My Thoughts on “The Bible Made Impossible” (6)

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

After two brief posts on the specific subject of the Christological Hermeneutic—introduced in Chapter 5 of Smith’s book—this post returns to the next chapter, “Accepting Complexity and Ambiguity.” As Smith states, “This chapter continues with more proposals focused on the need to learn to live with more complexity and ambiguity than biblicism allows” (127).

In my experience, few Christian authors and biblical scholars have been willing to admit how complex and ambiguous the biblical texts actually are. I surmise that is because of their underlying commitment to a conservative belief in the divine inspiration of the biblical anthology. They think that acknowledging its complexities and frequent ambiguities undermines belief in divine inspiration; for surely God would not produce or even oversee a Bible that wasn’t straightforward and timelessly applicable, so as to communicate God’s message clearly to any who are searching for truth. In fact, conservative Christians often contend that “the plain reading of scripture” will yield a proper understanding of God’s nature, working, and will, if one is truly seeking to know God.

In the section, “Embracing the Bible for What It Obviously Is,” Smith states,

Scripture is sometimes confusing, ambiguous, and incomplete—we have to admit and deal with that fact. Biblicism insists that the Bible as the word of God is clear, accessible, understandable, coherent, and complete as the revelation of God’s will and ways for humanity. But this is simply not true. Scripture can be very confusing. It can be indefinite. The Bible can lack information and answers that we want it to have. … 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 force them into an artificial harmony. (131, 133)

As a result of those convictions, Smith challenges Christians, including evangelicals, to “keep their dogmas, doctrines, and opinions in their proper places” as he professes that, biblically, there is only “a short list of beliefs that genuinely belong on the level of dogma,” which is something that the church agreed upon many centuries ago (136). He claims—quoting Peter Enns—that while “the Bible is clear on central matters of the faith, it is flexible in many matters that pertain to the day-to-day” (141).

Yet, I would appeal back to Smith’s main thesis; that is, that the issue of pervasive interpretive pluralism and the fact that well-meaning, sincere, faith oriented, readers and even biblical scholars and theologians, do not agree on what are “the central matters of the faith.” That is, pervasive interpretive pluralism is just as evident in “the central matters of the faith,” as it is in “matters that pertain to the day-to-day.” Thus, one must conclude, based on Smith’s own argument, that the Bible is not clear, but is complex, ambiguous, and—I would add—often contradictory in the so-called “central matters of the faith” and, even, regarding what matters are central to the faith!

In Chapter 2, Smith deconstructed six of the major reasons that biblicists give for the pervasive interpretive pluralism, one of which he calls the “noetically-damaged-reader reply” (38)[1]. This reply relies on the belief that fallen humanity is incapable of seeing “the single truth in scripture clearly enough to understand and agree upon it.” Then, on page 41, Smith asks the question: “Does the noetically-damaged-reader response prove any better at rescuing biblicism from pervasive interpretive pluralism?” He answers that question emphatically.

No. This explanation shipwrecks on the rocks of implying that God’s chosen method of revealing truth and the power of God’s Spirit to illuminate that truth are inadequate to the task. … Humans may be noetically damaged by sin. But the point of divine revelation and God’s word is precisely to break through the limits of that damage from outside of the confines of those limits in order to convey truth to fallen humanity.

Yet, in Chapter 6, Smith argues that we must embrace “a time-honored view of God’s revelation as ‘accommodating’ human limitations” (129). This view “refers to God’s adoption of his human audience’s finite and even fallen perspectives in his communicating work of inspiring scripture.” He goes on to state,

Accommodation takes seriously the qualitative difference between created, fallen humanity and the absolutely transcendent God—acknowledging that such a God necessarily must accommodate himself to the limits of human perception, cognition, and understanding. It suggests that, in the process of divine inspiration, God did not correct every incomplete or mistaken viewpoint of the biblical authors in order to communicate through them with their readers. … Many church fathers and theologians across history have taught a few different versions of divine accommodation in scripture, as a means to help make sense of apparent confusions and errors in the Bible … Evangelicals today struggling toward a postbiblicist world will benefit from incorporating the notion of divine accommodation into their understanding of scripture (128–130).

