The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture

That is the title of a new book by Notre Dame sociologist, Christian Smith. I received my copy of it yesterday, and I cannot put it down. (Readers of Return to Rome may recall that in June I blogged about Professor Smith’s other recent book, How to Go From Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in Ninety-Five Difficult Steps (Cascade Books 2011). My endorsement of the book is on its back cover). Unsurprisingly, The Bible Made Impossible is causing quite a stir on the internet.

Over at First Things, Peter Leithart reviews it, while Smith offers a response. Kevin DeYoung critiques the book on his blog at the Gospel Coalition, with Smith responding to DeYoung and others in the commentary section. Also discussing the book are Chaplain Mike at the Internet Monk, Brent Stubbs at Called to Communion, and my Patheos colleague Scott McKnight over at Jesus Creed. (In fact, Scott has an 8-part series on the book’s central thesis!)

There’s also a five-part video interview of Professor Smith on Youtube: Part 1Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.

My chapter in the new book, Reason, Revelation, and the Civic Order: Political Philosophy and the Claims of Faith
The Smartest Woman You Never Knew: Gretchen Passantino Coburn
Another Protestant Theologian on Reformation Day: Timothy George
Justice Kagan, You Gotta Serve Somebody
  • Michael Bauman

    Smith is being silly and utterly unselfreflective. Can he not see the obvious point that if, in his critique, you substitute “Catholicism” for “Biblicism,” or “church teaching and tradition” for “Bible,” that precisely the same problems emerge, but this time for a different group? This is an ignorance problem, not a Protestant problem, and Catholics have it too, some would say even worse — even worse because Smith nurtures the very ailment against which he rails.

  • Brent


    Have you read the book? Is your argument something like a/the Catechism is as “exponentially multivocal, polysemic, and multivalent, [and] semantically indeterminate” as the Scriptures and therefore has/will result in “pervasive interpretive pluralism” within Catholicism? In other words, when a Catholic speculates he is no better off than a biblicist as to whether or not his/her opinion is orthodox.

    To employ it another way, we could argue the phrase, “there are 7 Sacraments” is as open to interpretation as the Scriptural data on the Sacraments. Am I missing something?

    Your clarification would be beneficial.



  • Chris Burgwald

    Dear Prof. Beckwith,

    Thanks for mentioning this book… I’ve long been fascinated by Smith’s sociological work… I found his theory about Moralistic Therapeutic Deism as the dominant worldview of American teens (regardless of the faith they profess) to align with the commentary of theologians such as David Schindler on the state of religious belief in the US.

    When I came across mention of his “95 Steps” book a few weeks ago, I was confused: why would an evangelical write what sounds like a conversion account, unless… Then I found your post on the book, and was very excited about his conversion.

    I have to confess some significant disappointment, however, on one aspect of his conversion book: his discussion of the ordination of women to the priesthood. He states that it’s still an open question as to whether or not it’s a matter of discipline (and hence changeable) or doctrine (and hence unchangeable), even while acknowledging that both JPII and B16 have said clearly that it’s the latter. I’m hoping that there’s been growth on Smith’s part on this point; Ordinatio Sacerdotalis and Ratzinger’s authoritative comment on its status (not an ex cathedra statement, but infallible by virtue of the ordinary magisterium) make this all very clear.

    Any chance you’ve had any discussion on this with Prof. Smith?

  • Francis J. Beckwith


    I have not read the whole book yet, but I am in the middle of completing it right now. Ironically, I actually thought to myself, “This guy sounds like Bauman in Pilgrim Theology.” So, I am surprised at your strong objections to the book.

    Having said that, my take on the book (so far) is mixed. I understand Smith’s point, and I think many of his observations are correct. On the other hand, some of his examples don’t quite work. In one place he contrasts Matt. 12:39 with John 6:2 and claims that the first eschews signs and the latter extols them. But when one goes to the text, the contexts tell a different story. The Matthew passage is about the Pharisees and scribes demanding that Jesus perform a miracle on cue for them while the latter describes how ordinary folk begin to follow Christ because of the miracles they have experienced. Of course, this assessment involves an overarching hermeneutic coupled with theological judgment in order to grasp the distinction. In this regard, Smith is right that you can’t really do biblical theology without a cluster of other assumptions–ecclesiastic, philosophical and theological–that illuminate one’s reading of Scripture.

