Christian Smith on biblicism

Books & Culture just posted a review of the latest from Christian Smith, a sociologist who has produced some of the most insightful and useful studies of American evangelical Christianity.

Smith’s new book tackles a subject essentially important to evangelical culture and faith: biblicism, or biblical literalism. He’s against it, as is clear from his title: The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture.

The B&C review is largely negative. It declares right off the bat that this book will “fizzle … at least among the readers to whom it is primarily addressed: evangelical Christians.” And the review goes on to complain at great length that Smith’s book does not provide an acceptable substitute for the biblicism the book critiques.

This negative review very much makes me want to read Smith’s book. Particularly the final sentences, which read: “But what do I know? I’m neither a sociologist nor a theologian. Just a biblicist.”

Ah, OK then.

The reviewer, Robert Gundry, is a professor emeritus at Westmont College and an engaging fellow, if a bit of a name-dropper. Once B&C had made the initial decision to have Smith’s critique of biblicism reviewed by a biblicist, he became a good choice, but that initial decision was unhelpful.

I suppose the idea was that a biblicist reviewer would be expected to engage Smith’s critique and to attempt a defense of biblical literalism. Gundry doesn’t do that. Whether or not he could have thus can’t be known, but he chose another approach.

Here is Gundry:

What does [Smith] mean by “biblicism,” and by its making the Bible “impossible”? Biblicism makes the Bible impossible to put into practice, according to Smith; and as used by him, biblicism means an emphasis on the Bible’s “exclusive authority, infallibility [or ‘inerrancy’], perspicuity, self-sufficiency, internal consistency, self-evident meaning, and universal applicability,” though not every version of biblicism contains all these ingredients, at least not all in equal measure.

How then does the foregoing constellation of emphases make the Bible impossible to put into practice? It does so by producing “pervasive interpretive pluralism,” so that evangelical Christians differ widely on what they should believe and how they should behave; and their differences include important as well as unimportant matters. Thus “practice” includes belief as well as behavior, and “impossible” has to do with shared practices. For example, biblicists differ over human free will and divine sovereignty; penal satisfaction and Christus Victor; creation and evolution; sprinkling and immersion; divorce and remarriage; complementarianism and egalitarianism; just war and pacifism; pretribulationism and posttribulationism; amillennialism, premillennialism, and postmillennialism; everlasting torment and annihilation; soteriological exclusivism, inclusivisim, and universalism; and on and on. In other words, biblicism fails to produce the theological and behavioral unity that Smith thinks necessary to validate it.

Those last six words are where I call foul.

It won’t do to try to foist that off onto Smith. He is not the one seeking the authoritative consistency of “theological and behavioral unity” in the certainty promised, but not delivered, by biblicism. It is the biblical literalists themselves who seek this validation. That’s why they’re biblicists. That unity and authoritative clarity is what biblicism is supposed to be for. Smith is merely describing the problem that biblicism was adopted to solve.

And his main point seems to be that it doesn’t work.

Gundry provides a summary of Smith’s contention that biblicism, in fact, fails to deliver the authoritative certainty it was meant to provide:

Why then do biblicists go wrong? Because they mistakenly assume that the Bible contains no errors in whatever it says, always speaks clearly, and therefore can be understood correctly by any able- and fair-minded individual who reads it inductively. …

Undermining the biblicists’ assumptions, according to Smith, are biblical texts that almost no reader, biblicists included, actually lives by, such as “Greet one another with a holy kiss”; that need explaining away by arbitrary appeals to cultural relativism, such as Paul’s prohibiting women from braiding their hair; that seem so strange as to merit neglect, such as the statement, “Cretans are always liars, bad beasts, lazy bellies”; and that disagree with other biblical texts, such as the disallowing of women’s speech in church meetings over against an allowance if their heads are covered.

That’s Smith’s critique. But rather than engage it or seek to defend biblicism against such criticism, Gundry goes on offense, arguing that Smith’s proposed alternative approach to the Bible cannot provide the authoritative clarity that biblicists seek:

How then does Smith propose to solve the problem of pervasive interpretive pluralism while maintaining a belief in the Bible’s divine inspiration …? His main answers: (1) by accepting the presence in the Bible of ambiguity, complexity, errors, contradictions, and thus the legitimacy of at least some different and even opposing interpretations of Scripture; (2) by importing extrabiblical theological concepts, such as that of the Trinity with its ontological categories of person and nature; (3) by submitting to “a stronger … ecclesial teaching office than biblicism has ever provided” …; and, most important, (4) by reading Scripture christologically, à la Barth, so that its problematic passages and the different interpretations thereof recede in importance before the main message of salvation in Christ, the incarnate second person of the Trinity.

Readers of this blog will recognize that I’m a big fan of No. 1 and No. 4 in that list, to which I would also add experience, reason and reasoning together.

But note the change in direction in that last paragraph from Gundry. After side-stepping Smith’s critique of biblicism, the remainder of his long review essay is his critique of Smith’s proposed alternative.

This is a popular dodge, but I’ve never understood why it’s thought to be compelling. Every critique does not need to be accompanied by a fully realized alternative. The lack of such an alternative does not render the critique invalid, or insulate the thing critiqued from criticism. Biblicists are clinging to a solution that does not solve the problem they are seeking to solve. If Smith fails, in Gundry’s view, to offer an effective alternative, that still doesn’t mean it makes sense for Gundry to stick with his own failed approach.

In any case, Gundry’s dissatisfaction with Smith’s proposed approach to scripture is more a matter of miscommunication than of disagreement with the substance of Smith’s framework. They are asking two very different questions. Smith is asking, “Given the reality of ‘pervasive interpretive pluralism,’ how should we read the Bible?” Gundry is asking, instead, “Given the challenge of ‘pervasive interpretive pluralism,’ how can we avoid and/or win disputes when appealing to the Bible as our final, unambiguous authority?” Those very different questions are bound to require very different answers.

