Christian Smith, in his must-read and challenging book, Bible Made Impossible, The: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture, contends that what many of us (evangelicals) affirm is impossible to hold with intellectual integrity. He calls this belief “biblicism,” and if you want to read what it is read this post. The fundamental problem that undercuts biblicism as a sufficient basis for articulating the Christian faith is interpretive pluralism. That’s the big idea.
Smith is an excellent sociologist and a historian of social movements, particularly American evangelicalism, and so he examines (in chp 3) the history, sociology and psychology of biblicism.
Big questions: How important is this inductive (commonsense realism) method to biblicism? What do you think of the possible social factors at work in biblicism?
As for history, what is now called “evangelicalism” owes much to Charles Hodge and BB Warfield, and both of them operated with three philosophical ideas: (1) Scottish commonsense realism, (2) a Baconian inductive model, and (3) a pictorial theory of language. Smith reduces this discussion and I even more: essentially what this means is that the evangelical heritage for biblicism believes a person can read the Bible, understand what words mean and to what they refer with certainty, and can gather the facts in order to construct just what the Bible says. Smith says Wayne Grudem’s systematic theology exemplifies this model of thinking. He also mentions Greg Beale.
But, language doesn’t work this way; human interpretation is involved in the gathering and sorting out of the “facts,” and anyway each of us is shaped by our cultural, religious, economic, ethnic… contexts when we gather and sort. Critical realism is vastly superior to commonsense realism. Listen to his overall judgment on this method of reading the Bible:
It is “counterproductive and intellectually obscurantist” … and “biblicism presupposed a set of philosophical assumptions … that were rightly abandoned by informed thinkers a long time ago” (60).
So this means Why is pervasive pluralism not more of a problem to many evangelicals? (I can say that many of us do find it a problem, but many don’t.)
1. Biblicists are a social cluster and they mutually reinforce one another.
2. Biblicists tend to minimize pervasive pluralism in Bible reading. Many think the differences are minor. [Check out the substantive nature of the 3-4-5 views books. There was a reason why Piper a few years back said seminaries ought not to be fostering this kind of pervasive interpretive pluralism.]
3. Biblicists gain strength among themselves by disagreeing with others; they establish difference, difference helps form identity; their identity permits them not to take the alternative views seriously; numbers make them think they are right.
4. Biblicists gain identity and strength because if they do transcend differences they will become ecumenical and that means liberal and that means their fragmented framework actually supports their identity. They retain a common enemy and they convince themselves they are not compromising with liberals who are ecumenical.
5. Biblicists, psychologically, have a need to create order out of chaos and to land in certainty; biblicism permits order and certainty. Smith makes it very clear he’s not psychoanalyzing any individual biblicist but speaking in general of a potential underlying framework. He even suggests that for some, on some occasions, (good qualifications, he’s not broadbrushing) some forms of biblicism are a form of failing to trust God and instead is a grasping for control.