On Biblicism

On Biblicism August 29, 2011

Christian Smith’s book criticizing biblicism, Bible Made Impossible, The: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture, has created a baffling conversation. I’ve read reviews by Bob Gundry, Peter Leithart, and Kevin DeYoung and … well, how to put it?

None of these reviews engages the issue at hand. None of them thinks biblicism is a problem. None of them thinks that what we believe about the Bible (in our biblicistic framing of how we view the Bible) should not create the problem it does. None of them, in other words, thinks pervasive interpretive pluralism undermines biblicism. Evidently, then, pervasive interpretive pluralism is fine and what we get when God gives us a Bible. None of them, in other words, is dealing with the problem.

What I see in the reviews is an attempt to sabotage the book by dealing with issues that are not central to the book. Instead of taking on the problem, the reviews deal with specifics not connected to the problem. So I have some questions:

Has Christian Smith adequately and accurately described a pervasive evangelical approach to the Bible? Biblicism.

Has Christian Smith adequately and accurately described pervasive interpretive pluralism? Is this an issue to you?

Does the second — pervasive interpretive pluralism — undermine biblicism or not? The central issue is this: does not our claim that the Bible is revelation and clear get a massive shock when we examine who pluralistic our interpretations are? Shouldn’t a clear Bible yield clearer interpretations? Or have we fallen so much for diversity that we don’t even see this as a problem.

Let me remind us that a few years back John Piper opined that too many evangelical seminaries and colleges were teaching too much diversity, he complained about — in other words — the “four views about atonement” approach to education — and said such approaches were undermining confidence in the Bible. I’m not sure Piper would agree with Smith, but I do think he’d embrace that our casual embrace of pervasive interpretive pluralism undermines what we think the Bible is. I would argue that Smith’s desire to find a place to stand that gives us a sound reading of the Bible and Piper’s more confessional Calvinistic approach to theology are varieties of the same species of solution to the same problem.

In my view, the only genuine way to engage this book is one of the following:

Prove that biblicism as he defines it is not characteristic of evangelicalism.

Prove that pervasive interpretive pluralism is not a real problem.

Prove that pervasive interpretive pluralism does not actually undermine biblicism.

But enough with the evasive tricks of avoiding the central theoretical issues at work in this book. The issues are biblicism and pervasive interpretive pluralism.

""And each after its own kind". Nothing is more invigorating than realizing potential. But it ..."

How Can a Christian Flourishing Life ..."
"Reader's Digest ran a great story on libraries at: https://www.rd.com/advice/r..."

Weekly Meanderings, 25 May 2019
"Bev,Thanks again for your reply. I guess I'd like to clarify a few things.One, I ..."

Foundations and Faith (RJS)
"Its an honest question. No disrepect intended."

For Al Mohler, It’s about Authority

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Duane

    Well said. Amen!

  • Taylor

    Frankly, I would have enjoyed the book more if he had dealt with what he considered to be the possible biblicist responses to PIP. In writing as if any one of those explanations was insufficient to excuse or explain the issues, Smith was absolutely correct. But that doesn’t prove that a combination of several reasons doesn’t.

    If we bothered to do the difficult work of separating the types of interpretive pluralism and subsequently respond to them as separate issues which each merit separate responses, I think biblicism could be maintained with minimal revision.

    Step one would be to weed out ‘folk biblicism,’ to modify a Roger Olson term. At that point, the majority of extreme disparities would evaporate.

    Step two would be to differentiate between biblicism and logic. Elements of Calvinism and Arminianism are biblical. The two invariably diverge not in the texts, but in applying logic to the passages. Logic often works in favor of one’s presuppositions (note the post directly before this one on women) and assumes the other view must be illogical because it begins from a different set.

    Step three would involve approaching differences with more humility than either side of any recent disagreement has managed to muster (although the justification/sanctification debate at TGC is setting a very good example)

    Step 4 would involve drawing some sort of boundaries for what constitutes modern orthodoxy, thereby giving recourse to deny an interpretation that is decidedly anti-biblical.

