not met in practice. (42)
The Reality of Multivocality. What seems to happen, stated oversimply, is something like this. Christians, including most biblicists, sit down with the biblical text to try to grasp what it teaches and find that, lo and behold, it contains and reflects a vast and confusing array of terms, concepts, images, genres, styles, contexts, narratives, purposes, statements, and arguments. They often do their finest to identify some overarching theme, consistent thread, or interpretive framework that will bring order and coherence to the texts. Let us call these interpretive “paradigms.” Sometimes these are identified in the attempt to provide a comprehensive grasp of the Bible as a whole. For some the overarching paradigm turns out to be salvation history. For others it is the covenant and election. For yet others the organizing frame is the idea of historical dispensations. Some say the paradigm is the idea of the kingdom of God. Some claim it is divine liberation from all forms of oppression. For some readers, it is the contrast between law and grace. Still for others the thread is simple, unconditional divine love and acceptance of humanity. Then again, others think that the best organizing paradigm revolves around the ideas of divine command, obedience, disobedience, judgment, punishment, and reward. | Sometimes, by contrast, Bible readers identify paradigms operating at an “intermediate” level of interpretation that are designed to make sense of a particular doctrinal or ethical issue. Some, for instance, believe scripture teaches peace and nonviolence. Others adopt the paradigm of a “consistent ethic of life.” Yet others hear the scriptures revolving around the issue of the need for people to experience a public conversion, to invite Christ into their heart, to make a public profession of faith, in order to “go to heaven.” Some believe the Bible centrally teaches the inexorable degeneration of human society and the singular call of believers to work to “win the lost” and “save souls.” Still others read the Bible as calling for determined social and political reform that will help usher Christ’s kingdom into history through an ever-expanding movement of justice and righteousness. (43-44)
In any case, no matter which metainterpretive paradigm Christians adopt, a great deal of scriptural text can be organized to make sense within it — some texts quite easily so and others only with some force and twisting. But, in all instances — and crucial for present purposes — there is always a significant set of texts that do not make sense, do not seem relevant, and do not harmonize or fit with the given larger thematic paradigm. Let us call those anomalous passages of scripture the”leftover” texts. (44)
Another crucial fact about such leftover texts is this: those that are anomalous for one paradigm often turn out to be core texts in a different paradigm. What is leftover to one framework is fundamental to another. …But no paradigm accounts for all the texts. (44)
The goal of any given legitimacy- and coherence-seeking paradigm vis-a-vis its leftover texts is to prevent them from discrediting itself as an adopted paradigm. This is generally accomplished in one of two ways. The first and easiest is simply to ignore the leftover texts, to learn to act as if they do not exist. Probably every biblical paradigm does this, though often — especially when most successful — without realizing it. The second means to avoid the discrediting effect of leftover texts is to formulate explicit, ad hoc explanations about why those texts actually do not say what they appear to say, to explain how what they “really” mean does not actually contradict the paradigm in question. (44-45)
…the Bible is multivocal in its plausible interpretive possibilities: it can and does speak to different listeners in different voices that appear to say different things. Whatever biblicist theories say ought to be true about the Bible, in their actual, extensive experience using the Bible in practice, Christians recurrently discover that the Bible consists of irreducibly multivocal, polysemic, and multivalent texts (polysemy means “multiple meanings” and multivalence means “many appeals or values”). This means that the Bible often confronts the reader with “semantic indeterminacy.” (47)
Therefore, when all of the multivocality of words, passages, and thematic groups of passages are added together, the Bible as a whole is exponentially more multivocal, polysemic, and multivalent. As a result, church history is replete with multiple credible understandings, interpretations, and conclusions about the Bible’s teachings. This makes scripture somewhat “semantically indeterminate,” in that the exact meanings of its texts are underdetermined by the words of the texts themselves. those who fail to see this multivocality and polysemy of scripture — who instead insist on the combination of perspicuity and internal consistency — can do so only by forgetting that they interpret the bible from within well-developed community of interpretation relying on particular (though, to them, invisible) hermeneutical tools and paradigms that many other biblicists do not share. (48)
Short of a divine miracle, the bible therefore cannot function as an authority today, whether or not the Holy Spirit is involved, until it is interpreted and made sense of by readers. Every scriptural teaching is mediated through human reading and active interpretation, which involve choosing one among a larger number of possible readings. Thus every scriptural teaching is subject to the complexities and different outcomes of the interpretive process. (51)
Faith itself gives rise to criticism, for faith is discriminating. It distinguishes between the kernel and the husk, what is central and what is peripheral in the Bible. The truth of the Word of God is not self-evident even in the Bible, …it must be dug out through diligent searching that is at the same time faithful and critical. – Donald Bloesch
It is not that no biblical evidence can be garnered to support any one belief or conclusion. Each approach has at least some supporting evidence, which is what keeps it alive. But the textual evidence taken as a whole does not seem to be enough to clearly validate one “best” interpretation and so settle the debate, leading most or all reasonable Bible readers to converge on that view. (52)
At face value, Scripture does not seem to furnish us with one divine theology; it gives us numerous theologies … The Bible does not offer a single, well-integrated univocal theology; it offers instead numerous overlapping but nonetheless distinctive theologies! – Kenton Sparks
