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.

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  • 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.

  • 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).

  • 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?

  • 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!”

  • 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?  ;)

  • Christian Smith

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