    Step five would be practicing a more legitimate form of catholic unity than is the norm. This would necessitate educating both liberal and conservative laity on the foolishness of angrily arguing while claiming the authority of say, Scot McKight or John Piper. Angry people arguing polemically hurts everyone else.

    It would take more space than that to write out a truly good response, but unless I get a book deal, I’ll save it for my thesis. In conclusion, however, I think biblicism is worth fighting for, and the fight needs to begin by getting our house in order.

  • Thanks for keeping the focus on the issue, Scot. Could you provide links to the reviews you mention?

  • Scot McKnight

    Taylor, Thanks.

    Step one can’t be eliminated because of the widespread claim for perspicuity for all readers, not to mention how “priesthood of all believers” has entered this discussions.

    Step three is a mode and not really part of biblicism.

    Step four works against biblicism because it assumes the all-sufficiency of Scripture and necessarily finds theological coherence (orthodoxy) as suspicious.

    Step five is both mode and suggests once again the insufficiency of Scripture for the biblicist.

    The issue here is the meaning of biblicism and whether what many think the Bible is can be sustained. Smith says No. I agree that biblicism as practiced, and it is logically inconsistent (I’m not saying you are doing this at all) to latch onto one scholar or one confession, cannot do anything but fragment and disintegrate into a chaos of confusion.

  • art


    I think your correct in urging people to focus on the major issues of the book. Too many are sidestepping the real issues.

    One thing I though while reading the book (an perhaps it’s not a question to answer immediately, but one to think about for a while) is this: is PIP a result of biblicism, or is it an inevitable result of the human condition? In other words, it is biblicism that leads to PIP or is it the inherently limited knowledge of every human that leads to PIP?

    I’m no fan of biblicism, but I think that point should be adressed. As a side note, Kent Sparks’ chapter on epistemology in “God’s Word in Human Words” deals with this issue well.

  • Scot McKnight

    Art, and Smith brings this up too.

    Yes, I agree. Epistemic humility flows from the noetic impact of the fall. I know very few biblicists who actually operate with an approach that diminishes their confidence in their interpretation.

    But, the issue here is the claim of what the Bible is among biblicists, what God’s people should be able to find in reading the Bible (perspicuity), and a belief that God’s Spirit will lead to perception of what the Bible says.

    So, brother, it may be that admission of the human condition will lead toward a different belief in the Bible and a different approach to its interpretation.

  • I’ve always thought the idea strange, for some time anyhow, that if we just have the Spirit guide us, then we’ll have the correct interpretation of any and every scriptural passage. Evidently it’s a matter of openness to the Spirit and personal piety. I do wonder how the church fits into that. And scripture is in Jesus and missional in orientation, as well as communal. A certain dynamic at play which seems beyond what I understand Biblicism to be.

  • Joe

    I have liked your series of blog posts about the book and plan to read it soon. You bring up solid reactions to the reviews of the book. I guess that I find Biblicism is an impulse of Evangelicalism. Preachers want to say something, and they have to “back up” everything from the Bible, so there is an attempt to “stuff” meaning into a text that the original authors would’ve never imagined being there. The crowd doesn’t know any better, because while the sermon was being preached, Bibles were open and references were made.

    Could the issue involve how Western readers/scholars have tried to make the Bible a source to systematize doctrine instead of engaging the Bible as narrative?

  • At the school I attended we were taught that there was one and only one meaning of the text – the author’s intended meaning. We were taught that the question is never, “what does that mean to you?” but instead, “what did that mean to the writer?” There was only one right answer and proper study of grammar, the original language and context will get you there every single time.

    Sin: pride, prejudice, sectarianism and just laziness were the reasons why everyone else did not arrive at the same meaning of the text as we did in areas like baptism (immersion only for salvation only thank you very much), women in (or basically for us OUT) of the pulpit, communion, church government, and on and on. We were taught the Bible as blue print which is the very epitome of Biblicism.