  • Michael Bauman


    If one adopts a more authentically Christrocentric reading of Scripture, as Smith suggests, one won’t get to Smith’s Catholicism. There’s world of difference between Jesus’ Hebrew mindset and, say, a contemporary neo-Thomist reading of Scripture as understood and explained sociologically (that is, like Smith and his ilk). Rather, if you do what Smith suggests, you end up where Barth ended — and that’s a very, very long way from Rome. You don’t get from that ancient, peripatetic Jewish Rabbi to post Vatican 2 RCism (or to its multiple predecessors). You get much closer to the faith articulated in the Church Dogmatics than to the Summa Theologica.

    As I said above, Smith has the problem he rails against: If you want a Christocentric reading of Scripture, fine. But if you get it, you won’t end up where Smith ended.

    If you want to be a Messianic Jew, I’m with you. So is the historical Jesus. But that’s not Smith.

    The difference here is the difference is between the religion of Jesus and a religion about Jesus. Smith has the latter. If he had the former — if he really were Christocentric — he’d see where and how the latter falls so desperately short.

  • Francis J. Beckwith


    Smith says in the book he is not suggesting that one must become Catholic in order to accept his critique of biblicism and his Christocentric hermeneutic. In fact, in this regard he quotes for support that great Roman Catholic apologist, Karl Barth. :-)

  • Brent


    If one adopts a more authentically Christrocentric reading of Scripture, as Smith suggests, one won’t get to Smith’s Catholicism.

    Agreed. In fact, there is no evidence that chapters 5+ get you past chapters 1-4 (in his book).

    Do you see a lot of similarity in Vatican II and the Summa? I ask because you contrast Catholicism to what I would gather is your view of Christianity and use both of these as examples of how Catholicism is not similar to a “Hebrew mindset”. I don’t have a “Hebrew mindset”, per se, because I’m a Gentile, so I’m interested what you are intending to prove. Do you think the language of the Summa (or anything that is not in a “Hebrew mindset”) is incompatible with a “Hebrew mindset”?

    You distinguish between the religion “of” and “about”. So, do you think that Jesus came to establish a religion? If so, what means or methods should I use to locate that religion?

  • Michael Bauman

    I know. I didn’t say he was. But he does so in other places, and in this one he does not practice what he preaches. That’s why I said he was so unselfreflective.

    KB the Catholic apologist? Yikes! (By the way, did you notice the picture of Karl Barth on the wall behind Smith during the interview?)

    (1) No, I don’t see much continuity between the Summa and V2, which is why, if I were Catholic, I’d be a sedevacantist.

    (2) One can be a Gentile and have a Hebrew mindset. It’s a matter of how one practices piety and theology, not what one is born. or even raised. If you wish to have the mind of Christ, (which you are commanded to do) and if you wish to be truly Christocentric (which Smith advocates) you’ll try to do as Jesus did, and think as Jesus thought. But thinking and acting like He did won’t get you to where Smith is, and Smith does not seem to recognize that self-condemning failure. He sees that failure in evangelicals — and he should — but not in himself or his fellow RCs.

    (3) It’s not the language of the Summa that is unbiblical, but its methods and its content. The Aristotelian bent, not its language, is closer to the heart of its defects. One can write in Latin and think according to the narrative and literary structure of Hebrew theology; but one cannot do Aristotelian analysis and think in accord with the Hebrew mind.

    That is, our theology, piety, and apologetic all ought to be cut from the same piece of cloth as the revelation with which we are dealing. That revelation is both historical and literary. It consists of God’s works and Gods words — God’s historical actions and the inspired text that explains those actions. That means that the closest disciplines to theology are history and literary criticism, not philosophy. To the Hebrew way of thinking, to Jesus’s way of thinking, you must know God historically and textually, or not at all. You don’t get to Yahweh via metaphysical disquisition. You don’t get to God by building a mental system from the ground up the way Aristotle does, a system that reaches up from us to God. Indeed, you don’t get to God at all; God gets to you. Aristotle’s pagan metaphysics, and its uncaused cause, its unmoved mover, and its thought thinking itself, must not be confused with Elohim.

