The Bible Made Impossible: Part One – The Ailment

This post is part of a three-part series on The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture by Christian Smith

This book is fatally flawed.

That is, I think there’s a problem with this book that undercuts it’s premise entirely.  But you’re going to have to wait until Friday to read my opinion on that.  In the meantime, I’m going to look at Smith’s diagnosis of the ailment affecting how some people read the Bible, and his proposed cure.  Today, the diagnosis:

Smith defines “biblicism” as “a theory about the Bible that emphasizes together its exclusive authority, infallibility, perspicuity, self-sufficiency, internal consistency, self-evident meaning, and universal applicability.” (viii)  He lists ten common characteristics of this way of understanding the Bible, which I will not enumerate here.  He lists over two pages of books from evangelical publishers to make his point that this really is how evangelicals read the Bible (notably, he lists not a single book published by Baker, the publisher of his book, though Baker sure has definitely published books in this vein). [UPDATE: Smith does, in fact, list at least one book from Baker -- the last link in my previous sentence -- but he does not list the name of Baker in the list of evangelical publishers he's criticizing.]

Smith catalogues statements of faith at churches and evangelical colleges, with which many of us are all too familiar.  And he lands on this as the major problem of biblicism: evangelicals say that the Bible is inerrant, but you look around the church and that different groups interpret and apply the same passage very differently.  Smith labels this pervasive interpretive pluralism:

“The very same Bible — which biblicists insist is perspicuous and harmonious — gives rise to divergent understandings among intelligent, sincere, committed readers about what it says about most topics of interest.” (17)

This is indeed a devastating critique of inerrancy.  Smith goes on at length to prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that pervasive interpretive pluralism reigns in evangelicalism.  Included is a page-long list of titles in the popular evangelical genre of “three/four/five views on ________.”

Yes, I agree with Smith: biblical inerrancy is an untenable position to hold.  That’s why I don’t hold it.  Never have.  In fact, you can see how easily it is deconstructed in the video below.

In other words, Christian Smith is solving a problem that I don’t have.

But, I agree with him, a lot of people do ascribe to biblicism.  So, I say kudos to him for show how illogical a hermeneutic it is.

If you’re a real glutton for punishment, you can see the entire unedited video here: part one, part two, part three.

  • Adam

    I used to have the problem Smith diagnoses. “Biblicism” was part of the bedrock beneath the Evangelical faith of my upbringing. It took me a long time to puzzle out how my Christianity could exist and be genuine without it.

    But now that I’m not a Biblicist, I have difficulty explaining my change of perspective to the people I love who still are. That’s where I am finding this book very helpful. I was able to give it to my father to start a conversation, saying, “this! This is the problem I had to solve.”

    Smith lays out his devastating critique in a way that is very approachable even to someone (like my father) who does hold to inerrancy. That’s what I really love about this book. He doesn’t make his critique by attacking the text of the Bible: instead he holds up a mirror to reality, demonstrating that the actual belief and practice of Christians prove the doctrine untenable.

  • Larry Barber

    gives rise to divergent understandings among intelligent, sincere, committed readers about what it says about most topics of interest

    So, if you disagree with _my_ interpretation you are either unintelligent, insincere or not committed. See how easy this is to resolve? You just have to engage in a little well-poisoning and everything works out great!

  • Frank

    It always amazes me that when we as Christians fail to fully live out our faith the bible gets blamed. There is nothing wrong with the bible, it’s us!

    The bible can be both inerrant and beyond our human capacity to absorb, understand and apply.

    The only untenable position to hold is to dispute the word of God simply because:

    1. We do not fully understand it
    2. We are unable to live it out perfectly

    I hold to the doctrine of human errancy and fallibility and biblical inerrancy and infallibility.

    • ben w.

      I agree Frank. As a “biblicist”, I think Smith’s critique misses the mark as I’ve never heard anyone imply that Scripture’s authority, clarity and sufficiency require interpretive uniformity. Rather, the reality remaining sin, personal bias, and insufficient knowledge will always require that we hold various positions with hermeneutical humility. This humility doesn’t mean that all interpretation is vainity, just that we can’t be dogmatic about things that Scripture isn’t clear on.

      The Westminster Confession still says it well: “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.”

      I’d like to read where Smith argues that the biblicist position indicates an expectation (stated or inferred) for interpretive uniformity because I’ve never come to that conclusion nor have a I read others who have. If some are making that claim, their fault is in overstating the clarity of Scripture on minor points, but that doesn’t negate the historic doctrines of Scriptures authority, sufficiency or clarity.