We are listening, not to a single voice, not even to a single choir in harmony, but to several choirs singing different songs with some protest groups jamming in the wings. – Christopher Wright
The multivocality and polysemy of the Bible, and the diversity and division to which they give rise, are undeniable, historical, empirical, phenomenological facts. (53)
3. Some Relevant History, Sociology, and Psychology
The Bible is a plain book … intelligible by the people [who are] everywhere assumed to be competent to understand what is written. – Charles Hodge
The issue is not, what does the Bible teach? but, Is what the Bible teaches true? – Benjamin Warfield
…as their teachings later passed through the scorching flames o the modernist-fundamentalist battles of the early twentieth century, it was often their weaker, more simplistic ideas that shaped the thinking of subsequent generations of evangelicals. (57)
…the Bible does not need to be interpreted, that — in contrast to a “subjective” view, in which the scriptural interpreter makes “precarious” judgments about truths scripture teaches — the truths of the Bible are objectively evident. | Such views are intelligible only within the larger presupposed framework of Scottish commonsense realism, the Baconian theory of science, and the picture theory of language. yet these eighteenth- and nineteenth-century philosophies and outlooks have subsequently proved to be untenable — and for good reasons. they simply do not work, not for evangelicals or for anyone else. They are erroneous. Perception, knowledge, science, and language do not function in the real world the way these theories say they do. To build scriptural theological orthodoxy on them is therefore to build on a foundation of sand. (58)
…the philosophical assumptions on which Hodge and Warfield built their theologies of the Bible are seriously problematic. This need not lead us to general epistemic skepticism or force us into Kantian idealism, arbitrary subjectivism, or theological liberalism — there are better alternatives to those options. One in particular, I think, is critical realism. (59)
To insist in the name of Christian theological orthodoxy on preserving these outdated and flawed philosophical positions in order to underwrite a particular approach to the Bible is counterproductive and intellectually obscurantist. If anything, the fact that biblicism was built upon these naive philosophical positions shows from yet another angle how problematic it is. Again, biblicism simply does not work, even taken on its own terms. This brief historical inquiry helps to explain why: biblicism presupposed a set of philosophical assumptions about language, perception, knowledge, and science that were rightly abandoned by informed thinkers a long time ago. Biblicists apparently have not yet entirely realized that or come to terms with its implications.
Why Pervasive Interpretive Pluralism Is Not More Troubling to Biblicists: Sociological and Psychological Conjectures. We know sociologically that the principle of “homophily” (love for and attraction to what is similar to oneself) is one of the strongest forces operating in social life. … Most people — including most biblicists — tend to live in relatively “small” worlds, in the subcultures and social circles with which they are most at home and comfortable. (60)
…evangelicals tend to live in more religiously homogeneous worlds than most (though not all) other religious Americans. (60-61)
We also know sociologically that people’s personal perceptions, concerns, and evaluations are strongly shaped by the social networks in which their lives are embedded. (61)
Moreover, people — biblicist and otherwise — can and often do limit the diversity of their network ties to minimize people quite unlike them, precisely in order to reduce the existential discomfort of having to deal with contradictory beliefs, values, and commitments that such ties normally entail. (61)
But this response is in the end a form of denial. (62)
…identity-formation-through-difference-and-tension mechanism …different communities of faith come to “need” others with whom they disagree in order to help sustain their internal identity commitments. Every group within a larger religious ecology becomes dependent on those they oppose in part to sustain their own existence and sense of distinct self. (62)
So, biblicists may not be very troubled by interpretive pluralism because many draw much of the strength of their ecclesial and perhaps personal lives from policing the symbolic boundaries that those differences create. (63)
Second, building in-group identity and commitment through difference from out-groups has the almost inevitable effect of each group ceasing to take the substantive claims and positions of those out-groups seriously. The point becomes not to understand the other’s reasons, perspectives, and beliefs, or to honor them as fellow believers and come to a deeper understanding and perhaps resolution of differences. The point, rather, is to remain on guard from being contaminated by the out-group or allowing them to grow in influence. (63)
I have no interest in psychoanalyzing individual biblicists, but I think it is fair to say that the general psychological structure underlying biblicism is one of a particular need to create order and security in an environment that would be otherwise chaotic and in error. That orientation seems itself to be driven by fear of disorder and discomfort with things not being “the way they ought to be.” Aversion to disorder and falsehood is a common human trait. But some people evidence it more strongly than others. I suspect that there is a correlation between this trait and attraction to biblicism. (64)
4. Subsidiary Problems with Biblicism
The central problem is that biblicism is discredited by pervasive interpretive pluralism. (67)
Blatantly Ignored Teachings. There are myriad biblical passages that contain clear commands and teachings (which the logic of biblicism would compel readers to follow) but that most biblicists do not obey and have absolutely no intention of obeying. (68)
On purely logical grounds, the fact that biblicists ignore clear biblical commands does nothing itself to impeach or condemn biblicist theory — it could simply be that biblicism as a theory is correct and yet that biblicists as people are selectively disobedient. But I do not think that is the case. The blatantly ignored teaching observed here reveals more than unevenness in Christian obedience. It reveals, rather, a flaw in the biblicism itself. (68)
Arbitrary Determinations of Cultural Relativism. …biblicists very often engage in what we might call “uneven and capriciously selective literalism.” (70)
Consider the broad range of problems this difficulty creates.
