The Problem of Biblicism 8

The Problem of Biblicism 8 August 12, 2011

Christian Smith, in his must-read and challenging book, Bible Made Impossible, The: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture, contends that what many of us (evangelicals) affirm is impossible to hold with intellectual integrity. He calls this belief “biblicism,” and if you want to read what it is read this post. The fundamental problem that undercuts biblicism as a sufficient basis for articulating the Christian faith is interpretive pluralism. That’s the problem. The solution to the impossibility of coherently sustaining a biblicist approach to the Bible is to learn the read the Bible christo-centrically — that is, letting the Bible lead us to Christ in each and every passage. Those are the big ideas of this fine book.  We move today to his last chp where he probes the significance of his ideas for big ideas about the Bible.

How do you see biblicism tied into the “authority” of Scripture? What happens to authority if biblicism is inadequate? How do you square, for instance, with the necessity of belief in the Trinity with it’s explicit absence in the Bible and yet it’s centrality in Christian theology? Can biblicism deal with this? Do you think biblicism is a good way of framing what many people believe about the Bible?

First, Smith is not alone in contending that biblicism is rooted in and a form of modernity. Biblicism often functions as a form of foundationalism: finding indubitable, universal and reliable foundations, once established, that can lead to knowledge and truth. That biblicism is modernity can be seen in how systematic theologies, those by biblicists, begin with Scripture — as prolegomena, as foundation, as beginning point. Once that is established, the rest is to follow. Smith thinks a christocentric reading will have a different approach: that of critical realism. Real world, our ability to probe it, recognition of human fallibility in constructing knowledge, and the necessity of pursuing truth.

Second, he probes the classic distinctions made by JL Austin: locutionary, illocutionary, and perlocutionary word acts. We need to ask not just what do these words appear to say, but what are they designed to accomplish. What are the authors attempting to accomplish with these words.

Example: Genesis 1-2. Is it right (he thinks not) to see this as an author telling us how God made the world, or how long ago it was, or how to teach science? Or, is this about distinguishing Israel’s view of God vs. pagan views of God? Or is this, as Walton has argued, about God telling us that the world is a cosmic temple with humans assigned to govern it for God? If these are the intents, does that not mean we might be wrong in the first set of questions?

Third, what does this mean for authority? Is the Bible’s authority about power over or power to? He suggests the standard idea — God said it, it’s true, do it — approach to authority assumes that the Bible is handbook, but what if it is not? That is, if pervasive pluralism is true, then the Bible is not and that kind of authority is misguided.

Finally, Smith concludes by pushing the button of ongoing clarification and development. Biblicism assumes the Bible is complete as it was; but interpretive history shows that what is in the Bible was unfolded over time and that such developments have become fundamental to Christian theology. Trinity, slavery, etc.. What does this say about biblicism? That is inadequate. It pushes us to think differently about the Bible.

This is a very good book; buy it, read it, and talk about it with all those who care.

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  • waylon

    When Scripture is treated as a foundation for all of our God-knowledge, it seems to me that the implication is that God premeditated each word of Scripture and then spoon fed it directly to the human authors. So the authority of Scripture preceedes its writing because it is rooted in God’s intention.

    As I’ve been thinking through this series of posts, especially the idea of interpreting Scripture through a Christoteric lens, I’m wondering if the reason why we call Scripture “inspired” is that it testifies to the redemptive work of Christ. After all, it is the life, death, and resurrection of the god-man Jesus of Nazareth that broke the power of sin and death, not the divine wide-by-word composition of Scripture.

    If this is so, I think there is still room for seeing God’s hand in the writing of Scripture (absolutely!) But maybe this would help us to move away from the pitfalls of treating the Bible as instruction manual or answer book.

  • Susan N.

    “That biblicism in modernity can be seen in how systematic theologies, those by biblicists, begin with Scripture — as prolegomena, as foundation, as beginning point.”

    This is the way a particular systematic theology has come across to me.

    “How do you see biblicism tied into the ‘authority’ of Scripture? What happens to authority if biblicism is inadequate?”

    The spiritual “authorities” (whether it be professors who author systematic theology reference books, pastors, husbands, or fathers) exercise “discernment” to counsel others on what to think and do. Those who have placed their faith and trust in the Bible and those mediating its authority over them are prone to accepting what they are told. Absolute certainty (and obedience) is equated with saving faith. Existing in that world requires a lot of denial (as in, cannot admit even to oneself that a neat, black/white answer to all of life’s questions is not contained in the Bible or systematic theology reference book).

    I love the Bible. I think it’s wonderful. My understanding of it has changed over the years, as I keep reading and studying, and as I change and grow. It’s dynamic. I think that’s the way it’s supposed to work.

  • I understand the authority of Scripture to be the authority of God exercised through Scripture.

  • DRT

    I can’t thank Christian enough for this. I just ordered 3 more copies for some friends….

  • Christian Smith

    Some comments in this series over the past weeks have pointed to Kevin DeYoung’s review of my book. I think a modestly fair reading of my book shows his review to be a hatchet job on behalf of the neo-Reformed perspective. The argument of my book is clearly a threat to many, which has to be taken out, with good argument or not. In the case of DeYoung’s review, with not a good argument. It is full of distraction, evasion, and misrepresentation of my case. I ignored that review for a long time, but yesterday finally wrote a response on his website. If you are interested, see near the bottom here:

    Note that most of the comments in response to his review (and to some extent the review itself) actually provide massive evidence for the fact of pervasive interpretive pluralism that should unmask the failure of biblicism, and the kinds of strategies that biblicists use to evade facing up to its challenge.

    On another note, one confusion going on in the larger current discussion about the book (less so in this Jesus Creed discussion), especially in the minds of those who do not like it (or who have not read it but listen to those who do not like it), is that I am attacking biblical authority. That is a pathetic falsehood. The book absolutely does not attack biblical authority. To the contrary, it wishes to find a more solid ground of human understanding by which its authority can work on us. My book actually only attacks one *human theory* of the Bible’s authority, which is a very different matter. The fact that many biblicists confuse their own theory with scripture’s authority itself is simply more evidence supporting my larger argument. The original, working title of my book was “The Impossiblity of Evangelical Biblicism.” The publisher wanted to change that, thinking some people would not know what “biblicism” is and others would find the word in the title offensive. I worry now that the new title the publisher came up with too easily (wrongly) suggests to people that I argue against the Bible per se as impossible, which is not what I do. The problem, to be clear, is NOT the Bible. The problem is the *modern, humanly-concocted* theory *about* the Bible, about what it is and how it can and ought to function as an authority. Alas that this crucial distinction may be being lost on some in the discussions.

  • John W Frye

    At the risk of redundancy, what I commented to RJS on her latest post about the historicity of Adam and Eve seems appropriate here.
    You are wise in this: “While theology certainly helps to inform my interpretation of creation, life, and purpose, we err when we declare for some reason or other that a fact can not be a fact because of its theological consequence.” But to get to where you are for some who are trapped by their view of the Bible and their epistemology is frightening. I imagine they cannot process your comments about being deeply in love with Jesus Christ and a devoted evangelical and yet question the historicity of Adam and Eve and espouse an evolutionary model for human origins. That is why questionable motivations are assigned to you and others. It just does *not* compute for them. What you and others are offering as a healthy family conversation feels to them as “the rug being jerked out from under their feet.” To offer a relational epistemology grounded in the Trinitarian God as a replacement for the prevailing view of the Bible’s accuracy on all things scientific is gobbledy-gook to those holding a foundationalist epistemology (whether they know they hold it or not). It literally takes a leap of faith. To suggest “Hold things loosely and enter a friendly dialogue” sounds to them like “Walk the plank to your doom.” To jump off the platform of one’s view of the Bible feels like jumping to the death. But only until they jump will they find the ‘everlasting arms of the Triune God’ there for them. We are talking not just about science and theology, we are talking about the way people process reality. Where will we find our “certainty”?”

  • Christian Smith

    Having just caught up on the last few weeks of comments in this series (for which thanks), a few more thoughts pushing back against critics:

    1. One common response by those who do not like my argument (here and elsewhere) is to claim that I am knocking down “straw men.” But, note, I went to great pains to present many pages of real, empirical evidence of denominational, educational, scholarly, and popular-culture evidence of examples of the 10 belielfs of biblicists, actually linking them by numbers in brackets (remember, I am a sociologist, so empirical evidence is important in my world). I am not merely making a theorertical accusation. I am showing with actual, publicly accessible evidence the real expressions of biblicism operating in the evangelical mainstream. The “straw man” allegation is a diversionary tactic.

    2. Along similar lines, some critics have countered with the claim that, essentially, “Smith is not recognizing the very best of how we biblicists think, we are not really that unsophisticated.” But then rarely do the critics ever actually name who those better theologians, pastors, etc. supposely are. (This dodging strategy happens in sociology all the time too, btw: “Your criticism is not wrong, but it doesn’t apply to me or any of my people.” More of the standard human evasion of accountability.) Of course there are better and worse versions of biblicism. But simply saying that my book is only focusing on the worst, the margins, the loonies (again, go back to the empirical evidence I present), and never naming exactly who are the better, and then happily me under the bus, that is just evasive. What it shows is that people feel very threatened (understandably–who likes hearing that they have been mistaken the last 20-30 years of their lives?) but don’t really have a good response to the actual argument itself. I am all for a good argument, but evasion a good argument does not make.