    • Adam

      Y’all should really read the book, since Smith addresses your objections directly.

      It seems to me that if we can’t fully understand the Bible (since we are errant), then we can’t be responsible for failing to live out perfectly what it says.

      • Frank

        “It seems to me that if we can’t fully understand the Bible (since we are errant), then we can’t be responsible for failing to live out perfectly what it says.”

        We cannot fully understand the bible without God’s help.

        No one lives up to it perfectly which is why we need Christ. The bible says as much.

        What point are you trying to make?

        • Adam

          Which is it — we don’t fully understand the Bible, or we *do* fully understand the Bible with God’s help?

          If we do fully understand the Bible with God’s help, which of the many divergent understandings of the Bible among intelligent, sincere, committed Christians is the understanding that God helped?

          • Frank

            The only way we can fully understand is with Gods help but that does assume when, if ever, God wishes us to understand some things. It’s our desire to know everything but its God desire for us to know what we need to know not always what we want to know.

          • Adam

            If the only way we can fully understand is with God’s help, when God wishes us to understand, then… we don’t really need an inerrant Bible for that, do we? If God wants me to know, I’ll know.

            I actually think this really is how the Bible works. It’s not inerrant; it’s just a starting point for the Spirit of God to use. God doesn’t need humans to be perfect before he can use them; so also he doesn’t need the Bible to be perfect in order to use it.

          • Frank

            I don’t follow your logic. There is a truth to some science that even if we have yet to understand it, does not cease to be truth. The truth exists with or without us.

            Without absolute truth, truth becomes subjective.

      • ben w.

        Adam, I’d be interested to read the book, now’s just not the time and I don’t want to buy a copy… but yes I’d like to hear Smith’s answers to my points. If you or someone else would summarize them, that’d be great!

        I don’t know Arabic. I’m traveling to an Arabic-speaking country in a month. If I break any clear, written laws while I am there, will I still not be culpable? Just because *I* am the inadaquate one (not understanding the language), does that suggest that the laws are unjust or that I am any less responsible? Of course not.

        We are each responsible to live holy lives of love toward God and toward our neighbor. This law is written on our hearts, yet distorted and supressed by our sin (including mine). God has given us a clear word in His Son and the Scriptures that elucidates what godly living looks like.

        Everyone fails to live this. All offend God and abuse His law in various ways, some out of ignorance, some out of intentional rebellion. If any person sees his sin, turns away in repentance, and trusts in Christ as God’s sufficient sacrifice for sinners, he will be forgiven, cleansed, and made new. I’m not sure what religion you’re speaking about that claims one isn’t responsible for their own moral actions. I am culpable for every offense toward God, and thankful that Christ has taken my punishment and become my righteousness.

        • Adam

          I wish I could summarize Smith’s argument right now directly, but I lent my copy of the book to my father, so I don’t have it on hand at the moment.

          Regarding your analogy, I don’t think it holds. Yes, if the laws are clear and well-understood to the populace of the Arabic-speaking country, it makes sense why an ignorant foreigner would be held to them; the person with the flaw is the exception, not the rule. But that’s not the actual case we have — in the case we have, the *entire populace* is ignorant. The entire populace has the “flaw”. *Nobody* understands what the law is.

          In that situation, no, I would not call it just to hold anyone accountable to that.

          …but don’t mistake me: I’m not arguing against the existence of law or justice. I do think that both exist. I just think that this model we have for how the law is communicated (namely, a “perfect” written work) is nonsense, and I think Smith’s arguments back me up.

          • ben w.

            I still maintain that the analogy stands quite well. Again, all have been given the law 1) on their hearts, and 2) through the evidences of creation. Some have been given the extra grace of receiving God’s law in written form: the Scriptures. In these senses, all have been given the law and should know what God desires of them. Yet, all distort and misinterpret the law because of personal rebellion. If a school teacher gives all the students a rule book on day #1, then all rebel and reject the teacher’s authority and will, then they are still culpable and it is right for them to be held accountable.

            So, I completely disagree that “*Nobody* understands what the law is.” Rather, I think all understand it quite accurately, and yet none *lives* it. Yes, there are confusing details, but seriously, is it that complicated???:
            1) Love God with all you have. 2) Love others with the same care you love yourself.

            Even the explications of these are generally very simple:
            1) Don’t worship wooden statues or false gods, 2) Don’t insult the God who made you, 3) Don’t take other people’s stuff, 4) Don’t covet others’ stuff, 5) Don’t lie, 6) Don’t lust after women and treat them as a piece of meat, 7)Bear the burdens of others, 8) love even those who hate you…

            Yes, every person will stand before God, accountable for all these things. My record is miserable, so I will hide myself in Christ today and on That Day.