Gundry wants certainty, and Smith’s contention is that biblical literalism does not and cannot provide such certainty, only a feeble counterfeit of it. Smith’s suggested alternative does not pretend to make certainty available, only greater understanding. Given the choice between the counterfeit certainty of biblicism and Smith’s humbler aims, Gundry opts to stick with the counterfeit. I find that an odd choice.

Here is the publisher’s summary of Smith’s book:

Biblicism, an approach to the Bible common among some American evangelicals, emphasizes together the Bible’s exclusive authority, infallibility, clarity, self-sufficiency, internal consistency, self-evident meaning, and universal applicability. Acclaimed sociologist Christian Smith argues that this approach is misguided and unable to live up to its own claims. If evangelical biblicism worked as its proponents say it should, there would not be the vast variety of interpretive differences that biblicists themselves reach when they actually read and interpret the Bible.

Smith describes the assumptions, beliefs, and practices of evangelical biblicism and sets it in historical, sociological, and philosophical context. He explains why it is an impossible approach to the Bible as an authority and provides constructive alternative approaches to help evangelicals be more honest and faithful in reading the Bible. Far from challenging the inspiration and authority of Scripture, Smith critiques a particular rendering of it, encouraging evangelicals to seek a more responsible, coherent, and defensible approach to biblical authority.

One more to add to the list.

Stay in touch with the Slacktivist on Facebook:

'You will find out on that day ...': False prophets and lost endings
Rewriting evangelicals' past to preserve our mistakes
When identity is bound up in a lie
The Psalms and the word of God
  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    First!

  • Mr. Heartland.

    “This is a popular dodge, but I’ve never understood why it’s thought to
    be compelling. Every critique does not need to be accompanied by a fully
    realized alternative. The lack of such an alternative does not render
    the critique invalid,”

    Actually, if one holds the conceit of his own position being the natural default, it does.  Any claim disputing his ownership of normality is legitimate only if it provides a similarly all-consuming counter-claim to ownership of normality.   

    It’s the old gambit of presenting one’s own absolutism as the only alternative to nihilism.  

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Mr. Heartland: And this is what gravels me about those who refuse to take atheism seriously. The mere fact of the absolutist stance they take due to their idea of faith is taken, by them, as proof of inherent superiority of the philosophical position they take.

    Considering that all I really am doing is saying, “I simply choose not to believe in any religion” – alas.

  • Anonymous

    Have you ever gotten the old, “I don’t believe you’re really an atheist”?

    Since the only thing keeping every human on the planet from going on a cannibal crime spree* is belief in God, any self-identified atheist who isn’t a Reaver must secretly believe in God, and not just any old God, but their specific god.

  • ako

    Have you ever gotten the old, “I don’t believe you’re really an atheist”?

    I’ve seen that.  I had a very creepy online conversation with a guy who believed that there was no good reason for an atheist not to molest children.  He didn’t believe me when I said I didn’t want to rape children (in addition to me having morals and empathy and wanting to avoid prison, I find the idea completely nauseating), because he couldn’t conceive of not wanting to do every evil act.

    I was very glad that person didn’t know my real name and hadn’t seen my face.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    ako: DDDDDDDDX do not want

  • http://feygelegoy.com/ FeygeleGoy

    It might be very prudent to watch him closely

  • Anonymous

    I had a very creepy online conversation with a guy who believed that
    there was no good reason for an atheist not to molest children.  He
    didn’t believe me when I said I didn’t want to rape children (in
    addition to me having morals and empathy and wanting to avoid prison, I
    find the idea completely nauseating), because he couldn’t conceive of
    not wanting to do every evil act.

    I was very glad that person didn’t know my real name and hadn’t seen my face.

    My father has a similar mindset when it comes to atheism.  One of these days I’m going to point out that 20% of the US population is atheist or agnostic, and that if one in five Americans really were that depraved, our society would be bedlam.  Thus, a sizable percentage of atheists and agnostics, if not all of them, must live by some form of moral code.

  • http://twitter.com/Rhysdux Rhysdux

    Have you ever gotten the old, “I don’t believe you’re really an atheist”?

    I’ve gotten THAT one from my housemate. Her theory is that since no ancient civilization that we know of was atheistic, ancient peoples’ general belief in deities reflects a universal truth: that God exists and that fundamentally, all people know that God exists. Atheists, in her view, are just being stubborn, that’s all.

    She also believes that morality is fundamentally God-based. She asked me once (with the air of one playing a trump card) what my morality was based on. I said that it was pretty simple. If I had a choice between being kind or cruel, I tried to choose kindness. If I had a choice between helping people and not helping them, I tried to help.

    “But why?” she demanded, scowling. “Why do you care?”

    “My parents raised me right?”

    “But if you don’t believe in God, what difference does it make?”

    It was my turn to stare at her. “Is kindness any LESS kind when it comes from someone who doesn’t believe rather than someone who does?”

    “But you’re not doing it for the right reason!”

    “Which is?” 

    “Because God said to!”

    Twelve years of Catholic religious classes kicked in about that point. “Um…doesn’t the Bible say that Christians are supposed to WANT to help people–not because God said so, but because they’re people? The whole ‘love thy neighbor as thyself’ thing?”

    She stomped upstairs. End of conversation. 

  • Rikalous

    I’ve gotten THAT one from my housemate. Her theory is that since no
    ancient civilization that we know of was atheistic, ancient peoples’
    general belief in deities reflects a universal truth: that God exists
    and that fundamentally, all people know that God exists. Atheists, in her view, are just being stubborn, that’s all.