    3. Some critics of my book counter by pointing out that people who I would label biblicists profess certain things that contradict my characterization of biblicism. For example, that most biblicists are on board a Christocentric hermeneutic. (Although, I agree with Alan K in a previous post that I don’t think a lot of biblicists actually *really* understand the radical implications of being Christocentric in this way, but I leave that aside.) However, I encourage everyone to think not merely about discourse but sociologically. That is, pay attention not only to what people say but also to what they *do*, how they actually *function* and *perform*. Evangelicals suffer from a highly idealist view of reality, meaning, they think that if they simply believe and say the right things, that all then is and will be well and all the right consequences will follow. That is naive. My point is that people, even very smart people, can say one thing that they genuinely believe, but then actually function in a way that is inconsistent with that professed belief. So, it does not only matter that a biblicist *professes* to endorse a Christological hermeneutic. We also need to pay attention to how they actually *practice* hermeneutics, how their scriptural interpreation actually *functions.* Very often, the practice and function do not relfect the profession of idea, the functional walk does not instantiate the discursive talk. Therefore, if we wish to make sense of all of this, we must attend not only to certain professed ideas but also (when they occur) “performative contradictions.”

  • T

    I think, as a practical first step, we evangelicals need to talk more clearly and precisely about various “authorities” and how they interact. Yes, the Bible is authoritative, but how so exactly? What is the role of our human authorities in the church (and, yes, we have them) vis a vis the scriptures? We are okay talking about scriptural authority, and we’re sometimes okay with talking about our leadership structures, but we rarely talk about how they interrelate. Further, we conflate the two. When we talk about this or that doctrine (or dogma) we seem to only ever point to the scripture as the authority we’re relying on, even when the scriptures are anything but clear on the subject. We should be more honest (with ourselves first) about what authority is leading us in a given instance. It’s just not always the scriptures, and that’s okay. The historic and present people of God, the Church, is also a vehicle of the Spirit given for the benefit of all. Until we can see and acknowledge that our evangelical faith is not and has never been built by scripture alone, we can talk more intelligently and helpfully about various authorities, including but not limited to scripture.

  • Christian Smith

    Sorry, I meant “throwing” me under the bus (7.2).

  • John W Frye

    I would add here: We are not just talking about how one views and uses the Bible, we are talking about how people process reality. When, as Christian observes, people feel “threatened” by his book and then unfairly attack and assign wrong motives to him, then we all know that “a way of seeing” is being assaulted and fear sparks a harshly defensive response. This is so unnecessary and at the same time so revelatory. If those who hold a biblicist view of the Bible are so confident that they are “right,” why the over-the-top reactions? One word: fear.

  • Wm

    Biblicism is religions substitution for the Spirit.

    The Spirit speaks through scripture in many diverse ways to different people at different times. That is far too messy for ‘religion’. It is deemed better to assume one interpretation for all people for all time, to obtain controllable ‘order’ within the ‘church’.

    Smith’s book unmasks the insidious and spiritually destructive error of Biblicism, yet Biblicism will persist. Why? Because not only do religious organizations find it beneficial to think that way, but many members want their beliefs to be handed to them as absolutes.

    Many prefer an erroneous teaching presented as an absolute, than truth that requires personal interaction with the Divine One.

  • DRT

    To John Frye’s and Wm’s points, I liked the part of the book where C. Smith set up the biblicist view as reaction to modernism then also showed that biblicism is a modernistic reading too. I think that is the worst part of modernism, the belief that you have systematised the inspiration of scripture but in doing so you have taken out of it exactly its best attribute, it provides a direction, not an end point.

  • Amos Paul

    Christian Smith,

    I will first apologize if I attributed too many incorrect motivations to your book when I first critiqued it. In all honesty, I think I’ll have to agree to disagree with your 10 point defintion of ‘Biblicism’ for actual Biblcists. I find your definitions altogether too strong for most Biblicists to actually accept verbatim (that is, even if your examples cite something very *similar*). The fact that I interpreted each of those points as specifically nuanced enough to force Biblicism into corners I didn’t think it would actually venture itself–I felt that the points were pushing an agenda rather than setting up a discusson with Biblicists.

    But, in that regard, I have an honest question concerning the intent of your book. Who did you write it for? What audience(s) do you have in mind?

    That is, whether or not you *agree* with a lot of the self-proclamied Biblicists criticisms–is it a problem for your purposes that so many Biblicists are obviously not feeling like you’re engaging their specific view when you address and define Biblicism?

    And, if you are up for answering questions, I have a second one on an entirely different note. That is, I *agree* with Christ being the foundation and frame for which we look at Scpripture, completely agree. Despite that, I see such a view as a theological distinctive and, for better or worse, I *could* adopt that view while still adopting Biblicism–which is more of a methodology that is still capable of saying that it looks for the plain and universal ‘Biblical’ perspectice so that we can know Christ.

    While I don’t agree with said methodology–how does a Christological approach answer a Biblicist’s penchant for approaching Scriptures like they do? And even one is not a Biblicist, are there ‘correct’ ways to see Christ in Scripture? What distinguishes the correct ways from the wrong? And does Christ teach us anything ‘right’ in Scripture? What distinguishes interpreting the ‘right’ from the ‘wrong?

    I think the Biblicist needs answers to those questions.

  • DRT

    I read Kevin DeYoung’s review now, and suddenly I can relate to what John Frye is saying. In essence his whole review is whining about C. Smith goring his sacred cow that he believes in without every considering that he does not have to believe in that cow. He loves his cow, knows his cow, uses his cow. He can’t live without his cow.

  • Christian, I think a little more charity might go a long way. One of the things I appreciated as I read the book was how well you knew those you were critiquing, often addressing objections you knew would be raised. But your comments above about authority don’t seem so well informed about those you’re critiquing.

    On another note, one confusion going on in the larger current discussion about the book (less so in this Jesus Creed discussion), especially in the minds of those who do not like it (or who have not read it but listen to those who do not like it), is that I am attacking biblical authority. That is a pathetic falsehood. The book absolutely does not attack biblical authority.

    “Pathetic falsehood” is neither the most charitable nor the most helpful way to show people that you’re not questioning Biblical authority. For someone who thinks the Bible’s authority is directly connected with it’s perspicuity, it’s divine authorship, it’s complete coverage, etc. you are effectively questioning the Bible’s authority.

    I think John W Frye is right above that fear is motivating some of the response to Christian’s book. I’ll admit I felt threatened at different points in reading the book too. So my question: how are we going to help those who feel threatened by Christian’s critique of Biblicism? Knowing that this critique threatens some people’s sense of security, how do we plan to help them? Will we replace their current source of security with another source? Will we try to show them they don’t need security after all?

    I think Christian’s book posits some important critiques–especially of some of the more popular forms of Biblicism–but I’m worried that his book and his tone here will not help those who need it most.

  • Paul Johnston

    I’ve always been bewildered, forgive me, by the seemingly inane response, “the bible as authority”. What does this mean? How does the book govern? Surely it must be mediated through some kind of human institution or institutions. This to me is the more practical concern regarding methodologies, be they labelled “biblicist” or otherwise.

    If biblicalism sustains a multiplicity of interpretations, often conflicting and contradictory and an equivalent number of conflicting and contradictory human institutions of authority, how does this square with our understanding that Jesus is truth. Does truth contradict? Does the dissemination of truth require conflicting and opposed human authorities? How can differant sects within Christianity claim truth, when their truth claims do absolute violence to the claims of the other?

    10 point lists aside, what matters, as these threads seem to agree, is what does a “Christocentric” application of Sripture and tradition look like? How is it lived? How should it govern our behaviors and what human authority shall we appeal to to mediate it’s concerns?

    Biblicism for me, is Babel. Truth is pure. Truth is oneness;oneness with God. One God, one creation, one people, one church.

    If biblicists do not work towards this aim, paradoxically then, I find them to be wholly unbiblical.

  • Scott W

    It is evident that Evangelical notions about ‘biblical authority’ are an outgrowth of and reaction to competing notions of authority, whether they against the Catholic Magesterium or against ‘modernist’ theological construals, which is ironic. The issue is that the foundationalist claims of this biblical authority leads to a theological cud-de-sac. It is unhistorical–the Church existed before the NT. he authority was (is!) God in Jesus Christ, according to the apostolic testimony which is Cross-centered, and this is the basis of the Rule of Faith.

    This issue is addressed head on by Methodist theologian Prof. William Abraham in his ‘Canonical Theism’, which looks to the many foci of ‘authority of the ancient church. And the excellent essay by Prof. (Fr.) John Behr on the Pachal foundation of Christian theology speaks to the fact of the continuity of the Fathers with the vision of Jesus and the apostles, rightly understood, which is still authoritative for us today.