- May God’s people never eat rabbit or pork (Lev. 11:6-7)?
- May a man never have sex with his wife during her monthly period (Lev. 18:19)?
- …or wear clothes woven of two kinds of materials (Lev. 19:19)?
- Should Christians never wear tattoos (Lev. 19:28)?
- Should those who blaspheme God’s name be stoned to death (Lev. 24:10-24)?
- Ought Christians to hate those who hate God (Ps. 139:21-22)?
- Ought believers to praise God with tambourines, cymbals, and dancing (Ps. 150:4-5)?
- Should Christians encourage the suffering and poor to drink beer an wine in order to forget their misery (Prov. 31:6-7)?
- Should parents punish their children with rods in order to save their souls from death (Prov. 23:13-14)?
- Does much wisdom really bring much sorry and more knowledge more grief (Eccles. 1:18)?
- Will becoming highly righteous and wise destroy us (Eccles. 7:16)?
- Is everything really meaningless (Eccles. 12:8)?
- May Christians never swear oaths (Matt. 5:33-37)?
- Should we never call anyone on earth “father” (Matt. 23:9)?
- Should Christ’s Followers wear sandals when they evangelize but bring no food or money or extra clothes (Mark 6:8-9)?
- Should Christians be exorcising demons, handling snakes, and drinking deadly poison (Mark 16:15-18)?
- Are people who divorce their spouses and remarry always committing adultery (Luke 16:18)? Ought Christians to share their material goods in common (Acts 2:44-45)?
- Ought church leaders to always meet in council to issue definitive decisions on matters in dispute (Acts 15:1-29)?
- Is homosexuality always a sin unworthy of the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9-10)?
- Should unmarried men not look for wives (1 Cor. 7:27)?
- …and married men live as if they had no wives (1 Cor. 7:29)?
- Is it wrong for men to cover their heads (1 Cor. 11:4) or a disgrace of nature for men to wear long hair (1 Cor. 11:14)?
- Should Christians save and collect money to send to believers in Jerusalem (1 Cor. 16:1-4)?
- Should Christians definitely sing psalms in church (Col. 3:16)?
- Must Christians always lead quiet lives in which they work with their hands (1 Thess. 4:11)?
- If a person will not work, should they not be allowed to eat (2 Thess. 3:10)? Ought all Christian slaves always simply submit to their masters (reminder: slavery still exists today) (1 Pet. 2:18021)?
- Must Christian women not wear braided hair, gold jewelry, and fine clothes (1 Tim. 2:9; 1 Pet. 3:3)?
- Ought all Christian men to lift up their hands when they pray (1 Tim. 2:8)?
- Should churches not provide material help to widows who are younger than sixty years old (1 Tim. 5:9)?
- Will every believer who lives a godly life in Christ be persecuted (2 Tim. 3:12)?
- Should the church anoint the sick with oil for their healing (James 5:14-15)?