    Funnily enough, I was just yesterday reading a bit of John Locke where he argues that the concept of God can’t be innate (despite apparently being oh-so-obvious) because of all these societies with no concept of God.

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    I’ve gotten THAT one from my housemate. Her theory is that since no ancient civilization that we know of was atheistic, ancient peoples’ general belief in deities reflects a universal truth: that God exists and that fundamentally, all people know that God exists. Atheists, in her view, are just being stubborn, that’s all.

    Or to quote Cicero, “Nature herself has imprinted on the minds of all the idea of God.”

    For my part, I tend to think it is reflective more of a human tendency both toward pattern recognition, and toward anthropomorphizing.  When one tries to understand the grand sweeps of the natural world, and tries to coach it in terms that make it analogous to human understanding and desire, the idea of a divine will tends to be a fairly natural consequence.  

    Whether that is right is a whole different matter, but it is certainly understandable.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Patrick-McGraw/100001988854074 Patrick McGraw

    Or to quote Cicero, “Nature herself has imprinted on the minds of all the idea of God.”

    I thought Leonard Nimoy said that.

    (Yes, I feel compelled to do this every time a quotation used in Civilization IV comes up. I might have a problem.)

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    I thought Leonard Nimoy said that.

    (Yes, I feel compelled to do this every time a quotation used in Civilization IV comes up. I might have a problem.)

    You realize I post those quotes just to make people think of Civilization?  ;)

  • Anonymous

    Have you ever gotten the old, “I don’t believe you’re really an atheist”?

    Since the only thing keeping every human on the planet from going on a cannibal crime spree* is belief in God, any self-identified atheist who isn’t a Reaver must secretly believe in God, and not just any old God, but their specific god.

  • Anonymous

    This, at heart, is the fatal flaw of biblical inerrancy: when a person claims that the Bible is inerrant, what they are really saying is that their interpretation of the Bible is inerrant, but it would take a better-than-average degree of self-awareness to realize that, and supreme arrogance to say it out loud.

  • Richard Hershberger

    “…when a person claims that the Bible is inerrant, what they are really
    saying is that their interpretation of the Bible is inerrant…”

    To take this a step further, when this person also claims that his interpretation is the plain reading of the text, it follows that he believes anyone with a different interpretation is either an illiterate fool and a scoundrel purposefully misreading the text for some nefarious purpose.  It is no wonder that actual exchange of information becomes so difficult.

  • Richard Hershberger

    …And now reading Fred’s next post, I find he makes the same point, though not allowing for the “illiterate fool” possibility.l

  • Anonymous

    It’s the old gambit of presenting one’s own absolutism as the only alternative to nihilism.

    Maybe that’s why the gambit falls flat, for me anyway. A little nihilism can be a good thing. Helps clear out the zombie corpses of un-dead ideologies.

  • rm

    And also too, another thing — Gundry ends by suggesting that the problem of multiple disagreeing readings of the Bible has been caused by past Christians who just weren’t biblicist enough. If only all Christians throughout history had been American evangelicals, we wouldn’t have had all of these problems all these years.

  • Si

    I’m a Jew and a journalist, and reading the Gospels I was struck by the fact that each rendition of a given event varies slightly in details – for example, there are four different versions of Christ’s last words on the cross. As a reporter, I’m thinking, “Ok, but which account is accurate?” Even if I take all four accounts to be “inerrant,” I must assume that each account is omitting the words recorded by each of the others – which of course leads to the question of what else is omitted. In any case, it seems as if there is no way to reconcile these four varying narratives with an “inerrant” book. Is there a canonical way that various Christian denominations explain these discrepancies? Or is it politely ignored?

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    There’ve been writers who’ve tried to allege that it must therefore be a set of four chronicles of a real event because of the slight differences in details. O.o

    Square that with Biblical inerrancy, I wonder.

  • Reverend Ref

    In any case, it seems as if there is no way to reconcile these four varying narratives with an “inerrant” book.  Is there a canonical way that various Christian denominations explain these discrepancies? Or is it politely ignored?

    As an Episcopalian, I don’t worry too much about the inerrancy of the Bible.  The way I describe the four gospels is that there is, for Christians, an inerrant truth of Jesus as Messiah and all that goes along with that.  But there is also the fact that the Christ event was witnessed by many people and they all have their own spin, their own sense of what’s important, their own views.  It’s like a car accident in an intersection with four witnesses on the four different corners.  The accident happened, but there are four different versions.  The Christ event happened, and the four different gospels and four differing points of view and to the depth and complexity of Christ and his relationship with God; and that should add to the depth and complexity of our own relationship with God.

    Not to mention that the gospels aren’t exactly eye-witness records.

    In short, it’s the salvific story that is important, not whether or not the last seven words of Christ are verbatim and inerrant.

  • arc

    I don’t know much about Judaism, but I understand that there is a strong tradition within Judaism of preserving disparate accounts and attitudes, and also strong tendencies to engage with scripture in a decidedly non-literal ways.  The Midrashic literature is the most obvious example.  But as evidence that concern with preserving important traditions at points has trumped any desire for consistency, it seems pretty evident that Genesis was derived from two accounts of the same events – in the face of two not entirely consistent accounts, the redactors of Genesis chose to preserve both rather than edit for consistency. 

  • http://twitter.com/Rhysdux Rhysdux

    there are four different versions of Christ’s last words on the cross. As a reporter, I’m thinking, “Ok, but which account is accurate?”