    30 Theses of Canonical Theism:

    “The Paschal Foundation of Christian Theology”:

  • Christian Smith

    Amos, my intended audiences are many. But my general intent is “if the shoe fits, wear it.” The problem is, nearly everyone has a strong disincentive to believe that the shoe does not fit. Lots of denial going on. I cannot stop that. Of course, there are readers who my description generally does not fit. Great (though, as someone asked earlier, if that is so, then why are they so upset?). But from what I have seen, there are also readers who my book nails dead-on but who still want to squim away by saying it does not apply to them. (I also refer to my comment long ago about “ideal types.” The 10 points are in some sense a perfect typification of biblicists, but most emprical examples are only approximations of the ideal types. Nevertheless, that does not mean that what can be said strongly about the ideal type does not significantly apply to them too, even if they are not perfect matches.)

    A genuinely Christocentric hermeneutic, as I understand it, totally rules out #10, demands that the practice of #9 function very differently than it ordinarily does, requires a very different way of thinking about “universality” in #8, entails a re-wiring of our expectations of the ways in which scripture are internally harmoneous in #7, demands a quite new “commonsense” operating in #5, requires major changes in the ways the “democratic” of #4 is understood (that is the demos need a serious reeducation before the perspicuity can function), and entail a different way of expecting the “complete” and “total” of #3 and #2 to operate. What it requires of #1 I would want to ponder more before saying. #6 also obviously has to go, insofar as we couldn’t begin to be Christocentric in any meaningful sense w/out immediately relying on Nicaea, Chalcedon, etc. (though, to be clear, some biblicists are creedal and confessional; I would say for them they need simply to take those creeds much more seriously not just as points of doctrine but ways of seeing and living in the world).

    I hope that somewhat answers your questions. Note, finally, that from here out I will be sparse in offering comments, so don’t take my lack of replies to every idea and inquiry as ingnoring them.

  • rjs

    We need a good, solid, pastoral book on the nature, purpose, and authority of scripture for use in an evangelical setting, especially a conservative setting. Something that can get people thinking about the problems of biblicism without too much threat. Unfortunately there does not seem to be a usable one out there.

    Smith’s book is good – but not quite as “sensitive” as necessary to use with a broad audience. And his conversion to the RCC makes his motive suspect in the eyes of many. (I also think it isn’t designed for a general audience.)

    Scot’s book (Blue Parakeet) is excellent – and the first 3 parts would make an excellent entree into the subject. Unfortunately Part 4, Women in Ministry, means that many in our church (and we are relatively egalitarian) will fear the book has an agenda to defend the indefensible, and will be wary of accepting anything in the first 3 parts for fear of the consequence. I expect that the reception would be even less friendly in many other churches.

    NT Wright’s books are good – but he is an Anglican (= episcopalian = liberal to many in our churches) and is thus also one to be wary of.

    Any suggestions?

  • Christian Smith

    Sorry, I meant: “that the shoe fits.” (I wish this blog had a 30-second edit feature.)

  • Christian Smith

    Peter (15), yes, I am sure you are correct. Maintaining balance on that can be a challenge. How to say things strongly enough to speak frankly and get attention without throwing up counter-productive barriers? As soon as I read that post, I wished I could have edited it. Partly, know that “pathetic” for me means something like it’s literal meaning, which entails some compassion, not the more loaded put-down connotation. But your point is well taken. Thanks. (Now I am really signing off.)

  • Amos Paul


    I’m not familiar with Wright’s work on this specific subject (though in my experience I prefer his historical-critical work to pastoral-theological), but I honestly haven’t heard anyone equate English Anglican with Episcopalian before. I mean, the two are distinct. When I think Anglican in America, for instance, I now think of the newer org that’s actually been using the Anglican name.

    Honestly, many average Christians I know are uncertain *who* in the heck the Episcopalians even are affiliated, if anyone–due to their odd name.

    But indeed, Wright is extraordinarily popular in evangelical circles and beyond today. It’s quite astounding to me how many non-academic type Christians in my third wave style, conservative church carry around his books.

  • rjs

    Fair enough Amos. Wright is accepted by many, no question. The books I was considering here were his two on scripture – Scripture and the Authority of God which is an enlarged update of his earlier book The Last Word.

  • Jon G

    Scot said “How do you square, for instance, with the necessity of belief in the Trinity with it’s explicit absence in the Bible and yet it’s centrality in Christian theology?”

    This has been a major struggle for me, personally.

    Indeed, I would go even further than saying it’s “absent” to say that it is negated…or at the very least inconsistent.

    For instance 1 Timothy 1:1 and 2:5 blatantly differentiates between “God” and “Christ Jesus” so that we see there is SOME sort of distinction there, but in 3:15-16 we see Paul say that “God” was manifest in the flesh…not Jesus. In the first two instances, Paul is using “God” to represent YHWH and Jesus to represent a go-between for God and Man, and so, in context, we see that God was the one mainfest…not a Son.

    IMHO this is one instance where “Trinity” as explained by church doctrine fails miserably. And yet, why should I think that I know more than all the millions of Christians who went before me?! Still, I can’t believe something just because the church says so for two reasons:

    1. I can’t control my beliefs. I must be CONVINCED of them.

    2. The church disagrees on so much (church history has as much pluralism in it as the Biblicist does) that I can’t rely upon it to be correct all the time.

    As a result of no longer having complete confidence in either tack, I’ve been left wondering what I can have confidence in…

  • Jon G

    I should add that I’m not basing my anti-Trinity stance on just 1 Timothy. That’s just an easy one to illustrate with.

  • Christian Smith

    Okay, so I’m not really signing off: Jon, Trinity and Nicaean Christology are non-negotiables for Christianity of any stripe. The Church spent centuries working through these doctrines and ended up with excellent dogmatic definitions on them. That is how we know they are true, and that heretical proposal which also had scripture to back them up are not true. There was/is a theological coherence most atuned to scripture as a whole that required those dogmatic definitions. The bishops and fathers of the church rightly ultimately realized that the gospel makes no sense if Arius was right, for example, and solemny pronounced that as a defining truth. We all have Athanatius to thank for that. And that is why anti-creedal Christianity simply does not work. It is either *parasitical* on the tradition of the church (i.e., feeding on its life while undermining its health), or else it falls off into heresy (e.g., Unitarianism). We trust leaders of the Church (under the guidance of the H.S.) to have worked out certain issues as simply now settled, or we do not. If we do not, then we place ourself outside the bounds of orthodoxy. I don’t see any other way around it.

  • Paul Johnston

    RJS, logically speaking why would you wish to advance the notion that Mr. Smith’s conversion to the RCC would make him suspect and by consequence his work of little or no value to “conservative evangelicals”…whatever that term means…another identity that strikes me as counter Gospel, tribes of Apollos, Peter and Paul as it were…I digress…

    Either the work is of merit based on it’s own arguementation or it isn’t. As truth seekers we cannot advance wholly predjudicial forms of criticism. This line of reasoning makes no more sense to me than the rejection of the person of Jesus on the grounds that he was the son of a rural carpenter from Nazareth….”what good could come from Nazareth”, or Rome for that matter.

    Mr. Smith, I haven’t read your book. If your critique is accurate, what do you recommend as a response going forward. How do we all come to place ourselves “within the bounds of orthodoxy”? Is that even desirable?

  • DRT

    Rjs, I agree with your attempt to get a good book for the conversation that is more sensitive. But I think your attempt will be futile. We may get a better one, but the whole idea of Biblicism, as far as I can see, is based on (crass statement ahead), worship of the Bible. I know they disagree with that, but it really seems to me that they have deified the bible. What is worship if it is not saying the thing is inerrant etc.

    I think the best approach is to go head on into confronting the primary issue.

    Perhaps you are being too cynical in your belief that they are that sensitive…….

  • Dana Ames

    the biggest reason I believe in the Trinity is that Trinitarian relations are all about self-giving love – the love that is strong enough to engender the life of the universe and hold it all together. This is love that refuses to colonize the other; there is union because there is difference; there are multiple paradoxes that are all true. Not that I understand that much about the Trinity – but I do see how the love and freedom work together in God’s dealings with humans through history, and of course in the apex of history, the “Christ Event”.

    If you’re up for it, Christos Yannaras’ book “The Freedom of Morality” is quite good on this. It’s a stiff read, but extremely rewarding.

    thanks for your interaction here. Looking back, it was the practical outworking of your ten points in terms of the way Evangelicals in my world dealt with 1) not only the lack of a Trinitarian approach and a Christocentric reading in general and 2) the reality of the difficulties of everyday life that was one of the big things that made me flee Ev’ism 12 years ago. I’m grateful for all the good, and good people, I have encountered in E’ism… and Pietism alone could not sustain my life in Christ… I found real theology in the work of NT Wright, but nowhere to live it out… Eventually (surprisingly to me) I ended up “swimming the Bosporus”.


  • Susan N.