The list of such questions could be extended. | Again, the question is: are these universal Christian moral teachings applicable literally in all times and places, or ideas relevant for only particular times and places, or universal teachings as general principles (again, which principles?) but to be applied in diverse ways as appropriate to particular contexts? Biblicists offer too few guidelines for the scriptural interpreter to know how to answer those particular questions with any degree of principled consistency. (71-72)
Populist and “Expert” Practices Deviate from Biblicist Theory. Yet another problem with evangelical biblicism is that it is often not practiced by many people who believe in it… (75)
In other words, the proper biblicist logic of scriptural authority that is often not employed is this: “The Bible teaches propositional content X; I should believe and obey what the bible teaches; therefore, I believe and obey propositional context X.” Instead, the logic that is often actually employed is more like this: “I already believe, think, or feel Y; the Bible contains an idea that seems to relate to Y; therefore, my belief, thought, or feeling of Y is ‘biblically’ confirmed.” (75)
Christian scripture has a “social life” of its own, which means that in actual practice it functions as an authority in many different ways, not all of which, even among avowed biblicists, actually toe the biblicist line in lived experience. (78)
In short, because many readers are first driven in interpretation by their personal, cultural, and political contexts, the biblical texts actually often serve functionally even among biblicists as pretexts to legitimate predetermined beliefs and concerns, rather than as an independent authority as scriptural text. its interpreting readers thus engage in as much or more eisegesis (reading the reader’s meaning into texts) or “overexegesis” as authentic exegesis (reading authorial meaning out of texts). (78)
Lack of Biblicist Self-Attestation. The problem is that what the Bible says about itself does not actually validate biblicism, as defined above. (79)
First, when the apostles spoke and wrote of “scripture,” they meant the Law and the Prophets and some of the Writings of the Hebrew Bible, what Christians call the Old Testament. (79)
Five texts about “scripture” matter most for biblicists. John 10:35, Romans 15:4, 1 Timothy 4:13, 2 Timothy 3:15-17, 2 Peter 1:20-21. (80)
What then is the Bible’s own view of scripture, when read in biblicist terms? First, all scripture is “God-breathed,” divinely inspired. Second, prophecies of scripture were never purely human products but rather spoken “from God” by men “carried along by the Holy Spirit.” …Third, scripture cannot be “broken.” Fourth, scripture is able to prepare believers for salvation through Christ. (80)
What is clearly correct in biblicism, according to the Bible’s self-attestation, is scripture’s divine inspiration. 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. Biblicists believe that this extra argumentative work succeeds, but I am persuaded that they are wrong. (80-81)
If biblicists see biblicism working on biblical grounds, it is because they very much want it to work and so make it work — I am tempted even to say force it to work — not because it naturally and clearly works of its own accord. (82)
The Genuine Need for Extrabiblical Theological Concepts.
The Dubious Genealogy of the Bible-Only Tradition.
Lack of a Biblicist Social Ethic. The difficulty is that biblicism is unable to deliver one coherent, much less comprehensive, social ethic to guide a compelling “biblical” response to contemporary social problems. (86) …It also helps to explain why so many evangelicals are so highly vulnerable to being swayed by new and different winds of political change… (87)
Setting Up Youth for Unnecessary Crises of Faith. Having been taught as youth to stake their faith fully on one (faulty) theory of the Bible, their faith can later founder [sic, VIA: “flounder”?] and sometimes collapse when antagonistic nonbiblicists point out and press home real problems with biblicist theory. (88)
We do not honor the Lord nor do we uphold the gospel by playing make-believe. – Peter Enns
Conclusion. The main focus of my critique of biblicism is the problem of pervasive interpretive pluralism, examined in the previous chapters. Once we face that difficulty, we can also then begin to acknowledge other serious problems with biblicism, such as those mentioned in this chapter. When we confront biblicism’s many problems, we come to see that it is untenable. Biblicism simply cannot be practiced with intellectual and practical honesty on its own terms. It is in this sense literally impossible. Biblicism’s fatal problems are not the sort of things with which faithful Christians ought to be comfortable. Biblicism is not the way forward for evangelicalism. There must be a better way to understand and read the Bible. What might that be? (89)
Part 2: Toward a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture
5. The Christocentric Hermeneutical Key
To be evangelical, then, means having one’s life centered on the terrifically good message that God is reconciling the world to himself in Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 5:17-19). (93)
…real evangelicals will always think about such issues, indeed all issues, through the single lens of the gospel of Christ… (94)
We are fortunate if scripture’s good news, as disturbing as it is, reworks even part of our lives — and even more so if the gospel really gets a grip on us. Unfortunately, we tend to domesticate the amazing message with which scripture challenges us, and we work hard to protect ourselves from the good news doing its life-altering work on us. Indeed, I suspect that all too often evangelical biblicism in particular — under the well-meaning guise of defending a “high view” of scripture — does just that. Biblicism too often traps, domesticates, and controls the life-quaking kerygma (proclamation) of the gospel in order to provide the Bible reader with the security, certainty, and protection that humans naturally want. (94)
The Bible — however highly it is lauded in theory — easily becomes in biblicism a tool in human hands used to facilitate the kind of secure, stable, and therapeutically satisfying lives we wish to live. (94)
…the kingdom of God is not going to shift into neutral until American evangelicals get their approach to the Bible straight. So evangelicals might as well take their time to engage the matter openly, carefully, honestly, civilly, and thoroughly. (96)