    Si: The version I got in school was that Mark–the oldest of the Gospels–was probably the most accurate, as it was written closest to the time that Jesus would have been alive; that Matthew focused the most on Jesus’s actions; that John focused most on what Jesus said; and that Luke, who was writing for a Gentile rather than a Jewish audience and who knew what they expected of gods and their messengers, provides the most mythos (the Christmas story, for example). All the Gospels contained truths, we were told, but they did not all tell the same truth. Sort of the same way that four unauthorized biographies of a movie star don’t all tell identical anecdotes or report the same events in exactly the same way.

  • Anonymous

    Protestant Christianity is the only religion that I know of where in some denominations, the Bible is supposed to be the entirety of the religion, forever, with no need for tradition, supplemental texts, or theological scholars.  If there is any other religion like that, I would like to know about it.  It really does seem like idolatry in some cases.  I am especially thinking of certain groups who home-church because they don’t like being under some other preacher.  A lot of biblical literalists claim that if you just give a Bible to a person who has never heard of Christianity before, and they simply read it, they will come to the exact same conclusions as mainstream Christianity, without needing the input of a preacher or Biblical scholar or even someone who went to Sunday School as a child.

  • P J Evans

    in some denominations, the Bible is supposed to be the entirety of the religion

    And only one particular translation of it, at that. One of the older, less accurate ones.

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    Protestant Christianity is the only religion that I know of where in some denominations, the Bible is supposed to be the entirety of the religion, forever, with no need for tradition, supplemental texts, or theological scholars.

    They may CLAIM that, but they’re wrong.

  • Anonymous

    A lot of biblical literalists claim that if you just give a Bible to a
    person who has never heard of Christianity before, and they simply read
    it, they will come to the exact same conclusions as mainstream
    Christianity, without needing the input of a preacher or Biblical
    scholar or even someone who went to Sunday School as a child

    Almost this experiment was carried out by the novelist Evelyn Waugh, who bet Randolf Churchill (son of Winston) that he couldn’t read the whole Bible in a fortnight. Churchill had obviously heard of Christianity, he just paid little attention to it. His response to reading the scripture was, according to Waugh, to exclaim, “God, isn’t God a shit!”

  • http://indiscriminatedust.blogspot.com Philboyd Studge

    Every critique does not need to be accompanied by a fully realized
    alternative. The lack of such an alternative does not render the
    critique invalid, or insulate the thing critiqued from criticism.

    Very true. I believe this is the attitude adopted by some communists and anarchists (although certainly not all). It’s an attitude that seems to totally escape creationists, who seem to think that criticizing evolution automatically bolsters their own theory.

  • Mr. Heartland

    Yeah, ‘Supreme arrogance’ is right.  I’m reminded of last week’s ‘Pandagon’ post, in which Marcotte called out the false stereotype of fundamentalists being poorer and less educated than average, when actually it appeals more to members of the White upper class.  And of course it’s no accident that it appeals most to those who view their relationship to society as paternal.  Or that waves of Fundamentalism have come mainly as reactions against some sudden wave of modernity, (‘Jazz Age’, civil rights movement, etc.) 

    Disbelief in God (AKA, established power and authority) is so hellishly evil that no amount of good the unbeliever does can attone. Truth is set in stone forever and only a fiend would question the morality we dictate to everyone else.   

  • ako

    As far as Biblical innerancy arguments, they always make me think of the quote arguments, where some prooftexter breaks out a Bible quote to prove a point, someone else brings up a contradictory quote, and the prooftexter brings up another quote that supports their side and contradicts the other.  It’s always done with an air of “I win!”, but it’s really just a reminder of how the Bible contains contradictions and how there’s no realistic “I don’t pick and choose what bits I believe in” option.  It’s either picking and choosing based on interpretive abilities, or pretending not to interpret and picking and choosing based on unexamined assumptions and personal bias.

  • http://lightningbug.blogspot.com lightning

    My favorite response to the “quote farmers” is Matthew 27-5, Luke 10-37:

    “Judas went out and hanged himself.  Go and do likewise.”

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    My favorite response to the “quote farmers” is Matthew 27-5, Luke 10-37:

    “Judas went out and hanged himself.  Go and do likewise.”

    I’ve always enjoyed this bit from Acts of the Apostles:

    And [Saul] spoke boldly in the name of the Lord Jesus and disputed against the Hellenists, but they attempted to kill him. When the brethren found out, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him out to Tarsus. Then the churches throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace

  • arc

    I am always intrigued by this need for certainty.  It seems to be a deep psychological need that some people have that’s beyond the details of the ideology, and often quite independent of the ideology.  I’ve known of several cases of people switching ideologies dramatically but holding to each quite dogmatically and firmly.  There’s a media personality around here somewhere – much out of the limelight these days – who was an ardent socialist before he became an ardent libertarian, and someone of my acquaintance moved from wicca to catholicism essentially (as I understand the matter anyway) because (orthodox) Catholicism provides Certain Answers. 

    It often seems to be tied to a need for simplicity, too. I guess that might be in part because most people aren’t all that smart, and if you want a life with no question marks anywhere, you need something you can personally understand without difficulty, which limits the complexity of the view considerably.

    As I alluded to before, this need for certainty and simplicity isn’t limited to religious beliefs.  There are more than a few athiests like this, too – marxism and libertarianism are popular with some for the definitive political answers they give.  Ethical antirealism plus (simpleminded) evolutionary psychology is popular too, because it allows one to ignore the ethical sphere altogether, and not have any lingering doubts about your inclinations – they’re all adaptive!

  • arc

    I am always intrigued by this need for certainty.  It seems to be a deep psychological need that some people have that’s beyond the details of the ideology, and often quite independent of the ideology.  I’ve known of several cases of people switching ideologies dramatically but holding to each quite dogmatically and firmly.  There’s a media personality around here somewhere – much out of the limelight these days – who was an ardent socialist before he became an ardent libertarian, and someone of my acquaintance moved from wicca to catholicism essentially (as I understand the matter anyway) because (orthodox) Catholicism provides Certain Answers. 