    Well, rjs, I would like to say that I appreciate your voice here. Sometimes, one can get caught up in defending from attack, and be diverted from doing/saying what was originally purposed. DRT (#28) expresses my outlook (based on experience). Until a person is open to the possibility that some or all of their previous beliefs could be flawed, no book or degree of gracious talk can change their mind. On the other hand, there are maybe a few like me who are genuinely trying to wrap our head around some new or deeper ways of thinking and believing, and it just takes time for it to sink in. During that “incubation” period, dialogue on the subject is clumsy. Keep on!

    Dana, I benefit so much from your contributions to the comments here. Peaceable words of wisdom…

  • Jon G

    Christian (#26) – thanks for your response and I hope I don’t upset you by saying that I don’t find your argument very convincing. Honestly, I’m sure I’m not well enough versed in Church history so please understand that my words are coming from a position of exploration in faith more than authority. With that in mind, here are some further thoughts:

    didn’t Augustine say that to be a “Christian” you had to believe that Jesus was God and that He alone could bring salvation? Well, if that’s the case, then I’m a Christian.

    While I may not believe that there is some eternal Father-Son relationship going on, I do believe that the man walking around in Israel 2,000 years ago was Emmanuel – God with us. I believe that Jesus (“Jehova Saves”)is God and that he alone can save. I don’t think that necessitates belief in 3 persons.

    The whole description of Father/Son falls flat at numerous points. For instance, the Holy Spirit got Mary pregnant…so why isn’t He/She the Father? How can somebody be a Son who is eternal? And if “Son” doesn’t really mean ‘created from a parent’, then what significance can the term have?

    Wouldn’t it make more sense to think of the phrase “son of God” as “the one who represents/acts in place of God”? As a bridge between God and Man? A mediator? Something like the Temple was to be?

    The high priest, on the day of atonement was called the “Son of God”. The men and women of Israel were called the “sons and daughters of God”. Even NT Wright, a trinitarian beloved on this site (also by me), said once in a discussion with JD Dunn that when Peter says that Jesus was the “Son of God” it wasn’t a reference to the 2nd person of the Trinity, but rather a claim that He was Messiah.

    All I’m saying is that the same Jehova talked about in the OT became incarnate in the NT fulfilling the role of Messiah that the OT predicted. He himself became the high priest, the temple, the faithful covenant keeper. In what way do we HAVE to have a 2nd person to explain that?

    When you say that the Trinity is non-negotiable I see red flags popping up all over. If we can’t discuss it, then how are we to believe it? I’m sorry, I need more than a bunch of godly people 16 hundred years ago coming to a hard fought conclusion to be convinced that there’s no way that they could be wrong about the Trinity.

    “The Church spent centuries working through these doctrines and ended up with excellent dogmatic definitions on them. That is how we know they are true”

    If the standard is that they spent a few centuries working it out, then does that mean that the work of the Reformation is non-negotiable too?

    I agree with your next sentence about the “theological coherence” (basically explanatory power)being paramount and I think you mean to say that this is the real hermaneutic we should use…I guess I’m just saying that you can still explain things without introducing a tri-personal God…at least as well as you can with a tri-personal God.

    Anyway, your book sounds great…I’ll have to pick it up soon!

  • Jon G

    Dana (#29)

    Thanks for your kind (and wise) words. I see your point, but I have to ask…isn’t it possible to have that self-giving love without God being 3-in-1? Can’t God demonstrate that love for His creation without having to have that love inside some Trinity? I love my children that way (well maybe not exactly that way ;o) ) and I’m not 3-in-1 with them. How does Three-in-Oneness create such love that no other explanation can?


  • Jon, as somebody who came from a non-Trinitarian background, and also denied the deity of Christ, I think the points you are making are important, but explainable. I am now deeply Trinitarian and affirm Christ’s divinity, btw.

    “The whole description of Father/Son falls flat at numerous points. For instance, the Holy Spirit got Mary pregnant…so why isn’t He/She the Father? How can somebody be a Son who is eternal? And if “Son” doesn’t really mean ‘created from a parent’, then what significance can the term have?

    Wouldn’t it make more sense to think of the phrase “son of God” as “the one who represents/acts in place of God”? As a bridge between God and Man? A mediator? Something like the Temple was to be?”

    In a real way this is probably a conversation about semantics. It should be noted that the Trinity is still an affirmation of the Shema – that God is indeed one. The personhood, is a way to describe God’s love. We don’t want to lean towards modalism, where each “person” is a “mode” of God. And we don’t want to say that Jesus and the Holy Spirit are not Yahweh. I think your problems with the Trinity seem to be problems with an understanding of the Trinity that was declared a heresy – modalism.

    “Son” is term of inheritance. As Jesus was in the flesh, and compared to the prophets of old, this title set him apart from comparison. He wasn’t just a prophet, he was the bearer of divine inheritance, mission, and essence. As a priest was oft referred to as the “son of priests” Jesus is the Son of God – not inferior or subjective, but bearing the essence of.

    Peter Kreeft suggests that for God to be Love he must a living relationship. Love is not abstract but it is a concrete reality between persons. For God to be Love there must be at least a Lover and a Beloved for Love is something that dwells between, and intertwines, these two objects.

  • Christian Smith

    Jon, I don’t mean this to be condescending or evasive, but I think you just need to learn a lot more about trinitarian theology. All these things have been sorted out already, reinventing the wheel isn’t a good idea (though modern, American evangelicals love to try it). Non-negotiable does not mean we cannot talk about it, but it means that if one doesn’t buy it, they put themselves outside the bounds of historical orthodoxy. That’s all (!). Also, all of this must always remember that we are talking about mysteries far beyond our rational capacity to understand. We can formulate languages that best capture our best account of the mystery. But we should never think we’ve not it. Theological language about God is analogical, not univocal (or equivocal). It was a late-medieval theological development, the nominalism of Duns Scotus and William of Occam, who screwed us up, convincing the world that the language of “being” could make our talk of God univocally meaningful. (I recommend Placher’s Domestication of Transcendence on this.) So, I hear your questions and doubts. But to sort them out you need to learn more church history and theology. Meanwhile, it’s a very safe bet to confess the teachings of the historic church, at least those formulated in the first 4-5 Ecumenical Councils.

  • Jon G,

    “Can’t God demonstrate that love for His creation without having to have that love inside some Trinity?”

    If God needed creation to demonstrate His Love, then He would not be Love for he would be dependent on something other than Himself.

  • Christian Smith

    sorry: “we’ve got it,” not “not it.”

  • DRT

    Jon G#31, I would love for us here on JC to have a book to debate about the trinity, it is needed if it is so foundational.

    I was raised a Catholic and that pubescent perspective of the trinity is what I have to this day. What I believe about the trinity is that there are three persons in one in the trinity. The nuns always were quick to point out to me that they are separate but somehow they are one. It is a mystery.

    I myself have gone down many paths in trying to come up with hypotheses about the nature of the trinity, but I still go back to the priests and nuns who taught me and their bottom line to take away was always that it is a mystery.

    I agree with my thoughts on that (as if there could be any other way), I am willing to allow it to be a mystery.

    Still, I would like a book to discuss and investigate further.

  • Jon G

    Christian (34) – no need to worry. I don’t think you’re being evasive or condescending in your analysis of me. I DO need to learn more about Trinitarian theology. As I said, I’m speaking as one who is exploring.

    I thank you (and JoeyS) for your response and, even though we aren’t coming to the same conclusions, I’ll continue trying to sort this stuff out.

    JoeyS – I really don’t think I’m proposing modalism because, as I understand it, it goes too far in making distinctions. For instance it states that the Father and the Holy Spirit are different modes of God. I would say that God IS the Holy Spirit, not just another mode of Him. God IS the Father. (Actually I think it’s easier to say YHWH is the Father/Spirit/Son/Messiah/Counselor/Rock/etc). It’s just different ways to describe the same person. I’m Jon a father, Jon a son, Jon a spirit, Jon a man, Jon a husband, Jon an idiot, etc. Those aren’t really modes of me, just descriptions.

    Anyway, I’ve hijacked Scot’s post long enough. Thanks again for creating a forum in which this stuff can be discussed!

    Have a great weekend!

  • Jon G

    DRT (#37) that is exactly my frustration. “Mystery” just doesn’t put my soul at rest. Everything I know about God tells me that He wants to reveal himself…so turning to “mystery” as an explanation seems counter-intuitive.

    Anyway, I’ll buy the book when you write it! :o)

  • Christian Smith

    Jon (39), mystery can be a cop out. But that is not inevitable, and it is where we all end up anyway. Also, mystery is not the result of God holding back. It is the result of the fact that God is not-creation, transcendent in a way vis-a-vis creation that makes it impossible for the created, mere humans to really “get” God directly. God has to conceal himself to reveal himself. It is just the nature of reality that things are this way, so not to be frustrated with, as if there were a better alternative.

    Were it not for the Incarnation, which brought creation and the divine together into perfect correspondence, we’d be totally lost. And that is another reason to be Christocentric in everything: our entire epistemology has to be governed by the reality of the God/man Christ. Because that is how we know anything or have any orientation at all to begin with. Otherwise, we’re just doing idolatry (as Barth rightly says), trying to be god.