            Of course, Paul summarized all this better: “Rom. 2:12   For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. 13 For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. 14 For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them 16 on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.”

          • ben w.

            I guess if you enumerate a list past #7 you earn honorary Miami Vice status… perfect.

  • nathan

    but if it is infallible, then why does it have to be inerrant?

    • Frank

      How can something be absolutely trustworthy yet have errors at the same time?

      • Alan K

        My wife has errors and I trust her completely.

        • Frank

          Ok fair enough but God ceases to be God if God is error prone. Likewise Gods word ceases to be Gods word if it has errors.

          I’ll stick with the bible thank you.

          • Adam

            Does God’s Word cease to be God’s Word when it is transmitted through an error-prone medium?

          • Frank

            Unless the process is divinely overseen it was never God’s word to begin with.

          • Adam

            If intelligent, sincere, committed Christians give rise to divergent understandings of scripture on most topics of interest, in what sense can it be said that “the process is divinely overseen?”

            Thought experiment: Imagine for a moment that the process were *not* divinely overseen. How would it look different from what we have today?

          • Frank

            Adam the act of putting the words on the original page was divinely inspired. You are speaking about interpretation which is a different issue.

            The Holy Spirit must be present for us to interpret properly. Unfortunately we as sinners will always default to an interpretation that will be self serving. The reason we have different interpretations lies in our sinfulness not in the text.

          • Adam

            I’m really interested in what you’d surmise for the thought experiment above. What would it look like if God had *not* divinely overseen putting the original words on the page? How would that look different from what we have today?

            You’re saying the text is perfect but we will never interpret it perfectly. I get that. But if that’s the case, it’s meaningless to say the text is perfect. If a painting is locked in a room where nobody can see it, what meaning does it have to say the painting is beautiful?

            Not to mention that you’ve just told me that your belief in the inerrancy of the Bible is self-serving. The doctrine of inerrancy, being one interpretation among many, comes from human sinfulness, not from the text.

          • Frank

            Adam I tend to avoid hypotheticals because they usually have only entertainment value. I don’t think hypotheticals would serve us well here.

            If the bible is not divinely inspired I would rather find a different book to base my life on that makes my life easier and more comfortable.

            The people who fight against the concept of biblical inerrancy do so because they are uncomfortable with the truth of it. Its easier to change the truth than to change ourselves. I assure you that inerrancy is not self-serving to anyone therefore does not come from sinfulness. It would be easier to dismiss some truths from the bible as untruth than face the reality that a certain truth requires you to live your life differently than you might choose to on your own.

          • Adam

            “The people who fight against the concept of biblical inerrancy do so because they are uncomfortable with the truth of it.”

            This… isn’t actually true. It’s like you just wrote “people who don’t like dogs are afraid of them.” It’s probably true for some. But it’s slander against the motives of many.

            Believing in inerrancy can definitely be self-serving in the way that it affords one the psychological comforts of absolute certainty, and of loyalty to one’s upbringing and tribe. It also affords the benefit of power: if the Bible is inerrantly from God, then anyone interpreting it correctly in the eyes of their community speaks with the power of God rather than from their own human opinion, and thus can they demand absolute submission to their interpretation.

            The Bible can be inspired and not inerrant; worthy of reverence and respect as a tool of God without being idolized as perfect. Entire denominations of Christianity, full of intelligent, sincere, committed Christians, abide by this understanding. You seem to be dismissing them all as unintelligent, deceived, self-serving and marginal… which is one way to resolve the conflict, I suppose. I just don’t find it plausible.

          • Frank

            I don’t paint with such a broad stroke but anyone who is trying to rewrite the bible, remake God, dismiss clear truth, try to reduce scripture to just another text is simply acting out of self interest.

            Also anyone who labels themselves as intelligent usually is not.

            You can, along with others, continue to remake scripture as something its not. I’ll stick to inerrancy and infallability. At the heart of it, it really is the only logical position. Anything else reduces it to relativism.

            • http://tonyj.net Tony Jones

              Frank, when you’re replying to your own comments, that may be a sign that you need to take a break. Maybe go outside, take a walk, and get some fresh air.

              • Adam

                Tony — the comment nesting here on Patheos seems to permit only four levels of indentation. If you want to reply to a comment indented to the fourth level, you actually need to reply to the prior comment indented to the third level, which might be your own.

        • Frank

          Also Alan the fact that you, as best you can, trust your wife does not mean she is trustworthy. In fact if she has errors then she is not completely trustworthy.