    It often seems to be tied to a need for simplicity, too. I guess that might be in part because most people aren’t all that smart, and if you want a life with no question marks anywhere, you need something you can personally understand without difficulty, which limits the complexity of the view considerably.

    As I alluded to before, this need for certainty and simplicity isn’t limited to religious beliefs.  There are more than a few athiests like this, too – marxism and libertarianism are popular with some for the definitive political answers they give.  Ethical antirealism plus (simpleminded) evolutionary psychology is popular too, because it allows one to ignore the ethical sphere altogether, and not have any lingering doubts about your inclinations – they’re all adaptive!

  • Anonymous

    This is a popular dodge, but I’ve never understood why it’s
    thought to be compelling. Every critique does not need to be accompanied
    by a fully realized alternative.

    This is right, but at least some critiques do need to be so accompanied.  I can attack pretty much any idea with radical skepticism – the old Cartesian “how do you know you’re not constantly deceived” thing, and this is incredibly hard to answer in a clearly satisfactory way.  But, because it applies just as well to /any/ practical theory someone might suggest, it’s not useful as a critique; it doesn’t give the audience a reason to reject the theory being attacked in favor of something – anything – else (other than radical skepticism, which no one’s seriously suggesting).

    I would imagine that at least some people who react this way to criticisms of absolutist positions are coming from the same place.  If you can’t wrap your head around non-absolutism, a critique of absolutism as such is going to sound like radical skepticism.  It’s an unfair attack because any plausible (read: absolutist) theory is also vulnerable to it.

  • Anonymous

    To clear that up, the reason that lots of critiques don’t need to be accompanied by alternatives is that there’s a pre-existing space of mutually understood alternatives.  The effect of valid criticism is to lower our confidence in the thing criticized while raising our confidence in other things (most generally, just the negation of the thing criticized).

    It’s easy to err either way with this.  People can accept silly critiques which apply equally to almost anything while just not considering the implications for their preferred theory (lots of popular general Christian apologia do this), and people can become very confident of a theory just because the only competing theory they’re aware of seems to them to be discredited (creationists do this).

  • arc

    I don’t think you’re right about the need for alternatives.  What Smith is proposing, if I have understood him correctly through my reading of Slactivist’s reading of Gundry’s reading of Smith, is that there is no way to achieve what ‘biblicists’ want in a way which isn’t a sham.  I.e. that what they want is actually impossible (and as an added bonus, their own behaviour shows that they don’t treat the Bible in the way they say they do anyway).

    I can’t see how there could be a demand to show an alternative if your objection to the current scheme is that the proposed goal is impossible. 

    Otherwise, I shall go ahead with my plans for a perpetual motion machine.  And I won’t have any 2nd-law naysayers ruining the party until they come up with a better alternative for a perpetual motion machine.

    (I think in general there isn’t a need to propose alternatives, not just in the case of impossible goals, but that’s the case here.  In other cases, I think it is quite valid to say “your conclusion doesn’t follow from the scanty evidence or your completely fallacious arguments” without offering an alternative argument that does support the conclusion. )

    (Actually, thinking about it, you seem to be doing a similar thing to the biblicists here – “we must demand alternatives, because otherwise we’ll have no answer to universal scepticism, and that’s unthinkable!” )

  • http://accidental-historian.typepad.com/ Geds

    I can’t see how there could be a demand to show an alternative if your
    objection to the current scheme is that the proposed goal is
    impossible.

    I’m just gonna pop in to this conversation to agree with this statement.

    Most of the places I run in to the, “You can’t criticize without an alternative,” format is in art criticism, but it obviously works in many places.  But if we’re talking movies, books, or especially music, what we get is the butthurt fandom response.  Say a critic says, “The new album by The Mars Volta is terrible garbage.  It’s atonal, boring, and pretentious.”  So some butthurt Mars Volta fan comes in and says, “How dare you not agree with me that the Mars Volta is the greatest and most important band ever.  You can’t criticize it until you can create something better and I’ll bet you can’t even play an instrument.”

    The problem with the Butthurt Fan Response is that it actually concedes the entire argument.  You’re basically saying, “I can’t argue with your point that the Mars Volta is pretentious, atonal, and boring, so I’ll mock you instead.”  It’s a weird combination of argumentum ad absurdum, argument from authority, and ad hominem.  It is basically an extremely weak response that shows itself to be weak immediately.

    What Gundry offered was the Butthurt Fan Response.  It doesn’t, from the excerpts, actually counter anything that Smith says.  And Smith is offering a critique of an idea, as opposed to an argument for a counter idea.  This, then, invalidates Mr Heartland’s argument that originally kicked this off, to wit:

    Actually, if one holds the conceit of his own position being the natural
    default, it does.  Any claim disputing his ownership of normality is
    legitimate only if it provides a similarly all-consuming counter-claim
    to ownership of normality.

    It’s the old gambit of presenting one’s own absolutism as the only alternative to nihilism.

    A critique does not necessarily have to offer a counter-claim.  One can discover where the critic’s interpretation is coming from and decide on the veracity of the critique in doing so by studying the critique or surrounding documents, but it’s still left up to the reader of the critique to decide if the critique is valid.  So the music critic who hates the Mars Volta then must be approached as someone who listens to music and has his or her own tastes.  Someone who doesn’t like the Mars Volta because they don’t like any prog rock has one reason for a critique.  Someone who doesn’t like the Mars Volta because the lead singer killed his cat in the seventh grade has another reason.  It is up to the consumer of the critique to decide if it’s valid or not.