    It all turns out to be very radical. But rather than being frustrated and demanding more clarity and assurance, we should be happy with analogical knowledge of God through Christ, as speaking truly but not univocally about God. My 13 cents….

  • Randy Gabrielse

    I have long assumed that biblicism is a product of approaching the Bible through a modernist lens. This is why I have had difficulty with systematic theologies since reading Nick Wolterstorff’s “Reason Within the Bounds of Religion” as a college freshman. I began examining why he explicitly does not accept scripture as a First Principle for knowledge.

    I also understand why questioning this view is so troubling to many. To question it is to pull out the one block on which all else rests. I regret that we so often put young people in the bind of either accept the (biblicist) authority of and be saved or accept something else and be persona non grata to the church. I find it disgusting that so many of my colleagues in campus ministry have placed people in such a bind.

    My current thought on this is “What do we do with Ruth, “the Moabite” and Naomi and Boaz’s relations with her in light of the biblical prohibitions on associating with Moabites?

    Randy G.

  • Amos Paul


    I think your current understanding is closer to modalism than you realize. Basically, the Scriptures talk about God, Son, and Spirit–and the modalists say that these are just ‘modes’ or ways of knowing the same God. Obviously, there is *some* distinction in the concept of the words themselves, otherwise there wouldn’t be different words at all. And if you don’t have the different words, you can’t even really accept the Christian Scriptures.

    Nevertheless, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that the Trinity is a total mystery. The whole point of the orthodox belief in the Trinity is that it is, in fact, the outgrowth of God revealing himself in the formation of the church.

    The idea is that Jesus walked around and, often, claimed to *be* God, forgiving sins, John 1 (Word was in God, Word was God, etc.)… but at the same time, claimed a relationship to God the Father that made Him distinct. He said things like only the Father knows the hour but not the Son, how the Son does only what the Father wills, we even have the example of Christ praying in the garden pleading with the Father.

    And then there’s Holy Spirit, referred to as the seal of promise, power of God, and what sounds like a person in how He is supposed to testify to us about God, Help us, guide us, the extension of God and Christ in us.

    If this is all sounding very mystical–that’s good. Orthodox embraces the mystical and transcendant nature of the almighty God. The fact that we aren’t at his level to pick Him apart and explain how his nature ticks is a necessary component of this.

    But in any case, the idea came about in explaining the workings of the Almighty God here on the Earth of the Trinity–Tres Persona Una Substanita, as coined by Tertullian. This was an outgrowth of believers grappling witht hat notion of these distinct yet consistently unified relations we have with and know God by–Father, Son, & Spirit.

    And if it helps, the word persona was found too vague as it could talk about simple personality, a character, a complete will, or whatever–some technical philsophical language was also developed to talk about these experiences of Divinity. That is, Hypostasis and Ousia. Hypostasis is a word meaning essentially the underpinning existence of some actual thing, and Ousia is a word basically meaning a single ‘being’ or ‘substance’.

    So the Trinity, in orthodox tradition, is understood as Three Hypostases, or existences of some things, altogether occuring in one Ousia, or being. C.S. Lewis drew the analogy of what a person existing in 2 dimensional space might imagine a person in 3 dimensional space might be light. If we’re exist in finite 3 dimensional space, god most certainly exists in a manner above and beyond that and we may analogously understand things about Him that are beyond the constraints of our spatial-temporal existence–like how a 4 dimensional figure might be defined for us.

    Even if you don’t accept the belief, here’s a basic and more in-depth source discussing these sorts of things so you might be able to explore your understanding of them.

  • Amos Paul

    I apologize for a couple of bad typos–especially in that last paragraph! What I get for going quickly…

    *what a person in 3 dimensional space might be ‘like’, not light.

    *I ‘we’ exist in 3 dimensional space, not if we’re.

  • Dana Ames

    One may be able to love, but there is no other Subject to love. Two may be able to love each another, but if their love cannot admit a Third, that love stops with the Two and is sterile.

    God doesn’t need anything, and God certainly didn’t need to create, but did so as an outflowing of love. Though humans are created in the image of God, the fundamental difference between us and God – and it is an unbridgeable chasm – is that God is uncreated and we are not. But love moves toward union; so how could God become united with humanity? By having created a world into which God could become incarnate…

    Well, this thread could go astray from its purpose. But Christian is right about this. Here is a link to a few brief pages on the Trinity by a respected Orthodox academic. See if this section helps.

    Yes, it took the doctrine of the Trinity some time to develop, but really not that much time. The stew out of which it arose was kind of already there in 1st century Judaism; N.T. Wright’s “The New Testament and the People of God” is excellent background. If you’re up for it, Yannaras as above. May the Lord bless your study.

    Susan, you are kind, and I likewise look forward to your contributions. —virtual hug—


  • PaulE

    Regarding Genesis 1-2:

    Suppose someone came to me and asked “Can I divorce my wife for any old reason?” And suppose I replied to him, “Well, it does say in Genesis that the Creator ‘made them male and female’ and that He said ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’. So since God joins people together in marriage, it’s not right for a man to separate from his wife.” Would that be a biblicist reading of the text? God said it, it’s true, do it. Also, was that what the author of Genesis was attempting to accomplish with those words?

  • Jon…. I’m with you on this.

    I’ve been doing my own little pilgrimage through this “mystery” we call the Trinity. And I suppose, like you’ve been counseled, I don’t know enough Church History, or theology, or read enough outside academic sources, or I’m just not literate in Greek, or Italian, or Latin, or whatever. If that’s not enough, we must always remember – it’s a MYSTERY! A mystery it took a couple hundred years to work through and because it took that kind of time by men “inspired by the Holy Spirit” we should surrender ourselves to their conclusion in order to be orthodox. And lest we forget, better minds then ours have visited or revisited this question only to be branded as heretics, lunatics or simply just not orthodox so why frustrate ourselves.

    This may not be the final conclusion, but perhaps the best approach for those like me who lack the education to approach such intense and deep topics – find a suitable systematic theology from an orthodox practitioner and let that be my guide for belief and practice. Can’t really go wrong there! 🙂

  • Christian Smith

    #45. Since Scot is Down Under and my family is watching an aliens-invate-the-U.S. movie, I’ll take a shot at #45, though I am sure the more biblically/pastorally experienced could do better than this.

    I think that that answer taken alone would probably reflect biblicism, as a style, yes. One has to ask how that would be distinguished from using any number of other passages from the Penteteuch in a similar way.

    If, however, that answer had followed from a serious reflection about marriage and divorce in light of what God has done in the world in Christ, and if it really took seriously the remotely relevant scriptural passages and theological themes of the Bible, and if it followed from a serious listening to what the Church has taught about marriage and divorce for 2,000 years, and if by counseling the person to stay married would not very likely be sentencing them or their spouse to death (by spousal murder, which sometimes happens–about which scripture, theology, the Church, etc. surely also have things to say), then I think that very same answer, as a clear and direct pastoral summary to the inquirer, could well be appropriate to give in a totally non-biblicist way.

    So, sad to say, “it depends.”

    It seems to me, however, and it has seemed to most faithful Christian readers for 2,000 years (and for Jews well before that) that that passage indeed is teaching something foundationally important about marriage. Still, whether providing a passage by which someone in 2011 might be pastorally counseled about maybe leaving their spouse was the intention of the author of Genesis? But even if the author was not intending to say that, that fact itself does not mean that it might not be the right conclusion for us to draw from it today. The only legitimate reading having to do with the original author’s intentions is a modern invention. One doubts the author of Song of Solomon had Christ and the Church in mind, but….

    But then again, I’m just a sociologist.

  • DuWayne Lee

    By way of balance Kevin DeYoung’s devestating critique of Smiths book is a must read.

  • Richard Worden Wilson

    I don’t think K. DeYoung’s critique is quite “devastating,” but he does offer a close study and critical reflection on possible weaknesses in C. Smith’s arguments. Smith’s critique of “biblicism” carries a weight of cogency that DeYoung seeks to marginalize, but that so many *biblicists* actually DO camp out in the land of Christocentrism and Christotelic hermeneutics already suggests he doesn’t actually offer a new alternative. DeYoung probably doesn’t grasp the inherent philosophical accuracy of Barthian hermeneutics with its emphasis on the exclusive supremacy of the authority of God and of Christ The Living Word over the text, but neither does he nor do most intellectual evangelicals fall neatly into the descriptive categorical tour de force Smith provides. DeYoung also offers some most likely appropriate criticism of the logical inconsistencies in Smith’s arguments; take a(nother) look. Ultimately, it seems to me that neither Smith nor DeYoung offer new or particularly helpful solutions to the problems so many of us feel and think in our searches for certainty or consistency. Only a relational trust in the Christ to which scripture leads us and a willingness be guided by His Spirit can confirm to us the truths that enable us to follow Jesus in His Way of faithfully serving and obeying God The Father. BTW, it seems to me that emphasizing a Christocentric interpretive schema may not actually reflect Jesus’ own or the Apostles’ emphasis on God His Father. As ICor15:27-28 says: For God has put all things in subjection under his feet. … When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all. This may be one of those texts upon which pluralistic possibilities proliferate, but that Jesus came not to glorify himself but His Father God should point us beyond mere Christocentrism to the larger biblical narrative regarding YHWH and the existence and coming of His Kingdom, which we should properly pray might come. This ever pointing us beyond our current understandings of The Bible toward a more unified conception of its meaning for us all. May the dialogue continue, to the glory of God.