    I think part of the issue in missing the issue is that most scholars/profs don’t actually adhere to Biblicism despite being part of denominations/schools/movements that do. They don’t experience the problem as it exists primarily on a local church/front lines setting rather than at the faculty meeting or Bible conference.

  • Paul W

    I don’t know how pervasive ‘Biblicism’ is but from the comments on the reviews there certainly were some who had experienced it.

    I don’t think pervasive interpretive pluralism is a problem in general.

    Pervasive interpretive pluralism devastatingly undermines biblicism IMHO.

  • DanS

    I’ll answer with a question. Science claims to be a field where reality can be understood by careful study of the natural order, and it is assumed science can lead us to fairly certain conclusions.

    Yet there is a widespread disagreement about origins and a long battle about origins. Does this prove that science is flawed? That the assumptions about science as a path to truth are invalid?

    I’m sure many would say no, the disagreements about global warming and evolution are not the result of a failure in science, but the result of stubborn refusal to see the obvious, fundamentalism, disinformation propogated by ID or right wing politicians beholden to environment destroying capitalists.

    The problem is one of causality. Yes, interpretive pluralism is a problem. No, Biblicism is not necessarily the cause and no, outside of “folk biblicism”, most well read conservatives have a much more nuanced view of things that the 10 points don’t do justice to. I think the critics are saying we shouldn’t throw out the baby (inerrancy, perspicuity) with the bathwater of bad exegesis, influence of renegades and general human mental mistakes.

  • DanS

    Oops. Second paragraph should have read “disagreement about global warming and a long battle about origins.” Typing fast before a regular day job…

  • James

    Having served in five different denominations, I have seen the effects of PIP even in small, strict confessional bodies with men having even slight differences of views in issues concerning the “Sabbath”, communion, the role of women, music styles, and worship practices called “sinners”, accused of practicing sloppy hermeneutics, and persecuted in ecclesiastical courts – even when differing views have deep historical roots with the church “Fathers”.

    To what degree the problem is Biblicism or the human condition, I don’t know, but PIP is a huge problem, especially when it comes to religious professionals loving and preferring one another.

  • Taylor

    Thanks Scot,

    Since I’m short on time, I’ll just revisit step one. I’ll grant that perspicuity for all readers ought to be a bit more nuanced. The issue with what I called ‘folk biblicism,’ is not so much that readers are not similarly interpreting the text, it is that interpreters aren’t bothering to read the text. Suggesting the text can be understood by anyone ought to carry the qualification that anyone who wants to understand the text needs to devote themselves to understanding it.

    It would be like saying my science book isn’t perspicuous because various students in the class didn’t bother to actually spend any time studying it and came to some strange conclusions.

  • Jason Lee

    I read the (incredibly long) Kevin DeYoung review of Smith’s book and was shocked at the amount of sidestepping and picking at peripheral details. And the comments on the review (at DeYoung’s blog) didn’t seem to notice this problem in DeYoung’s review … they all just seemed be like “Kevin’s a really smart reformed pastor guy I like and trust so he must have written a slam dunk critique of this heretic’s book … cause Kevin’s a really smart guy and all.” This to me illustrates why pervasive interpretive pluralism is a massive intellectual problem for evangelicalism, but in practice is no problem at all. People are much more affective, social, and taste-driven than we might think. As long as people surround themselves with voices that reinforce their tastes and affections, they can ignore enormous amounts of evidence that disrupts their deeply-held beliefs and thought systems. Plus, this applies to leaders and academics too! These folks reading the Smith book may not actually be aware that they’ve not addressed the major points of Smith’s book. If they’re surrounded by voices and social ties that dismiss certain possibilities or even actively threaten one if one entertains certain possibilities (e.g., pastors or professors in conservative institutions) …well those are powerful constraints. A person need not even be intellectually dishonest. People routinely deflect information counter to their assumptions and absorb information that reinforces assumptions. The internet in general probably reinforces these process (finding voices that support what you already believe so you can ignore troubling information) rather than actually expose people to troubling information. This is not to say that some biblicists won’t change their minds based on the kinds of realities Smith points out. But we should expect such changes to be rare among those deeply embedded and dependent upon conservative institutions (e.g. DeYoung).