    Christian Smith, then, does not have to offer up a worldview to point out the flaws in biblicism.  The flaws of that particular point of view are self-evident and can be refuted in the text itself.  They can also be refuted by paying attention to how the proponents of biblicism behave.

    For instance, if the Bible is inerrant, then everything in it must be correct.  This should be a fairly obvious first step.  An inerrant document, in observing reality, should also properly record reality.  However, in various parts of the Bible there are claims that insects have four legs, pi is exactly 3, and Darius was the Persian king who conquered Babylon and was then replaced by Cyrus.  Walking outside and seeing an insect with six legs negates the first.  Using pi in geometric equations to determine the area of a circle negates the second.  Studying ancient Middle Eastern history negates the third.  One does not need a coherent structure of belief to realize, then, that Biblical inerrancy is actually observably wrong in certain cases.

    But to get to the main point of Smith’s critique, as I understand it, everyone who claims Biblical inerrancy also claims that there is a single, clear exegesis that can be culled from the Bible.  But there are as many single, clear Biblical interpretations as there are proponents of Biblical inerrancy.  Actually, there are more, as the interpretation of that single, inerrant Biblical way will often change and evolve as the inerrantly Biblical believer changes over time.

    One does not need a well-considered opposing, or even differing, philosophy to see that the very nature of the Biblically inerrant worldview is naturally self-defeating.  So any critique based on that observation is valid.

    That is not to say every critique of the position is valid, though.  “The Biblicists are wrong because Harry Potter offers the one true statement of reality” is an example of an incorrectly formulated critique.  And if that were Smith’s critique, Mr Hearland’s original objection would be correct.  But I do not believe it is, so Fred’s point stands.

  • Anonymous

    I completely agree that the Butthurt Fan Response (is “butthurt” a kosher word around here?) is a dumb reply to criticism.  I’m not convinced that Gendry is doing that, and I know that some people who sound like Gendry are not doing that.

    Obviously the BFR is especially problematic because there’s not a necessary connection between the ability to produce and the ability to critique (especially insofar as technical skill is involved).  I can say that the Cowboys ran the wrong play even if I didn’t quite manage to make a career of professional football.  Football coaches are paid huge sums of money to critique players who are much, much better at playing football than the coaches are themselves.

    But I don’t see that it’s a problem to respond to a critique with a request for an alternative if you genuinely can’t imagine what a plausible alternative would look like.  If someone criticizes Mars Volta because their performance seems centered around producing sounds, it makes perfect sense to ask what kind of music the reviewer likes.  This wouldn’t be an implicit acknowledgment that the criticism is too strong to respond to; it seems to me to be a pretty natural response (if you’re not just going to ignore the criticism entirely).  It’s the natural response for me because I just can’t understand where a person who would make that critique is coming from.  They’re talking about a specific band, so surely they like at least some music (or else they’d just be criticizing music in general), but…

    Reading over the review, Gendry can’t seem to wrap his head around a Christianity which would not demand a “solution” to the “problem” of pervasive interpretive pluralism.  I don’t think he’s offering the BFR to Smith here – he believes that the weaknesses Smith is ascribing to Gendry’s views are the weaknesses of any plausible Christian view (he goes on to detail – at length – different takes on scripture which have also failed to produce unity of belief). 

    I agree that Smith’s got a valid criticism here.  But Gendry isn’t (obviously) being intellectually dishonest; he could just not be getting it.  If Gendry doesn’t conceive of plausible alternatives, Smith could make himself much more persuasive by being much more explicit/clear about rejecting the idea that a major goal of the Christian enterprise is to determine the one true (accessible) meaning of scripture.  It’s pretty obvious to us that Smith means something like this, but I don’t think it’s obvious to Gendry.  People have given a few examples in this thread of situations where someone just wasn’t picking up on what seemed like the obvious understanding of someone else’s position because of the presuppositions they brought in to the discussion.

  • Anonymous

    That’s not what I meant to say.  Mutually-understood alternatives can be pretty skimpy things.  An alternative to “perpetual motion machines are possible” can just be the negation of that, and that alternative is explicit in all of the standard replies.  Problems arise when the negation of a claim doesn’t seem to pick out anything in particular – the negation of “biblicism is true” is not specific, and different people are going to have very different understandings of what “it is not the case that biblicism is true” means.  If the space of alternatives as you see it consists of “biblicism is true” and “there’s no reason not to murder children”, lots of critiques of “biblicism is true” aren’t going to do much to budge your confidence in biblicism.

    There’s a failure of imagination at work.  If I just can’t imagine that perpetual motion machines are impossible, then you’re not going to convince me, and any criticism of my PMM that relies on increasing my confidence that PMMs are impossible is going to strike me as pointless.  If I further don’t really grasp that other people truly think PMMs are impossible, I’m going to get very frustrated with you.  Now, this doesn’t happen often with physics, but this kind of talking past each other occurs a lot with stuff like absolutism.  Gundry just doesn’t seem to grasp that Smith is saying that anything like what he wants is impossible, and he regards arguments that what he wants is impossible just because of the kind of thing it is as weird because of course you’ve got to have something like that.  He doesn’t see how Smith could believe something which doesn’t fall afoul of the same problems, and there’s nothing else conceivable that Smith could believe, so the criticism is misguided.

    I don’t mean to be saying that it makes no sense to criticize something without offering an alternative, but a criticism is only going to be persuasive to the extent that there are conceived-of alternatives which are immune to the criticism.