  • PaulE

    Thanks Christian; I hope the aliens were not victorious in their invasion. I am just trying to get an understanding of the criticism of the Bible-as-handbook mentality. I look at that conversation in Matthew 19:3-6 and the approach Jesus takes feels very much like this “God said it, it’s true, do it” approach. When Jesus quotes Genesis 2:24, he ascribes the words to God even though they seem to be the author’s original words. (God said it.) His conclusion is solely based on the Scriptures and he seems to assume their witness of what God did in creating man, woman, and marriage is true. (It’s true.) And he derives a principle from it – “What God has joined, let no man separate.” (Do it.) Obviously Jesus’ teaching wasn’t the product of reflection on 2000 years of the church’s teaching. So does Jesus’ hermeneutic here resemble biblicism? Does Jesus have a hermeneutic?

  • Christian Smith

    #48: DeYoung’s review is not devestating, sorry. Devestation requires actually attacking an opponent head-on. DeYoung instead essentially evaded my argument. His review is a massive exercise in distraction, misunderstanding, and distortion. Anyone who finds him convincing has either not read The Bible Made Impossible carefully or simply already had their mind made up and is merely looking for confirmation of what they already believe. Good book reviews do not foster the latter.

  • Christian Smith

    #48: Part of the very problem, folks, is that we want quick and satisfying “solutions.” But solutions will be useless until people first really face up to, really understand, really own the *problem*. My observation is that people want to quickly bypass the problem and nail down “a* solution. It will never be as simple as that.

  • Ben Wheaton


    Provided that we have first established that there is a problem, and even after that the nature of the problem. Part of the critique is that you’ve identified something as a problem that isn’t, or that isn’t a problem in the way that you have defined it.

  • Christian Smith

    #53. Believe that if you want to. I have provided tons of evidence that there is a problem, and most of the responses I have gotten against it are evasive and diversionary. If my evidence and arguments are not enough for some, then they should go on their merry way. The rest of us who see the problem will do what we can.

  • DanS

    Christian. Here’s where I think the difference is. You seem to have defined things this way.

    Problem: Biblicism provides no unified path to truth – makes bible reading with intellectual integrity impossible
    Cause: A particular view of scripture that expects too much of the text.
    Evidence: Interpretive pluralism in the modern evangelical movement
    Solution: Christocentric interpretation as main focus, abandoning focus on minor debates.

    I hope that is a fair summary. If not please correct me.

    Your critics respond this way:

    Regarding the Problem: There has never been unanimity on a number of issues, but that has never been a threat to intellectual integrity because there has been a consensus on core issues that crosses denominational lines. Intellectual integrity does not require unanimity on everything.

    Regarding the Cause: The cause of interpretive disagreements is neither scripture nor a belief in its inerrancy or perspicuity – there are many other causes including limited human knowledge, human resistance to truth, and arrogance. Blaming it all on “biblicism” is neither fair nor accurate.

    Regarding the Evidence: Pluralism is not limited to evangelicalism, nor to “biblicist” circles, nor to the era following the modernist/liberal debates and interpretive pluralism is in fact often more pronounced among those who are less inclined to see scripture as inerrant.

    Regarding the Solution: Christocentric interpretation is a noble goal that many, perhaps even most so-called Biblicists aspire to. So no problem in spirit with your general idea. Questions arise however in my mind…What is the source of our Christology if it is not ultimately rooted in the text of scripture? I’m all for tradition with a small “t” as a long consensus of exegesis – as the retention of apostolic teaching. But Christology can’t come from modern thin air. We rely on the creeds, of course, and evangelicals could do better in that regard, but the creeds summarize what is in scripture rather than provide new data. Christology, after the death of the apostles, is itself largely an issue of interpretation of the text, so Christology itself doesn’t really solve the hermeneutical question raised by charges of “biblicism”.

    The key here is I don’t think those who are critiquing your ideas disagree with you on the tragedy of division in the church, nor do they disagree that Christ is the ultimate focus of scripture and that getting hung up on issues like dating or a theology of eating can be a problem. (I find it almost prophetic that this discussion started with the apparent absurdity of Biblicists scouring the scriptures for God’s view of dating or economics, yet today the most recent post is about a “theology of eating”.)

    In the end, the main disagreement is whether 1) a particular view of scripture is indeed the primary cause of factionalism and 2) whether the 10 ideas you have identified as “biblicism” are a fair representation consevative evangelicals. I think many would simply say the primary cause of fragmentation lies elsewhere and while we all have our blind spots, there aren’t all that many real “biblicists” out there who think scripture covers every topic under the sun and that all issues are equally clear.

    If you had said the solution is a better and more rounded view of church history and less isolationism, I’d pretty much agree. I just think there were a lot of folks among the church fathers and the reformers who held to something very much like inerrancy and something very much like perspicuity – so I don’t see either of those assumptions about the scripture as recent modernist problems to be solved.

  • Terry

    DanS, honest question, is Smith saying “1) a particular view of scripture is indeed the primary cause of factionalism” or is he saying “a particular view of scripture is shown to be an impossible (inconceivable/out of the question) view because of factionalism”? My sense has been the latter.

    What I’ve read says interpretive pluralism, though perhaps a problem, is simply evidence that the program of biblicism cannot be the true nature of scripture.

  • Christian Smith

    #55. Dan, thanks. That is an extremely helpful laying out of objections. A fair summary. Many thanks. It also shows that some of the objections are off-target as I hope to make clear here. My response:

    Regarding the Problem: The problematic reality is not simply a lack of “complete unanimity.” The problem is massive, real disagreement on not only peripheral but also central theological matters, important enough apparently to divide from each other over. Not just that “Biblical Dating” books are abundant but that “Four Views of _____” books are abundant on most every important topic and thousands of denominations exist embodying the disagreements. The supposed consensus on core issues only exists at the surface, I think, in general terms that are not specified as to their meaning and application. All can indeed agree that “Jesus is our savior from sins,” but when it comes to explaining the hows, whats, whys, wherefores, and therefore, it all breaks down. When we get down to things that matter in more specifics, PIP is the undeniable reality. And, if biblicism as a theory as I have described it is true, then there should be NOTHING LIKE the kind of interpretive pluralism among biblicists that there exists. Biblicism as described is simply incompatible with PIP. One cannot be side by side with the other. Since PIP is a fact of reality, biblicism is therefore unmasked as impossible. So, to sum, the problem is not denied by objections to my book on these points. The only way it is denied is by living in denial of the facts.

    Regarding the Cause: Did you (or those you are speaking for) actually read the book? I address this squarely (pp. 37-42). My claim there is not that “scripture is to blame.” My claim is that all of these other explanations, if they are true, unmask the strong claims of biblicism as impossible. If biblicism is correct, then God’s revelation should be able to overcome the problem of limited human knowledge, etc. that you suggest. Or, if we believe that God’s revelation is not adequate to overcome our ignorance, resistance, etc. then, given our PIP, we need to back WAY off of claims that we can read the Bible and know down to specifics what God is telling us—since our brothers and sisters hear it saying something quite different. But that itself is to soften up on PIP. So biblicists won’t do that either. The only consistently-defensible position, as far as I can see, to both hold strongly to biblicism and fully recognize PIP is to believe simply that, “I am right and they are wrong, period.” I suspect many believe that (I know some who do) but nobody much anymore wants to come out and admit it. Even so, PIP still presses us hard to know exactly why so darn many of those other Christians are wrong, if biblicism is correct. So, again, my argument is not an attack on the Bible, but on a theory about the Bible that PIP reveals to be impossible. Finding the culprit behind PIP is a secondary matter in the book.

