My Final Thoughts on “The Bible Made Impossible” (7)

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

In the final article of this series of posts, I followed a different format. I think Smith has so many really important things to say that I’ve posted significant quotations, followed by a few bullet points of my own thoughts. The quotations come from “Chapter 7: Rethinking Human Knowledge, Authority, and Understanding,” the “Conclusion,” and the “Afterward.”

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. … In fact, the one and only place in the Bible that uses the word “inspiration” (2 Tim. 3:16-17), the point of the text is not to define a theory of inspiration—which it does not—but to emphasize the pastoral usefulness of scripture. (153)

  • I disagree that the word “inspiration” is used at all in the Bible, neither in the OT or the NT. The Greek word is theopneustos which is only used once in the Bible and scholars are unsure as to how best to translate it. The word “inspiration” carries a lot of varied theological baggage with it such that people mean very different things when they say, “The Bible is inspired.” So, I believe it is best to translate it as “God-breathed.”
  • I do agree, wholeheartedly, that the point of this passage is not to define “a theory of inspiration” but to express that the purpose of God-breathed writings is for equipping God’s people for all works of service.
  • Like Smith goes on to state, one should begin reading biblical texts “with the content of the texts themselves, unprejudiced (as much as possible) by a preconceived theory of inspiration.” (154)

Another alternative is to learn about how the texts that comprise the New Testament canon came to be there in the first place. …few Christian communities possessed all of them, and the specific content of the canon itself was not decided upon until the late fourth century. Moreover, some texts that many Christian communities considered scriptural were not included in the canon, and some texts that some Christian communities considered not scriptural were eventually included in the canon. … This means that the early Christian church lived without “the Bible” as we know it canonically for nearly four hundred years. … That has big implications… (154)

  • This is such an important statement, which contains historical facts of which most Christians I know are completely ignorant. Even many conservative and fundamentalist Christian scholars, although aware, choose to ignore that reality and act as if the sixty-six books that make up the Protestant Bible were the only books that the early church read, commented on, and relied on for doctrine and practice.
  • The earliest codices we possess of “the Bible” vary considerably from one another and from modern Bible in terms of both order and content. Yet we, anachronistically, acts as if our Bibles were the very same Bibles that the early Christians read and strove to obey.

Scripture, in short, can be approached as something quite different from a holy life handbook, an error-free instruction manual, or a compendium of divine oracles about life’s various and sundry issues and challenges. (161)

  • I simply couldn’t agree more. Whatever Bible one chooses to treasure is an anthology of texts that contains much wisdom and provides us with various perspectives on the nature, working, and will of God; these perspectives are ancient, ambiguous, and diverse, requiring careful and humble reflection.

The truths of the orthodox and catholic doctrines expressed in the decrees and creeds that resulted from those councils were located in the writings of the Bible. Scripture was a primary reference of the bishops and theologians who conducted the councils. … What was embryonic in scripture needed to develop and grow into a more mature theological expression of what was there all along. …new terms, definitions, and formulations needed to be worked out… Presumably the authors of the New Testament would have wholeheartedly endorsed the outcomes of the first four ecumenical councils. (166)

  • This is a huge and completely indefensible presumption that “the authors of the New Testament would have wholeheartedly endorsed the outcomes of the first four ecumenical councils — that is, Nicaea (325 CE), Constantinople (381 CE), Ephesus (431 CE), and Chalcedon (451 CE). How on earth does Smith, or anyone else, know what doctrines and practices, later created and considered “orthodox,” the authors of the New Testament would have wholeheartedly endorsed?
  • Smith’s main presupposition is clear: the councils got it right. They and they alone understood and interpreted scripture correctly. These bishops and theologians got it right and everyone who disagrees with them got it wrong!
  • Wow! So, it is not the OT or NT or any form of the Bible that is inspired, but rather the creeds as written by the so-called “orthodox” bishops and theologians, are inspired by God! Whatever happened to the 2000-year reality of pervasive interpretive pluralism? Smith seems to claim that the biblical texts, being multivocal and polysemous in nature, give rise to many different possible interpretations, and yet the bishops and theologians from 325 to 451 CE are the ones who interpreted it all correctly.