  • Anonymous

    That’s not what I meant to say.  Mutually-understood alternatives can be pretty skimpy things.  An alternative to “perpetual motion machines are possible” can just be the negation of that, and that alternative is explicit in all of the standard replies.  Problems arise when the negation of a claim doesn’t seem to pick out anything in particular – the negation of “biblicism is true” is not specific, and different people are going to have very different understandings of what “it is not the case that biblicism is true” means.  If the space of alternatives as you see it consists of “biblicism is true” and “there’s no reason not to murder children”, lots of critiques of “biblicism is true” aren’t going to do much to budge your confidence in biblicism.

    There’s a failure of imagination at work.  If I just can’t imagine that perpetual motion machines are impossible, then you’re not going to convince me, and any criticism of my PMM that relies on increasing my confidence that PMMs are impossible is going to strike me as pointless.  If I further don’t really grasp that other people truly think PMMs are impossible, I’m going to get very frustrated with you.  Now, this doesn’t happen often with physics, but this kind of talking past each other occurs a lot with stuff like absolutism.  Gundry just doesn’t seem to grasp that Smith is saying that anything like what he wants is impossible, and he regards arguments that what he wants is impossible just because of the kind of thing it is as weird because of course you’ve got to have something like that.  He doesn’t see how Smith could believe something which doesn’t fall afoul of the same problems, and there’s nothing else conceivable that Smith could believe, so the criticism is misguided.

    I don’t mean to be saying that it makes no sense to criticize something without offering an alternative, but a criticism is only going to be persuasive to the extent that there are conceived-of alternatives which are immune to the criticism.

  • arc

    There are plenty of people who think water-powered cars are possible, or that you can increase the concentration of a gas with a high infrared absorbtivity without thereby increasing the gas’s ability to absorb and store heat, so arguments about physics might be more common than you think :-]

    I took you to be making a normative claim about rational argument, but you’re now talking about what someone might find convincing, which of course is quite a different matter.    I think you’re right about the psychology of people who can only conceive of biblicism and murdering children as alternatives, and I think you’re also right that there’s some similarity here with the case of not accepting an argument leading to universal scepticism because of the consequences  (although the cases aren’t exactly parallel, and I think if you made an exactly parallel case with scepticism it would look equally as absurd).

    It’s also difficult to see what you can do in these cases that would be convincing.  It’s not as easy as just putting something else on the table – even in the cases in which you would want to table something.  In as much as Smith is trying to table ‘an alternative’, it’s not an alternative Gundry can accept without something like an overhaul of his worldview.

    I do have sympathy for people caught in binds like Gundry’s.  But the intellectually honest thing to do is not to commit argument ad consequentiam to ignore the salient criticisms, but either respond to the criticisms appropriately, or admit them:  ‘OK, you’re right, I have no response to those things, but as far as I can see the alternative is unthinkable, so I’m continuing with what
    I’m doing – unless you can show me that there is a palatable alternative’.

    I think that’s a valid response in general.  It’s how most people respond to universal scepticism, after all.

    (The First step is to admit you have a problem…)

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    I had a conversation with some earnest young evangelicals on the weekend, who apparently had never discussed religion with a Catholic who wasn’t a hardcore fundamentalist Mick (i.e. the vast, vast majority of Australian Catholics).

    They asked me how I coped with disagreeing with the Pope on anything, given that he’s God’s spokesman (in their understanding of Catholic belief). I replied that, just like anyone else, even with all the good faith and sincerity in the world the Pope will interpet God through the lens of his own culture, experience and personality. Given that I’m not a German man born in the early 20th century my lens of interpretation will be different. And neither of us will ever see God from a completely “objective” viewpoint. I started to say it’s like how you can divorce the Bible from its authors–and they reacted as if this was a new idea to them. They didn’t seem offended, just surprised that someone could take the Bible seriously but not “literally”.

    Sadly we both had to get to appointments so I didn’t get to continue the conversation. But it was interesting (from my perspective, at least). Don’t come across many literalists in my world.

  • Tonio

    Would it be fair to suggest that Smith defines “biblical authority” in the knowledge sense while Gundry defines it in the power sense?

  • http://accidental-historian.typepad.com/ Geds

    I’ll give Gundry one thing.  This:

    How then does the foregoing constellation of emphases make the Bible
    impossible to put into practice? It does so by producing “pervasive
    interpretive pluralism,” so that evangelical Christians differ widely
    on what they should believe and how they should behave; and their
    differences include important as well as unimportant matters. Thus
    “practice” includes belief as well as behavior, and “impossible” has to
    do with shared practices. For example, biblicists differ over
    human free will and divine sovereignty; penal satisfaction and
    Christus Victor; creation and evolution; sprinkling and immersion;
    divorce and remarriage; complementarianism and egalitarianism; just war
    and pacifism; pretribulationism and posttribulationism; amillennialism,
    premillennialism, and postmillennialism; everlasting torment and
    annihilation; soteriological exclusivism, inclusivisim, and
    universalism; and on and on. In other words, biblicism fails to produce
    the theological and behavioral unity that Smith thinks necessary to
    validate it.

    Absolute, first class word salad.  I could teach an entire course on arrogant obfuscation based on this paragraph alone.  It’s got evocative, flowery wordplay using dollar words that could easily intimidate the lesser readers.  It’s got point-by-point lists that are dizzying in their ability to jump from one point to another.  And it ends with a summation that is a literal begging of the question in the proper sense, not the current vernacular usage of the term.

    It’s beautiful, really.

  • Richard Hershberger

    This book won’t be going on my to-read list.  Not because I think it is likely wrong, but because I think it likely will be stating the obvious.  One bemusing (to me) aspect of Evangelical Protestants is their tendency, even among their more thoughtful and educated members, to agonize over questions which were resolved centuries ago.  The problems with Biblical literalism are not subtle.  That some thoughtful and educated persons (as well as many more ignorant yahoos) subscribe to this is a testament to the human brain’s ability to compartmentalize information.  This is interesting from a cognitive science perspective, but not particularly so for my understanding or practice of Christianity.