For me, “divine accommodation” has the same problems in explaining the complexity and/or ambiguity of scriptures and/or pervasive interpretive pluralism, that the biblicists’ noetically-damaged-reader reply has. So, God couldn’t figure out how to communicate divine truth to the authors of scripture because of their cultural, historical, scientific, and/or intellectual limitations. And thus, God had to allow the authors to communicate things about God’s nature, working, and will that were factually false. Really? To me, that doesn’t sound like an air-tight defense of any kind of divine inspiration of the scriptures. Rather misrepresentations of God’s nature, working, and will found throughout both the Old and New Testaments helps me to embrace what the Bible obviously is; that is, it is the product of human authorship, editing, and canonization.

For example, I cannot believe that the God who so loved humanity that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” so that in/through Jesus we can see God’s glory, and yet was unable to convince the Israelite authors that Yahweh was not their Divine Warrior—who committed, commanded and condoned violence to accomplish the divine will. This misrepresentation, which was embraced by generations of Israelites, and later by Jews and Christians alike—many, still, to this day—who went on to commit atrocities in God’s name resulting in the deaths and incomprehensible life-altering suffering of untold numbers of humans throughout the last 2000 years plus!

Greg Boyd—and others—believe that such misrepresentations are demonstrations of divine humility and were corrected by the crucifixion of the Messiah Jesus. I find such arguments, untenable, and such perspectives, distasteful. Divine accommodation, no matter what its flavour, for me, results in a theology that is inconsistent with a God who is love. One might say, I guess, that God did God’s best to instruct, influence, and inspire, the creators of the biblical texts to correctly portray God’s nature, working, and will as completely non-violent, but because divine love is uncontrolling, God could not make them understand. I’m OK with that, but then, in what sense are these texts “divinely inspired” or “God-breathed”? I get that Smith, Boyd, and numerous others, argue for some kind of “inspired imperfection,” but their arguments don’t wash with me.[2]

Referencing some subtitles from Chapter 6: I can only embrace the Bible for what it is, live with scriptural ambiguities [and diversity], drop the compulsion to harmonize, and define or distinguish doctrine, dogma, and opinion, when I accept that the biblical anthology is the creation of humans who were doing their best to explain their world and their life experiences in reference to their belief in, and understanding of, God. When I start with “God is love,” I accept that the creators of the biblical texts often get God right. However, I see that, almost as frequently, they misunderstand and misrepresent God’s essential nature, working, and will.

As Thomas Jay Oord notes, “As I see it, we should admit [that] biblical writers sometimes portray God as unloving. The Bible is not an entirely consistent witness to love. Sometimes the Bible gets God wrong.”[3] With all due respect to Dr. Oord, I would state it somewhat more bluntly: that if indeed God is love, then the creators of the biblical texts quite frequently, and often extensively—in both the Old Testament and New—get God wrong! The creators of the biblical anthology, and every one of its readers, are humans who are limited in their  ability to understand and portray God’s nature, working, and will. And that is why I’m comfortable with the complexity, ambiguity, and diversity that are obvious in the biblical anthology.[4]

[1] Noetic means “pertaining to mental activity or the intellect.” Noetically damaged implies that human thinking or intellect has been damaged and thus hampered by “the fall”.

[2] Alternatively, as Peter Enns concludes, “As I mentioned earlier, whatever it means to speak of the Bible as inspired by God clearly doesn’t mean the Bible is scrubbed clean of the human experience of the writers. And taking seriously the historically shaped biblical portrayal of a violent God drives us to ask for ourselves, ‘Is this what God is like?’” (Peter Enns, How the Bible Actually Works [New York: HarperCollins, Kindle Edition], 148).

[3] Thomas Jay Oord, Pluriform Love: An Emotional and Relational Theology of Well-Being (Nampa, ID: SacraSage Press, 2022, Kindle Edition). Peter Enns states, “The God I read about in the Bible is not what God is like—in some timeless abstraction, and that’s that—but how God was imagined and then reimagined by ancient people of faith living in real times and places” (Peter Enns, How the Bible Actually Works [New York: HarperCollins, Kindle Edition], 124–125).

[4] Peter Enns notes, “This might be a good time to tell you what these three conspicuous yet often suppressed characteristics of the Bible are: the Bible is ancient, ambiguous, and diverse.” (Peter Enns, How the Bible Actually Works [New York: HarperCollins, Kindle Edition], 5).

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