My Thoughts on “The Bible Made Impossible” (3)

Smith, Christian. The Bible Made Impossible. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2012. Kindle Edition.

Chapter 2: The Extent and Source of Pervasive Interpretive Pluralism

Smith begins this chapter by introducing and briefly discussing numerous examples of the important issues on which the biblical texts present different teachings/models. These include (but are not limited to): church polity, free will and predestination, slavery, gender differences, wealth/prosperity and poverty, violence and nonviolence, charismatic gifts, atonement, worship, etc. He follows this discussion with suggesting several ways that biblicists do, or might, respond to these examples of biblical diverse teachings. These include:

  1. Blame the deficient readers: “most Christians who study the Bible actually do so with problematic motives, interests, or skills that prevent them from seeing the coherent truth” (37).
  2. Lost autographs: the original manuscripts (which we do not have) had none of these differing teachings, but the processes of copying and translating have introduced ambiguity and diversity to later manuscripts.
  3. Intellectually damaged readers: as a result of sin, humans have suffered profound intellectual damage so they cannot see the coherent biblical truth.
  4. Supernatural confusion: God withholds the illumination of the Holy Spirit from many readers of the biblical texts.
  5. Purposely ambiguous revelation: “God has intentionally provided an ambiguous scripture that would purposively cause disagreement and division in order to achieve some greater good” (39).

However, Smith points out that biblicism teaches that the Bible is “divine, inerrant, internally harmonious, perspicuous, and intent on revealing infallible truth to humankind.” Therefore, all of the above responses to the issue of pervasive interpretive pluralism make no sense whatsoever—see pages 39–42. The only thing that makes sense is that the biblical texts are multivocal; a fact that biblicists refuse to accept. Yes, there are texts that are “outlier” texts. If one can’t explain these differing texts, then the best approach for biblicists is to ignore them. Smith summarizes these efforts as follows:

In the end, as a result, different groups of Christians end up invested in different interpretive paradigms, learn to ignore certain potentially threatening leftover texts, and are persuaded that the remainder of leftover texts can be explained away on an ad hoc basis when they are “rightly understood,” read in proper context, or otherwise “correctly” interpreted (45).

Instead, Smith contends—and I agree wholeheartedly—“the Bible consists of irreducibly multivocal, polysemic, and multivalent texts (polysemy means ‘multiple meanings’ and multivalence means ‘many appeals or values’)” (47). This, according to Smith, is the only reason why “church history is replete with multiple credible understandings, interpretations, and conclusions about the Bible’s teachings” (48). The important word here is “credible.” Sure, there are interpretations that are not credible and unbelievable, but many interpretations that disagree with mine (or yours) are actually credible, believable, compelling and edifying; and that is because “the texts themselves are multivocal, polysemic, and multivalent in character” (50).

Again, Smith does his due diligence as he quotes and/or references numerous well known scholars such as Paul Ricoeur, Hans G. Gadamer, John Goldingay, Kenton Sparks, and Christopher Wright. The quote from Wright resonates with me and agrees with my conclusions about the nature of the biblical texts, but in language much more artistic than mine: “We are listening [i.e., when we read the Bible] 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” (53).

Smith concludes the chapter as follows:

The multivocality and polysemy of the Bible, and the diversity and division to which they give rise, are undeniable, historical, empirical, phenomenological[1] facts. It is not that multiple possible meanings are necessarily read into scripture by readers’ subjectivities (although sometimes they are) but rather that, even when read as good believers should read the texts, the words of scripture themselves can and usually do give rise to more than one possible, arguably legitimate interpretation. … To deny the multivocality of scripture is to live in a self-constructed world of unreality (53-54).

In researching for my doctoral dissertation,[2] I found numerous Jewish and Christian biblical scholars and theologians who acknowledge and, indeed, emphasize the polyphonic nature, not only of the biblical anthology, but also, of individual texts within each anthology. In his article, “Differing Conceptions of the Divine Creator,” Marc Zvi Brettler compares the portraits of the Divine Creator in Genesis 1 as compared to Genesis 2–3. In chapter 1 we see the God as King portrait—extremely powerful, who uses words “to restructure the world into the well-organized world we know, where everything occupies its proper place.” In chapter 2, God “is not king, but much more parent-like and personal. He walks the garden (3:8) and talks to people (3:9–19)—this is unimaginable for the royal, distant, powerful God of the first story.” He states, “this inability to pin God down, to create one single, uniform, univocal image of God already has strong roots in the biblical text itself.”[3]

In Brettler’s chapter in The Oxford Handbook of The Psalms, so convinced is he that multivocality is a clear trait of the biblical texts that he states, “We must not harmonize divergent biblical traditions”[4] (487). He goes on to reference numerous well-known and highly respected Christian and Jewish scholars who agree. For example, Frymer-Kensky “sees as a given ‘the complexity and multivocality of Scripture.’” Sweeney considers the Hebrew Bible to be dialogical in nature, expressing a ‘variety of viewpoints.’ “Thus,” says Brettler, “the view that the Bible does not have a center and is a diverse, polyphonic book dominates Jewish biblical theology” (488). What is true of the Bible as a whole, is true of the Psalms “as a microcosm of the Bible”—that is, that both are equally polyphonic (493).

Bringing my post in for a landing, Gillingham states, “compassing at least a thousand years in the making, the Bible offers as many different world-views as the cultures it represents. It is, we might conclude, one of the most pluralistic texts we possess” (3). She goes on, “As a ‘collection of collections,’ the Bible is a pluralistic text, made up of many parts with many divergent views about God and his relations with the world” (4).[5]

We may not know which came first, the chicken or the egg, but we do know which came first with respect to the Bible, its multivocality or its interpretive pluralism. It is because the Bible is polyphonic in nature—which always has been and will be—that there is pervasive interpretive pluralism—which always has been and always will be. In other words, it is not because people offer differing interpretations that we conclude the biblical texts must be multivocal, but rather, it is because the biblical texts are multivocal that people are able to offer differing interpretations.

[1] Phenomenological – the meaning of things we experience. In other words, Smith is saying that the multivocality of Scripture is something we experience when we read or hear Scripture.

[2] Dissertation title: “What’s God Got to Do with It? Theological Implications of the Persistent Pluriform and Polyphony of the Biblical Texts”

[3] Brettler, Marc Zvi. “Differing Conceptions of the Divine Creator.”

[4] Brettler, Marc Zvi. “Jewish Theology of the Psalms.” In The Oxford Handbook of The Psalms, edited by William P. Brown. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014, (485–498).

[5] Gillingham, S. E. One Bible, Many Voices: Different Approaches to Biblical Studies, London: SPCK, 1998.

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