To reiterate, the guiding purpose in the remainder of the book is to contribute toward theorizing a nonbiblicist yet definitely evangelical approach to scriptural authority that particularly addresses the specific problem of pervasive interpretive pluralism. I am not trying here to develop a full-fledged theory of all theologically relevant aspects of the Bible — such as inspiration or infallibility — a task well beyond both y scholarly competence and the scope of this book. (97)
The Centrality of Jesus Christ. The purpose, center, and interpretive key to scripture is Jesus Christ. (97) this means that we always read scripture Christocentrically, christologically, and christotelically… (98)
In short, Jesus opened the disciples’ minds to truly understand the scriptures precisely so that they would see the evangelion of the gospel of Jesus Christ behind, in, and through all of scripture. If believers today want to rightly understand scripture, every narrative, every prayer, every proverb, every law, every Epistle needs likewise to be read and understood always and only in light of Jesus Christ and God reconciling the world to himself through him. (99)
This does not mean trying to detect Christ in every piece of scripture or forcing every verse in the bible to somehow be directly about the gospel. That itself would be bad prooftexting. Rather, every part of scripture and scripture as a whole — which obviously has background and foreground material, a center and a periphery — is read in light of the centrally defining reality of Jesus Christ. (99)
The centrality of the gospel of Jesus Christ not only guides the right interpretation of scripture, originally, in the early church, it also actually helped determine what texts were accepted as scriptural canon itself. (107)
In short, the Bible provides us with a world view. It explains the origins and purpose of everything, tells us who we are, tells us how to deal with sins, and shows us our basic responsibilities toward God and toward our neighbors. – Vern Poythress
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. (111)
Further, perhaps God wants us to figure out how Christians should think well about things like war, wealth, and sanctification, by thinking christologically about them, more than by simply piecing together this and that verse of scripture into an allegedly coherent puzzle picture. (112-113)
The hermeneutical approach I am suggesting entails “subjectivism” only to the extent that it acknowledges that all good Bible readers are active subjects seeking to understand the truth, with the Spirit’s help, and that our own minds and spirits necessarily play an active role in that process. That is true about every human scripture reader (and reader of any other text), whether they realize and admit it or not. (114)
How else could humans possibly know truth, other than to involve themselves as personal subjects in the discerning and understanding of it? (114)
Jesus Christ: The True and Final Word. Jesus Christ is the true and final Word of God, in relation to whom scripture is God’s secondary, written word of witness and testimony. This line of reasoning carries the prior point one important step further. Biblicists are often so insistent that the Bible is God’s only complete, sufficient, and final word that they can easily forget in practice that before and above the Bible as God’s written word stands Jesus Christ, who is God’s living Word and ultimate and final self-revelation. (116)
The evangelion, the gospel, is not simply some cognitive information gleaned from the Bible to which we have to give intellectual assent. Jesus Christ himself is the gospel. (117)
The Bible is a secondary, subsidiary, functional, written word of God…The Bible is passing. Jesus Christ is eternal. The Bible points us to the truth, proclaims God’s truth; Jesus Christ himself is that Truth. | Biblicism borders on idolatry when it fails to maintain this perspective. (117-118)
The Christian faith did not grow in response to a book but as a response to God’s interaction with the community of faith. – Craig Allert
When done well, this can have the salutary effect of taking some “biblical” ammunition out of people’s hands that ought not be there in the first place, fostering greater humility and openness in areas of disagreement, and providing a more coherent Christ-centered framework for engaging in deliberations on matters about which scripture seems to be multivocal. (120)
Learning from Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics.
In the 1930s and ’40s, American neo-evangelicalism pulled itself up out of the wreckage of the largely failed fundamentalist-modernist battles of the 1900s to 1920s. …I believe that most of the neo-evangelicals who personally lived through those battles, or who through socialization received the evangelical heritage shaped by them, suffered something like what we now call “postcombat stress reaction” or “post-traumatic stress disorder.” …American evangelicalism as a developing subculture simply had difficulty shaking various analogous forms of flashbacks, anger, hypervigilance, and unwarranted fear of ideas and people associated with the trauma. (122)
The first of Barth’s moves concerning the Bible is to properly affirm scripture as God’s word, written within the larger context of God’s true Word in Jesus Christ and God’s word spoken in church proclamation. (124)
6. Accepting Complexity and Ambiguity
Embracing the Bible for What It Obviously Is. We ought in humble submission to accept the real scriptures that God has provided us as they are, rather than ungratefully and stubbornly forcing scripture to be something that it is not because of a theory we hold about what it must and should be. One of the strangest things about the biblicist mentality is its evident refusal to take the Bible at face value. Ironically, while biblicists claim to take the Bible with utmost seriousness for what it obviously teaches, their theory about the Bible drives them to try to make it something that it evidently is not. (127)
Regardless of the actual Bible that God has given his church, biblicists want a Bible that is different. (128)
Once we confess that the Bible is God’s word, we can look at how it is God’ [sic] word. – Peter Enns
The fact that the Bible is inspired provides our thinking with a starting point. The nature of the Bible’s inspiration we must learn from scripture itself. – John Goldingay
Living with Scriptural Ambiguities. Scripture is sometimes confusing, ambiguous, and incomplete — we have to admit and deal with that fact. …We do not need to be able to explain everything all the time. It is fine sometimes simply to say, “I have no idea” and “We really just don’t know.” (131)
