Biblicism Revisited 3

Christian Smith, in his new 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 see our last post. The fundamental problem that undercuts biblicism as a sufficient basis for articulating the Christian faith is interpretive pluralism. Smith sketched that problem in the first chp but he zeroes in on it in this chp and by the time the chp is over you may well be gasping for breath, or something that will resolve the problem with a different solution.

So, what do you think? Do you think interpretive pluralism undermines biblicism? What do you think is the “solution” to this pluralism?

Biblicism, he argues, is undermined by interpretive pluralism. He gives the following examples to open the chp and I’d urge you to consider each one, but more importantly consider each one in the context of accumulating problems for biblicism. In other words, ask yourself, How do we respond to this diversity and plurality of interpretation? Maybe you can ask Should we have this diversity of interpretation? Here are his examples:

Church polity (free church, presbyterian, etc), free will and predestination, Sabbath (permanent? 5pm-5pm, Saturday, Sunday? what to do on Sabbath/Sunday?), slavery (hideous history but full of plurality), gender difference and equality, wealth/prosperity/poverty/blessing, war and peace and nonviolence, charismatic gifts, atonement and justification (theories, one? central one? many? new perspective? old perspective?), God-honoring worship (regulative, normative, informed principles?), and relation to culture (Niebuhr’s options).

Maybe these don’t bother you because you grew up with them, but they should haunt the biblicist. Noll says belief in the Bible and salvation is all that holds evangelicalism together; Hatch says there is no such thing as evangelicalism.

Smith also sketches six possible answers:

First, blame the deficient readers: the reason we don’t agree is that some are flat out wrong.
Second, he concocts one that isn’t held by anyone: blame the lost original autographs explanation. Yes, inerrancy often appeals to the original mss which we don’t have, but I’m not sure anyone says this about interpretation.
Third, the noetically damaged reader, and I think there’s something serious here but not for all that many folks. Humans are corrupted in the mind and so because of the Fall we have plurality. But this leads to another view, and the next three are more speculative (admits Smith).
Fourth, some, and he pushes against those who believe in double predestination and against some Pentecostals, God or Satan has confused the minds of some and only some perceive the truth. In other words, either God only wants some to know the fullness (and listen in on theology and at times this actually is said, even if indirectly, but often in this way: Very few are willing to embrace the fullness of the gospel, etc.) or Satan has blinded humans from seeing the truth.
Fifth, the inclusive higher synthesis theory: that is, the plurality reflects the truth and the truth is much fuller and higher than humans comprehend.
Sixth, the purposefully ambiguous revelation: God made Scripture ambiguous for a higher purpose.

Fine, you may say, but the problem here is that biblicism has to find an explanation of plurality. I think the first and the fourth, call them the deficiency and elective/supernatural theories, are most often appealed to. The basic stance is that if we worked harder we’d all agree; or if we prayed harder, we’d agree; or if we were more trusting of God, we’d all agree.

I’m running out of space. Smith appeals to three terms to understand how the Bible reading actually works. Reality shows that the Bible has multivocality: it speaks to different readers in different ways at different times. And there is polysemy: that is, the words themselves are patent of different meanings and the words are “underdetermined.” That is, the words in the text are not capable of rendering a certain meaning at times.

That is, even if we are at our best, the words do give rise to more than one plausible, reasonable interpretation. This isn’t what biblicism believes.  Scriptural multivocality undermines biblicism. Is multivocality the reality or not?

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.