    When the disciples asked Jesus to show them the Father, He did not say “As Aristotle has demonstrated, God can be known via these metaphysical arguments and spoken of in these ways.” No; He says nothing of the sort, ever. He says that “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” In other words, He points them to Himself, a historical Person with a role to play in the historical drama of redemption. He says that no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son has chosen to reveal Him. “No one,” of course, excludes Aristotle from the mix, because did not get his alleged knowledge of God from the only place it can be gotten, at least according to Jesus Himself. That is, if knowing God is Christocentric, Aristotle is no part of it, Thomas Aquinas notwithstanding. Thomas’ way goes contrary to the flow of the Bible, from its first verse onward, and is contrary to the way the Hebrew writers of the Bible do theology.

  • Brent


    (1) Okay, thanks.

    (2) I agree that chapters 5+ won’t save Smith nor will it lead to Catholicism. However, I’m unsure what you are claiming here. Are you saying that to have the “mind of Christ” means to have a Hebrew mindset? In other words, that every Gentile who was converted throughout the world in the first 15 centuries before the printing press was condemned to something less than the mind of Christ because they weren’t born Jewish. Even more, I know a few 1st century Rabbis who had a “Hebrew mindset” but who did not have the “mind of Christ”. I would imagine that instead of having a particular cultural world-view (a world-view important to understand in order to grasp the intended meaning of Scripture albeit), the mind of Christ would be tantamount to knowing the will of God regarding truth.

    (3) I have two problems with this analysis.

    (A) Apologetics should speak the language of the audience. St. Paul said he became “all things to all people”. St. Paul acknowledges in Acts 17 that those who worshiped the “Unknown God”–the God of the philosophers–were merely “ignorant of the very thing [they] worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.”

    (B) Are you trying to say that St. Thomas didn’t have an ear to Sacred Scripture? St. Thomas is no thorough going Aristotelian and is quick to correct Aristotle where revealed theology is instructive. I’m unsure what you mean by “a system that reaches up from us to God” when used as some type of corrective in lieu of St. Paul’s words in Romans 1:20. What can we know through creation about God? St. Paul says we can, St. Thomas shows we can. St. Thomas doesn’t think we can know God a part from Christ, but he does try to demonstrate what we can know (invisible qualities–power and divine nature) through sense experience acting on the intellect.

    (4) You distinguish (a rather scholastic notion I might add) between the religion “of” and “about” (category of relation). So, do you think that Jesus came to establish a religion? If so, what means or methods should I use to locate that religion?Mike,

  • Brent

    the “Mike,” at the end of #9 should be deleted

  • Brent

    Summa Theologica I, Q.1, Art. 8 Whether Sacred Doctrine is a Matter of Argument?

    “I answer that, As other sciences do not argue in proof of their principles, but argue from their principles to demonstrate other truths in these sciences: so this doctrine does not argue in proof of its principles, which are the articles of faith, but from them it goes on to prove something else; as the Apostle from the resurrection of Christ argues in proof of the general resurrection (I Cor 15).”

    “For our faith rests upon the revelation made to the apostles and prophets who wrote the canonical books, and not on the revelations made to other doctors.”

    Mike, how does this not look Hebrew? In other words, you seem to say language doesn’t matter, but isn’t language precisely what Aristotle gives us? Oddly enough, St. Thomas’ works were accepted by 13th century Jews like Judah Romano and the great Maimonides for the Jewish philosophical influence on them. If one is to blame anyone for changing the way theology was done, Lombard would be your man (or maybe Richard of St. Victor before him for creating a “manual” of theology). The commentary tradition on The Sentences marked a departure from the standard Glossa ordinaria on Sacred Scripture.

    I gather that you admire C.S. Lewis (as I do), but wouldn’t Lewis’s theology be suspect since he was so obviously influenced by medieval literature and not 1st century Judaism? Or rather, was it that the “Anscombe event” made Lewis wish he would have paid more attention to philosophy than he did?

  • Michael Bauman

    Yes, you must speak the truth in ways understandable to those with whom you are dealing. But you must do so in ways true the message you are propagating. Having mainlined Aristotle into western theology, Thomas failed badly on that count.