[Luther] claims only the certainty of familiarity, not comprehensiveness. (132)
Not all scripture is clear, nor does it need to be. But the real matter of scripture is clear, “the deepest secret of all,” that God in Christ has come to earth, lived, taught, healed, died, and risen to new life, so that we too can rise to life in him. (132)
Dropping the Compulsion to Harmonize. Where 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)
Distinguishing Dogma, Doctrine, and Opinion. Evangelical Christians need to much better distinguish dogma from doctrine and both of those from opinion, in a way that demands much greater humility, discernment, and readiness to extend the fellowship of communion to those who understand scripture differently. (134)
Not Everything Must Be Replicated. It is also important for contemporary Bible readers to understand that just because some of God’s covenant people did or obeyed something in their time and place does not mean that it is God’s command for us to do and obey the same things. (139)
Living on a Need-to-Know Basis. God deals with us on a “need to know” basis and we ought to be content with that, rather than insisting on having “certain” knowledge built on scant evidence that God has actually not made very clear. (141)
Sometimes it seems as if believers — myself included — distract themselves with the more obscure, speculative, and cryptic issues related to scripture precisely in order to avoid having to face and act on the parts that are very clear and directive. (143)
Do not all Christians have more than enough to learn and to do simply to obey the two clear commands upon which hang “all the Law and the Prophets”: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matt. 22:37-40)? (143)
Christians generally and evangelical biblicists specifically are badly divided about a host of biblical and theological matters that clearly do not qualify as dogma and that often genuinely consist of nonessential peripherals of the faith. (144)
One likely implication of this point is that it is better to err on the side of a minimalist view of what is essential to Christian faith and life than a maximalist view. …The more baggage that passengers of a train load into their carriage, the less room there is for other people to accompany them. The more Christians insist on making long lists of theological “essentials” that real or true Christians ought to believe in order to be recognized as within the bounds of the true faith and deserving the fellowship of communion, the more the body of Christ becomes conflicted, divided, and disunified — and the more the credibility of its witness is compromised. (146)
What matters more than the in-group strength of various divided Christian groups is the faithfulness and unity of the body of Christ as a whole. (147)
In other words, the more we try to make the Bible say allegedly important things that are in fact subsidiary, nonbinding, or perhaps not even clearly taught, the more we risk detracting from the crucial, central message of the Bible about God reconciling the world to himself in Jesus Christ. (148)
7. Rethinking Human Knowledge, Authority, and Understanding
Epistemological foundationalism 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. …The entire epistemological foundationalist project has of late hit a philosophical dead end and largely collapsed. | In retrospect, however, we see that evangelicalism itself actually bought into foundationalism whole hog — only instead of it founding universal, indubitable truth on rationalism or empiricism, evangelicalism simply argued that the right foundation for indubitable knowledge is the text of the Bible and the Bible alone. (150-151)
Rather than the Bible challenging rational and universal foundationalism as a misguided project, the Bible itself started to be defended on the very grounds that it successfully met the independent foundationalist criteria for reliable truth, based on theories of its plenary inspiration and inerrancy. …In short, ironically, a great deal of evangelical biblicism came to the point where it was (and often still is) driven not by gospel concerns and scriptural self-attestation but by modern preoccupations with the certainty of knowledge, which was intellectually doomed from the start to fail. (151)
The more adequate alternative to serve as the provisional metatheory to help organize our expectations and understandings in our inquiry is the third-way philosophy of critical realism. This is not the place to elaborate the view of critical realism. Suffice it for present purposes to say that it provides a coherent account of reality and knowledge that abandons foundationalist illusions, acknowledges the conceptually mediated and fallible nature of all human knowledge, accounts for the influence of historical and cultural context, and (unlike positivism and much or biblicism) recognizes the inescapably hermeneutical, cultural-historical, and interpretive character of all knowledge — while maintaining against postmodernism an insistence on the objectivity of reality, the oftentimes object-referencing nature of language, and an “alethic” theory of truth that calls knowing agents to pursue truth as it is and not to pursue their subjective constructions of truth as they wish it to be. (152)
Not Starting with a Theory of Inspiration. Evangelical biblicism gets itself into trouble when it starts its reflections on scripture’s authority by elaborating a deductive theory of biblical inspiration. The Bible itself, of course, does not instruct its readers to do that. That is a human theological move that came to prominence only after the Reformation. (153)
Understanding Different Ways of Doing by Saying. locutionary, illocutionary, and perlocutionary acts. A locutionary act is simply the action of uttering or writing words, to voice or inscribe a meaningful utterance. (156). An illocutionary act is an action performed through or by way of a locutionary act. (156) A perlocutionary act is the achieving of some effect on the hearer or reader, whether intended or not, by performing a locutionary act. (156)
The Many Dimensions of “Biblical Authority”. If so, this “power to” involved in the Bible’s authority is a “transformative capacity,” not merely to force the unwanted, but to change things in the world and our lives with a real justification and validity. (165)
A Historically Growing Grasp of the Meaning of the Gospel. The authors of the New Testament did not understand and work out all the long-term implications of the gospel for theological knowledge, human life, and society. They just didn’t and there is no need for us to have to say that they did.