    Regarding the Evidence: In some sense you are right, though only especially so since the (so-called) Reformation (“Great Western Schism” is more accurate). Luther and Zwingli being unable to come to agreement about the Eucharist at Marburg in 1529 was the breaking of the dam, and PIP is the floodwaters swamping us ever since (including somewhat in Western, liberal Catholicism). But in another sense, this reply is ultimately irrelevant. Here is why. (1) Analogy: Just because Jonny’s friends are also caught stealing candy from the store does not mean that Jonny was not stealing candy from the story. And if the others do not deny stealing candy or think it is wrong, but Jonny definitely does, then Jonny is the one not being square, not the others. Important point: It is not other major Christian traditions that make biblicist claims, which in theory should preclude PIP. Biblicism does. Most non-biblicist Christian traditions do not espouse theories about the Bible that should preclude PIP. Most well understand the difficulties of interpreting scripture that biblicism denies and have well-established ecclesial means to deal with them (Erasmus tried to tell Luther that, but he wouldn’t listen). I include among these the Anglican tradition (though which is stumbling now, due to infection by liberal Protestants), Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and the Oriental Orthodox Churches. Biblicism must answer for ITS own claims and for the factual evidence that clearly belies them; to point fingers elsewhere is a diversion. (2) There is a huge difference between mere “pluralism” and “pervasive pluralism.” U.S. evangelicalism is remarkably more fractured than much of the rest of the world, something most of us are just used to as normal, and more fractured than most of Christianity in history. It is wrong that PIP has been a common feature of Christendom from start to finish. There are real degrees of difference and the differences matter. (3) The very last statement you make on this (pluralism is more pronounced among non-inerrantists) is true only of liberal Protestants, who I take no responsibility for; and the fact that they are all over the map hardly vindicates Biblicism. (Finally, the issue of inerrancy, in any case, is not the key point, there are 10 other features which TOGETHER define biblicism. )

    Regarding the Solution: If you read the second half of my book carefully, I say clearly that I am not offering the complete and definite solution. So as not to be only destructive, I am trying to point the way with some ideas that I think help lead to a post-biblicist world (for those who want to remain in Protestant evangelicalism). The key concerns a Christocentric reading of scripture, but there are other significant proposals offered as well (maybe Scot hasn’t gotten to them yet). I actually suggest in the book that getting to a genuinely post-biblicist world for U.S. evangelicalism may take a few decades of thought, discussion, prayer, etc. and it should not be rushed. So, my book simply ought not be criticized for not “solving the problem,” since I never claimed that I could. (At the same time, that said, I can only repeat that I think reading the Bible Christologically requires a more radical set of moves than I suspect many evangelicals, who agree with that notion in principle, understand. Significant chunks of biblicist commitments will have to go or be revised. Read Barth. It will not work to remain essentially biblicist and then slap Christocentrism on the top.)

    Re your Main Disagreements: Re #2, again, I have given many pages of empirical evidence directly linked to the 10 points of biblicism. Not sure what else I can do. There it is, the seminaries, books, colleges, statements of faith, denominations, etc. etc. How can it be denied? Still, I’m not surprised that a common reaction is, “Sure, some on the lunatic fringe out there are like that, but NOT ME.” Everyone has a strong incentive to distance themselves from the 10 points, because when they are said so straightforwardly, they’re a bit discomforting. I have been studying American evangelicalism at a national level since 1994 and know it quite well, theologically, culturally, and organizationally. Read my books on evangelicalism, if you like. So I think the denials that the mainstream of evangelicalism is biblicist is, again, just people living in denial. If that is wrong, then why isn’t everyone saying, yes, Smith is right but it doesn’t bother me because this is not me? Why so much upset defensiveness and apparent need to discredit my book? Or, if I am wrong, then I would like to see the major representatives of the movement stand up and say publicly, “I deny believing in Smith’s points 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, and 10.” Or whichever they deny. That will be the day. Re #1: this is arguable. But I go back to my previous point. EVEN IF the cause of PIP is not biblicism, the fact that PIP simply exists shows biblicism to be impossible. To argue that some other causes have generated PIP is really only just to change the question, away from my actual argument that PIP reveals biblicism’s impossibility to a quite different argument about why PIP exists.
    To Summarize: Let’s stay focused on the real argument and issue. It is not that the Bible is a defective product. It is not about inerrancy. It is not ultimately about the causes of PIP. It is not even about the tragedy of Christian disunity. And it is not whether you or I have or can solved the problem now. Those are subsidiary issues. What it IS about is whether biblicism is an adequate or inadequate account of the Bible and how it should function as an authority. My argument is very simple: If Biblicism is possible, then PIP should not exist; PIP exists; therefore Biblicism is impossible; and that is extremely important and has to be addressed and gotten beyond. That’s it. The rest is elaboration, conjecture, and suggestion.

    So, at bottom, in the end I don’t think the problem is that my argument doesn’t make sense. I think the problem is that it deeply threatens the fundamental paradigm of tons of evangelicals and so—at a fundamental level of cognition and identity, not reasoned evaluation—they need to find some way to get rid of my argument, so they can continue with their paradigm undisturbed, the piles and piles of empirical anomalies to that paradigm notwithstanding.

  • Christian Smith

    #56, Terry: Bingo! What I just wrote before seeing yours. Thanks for getting that.

  • DanS

    Thanks Christian. That helps clarify. I do your general thesis presents a valid set of concerns, and not long ago I would have been more in your corner. The old saying is the grass is always greener elsewhere. I looked elsewhere for stability and wound up back in the conservative evangelical camp. It was, in the end, the only place I could keep my faith with intellectual integrity. Yes, it is messy. But to me, there is still solid footing there.

    As for the 10 points, personal and anectdotal, but I would reject at some level, almost half of them as I read them. I’m not sure if I would accept or would not accept some others because of the way they are phrased. I think I am representative of most conservative evangelicals I know.

    I would say this…At some point everyone has to appeal to the text of scripture to do theology, and that means vocabulary, parts of speech, sentence structure, context, historical context in some mixture. That is just a fact of language, biblicist or not. I have to believe there is something objectively knowable there in the text. Else, I would ultimately be no different from someone on the revisionist fringe of the Episcopal meltdown. I find a humble epistemological realism the only approach to the text that offers anything coherent.

    Christ is the cornerstone, the apostles the foundation, the written scriptures as the God-breathed revelation, the church as the human institution charged with passing along the faith, that’s the order in which faith has come to us. Christ is spiritually present to faith, but that idea is a bit nebulous when it comes to making decisions about doctrine. The apostles are dead, as are the church fathers. To know the apostles teaching requires interaction with the written text unless one believes the faith can be preserved through personal revelation alone or ongoing revelation in some magisterium.

    I don’t want to defend solo scriptura or bad exegesis – but I want to defend a humble level of belief in inerrancy and some degree of perspicuity. I think those ideas are part of the long heritage of the church from Athanasius to the Protestant confessions to the Chicago Statement. I don’t think that is novel or modernist – I think it is the basis of orthodoxy.

  • Amos Paul


    I see what you’re saying about inerrancy (and I’m sure you’ve seen my own agreements and disagreements with Smith), but let me challenge that notion a litle bit.

    What do you mean by inerrant? Down to what kind and what level of detail? I mean, we obviously have slight disagreements all over the gospels and some OT historical accounts. Is that outside of the umbrella of inerrant? Do we say only the authors main points are inerrant? Do we have a problem when we understand those main points totally differently? What separates those abstract main points from the details of the text? What if we disagree on that?

    My personal answer is close to smith’s proposal. I say that the words of scripture have proven themselves over the ages of capable of inerrantly pointing to The Word, Jesus Christ. Though, for a simple analogy, like street signs from a foreign country and time–we can have much disagreement how and why things point to Jesus.

    And if we have a massive variety of signs and so forth the depth of disagreement and manner of interpretation can be compounded to a frustrating degree. Especially if, moreover, the thing the signs are pointing to must also be interpreted via the context of where you are in relation to the destination. And I do believe that Christ can (must?) be approached from different perspectives for different people.

  • DRT

    DanS#59 paints another facet of this problem with biblicism. As DanS states, he “I looked elsewhere for stability and wound up back in the conservative evangelical camp.”

    A fundamental problem with biblicism and the conservative camp is that they are promising stability and that is not what Jesus promised. As Tom Wright once quoted a friend Bishop, “every where Paul went there were riots. Everywhere I go they serve tea”. Christianity is not Biblicism or MTD which both are apparently structures meant to engender stability, but that is not what Christianity is about.

    Christianity will turn sons against father, will cause the establishment to be concerned, will make the powerful weak. Christianity is not about you feeling or being stable. It is about losing yourself to find yourself. Get it right.

  • Scot McKnight

    DanS, et al,

    Christian Smith’s notion of “interpretive pluralism” is important to comprehend. First, it isn’t the superficial notion that some use, often those who have enough postmodernism to not comprehend it or those who want to avoid the authority of the Bible, that because there are differences we can’t know anything or that we can’t decide anything with authority, etc..

    Instead, his notion is that it describes major issues in the Bible: like theories of atonement, like church government, etc. In my estimation, his best point is the 4 View books — they take on big issues and baptize diversity. The moment one baptizes diversity about the big issues we have a genuine problem, and Smith helpfully calls it “interpretive pluralism.”

    On his solution: Smith admits he’s not giving a full proposal, and it appears to me that those who see this problem are seeing the potency of approaches that drive the Bible’s narrative as the central way of reading the Bible. NT Wright’s new book is an excellent example; Kevin Vanhoozer is pushing this line from a different angle; I have a sketch of this approach in Blue Parakeet; the theological interpretation of Scripture is yet another approach saying the same sort of thing. There is some very substantial agreement in these approaches to Bible reading, and they are self-consciously non-biblicist and they provide Bible as authority as well.

  • I am delighted that a discussion of the Trinity came up earlier in the comments. I have not yet read Smith’s book (soon! soon!), but I have avidly followed Scot’s posts and the attached discussions. I think that Smith’s critique of Biblicism (as described by Scot) is dead on, but I think that Smith’s suggested Christotelic approach has some problems of its own.