      • coryke

        Hi Frank,

        Can you unpack for us what you mean by inerrant? Does that mean there are no errors in the copies we have now? Does it mean there are no errors in “the original”? Can you tell us what the original looked like? When you suggest there are no errors, does this include factual details about things that nothing to do with the message of a passage? If the dates of a given king don’t line up with an established timeline of history, where does the error lie? Or are you suggesting that this situation never occurs in the biblical text?

        I’m truly curious how you draw the parameters of “inerrancy” because your (and others’) answers to those questions help to frame the debate.

        Thanks.
        Cory

        • Frank

          Hey Cory. I think we can only claim inerrancy in the original text. Scripture can include historical data but it does not mean its a history book. So if we find historical inconsistencies either the historical facts that we have accepted are not as factual as we thought or we do not understand fully what scripture is trying to say.

          But let’s be real this isn’t about what we may see as historical inaccuracies. This is about our sinful nature wanting the text to say what we are comfortable with not the actual truth. There is a greater agenda with those that are challenging the inerrancy and infallibility of scripture.

          • coryke

            Inerrancy in the original text is a popular solution to the problem. But this doesn’t solve anything because we have no evidence pertaining to the originals themselves. As such, it is a faith-based claim (something with which I have no difficulty), but it amounts to nothing. We don’t have the originals. Never will. And a claim of their inerrancy is based on hope and speculation, nothing more.

            I whole-heartedly agree that the Bible is not a history book, but it includes details about history. If we find ‘inconsistencies’ you are suggesting that either our facts are wrong or we do not understand fully what scripture is trying to say. The difficulty I have with this statement is that on one hand, you’re are dismissing the work of many capable historians, many of whom have no axe to grind pertaining to the Bible, but have worked capably on the history of this period. Are you suggesting that they are ALL wrong? On the other hand, I believe you are conflating the notion of not understanding what scripture intends in a particular passage with the details that the same passage offers by-the-by. There are many details throughout scripture that simply do not conform with established history. Perhaps even more troublesome for this inerrantist position is that the Bible’s presentation of history is not consistent with itself – and this is not because we don’t understand, but because it is inconsistent.

            You finish by noting that “this is about our sinful nature wanting the text to say what we are comfortable with not the actual truth.” I am a Christian and a scholar of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). My agenda is about understanding this corpus to the best of my ability. I have no agenda to undermine the faith of believer – just the opposite. I don’t believe it is fair to suggest that I have a greater agenda (as if greater somehow equals one with a weaker base or more nefarious intentions) simply because I do not believe inerrancy can withstand critical inquiry. I do not want the text to say something in particular. I want it to speak for itself. As such, I do not insist that the text is (or was) inerrant before I ever approach the text. I let the text speak for itself. In so doing, the text shows that it was written by the hands of many people and that there are undeniable errors that cannot be explained away.

            Finally, you also mentioned “the actual truth” – you appear to suggest that you have it, and anyone who does not hold to this position, not only does not, but is only trying to bend the text to what is comfortable. I’m afraid you are mistaken in this notion, both because “the actual truth” pertaining to history cannot be agreed upon even by inerrantists, and because it is not comfortable to suggest that the Bible has errors – it would be a lot simpler to suggest there are none, at least as it pertains to peace of mind.

          • Frank

            Actually Cory it would be simpler to believe scripture has errors. It opens it up to our own interpretation, will make us more comfortable, lets us off the hook and lets everyone simply decide for themselves what is true or not.

            Once again the problem is not with the bible its with humanity and it’s selfish nature.

            You are naive if you believe that there is not a greater AND more nefarious agenda here. I am not claiming you have an agenda personally however.

  • Marshall

    I would like to point out that the problem also exists among secular moralists. They assert that the basis of “correct” morality is some set of “self-evident, universally agreed to” principles, no need to invoke Divinity or Transcendence; but they differ wildly on what those principles are, exactly, and in detail about what consequences follow.

    • Scot Miller

      Perhaps strict Kantians do, but there are a wide variety of positions by secular moralists, such as communitarians (i.e., morality arises out of particular moral communities), virtue theory (i.e., there are no objective moral principles as such, so morality must arise out of developing character dispositions that lead to human flourishing), pragmatism, and moral pluralism. (I haven’t read Derek Parfit’s new book, On What Matters, which is supposed to be his attempt to unify deontologists and consequentialists.) In other words, many contemporary secular moral theorists would argue that values may be objective (i.e., rooted in communities, in human flourishing, in “what works,” etc.), but none are absolute.