The authors of the New Testament texts, most evangelicals believe, laid down all that Christians needed to know as a theological starting point and set subsequent generations of believers forward with that knowledge and direction. They also modeled the substantial beginnings of believers working out what the gospel means in a particular sociohistorical context. (166)
By contrast, the present view understand the Bible and the gospel it preaches as a dynamic, living, active force of truth in human life and history. It sees the gospel as often slowly but resolutely churning through history and all the societies it touches with an inexorable force of redemptive transformation. And it views Christians as not simply reproducing what was already fully known about the gospel in AD 34, but rather as possibly working out with every new generation of believers further insights and implications of what the gospel means for belief and life in the world. That, I suggest, is the real view of the Bible possessing authority and power. And that, I believe, is a view of scripture and the gospel that is precisely and thoroughly evangelical. (170)
Conclusion. Evangelicals need to find a way into a postbiblicist world — a way that reduces rather than exacerbates pervasive interpretive pluralism. And they need along the way to avoid the dead end of Protestant liberalism. Toward that goal, the simple but profound notion that I am suggesting is this: the most effective way for evangelicals to move into a faithful postbiblicist world is to become more thoroughly evangelical when it comes to the Bible. (171)
If scripture is as authoritative and clear on essentials as biblicists say it is, then why can’t the Christian church — or even only biblicist churches — get it together and stay together, theologically and ecclesiologically? Why are there thousands of Protestant denominations, conventions, associations, and splinter groups — often each claiming their own right to existence in virtue of their possessing the “biblical” truth? And if the Holy Spirit leads believers into revealed truth, then why is the Christian church fraught with such disagreements and divisions about that truth? (175)
To be clear, yet again, what is problematic about biblicism as I have defined it is not its belief in inspiration. I have not in this essay questioned the doctrine of the divine inspiration of scripture. Nor have I directly and systematically taken on the questions of biblical inerrancy and infallibility. I do not recommend that evangelicals collapse into a typically liberal view of the Bible — please no. Nor am I arguing that the Bible should not be a central and trustworthy authority in Christian faith and practice — assuming that some of the problems noted above can be addressed by other means. (176)
Evangelicals need to realize that the Bible is not a “how to” book. It is a “HERE IS WHO!” book. First and foremost it tells everyone: Here is who Jesus Christ is and therefore here is who you are and need to become in relation to him. (176)
Some of the needed changes in learned ways of reading the Bible may not be natural or comfortable, and may not come easy for American evangelical biblicists. My hope, however, is that, by becoming more genuinely evangelical with regard to the Bible, evangelicals might in time together find themselves living in a postbiblicist, Christ-centered, theologically orthodox world — a good necessary thing all the way around. (178)
— VIA —
Smith’s very full analysis of biblicism needs to be contended with in a serious way. He elucidates the problems and the impossibilities with astute observations and good reasoning. That is both the strength and disappointment of reading an essay of this caliber. First, understanding “biblicism” and all its implications illuminates the tensions and challenges of what is popularly seen, heard, and taught in America under the Christian umbrella. For those who struggle to understand how to reconcile such disparate observations around Christianity, Smith’s explanation of biblicism helps tremendously. However, the disappointment comes in that essential conclusion, that disparate Christianity has existed in the first place, and for quite some time. Any time anyone writes with such eloquence on “how Christianity misses it,” claims in essence that Christianity has, therefore, “missed it.” This is disheartening, disappointing, and perplexing for a religion that claims truth in multiple forms and fashions. How to reconcile that reality is, in my opinion, more challenging than simply reconciling biblicism with the Bible. But this is a bit beside the point.
The main thrust of Smith’s essay is erudite, and I commend it to anyone who claims any doctrine about the Bible. He does not take much time in explaining his suggested Christocentric reading in comparison to his critique of biblicism, and I wish he had spent more time explaining the examples he uses that illustrate biblicism’s inadequacies through the lens of Christocentricism. With that in mind, my comments below may be a bit unfair.
Here are a few areas of critique that are hopefully in line with his humble openness to the possibility of a more refined understanding.
Is not a “Christocentric” reading just another “category” that emerges from multivocality? (p.43) In addition, Smith notes that “no paradigm accounts for all the texts.” (p.44) And later, “For one thing, seeing Christ as central compels us to always try to make sense of everything we read in any part of scripture in light of our larger knowledge of who God is in Jesus Christ.” (p.98) Thus, I am confused as to how Smith argues Christocentricity as not within that “category” or “paradigm?”
Is not a “Christocentric” reading also self-referential? The Christocentric reading is derived from the very texts that Smith is critiquing. Thus, to use the text in order to conclude a Christocentric reading in order to interpret said texts is self-referential.
