My Thoughts on “The Bible Made Impossible” (2)

Smith, Christian. The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2012. Kindle Edition.

Quotes & Notes re: Chapter 1: Biblicism and the Problem of Pervasive Interpretive Pluralism.

This is the first chapter in “Part 1: The Impossibility of Biblicism,” which is comprised by Chapters 1–4. To begin this first part of the book Smith notes:

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. It cannot actually be sustained, practiced, and defended. (3)

I appreciate Smith’s desire to not label biblicism as “wrong,” however, by being an “untenable” and needing “to be abandoned” and “literally impossible” because “[i]t cannot actually be sustained, practiced, and defended,” it is “wrong” (i.e., undesirable, incorrect, unsuitable). Smith states that biblicism is “defined by a constellation of…ten assumptions or beliefs” on pages 4–6, which I summarize as follows:

  1. The Bible is God’s very own words written inerrantly in human language.
  2. The Bible represents the totality of God’s communication to and for humanity.
  3. The Bible contains the divine will for all issues relevant to Christian belief and life.
  4. The Bible can be correctly understood by any “reasonably intelligent” reader.
  5. The Bible is best understood in its “plain, most obvious, literal sense.”
  6. The Bible is all we need to understand God’s nature and will. As the reformers insisted, sola scriptura (i.e., scripture only).
  7. The Bible is internally consistent where all related passages “on any given subject fit together like puzzle pieces.”
  8. The Bible’s teachings, no matter when or by whom they were written, are “universally valid for all Christians.”
  9. The Bible’s teachings can be learned by “piecing [them] together through careful study.”
  10. The Bible is God’s handbook for Christian belief and living; it is “a compendium of divine and therefore inerrant teachings on a full array of subjects.”

Smith claims that biblicism “with whatever variations [in which] it may be expressed by different groups” is foundational to the belief and practice of “perhaps as many as a hundred million” Americans. This is demonstrated by belief statements of various Christian institutions and denominations and as expressed in the writings and teachings of large numbers of Christian authors, scholars, and church leaders (see pages 5–14, for various quotations and examples).

Smith takes note of the 1978 “Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy” which was “signed by more than three hundred notable evangelical scholars and leaders.” If you’ve not ever read this document, please give attention to the following quotation:

Holy Scripture, being God’s own Word, written by men prepared and superintended by His Spirit, is of infallible divine authority in all matters upon which it touches [1]: it is to be believed, as God’s instruction, in all that it affirms [and] obeyed, as God’s command, in all that it requires. . . .Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching, no less in what it states about God’s acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God’s saving grace in individual lives. … The authority of Scripture is inescapably impaired if this total divine inerrancy is in any way limited or disregarded, or made relative to a view of truth contrary to the Bible’s own [6]; and such lapses bring serious loss to both the individual and the Church. (14, emphasis is mine)

Smith questions, as do I, that if all this were true of the whatever anthology of texts we call “The Bible,” then why does it give “rise to divergent understandings among intelligent, sincere, committed readers about what it says about most topics of interest”? (17). When sincerely read and intelligently studied, the Bible itself “produces a pluralism of interpretations” and it has always done so. Even evangelical and fundamentalist readers, authors, and teachers come up with “contradictory theological formulations on many of the major issues” (18).

Smith does his due diligence as he quotes or references numerous well known biblical scholars—e.g., N. T. Wright, D. A. Carson, Kenton Sparks, Peter Enns, etc.—who essentially point out the same problem of pervasive interpretive pluralism and, therefore, question biblicists’ allegiance to biblical inerrancy. As he notes again, “Appealing to the same scriptural texts, Christians remain deeply divided on most issues, often with intense fervor and sometimes hostility toward one another” (25).

He concludes this chapter as follows:

So, the question is this: if the Bible is given by a truthful and omnipotent God as an internally consistent and perspicuous[1] 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)

I completely concur! The concept of pervasive interpretive pluralism in its historical and present reality is one of the key proofs of the polyphonic (i.e., multivocal) nature of the biblical texts. The biblical texts are obviously not internally consistent because they were composed (i.e., authored and edited) by human beings who lived at various points in history within the context of varied circumstances, enmeshed in an ancient culture and holding different worldviews.[2] The collection of these texts into various anthologies (again by human beings) are collections that are ancient, ambiguous, diverse, and, at times, even contradictory in how they portray their God, and thus the divine nature, working, and will. I, along with Smith, conclude that biblicism’s main tenants are impossible to prove and uphold.

[1] Perspicuous (definition): clearly expressed and easily understood.

[2] As Matthias Henze notes, “The Bible is not a book that was written by a single author. It is a small library, a collection of diverse books that were written by different people, in different places, at different times, for different audiences, and even in different languages” (Matthias Henze, Mind the Gap: How the Jewish Writings between the Old and New Testament Help Us Understand Jesus (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2017), 15). And as Mark Carasik notes, “In fact, the Bible is made up of many separate books, composed by different writers, in a wide range of voices. … The different parts of the Bible were written at different times, in different styles, by different people with differing perspectives. … That world, like our own, was one in which people disagreed, often loudly, about politics and about religion. These disagreements, along with other compositions that can sometimes be very personal, are all found today lumped together in what we call “the Bible”” (Mark Carasik, The Bible’s Many Voices (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2014), 2–3).

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