Smith, Christian. The Bible Made Impossible. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2012. Kindle Edition.
Chapter 5: The Christocentric Hermeneutical Key
Many Christian authors, scholars, and Bible readers who find parts of their chosen biblical anthology problematic have favoured some form of a Christocentric lens as their hermeneutical tool. By reading the Old and New Testaments through the lens of their Christological perspective certain objectionable divine portraits and teachings can be rejected as the product of misunderstandings or misrepresentations. Anything in the biblical texts that is confirmed by the life and teachings of Jesus and consistent with the stated purpose of his death and resurrection is deemed to be accurate and truthful. Anything in the biblical texts that is inconsistent with the life and teachings of Jesus, in terms of God’s nature, work in the cosmos, and will for humankind, is deemed to be where the biblical writers got God wrong!
Smith begins this chapter with a summary of the primary purpose of the book, which he says is “to point out what appears to be a serious problem with biblicism, not to elaborate complete solutions to that problem.” Yet he goes on to say, “However, so as not to leave the misimpression that I am a hermeneutical nihilist or radical postmodern relativist, I hope to suggest that this critique can actually go somewhere constructive, and I will offer some viable alternatives to biblicism that I think retain some of the best of that for which biblicism stands” (95). To introduce his “viable alternatives” he makes the following statement:
If my larger critique above is even modestly sound, then what is needed to improve on biblicism is some kind of a stronger hermeneutical guide that can govern the proper interpretation of the multivocal, polysemous, multivalent texts of scripture toward the shared reading of a more coherent, authoritative biblical message (95).
When I read this, the following questions came immediately to my mind: (1) Why does a multivocal, polysemous, multivalent anthology of texts need to be read as a more coherent, authoritative message? (2) Why do we need to read the biblical texts as if they contain and thus communicate one consistent, unified, portrayal of God’s nature, working, and will? (3) Hasn’t Smith just clearly proven that the biblical texts are multivocal, and not univocal? (4) Thus, doesn’t any attempt to read the biblical texts in a way to produce a coherent, consistent, and thus timelessly authoritative message ignore or undermine what he has just proven that the biblical texts are? (5) Doesn’t Smith, in stating that this hermeneutical guide “can govern the proper interpretation,” clearly imply that his intent is to undermine or negate pervasive interpretative pluralism? I’m confused at the outset of this chapter.
Smith then states, “But readers who are persuaded of biblicism’s impossibility and who wish to re-address scripture in a way that may in fact be more truly evangelical should read on” (95). Again, a question arises for me: Why do I want to read the Bible in a “more truly evangelical” way? Personally, I don’t want to read the biblical texts in a more evangelical, more Protestant, more mainline, more postmodern, or more Catholic, etc., way? I want to read the biblical texts for what they are, for what Smith says they are, with which I wholeheartedly agree. These texts are—and always have been—persistently pluriform and polyphonic in nature. They do not communicate a consistently coherent and unified portrayal of God’s nature, working, and will. So why do we need to create an artificial, purely Christian, hermeneutical lens in an effort to make it appear that they do?
Regardless of what I think, Smith goes on to state his belief that “[t]he purpose, center, and interpretive key to scripture is Jesus Christ” which, Smith states, “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” (97). Making his point even more clear, he writes,
We only, always, and everywhere read scripture in view of its real subject matter: Jesus Christ. This means that we always read scripture christocentrically, christologically, and christotelically, as those who really believe what the Nicene and Chalcedonian creeds say. That is, for Christians, Christ is the center, the inner reason, and the end of all of scripture. From the Bible’s account of the creation of the world in Genesis to its final consummation in Revelation, it is all and only about the work of God in time and space in the person of Jesus Christ for the redemption of the world … This also means that we always read the Bible as committed trinitarians, as those who do not merely “believe in God,” but who actually believe in God in particular as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (98).
Smith, again, does due diligence by quoting and referencing biblical scholars who hold to a Christological hermeneutic—such as Keith Ward and Dietrich Bonhoeffer—who believe that “every part of the Bible must in some way point to Christ” and that “[i]n its entirety and in all its parts it is nothing but this witness to Christ, his life, his death, and his resurrection” (98–99). This approach Smith says is “a decidedly and unapologetically Christ-centered approach to scripture” which tells us that “the Bible embodies an internal unity or harmony that helps point the way toward a common Christ mind about what scripture teaches” (101). Smith states that “[s]cripture’s internal unity or harmony, rather, derives from its central purpose in divine revelation of telling us about Jesus Christ” (101). Smith quotes John R. W. Stott when he acknowledges that because “[t]here is great diversity of content, style, and purpose among the books of the Bible and in some of them the witness to Christ is indirect, even oblique … the conclusion is simple: Whenever we read the Bible, we must look for Christ. And we must go on looking until we see and until we believe” (103).
For Smith, Jesus Christ is “what holds scripture together” and thus the key to sorting “through the diversity and seemingly different view points expressed in scripture is Jesus Christ … the reality of Christ himself, the living, eternal Son through whom God reconciles the world to himself in love” (107).
Maybe I’m too simple minded to get what Smith—and any other Christological interpreter of scripture—is getting at, but isn’t this approach to reading the biblical texts undermining what Smith just spent almost 100 pages proving? As he says,
We must be clear: a resolutely Christocentric approach to scripture in and of itself will not resolve all the problems of pervasive interpretive pluralism. But this hermeneutic is a necessary and crucial first step in moving in that direction. By choosing decisively to read all of scripture only and always in the light of Jesus Christ, we knock off the table a number of other interpretative instincts and tendencies that end toward biblicism and foster pervasive interpretive pluralism (116).
To me, Smith seems to be saying that pervasive interpretive pluralism is a problem that requires a solution. But for me, pervasive interpretive pluralism is not a problem to be fixed. Rather, it is a fact to be explored and appreciated because it is the result of actual nature of the biblical texts which are persistently multivocal, polysemous, and multivalent. Why do we need to “knock off the table a number of other interpretative instincts and tendencies that … foster pervasive interpretive pluralism”? So, it seems that Smith now wants to minimize pervasive interpretive pluralism by claiming there is some kind of underlying unity and harmony that cannot be seen by simply reading scripture but that can only be seen with the use of a Christological lens.
I have some real concerns with the Christological lens that Smith and many other Christian scholars and authors propose as the only correct way to understand and read the biblical texts. So, I’m going to take the next blog post or two to state and, hopefully, explain in what ways I find the Christological lens problematic. After that I’ll get back to my final few posts re: “My Thoughts on The Bible Made Impossible.”