    I never said that language doesn’t matter. I said Thomas’ failure was conceptual, not linguistic. One certainly can say things appropriate to Biblical theology in Latin. Sometimes Thomas did; sometimes he did not. I mean that the whole narrative structure of redemption, and the covenantal hinges upon which it swings, are lost on Thomas. His analysis of the faith is not covenantal and historical. It is largely metaphysical, as if Biblical theology were philosophy you do about God. it is not. That seems lost on him. So does the fundamentally literary and narrative quality of the Biblical texts It’s as if he were taking a story narrative like Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities and trying to interpret it in terms of Greek metaphysics and then shape that interpretation by forcing it into the language of Aristotle. To do so is fundamentally to misunderstand the nature of the text with which you are dealing. Thomas is among the most unliterary and unhistorical of the church’s great theologians. (Lewis is not, though Lewis is often very much a Greek metaphysician). Thomas is virtually enslaved to Aristotle’s rubric and methods, and they are not the historical and literary rubric and methods of Scripture. They are not the way Hebrews like Jesus did theology.

    Thomas was not the first to introduce Greek philosophy into Biblical theology. That had been done earlier. What was done earlier was to shape Biblical religion into a more Platonic mold. Thomas, of course, was more Aristotelian. They were more Platonic. Both methods were foreign to Scripture and were unjustified innovations and transformations.

    I’d simply say that it might be good to try a book like Oscar Cullmann’s “Salvation in History” or his “Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Body?” in order to see the differences to which I am pointing.

    Best to you, Brent.

  • Brent


    I understand your distinction. A contemporary of St. Thomas, St. Bonaventure had a deeply historical view of theology. His view, as you probably know, had a profound impact on then Cardinal Ratzinger’s theology. I’ll admit that as theology, that method is preferable in a sense, though I’m hard pressed (which may be the reason for me appearing dense) to understand how it must be the rule nor how or why I should be compelled to diminish the significance of the Summa because it wasn’t “historical enough”.Pope BXVI argues that his Jesus of Narazareth is written in the tradition of the Summa, which is interesting since it seems to accomplish (in books one and two) precisely what you are prescribing.

  • Michael Bauman

    It’s important to know:
    (1) the difference between natural revelation and natural theology
    (2) the difference between the intellectual methods and presuppositions of Aristotle and the means of God’s personal self-disclosure
    (3) the difference between the Biblical theology movement and systematic theology, whether of the Thomistic, Reformed scholastic, or evangelical scholastic varieties
    (4) the differences between the worldviews of the ancient Greek philosophers and that of the apostles, prophets and Christ (differences far more profound and extensive than even the differences between democratic capitalism and communism)
    (5) the difference (and similarities) between the theology of Thomas and that of Bonaventure.
    (6) the difference between claims to ecclesiastical authority and correct exegesis.

  • Brent


    1-2 Agreed. #3, if it implies that St. Thomas is doing systematic theology, I reject on the grounds that (1) St. Thomas doesn’t say that nor is there evidence that it is his goal and (2) the discipline of systematic theology doesn’t enter the theological stage until Leibniz. #4 seems to be a hard claim to make in the degree that you are making it. #5 agreed.

    #6 seems that it could be reduced to the “claims of ecclesiastical authority vs. the claims of one’s conscience/agreement with a particular exegesis”

    Warmly in Christ,


  • Brent

    Qualification: I’m not implying that Leibniz was a theologian, but that Leibniz introduced the concept of knowledge as a system (closed) in his monadic metaphysics, and that subsequent theology impressed by the modern philosophic edifice, sought to produce systematic theology in such a way as to produce a closed/complete system which would certainly be against the way of doing theology as a Hebrew. In the Hebrew mind, one would always leave him or herself open to the continued understanding and unfolding of God’s truth to the human intellect (in other words a closed system of theology is per impossible given the nature of the object of theology.)

  • Maureen

    Christ said, “Whoever is not against us is for us.”

    Commenters here seem to think that “Whoever is not a first-century rabbinically trained Jew does not know Christ, and nanny nanny boo boo to you you too too.”

    Early Christians supported making use of “the spoils of the Egyptians”, and Paul quoted Greek poets and philosophers.

    Commenters here seem to object to “the spoils of the University of Paris,” and think that no Christian should quote Christian poets and philosophers.

    Well, garsh, I’m jist a simple Christian who’s too stupid to draw all these lines between Jew and Gentile notions, so I’ll just sit over here with Jesus and St. Paul, those notorious heathens.

  • LynneWagner27

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  • 3916761

    3916761 beers on the wall. sck was here