  • Jason Lee

    “Has Christian Smith adequately and accurately described pervasive interpretive pluralism?”


    “Is this an issue to you?”

    Yes, as a person who grew up in evangelicalism, I routinely found pervasive interpretive pluralism to be both exhausting and really important. …we’re talking about huge disagreements over fundamental issues where both sides claim “clear biblical teaching” as the basis of their position. …and just as Smith points out, it’s a huge problem because most evangelicals don’t thing full-on Protestant liberalism or secularism are the only options after the give up on biblicism giving them any coherent belief system.

  • Jason Lee

    above: “don’t thing” should read “think”

  • PSF


    The analogy to science isn’t a good one. Yes, there is disagreement within the sciences, but that’s built into the method of science itself. The interpretation of the facts is always open for revision. Better models and paradigms will emerge.

    The difference is that biblicists contradict their own methods and theoretical frameworkds when they deal with the ‘facts’ of the Bible.

    Incidently, the analogy to science already betrays a biblicist way of thinking. It was C. Hodge who likened the interpretation of Scripture to the inductive methods of science. Biblical texts are to the biblical theologian what empirical data is to the scientist. But this leads to ‘flat’ reading of Scripture and sidesteps the complexity of the interpretive task.

  • Scot McKnight


    You write: This to me illustrates why pervasive interpretive pluralism is a massive intellectual problem for evangelicalism, but in practice is no problem at all. People are much more affective, social, and taste-driven than we might think. As long as people surround themselves with voices that reinforce their tastes and affections, they can ignore enormous amounts of evidence that disrupts their deeply-held beliefs and thought systems. Plus, this applies to leaders and academics too!

    Bingo. That’s the entire issue, and I believe it is why most don’t even see an issue. As along as my group agrees with me, I’m OK. When someone says something against my ideas/group, then I’m not OK — unless my group can show (mildly understood) that person wrong.

  • Brian

    In the end, I think this problem is also more about a crisis in ecclesiology for Protestants (and it doesn’t matter if your an old school fundamentalist biblicist, a cutting edge emergent or church growther, a mainliner, or an old school liberal – it’s all the same problem) than it is directly about biblical interpretation.

  • Derek

    Could you explain how you believe this to be more of an ecclesiological issue? I would be curious for you to expound upon that.

  • Jason Lee

    Brian (# 20):
    Yes, its hard to keep this discussion partitioned from ecclesiology. So how could ecclesiology inform the problem?

  • Amos Paul

    Personally, I’d call this evidence that many presumed ‘Biblicists’ likely define Biblicism different, or more specifically nuanced, than Christian Smith did. That was and has been my main disagreement. As a sociologist, Smith likely has good sources for all of his 10 definitive points of Biblicisim–though he agrees that the points are more of an ‘average’ or paradigm outlook of Biblicists that is summed up.

    For instance, I’ve heard sociological statistics that your average parents in the States have 2 1/2 children. While this might be accurate, does anyone really have 2 1/2 children? There might be a few weird cases out there, but still…

    Even when I vehemently disagree with a view, my philsophical training has taught me that it’s always best to explore and illustrate good examples of what a deep understanding looks like concerning that view. While I don’t necessarily argue for Taylor’s steps up above on comment 2, I think he (or she?) hits the nail on the head when he says possible Biblicist responses would have made Smith’s arguments stronger. When you show that you know how to respond to your own criticism on behalf of a view, you illustrate your understanding of that view even more to its adherents. That doesn’t mean you have to agree with the various responses, but if you talk about as many as you can then Biblicists or anyone has less dishonesty they can accuse someone of who writes a book about them.

  • DRT

    I a church I attended they thought faith = believing stuff that is unbelievable. Questioning the existance of the snake in the garden was seen as a lack of faith.