  • Michael Straight

    “This is a popular dodge, but I’ve never understood why it’s thought to
    be compelling. Every critique does not need to be accompanied by a fully
    realized alternative. The lack of such an alternative does not render
    the critique invalid,”

    Ideally, this can be an admirable and humble stance.  I’d think everyone should say, “Yes my worldview and opinions have flaws, weaknesses, problems, and contradictions, but I’m going to have to stick with them unless someone can offer a compelling alternative with fewer problems.”

  • Anonymous

    When a person claims that the Bible is inerrant, what they are really saying is that their interpretation of the Bible is inerrant, but it would take a better-than-average degree of self-awareness to realize that, and supreme arrogance to say it out loud.

    As the token evangelical, let me correct you on that one. When I say the Bible is inerrant, I am not saying anything about my interpretation. In fact, I am certain my interpretation is wrong in some respects. In terms of Smith’s critique, I believe in biblical inerrancy but I don’t believe that the Bible always speaks clearly.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    I believe in biblical inerrancy but I don’t believe that the Bible always speaks clearly.

    Then what’s the bloody use of an inerrant text that’s obfuscatory on purpose or by dint of translation and cultural differences?

    You might as well tell me a book written in a language I don’t understand, and which has been written in Urple Prose, contains all the Unified Theories physics ever needs.

  • Anonymous

    Then what’s the bloody use of an inerrant text that’s obfuscatory on purpose or by dint of translation and cultural differences?

    There’s still plenty of use; people are inspired, guided, called out, etc. by difficult texts with differing interpretations all the time. Multiple levels of meaning which are not obvious to a casual observer is a common quality of great works of art in general. That doesn’t mean it’s entirely incomprehensible, just that (as Fred points out in many TF posts) it may not be saying what you think it says.

    Basically, the Bible is not your microwave’s instruction manual, although both may be inerrant.

  • Tonio

    It doesn’t make sense that a text can be inerrant if there are many subjective levels of meaning and interpretation, because those would interfere with the ability to check the text for errors. There’s no standard by which to judge whether the text is truly inerrant. What you describe sounds like what I’ve been told by a few fundamentalists, which is that the Bible is allegedly incomprehensible unless one reads it with faith. Almost like belief in the Christian god amounts to a translation module.

    Aside – Are there Christian groups who insist that any Jewish reading of the Hebrew Bible is necessarily subservient to the Christian reading of the OT? I don’t mean just the common practice of trying to find foreshadowings of Jesus. Part of me wants to say, “Well, the text belongs to the Jewish religion and Jewish culture, so any attempt by a majority religion to impose its own meaning on it amounts to cultural imperialism,” but that seems too simplistic.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    just that (as Fred points out in many TF posts) it may not be saying what you think it says.

    Oh, so it’s inerrant except when you think I’m wrong about my reading of the Bible.

    That has to be the most subjective use of the word “inerrant” I’ve ever seen. One would almost suspect inerrant-ers of using the word as an attempt to deflect legitimate criticism.

  • Anonymous

    Oh, so it’s inerrant except when you think I’m wrong about my reading of the Bible.

    Huh? Those two have nothing to do with each other. The Bible is inerrant regardless of whether you or I are right or wrong.

  • Anonymous

    It doesn’t make sense that a text can be inerrant if there are many subjective levels of meaning and interpretation, because those would interfere with the ability to check the text for errors.

    I see what you’re getting at, but the Bible is a pretty varied collection, with much of it being stuff like poetry, theology and parable which can’t really be “checked for errors”, but is nevertheless comprehensible and valuable. It’s not a statement about the book itself, but about the God of truth and wisdom that inspired it, is another way of putting it.

    Are there Christian groups who insist that any Jewish reading of the Hebrew Bible is necessarily subservient to the Christian reading of the OT?

    I’m sure there are; the standard line on this is that both readings could be true. Pope Gregory’s famous analysis in the Middle Ages held that passages in the Old Testament had four overlapping meanings, all valid, which I think is stretching it a bit. :-P

  • Anonymous

    You need to understand that there’s a distinction between inerrancy and infallability.  As far as I can tell, your belief is the latter, and it’s a belief I share.

  • Anonymous

    Depends who you ask – there are a lot of definitions of the two terms floating around, and many sources treat them as synonymous. I think I would agree with your distinction from Timothy Ward’s position, where “infallible” means “makes no theological errors” and “inerrant” means “makes no theological or factual errors.” There is good reason to suppose the Bible is largely accurate on history, geography, etc. but it’s clear to me this sort of thing is sometimes fudged in the name of making a point about God. What definition were you thinking of?

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    I;ve made mention of looking through the old archives, and I’ve noticed an old post by Fred’s, which, given the recent spate of entries on the stridency of subsets of the evangelical and/or fundamentalist strains of Christianity to get involved with politics for the express purpose of imposing Biblical law, takes on a new hue.

    There’s a difference in tone between that post then and his posts today (on LB or non-LB related matters). The one thing I think that speaks positively is that I don’t think Fred would, today, think it so charming that a person would proselytize on the job, even indirectly, or encourage others to proselytize inappropriately.

    I think several years of seeing the way Christian privilege has been used to silence non-Christians has made Fred less naive* and more understanding.

    —-

    * Many apologies to our gracious host. Unfortunately, the vibe that comes off that early entry really is a bit of naiveté about how an evangelical message like that is fundamentally inappropriate, even if God works in mysterious ways (TM).

  • Christian Smith

    Make sure you see my (author’s) reply to Gundry in the next print issue of B&C.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X