Is not a “Christocentric” reading as presuppositional as “biblicism”? As Smith has critiqued biblicism as a view that is simply adopted a priori and presupposed before one actually reads the text, how is his Christocentric approach not of the same vein? “The centrality of the gospel of Jesus Christ not only guides the right interpretation of scripture, originally, in the early church, it also actually helped determine what texts were accepted as scriptural canon itself.” (107) But if that is so (and it is), it damages any objective credibility in determining how to read such texts.
Is the self-help attitude and approach (as opposed to discipleship ethic) “ecclesiogenic” or “culturalgenic”? (Yes, I made those words up.) Smith mentions that many biblicists read the Bible to acquire views on dating, business, etc., and that the “self-help” approach is detrimental to true disciple making. However, he seems to blame the Church for this, and I simply question the validity of placing the burden of responsibility for this phenomenon on the Church. Perhaps the broader American consumerist culture has transformed all of us, and the Church is merely subconsciously adapting to the new milieu.
But it’s not obvious. Isn’t that the point? Smith writes, “In light of these tendencies, Christians would do well to simply accept and live contentedly with the fact that they are being informed about a big picture on a ‘need to know’ basis. This means believing that if God has not made something completely clear in scripture, then it is probably best not to try to speculate it into something too significant. Let the ambiguous remain ambiguous. Focus first instead on what is clear and direct. What is actually amazing in all of this is how wrapped up believers can become in what is incomplete and uncertain, while they nearly completely ignore the most obvious truths and commands that stare them in the face.” (142) This argumentation sounds a bit more rhetorical than is justified. While he says, “let the ambiguous remain ambiguous,” he then matter of factually mentions that some things are clear and “obvious.” And, though perhaps a bit nuanced, “clear,” “obvious,” and “in the face” seems to be the very problem of biblicism he is writing and arguing against.
Expanding contemporary ecclesiastical interpretation awareness only exacerbates the problem. Smith writes, “…American evangelicals should pay much greater attention to how Christian believers read and interpret scripture in other parts of the world, across space, particularly perhaps in the Global South.” (155) While this is a wonderful ecclesiastical exercise, I find this problematic, as the point of writing about biblicism, as Smith argues, is that it is culturally conditioned which leads to fallacious readings of the text. And this recontextualization to other parts of the world, while helpful, does not solve the ultimate problem that Smith is addressing. It runs the risk of creating another interpretive framework that is equally invalid as “biblicism.” Why, then, would Smith encourage American evangelicals to consider interpretations that are equally conditioned by time and space, just because it is of a different culture? In addition, there is very little to no discussion on any historical and cultural lenses through which to view the Bible, such as first-century Palestine. While space is important, time may actually be more important, and Smith gives little to no attention to this critical area of interpretation. If American evangelicals should pay more attention to how Christian believers read and interpret scripture in other parts of the world, let’s start with first-century Palestine, not the 21st century Global South.
Concerns about other theological implications of “Christocentric” readings. Smith’s suggested lens of interpretation is dangerously close to “replacement theology,” and “supersessionism,” in which the old is “replaced” or “superseded” by the new, and “prophetic fore-shadowing,” in which the Old Testament prophecies can only make sense in light of Christ (when many of the prophecies meant something far more contextualized to the audience’s circumstances). We must be careful, too, that Smith’s Christocentricism doesn’t strip the Biblical passages of the variety of things that it teaches, shares, reports that may have nothing, or very little to do with the “Messiah” or messianic expectations.
So, what do I suggest? With all of this critique, I wish to reiterate the importance of Smith’s contribution to the conversation. He elucidates why biblicism is impossible and needs, not a reformation, but a demolition. With that, I what do I have to contribute? Nothing new. Simply, a reiteration of several options (in addition to the Christocentric?) that have been suggested by many others. These are the ones that come to mind.
Critical Realism. Not only does Smith mention this, but N.T. Wright’s treatment in The New Testament and the People of God, elaborates the philosophical and pragmatic validity of this approach. Smith could have done more work on explaining this important aspect of interpretation, or at least alluded to this.
Historical Context. Countless authors have illuminated politics, economics, geography, culture, psychology, history, etc., as necessary contextual information in reading the Bible (e.g., Ben Witherington III). Smith shares very little of this. For example, in the “women passages” in Paul’s letters to Timothy, Smith doesn’t even mention Ephesus, rate of infant mortality, the Artemis cult, and several other data points that could illuminate the why behind those passages. Historical context is, perhaps, one of the greatest contributors to a reformed way of interpreting the Bible.
Redemptive Movement Hermeneutic. While Smith mentions Webb, he only briefly alludes to this idea that takes Critical Realism and Historical Context into consideration to allow ethical and pragmatic conclusions to emerge from the text.
Admittedly, each of these has its problems, and is imperfect. I simply mention them because they are wider and broader (as I understand it) than the Christocentric approach, and they are broad enough to even include the Christocentric approach in their frameworks. Thus, I would suggest that Smith’s suggestion of a Christocentric approach is a bit too narrow. It may perhaps be “Christian,” but that is a different discussion for another time, and other books.