    For example, I recently reread the book of Joshua. My quick summary of that book is that the first half of the book is genocide, and the second half is real estate. How does this book point to Christ? (The title of the book merely highlights the irony for me.)

    But, I am comfortable with the thought that Joshua worshiped the same God I do. I believe that the Bible is an anthology of books written by people who worshiped YHWH. Their understanding of who YHWH is and their relationship to him continued to evolve over time. My goal in reading the Bible is learn from them as I develop my own relationship with YHWH. Not just with Jesus, but with the whole Triune God.

    Even Jesus seems to address this, for example John 12:44 – 45:

    “Then Jesus cried out, “When a man believes in me, he does not believe in me only, but in the one who sent me. When he looks at me, he sees the one who sent me.”

    So, my suggested nudge for Smith’s solution is to be “Triuneotelic” instead of “Christotelic”.

  • Susan N.

    Spent some time yesterday reading in ‘The Faith Club: A Muslim, A Christian, and A Jew — Three Women Search for Understanding.’ Ranya, the representative Muslim, articulated her feelings of being disenfranchised from her faith community, not solely as a result of a scarcity of mosques. Among American Muslims, she sensed a judgmental reception of her more progressive views on the teachings of the Quran and practice of her faith (no head covering, strict daily prayer times, or male/female segregation at mosque). Likewise, among non-Muslims, she was most often stereotyped as a fundamentalist Muslim. In either case, she felt compelled to justify the veracity of her faith.

    I think conservative evangelicals (of a fundamentalist, or biblicist, or neo-reformed variety — however you want to label it) have created such an environment for its adherents. Other Christians (Catholics, Orthodox, Mainline Protestants) are seen as not doing “it” right or believing the correct doctrine, and therefore, may not even be saved. Of course this is all based on sound biblical teaching (from the correct translation, of course.)

    If conservative evangelical denominations are growing right now, while other branches of Christian faith seem to be declining in numbers, I would suspect that there is an element of fear and desperation in people seeking certainty and absolutes (i.e., “God blesses those who believe and obey him; translation — the bad people will suffer in these hard economic times, but true believers won’t). Other branches and denominations of Christianity play it more like, “We’re all in this world together…stand in solidarity with those who are suffering; be a presence that works for justice and peace — Kingdom people.”

    I was able to hold a copy of N.T. Wright’s ‘Scripture and the Authority of God’ at my local library. Looking forward to reading that, and comparing with ‘The Blue Parakeet’ (which was read long enough ago that I recall the big idea but not so many details, I’m afraid).

  • Terry (#56) said,

    …is Smith saying “1) a particular view of scripture is indeed the primary cause of factionalism” or is he saying “a particular view of scripture is shown to be an impossible (inconceivable/out of the question) view because of factionalism”? My sense has been the latter.

    To which Smith gave a hearty “Amen!” (#58). For what it’s worth, as I listen to this conversation, I just don’t see that those Smith critiques are going to see any meaningful distinction between these two. So Smith can keep saying they’re missing the point when in reality they just don’t accept his distinction as meaningful or valid.

    As I said earlier, I appreciated Christian’s understanding of his audience at many points in the book, but I haven’t seen that same level of understanding on display in some of his online engagements.

    And regardless of whether his critics are right or wrong, the sad truth is that they won’t listen unless he tries a bit harder to understand why the distinction made above is basically meaningless to them.

    Until Smith provides a cause of factionalism other than Biblicism, Biblicists are going to hear him blaming their view of Scripture for factionalism. If factionalism is only what disproves Biblicism (and not necessarily what causes it too), then all one has to do to preserve Biblicism is reduce the amount of factionalism to acceptable levels (whatever those might be). The point is this: is Smith’s problem finally with factionalism or with Biblicism? If only the former, then why bother with the latter? If only the latter, then why not offer a solution to factionalism that preserves Biblicism? If he can’t do it (or isn’t willing to), then the distinction above shouldn’t be cause for any concern for convinced Biblicists. They’re still going to feel that Smith is attacking their view of the Bible–which seems like a legitimate concern unless Smith can demonstrate that Biblicism can actually help reduced factionalism.

    To critique someone’s particular view of the authority of the Bible and then tell them you’re not critiquing the Bible’s authority is not very reassuring. It’s like you’ve pulled the rug out and then rushed to reassure them on the way down, “I’m not really against rugs!” Maybe you’re not, but now’s not the most likely time for them to believe that coming from you.

    I hope that makes sense. I’m not out to tar anybody. But I do hope folks will listen to Smith’s case because I think it deserves a hearing.

  • Luke Allison

    Okay, so I’ve just finished the book, and I now I feel a little sheepish about some of my comments on earlier posts.

    I have a strong urge to throw my body in-between congratulatory high-fives, sometimes, I guess.

    Dr. Smith: Would you ever consider doing a more detailed analysis of specific tribal affiliations within Christianity? Biblicism (still not sure one word is sufficient to describe the nuance of the problem) seems to play itself out very differently in various traditions.

    For instance…my friend and I both grew up in more Word/Faith-affiliated environs, and we heard an endless aural cascade of metaphorically-understood sermons out of the Major and Minor Prophets. Almost never heard about Jesus.

    Listen to, say, a Kevin Deyoung sermon, and you’ll hear something completely different….so different as to almost constitute a different religion altogether. Are we really comfortable saying that Deyoung and, say, Steven Furtick are in the same school of Biblical thought?

    What recommendations would you give for scholars, preachers, and teachers who are setting a good example? Peter Enns doesn’t count. 🙂


  • Sounds like the same goop that my so-called moderate professors in seminary taught from ’72-76. They were being Christocentric in their approach to scripture and even had their view written in the preamble to the BFM ’63 of the Southern Baptist Convention. What they failed to perceive was that most of the folks who voted for that confession meant verbal inspiration, inerrancy, and infallibility, and those folks were determined to have it so. It is true that hermeneutics is a problem, but there is an interpretation that sooner or later reaches the divinely intended meaning of the text. That is the one that shall stand all tests. Even so there are depths to Scripture, depths in the clarity which human minds cannot perceive or discern. John Robinson, the Pilgrims Pastor, underscored the problem: “Who knows what new light is getting ready to break forth from God’s word.”

  • Christian Smith

    If you’ve been following the DeYoung review discussion, don’t miss the latest (long) post there by “TrulyTULIPtape”:
    at the bottom

  • Christian Smith

    #66: Luke, thanks. Perhaps. In my real life I do mainstream sociology, so have to balance out my time and attention. There might be others out there better positioned to do that kind of analysis.

    Examples of scholars: Alan Torrance, TF Torrance, Collin Gunton, Karl Barth.

  • Chris Criminger

    Hi Christian,
    There are few books that have come out recently that I have wanted to read but yours is one of them. I think this area is an important one to be discussed and I look forward to getting and reading your book (which I have not done yet).

    This discussion has been fruitful for me at least as I have been overhearing it. The more I hear, the more I want to read your book Christian. I just read Deyoung’s latest critique and I saw myself all over the place in your critique (at least from my heritage point of reference which is the Stone-Campbell movement). One could add many Baptists in that as well as others.

    Seeing that you have recently converted to Catholicism, is both telling and a positive from my perspective. We need more Evagelical Catholic’s critiques and not less (keep them coming!). As one who is a kind of suspicious protestant or paleo-orthodox or ancient-future Christian, I for one think you are on the right track even if you don’t take people all the way down the tracks to home.

    I hope others will leave off where you end and give some proposals for doing just that but thanks for your helpful contribution in all this. Since your book hit on a very neglected area, I would hope you would consider another one which is crucial that I also think needs to be hit upon and that is the area of ecclesiology. If any of us are going to be truly catholic, then we should be looking for ways for ecclesial unity or eucharist fellowship to become a greater reality than what we see today.


  • Tim

    Was it not Luther who gave us the Christ centered reading of the scriptures, (=the manger which holds Christ)?

  • simon

    I think it’s hard to disagree with the Reformers arguments about the clarity of Scripture. However, does this mean that there won’t be disagreements? No, I don’t think so. The fact that we CAN know the meaning of Scripture as we read it on a personal basis, doesn’t mean that we will necessarily. There first needs to be more understanding on HOW we are to read it from the Bible itself. Will we agree on HOW we should read the Bible? No, not necessarily either (but this doesn’t mean you can’t gain be right in this, just because others disagree with you).

    But everyone is in this camp, including those who point to the need for an infallible interpreter, or the unsustainable argument from the unanimous consent of the fathers. Catholics too, are suggesting that their interpretation of history and the Bible is correct one. They are but another voice in the (pluralist) wind. They presuppose private interpretation to see that they are “correct”.

    Pointing to the mistakes in biblicism as Smith defines it, does not automatically suggest we need an infallible interpreter (I know Smith does say this in his book).

    Perhaps there is another solution, such as much greater humility, more patience, and respectful discussion, and learning in community. I’m not sure that these have been practiced as well as they should.

    A book like Smith’s won’t eradicate biblicism, because we all practise it (in some principled form – even Catholics) at heart by necessity. But it will help evangelicals be more careful, and better define what a biblicist should be.