      What’s interesting is to hear the admission by biblical inerrantists that different interpretations of inerrant scripture are inevitable because of human sin and human limitations (i.e., even if we grant that infinite and Transcendent truth exists, we could only have finite and historically conditioned understanding of that truth because we are fallen human beings.) In other words, we can only understand God in human ways. Our minds are not co-extensive with God’s mind. By making this admission, you are admitting that our disputes are really only about our interpretations and readings of the Bible, none of which can possibly be identical to God’s understanding. No reading is absolutely true, but all may be relatively true. Moreover, not all readings are equally good. Some readings are going to be better and some worse, to the extent that they more closely approximate or are more adequate to the reality to which they point.

      Of course, the reality is that inerrantists tend to identify their reading with God’s own understanding of the Bible. This does not really honor the biblical text, but only makes one way of reading the text Absolute. And by inventing an absolute reading, inerrantists really just create an idol.

  • http://tabledallas.org Nathan Hill

    Tony,

    I wish I had time to read these books – you are picking up some really intriguing ones that would be great discussion starters for our pub ministry down here in East Dallas (faithinthecity.com).

    Even as a mainline guy (DoC), I admit that these positions infiltrate most every church on some level or another. The attractiveness of a position of “biblicism” is that you don’t have to think a lot about it – you just say the Bible is inerrant and move on. Though my congregation is not “evangelical” and has people with a wide range of theological backgrounds, sometimes the conversation defaults to such an evangelical view – we are always in conversation with that position even if we like it or not. The real norm is that people disagree on everything – how we do church, how we read the Bible, how we choose elders/deacons/etc, how we spend money, and so on. That’s the real normal and the real “theory” or “position” that we should always begin our conversations from, I guess.

  • Frank

    Tony where have replied to my own comment? I am responding to others comments unless I am mistaken.

  • coryke

    Hi Frank,

    Perhaps we can agree to disagree about what is simpler. You have a point about this, but I think you are not allowing for how believing in inerrancy allows for its own simplicity – and not a variety that is for the good.

    I’m naive about a lot of things. But I don’t think there is some sinister plot to take down the Bible – at least, not everybody is in on it. I am not and many of my colleagues are not.

    What do you do with 1 Sam 13.1? Is this a problem that is solved by recourse to the original? Ok, then. How about the description of the generations between Moses and the period of the Judges? Is it four generations or twelve? Both are suggested by the biblical texts. You can’t get around these things.

    And if the originals were perfect, how did that functionally happen? Did God use human beings to create the text at all? Did He whisper into their ears? Take hold of their hands? Why did he whisper different details into the ears of different prophets or writers? Why did he suggest differing attitudes about things that pertain even to himself (kingship, the priesthood, sacrifice)?

    I won’t respond further today. But I’ll finish with this – inerrancy is untenable because it holds a position that requires 100% accuracy in a myriad of ways. Any chink in the armor undermines the theory. There are errors in detail, errors in consistency, and errors in translation and transmission. At every level, the theory falls apart. The theory causes its adherents to insist that biblical claims of perfection mean what WE say they mean. The Bible doesn’t claim to be without error. It does claim to be complete, but does that mean without error? No.

    It strikes me, though, that those who believe in inerrancy suggest that God would not have allowed His word to be created as anything less than perfect. But you yourself have suggested that this would only be in the originals. Does God not care then that errors “crept in”? Is God not as invested in the transmission of his word from the originals to the copies that we have now? Why such an arbitrary division of what God cares about? It’s still His word after all.

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  • Ken Fitzer

    I’m replying to a two year old comment, if this is never read then so be it…

    You said “Even the explications of these are generally very simple”

    No, they’re not. Well-intentioned bible believing Christians don’t agree on what the Bible instructs. Pentecosts worship different from Catholics, who differ from uncountable Baptists variants, etc. You can say to practice unity in the essentials, but there isn’t even agreement in what the essentials ARE and they all read from the same book which is sold as perfect and harmonious. It isn’t. There are as many interpretations as there are interpreters.

    The author presents in his book this example: The Fourth Commandment (or is it the Third? Not all denominations agree). “Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy”.
    What does that mean? What day is the Sabbath? There is disagreement. First day? Seventh day?

    Keep it holy. What does THAT mean? Go to church? OK, lots of folks do that, but beyond that, who can say? Is it ok to go shopping? How about working on Sunday (or the Sabbath day of your choice)?

    Examples as above are the basis of the book’s premise. I’ve read just a bit of the book and the author makes some very good points which certainly merit consideration.


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