Consider, now some quotations from the “Conclusion”…

At the heart of biblicism’s problem of impossibility and incoherence, I have suggested, is its failure to come to terms with the multivocality and polysemy of scripture that make pervasive interpretive pluralism possible and actual. Biblicism presupposes a text whose words and passages have single, specific, and readily identifiable meanings, implications, and instructions. … Biblicism also presumes that the Bible speaks with one, clear, discernible voice on matters of relevance and interest in doctrine, practice, and morality. But this assumption is erroneous. If it was correct, we would not have anything like the disagreement, conflict, and division that we in fact do have in Christianity today—especially among evangelical biblicists. (173)

  • Sadly, it seems to me, that Smith ends up promoting his own form of biblicism, when in the previous chapter he indicates that the conclusions of the four councils interpreted scripture so correctly that the authors of the New Testament would have wholeheartedly agreed.
  • Rather, as he states here (and following) the biblical texts do not speak “with one, clear, discernible voice” as biblicism presumes. What is true today about the polyphony of the biblical texts was also true in the 4th and 5th centuries CE when the councils spoke as if the Bible did indeed speak “with one, clear, discernible voice.”

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? … The actual multivocality and polysemy of scripture simply cannot be disavowed without living in serious denial. To continue to insist on biblicism therefore is an act of intellectual dishonesty and practical incongruity. … What is most problematic about biblicism are its assumptions about and beliefs in democratic perspicuity, internal harmony, commonsense hermeneutics, solo scriptura, inductive method, and the handbook model… (174, 175, 176)

  • Again, I wholeheartedly agree, especially that “[t]he actual multivocality and polysemy of scripture simply cannot be disavowed without living in serious denial.
  • Yet serious denial is an environment in which I lived for far too long as I believed that for virtually every biblical text there was one “correct” interpretation and that the biblical texts were never contradicted each other.

So, why do we get so stuck on our own interpretation even when faced with other justifiable interpretations? In the “Afterword” Smith goes to his area of expertise — sociology — and has some really significant things to say.

That means that people are often capable of insistently believing in whatever they want to believe in, even if the ideas are patently wrong to most everyone else and in fact. Evidence of this fact is pervasive in human life—although it is discouraging to most academics, who like to think that good evidence and arguments should decide matters. Yet when people, for whatever other reasons, do not want to have their thinking changed, rarely does a good argument with solid evidence actually change their thinking. Humans have a frightening ability to adhere to beliefs and positions that are contradicted by all kinds of good evidence and experience. Such is the power of the human will over the human mind. (195)

Why does this seem so hard for some people to see and admit? From my sociological perspective, it is often because different Christians have a huge amount of social, relational, and career capital—and not merely biblical conviction—at stake in the defense of their particular (biblicist) positions. And this provides the will, the desire, to refuse to consider alternative ideas. I am not saying that people do not firmly believe in their beliefs. They usually do. But the content and importance of people’s beliefs are also highly subject to the shaping influences of social and relational forces that can challenge, ignore, or reinforce them. (196)

  • I see it in my own life, and after 40 years working as a pastor with congregations large and small in both Canada and the U.S. I’ve seen it so often in others’ lives as well: it is so easy to believe what we want to believe. Solid evidence and logical arguments do not decide most matters of life and doctrine.
  • We all have that “frightening ability to adhere to beliefs…that are contradicted by all kinds of good evidence and experience.” One of my loved ones, who had been a smoker for most of her life, stopped smoking when she was diagnosed with cancer. However, she came to believe that when she stopped smoking her cancer got worse, because during her period of cessation she developed a lump in her neck. None of us could convince her otherwise!
  • My experience is that most believers are caught up in dichotomous thinking (i.e., either/or, black/white, right/wrong, etc.). Therefore, my interpretation of scripture must be either correct or false. And to say that the Bible is multivocal means that we might as well throw “the baby out with the bathwater,” for what is the use of a polysemous Bible and how can that possibly be “the word of God.”

In spite of some of the issues I have with the Christological Hermeneutic and Smith’s belief that the bishops and theologians got it right in their creeds (325 – 451 CE), I think Smith has much to say that we all need to hear. From my research I am convinced that the biblical texts have always been pluriform in composition and polyphonic in content. This has resulted in 2000 years of pervasive interpretive pluralism, resulting in the vast and ongoing multiplication of sects and denominations.

What then does it mean when bodies of Christians become stuck in their own small, comfortable, self-assured, parochial—sometimes even sectarian—religious worlds from which they refuse to budge? What can we say when the representatives of some Christian communities are, as their behavior makes clear, so certain that they already have the full truth that they therefore seek to discredit anything and everything different? What kind of future can evangelicalism have under those conditions? In the end, are those who have inherited the (so-called) Reformation really and truly prepared to “ever reform”? I hope so, but I have my doubts. (198)

I concur: maybe a little hope, but mostly doubt.

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