    Like Jason 15, Scot19 said – So biblicism reduces to learning the particular interpretation of the bible in your church/group, in other words having the correct beliefs and faith. If you question their perspcutiy you lack faith, and biblicism is intact.

  • Mark

    I’m Lutheran and we view the bible as “The Living Word”. In this sense interpretation is somewhat ambiguous. In studying the greek and hebrew we loose must of the meaning in translation and there is ambiguity in translation.

    That being said there can be right and wrong ways to interpret scripture and that is why studying theology , church history and interpreting scripture in community is important.

    To read scripture is not to look for right or wrong, good or bad. It is looking for the mind and character of Christ. We read scripture to know Christ. When we reduce the bible to a map or rulebook it loses it’s power. When scripture can have multiple interpretations (within reason) it becomes alive and relevant to God’s people.

  • Scot, I’ve been interacting with The Bible Made Impossible chapter-by-chapter, as I get time, on my blog Higgaion. I think he raises very important questions. I do think however, there are more than three ways to “engage” the book. Each item on your list of how to “engage” the book involves proving Smith wrong in some way. Actually, I am not sure any one of those three items can or should be done. A healthier engagement with the book would be to admit where Smith is right, correct where Smith is wrong, and move forward with a more robust, more biblical account of the Bible. That, at any rate, is what Smith wants readers to do!

  • Adam

    Scot #19

    I’ve been doing a lot of research into psychology lately and what you and Jason have touched on is an inherent trait of humans. From a normal human perspective, relationship is more important than reality. Relationship is more important than Rationality.

    Most people will deny this but there are hundreds of experiments and tests that prove we will be irrational if it improves our relationships. The problem you see with biblicism is, at its core, a problem of irrationality.

    So, is being rational more important than our relationships? Is rationality that important? Or is our irrationality about this issue causing us to live in ways that are damaging to ourselves and others?

    Being rational for the sake of being rational tends to be oppressive. But if our irrationality itself is being oppressive we should change it. How is the irrationality of biblicism hurting people?

  • art

    Scot (#6),

    Thanks for your response. I agree: I think admission of epistemic humility will (or should!) result in something other than biblicism.

  • John W Frye

    As mentioned in comment #9, I, too, was trained that the texts of Scriptures *have only one meaning* and that meaning (the author’s intended meaning) would become evident by 1) the practice of a scientific method-based exegesis called “hermeneutics”, and 2) the illuminating work of the Spirit. Yet, as Christian Smith suggests, that very foundational truth about a “one and only one meanng Bible” was patently denied in almost every theology class and every biblical exegesis class. Frankly, the “correct” interpetations did boil down to the conditioning we received in our preferred group. Other views either were flt out wrong or reflected “liberal” bias or poor exegetical work. I think this anomaly is tracable to both a biblicist’s view of the Bible and to wrecked eikonage in us. These sharply different interpretations do not deal with secondary issues. Are views about marraige, divorce and remarriage secondary to those who face this wreckage?

  • John W Frye

    Oops. In #29 “meanng” = meaning, “flt” = flat, “interpetation” = interpretation and “marraige” – marriage.

  • megan

    Taylor #2/Amos #23,

    I think that Smith did engage possible biblicist responses. As I recall, he went through at least six of them, all of which he believes, even in sum, are inadequate to address the issue. Also, when Smith challenged DeYoung in the comments of his blog to respond to the actual issue (PIP), DeYoung cited several of the very arguments that Smith himself dealt with in the book–and DeYoung admitted as much. Incidentally, that comment was about 5% of the length of his review and yet dealt more substantively with the content of the book than the original review. He should’ve written that comment from the outset and left it at that. It would’ve saved himself the time and us the many words.

    But the point is that if DeYoung, generally respected and also one of Smith’s most vocal critics, falls back on the arguments Smith mentioned, then I think it’s accurate to say that Smith dealt with real biblicist objections. Now, it’s one thing if, like DeYoung, you still want to say, “Actually, the sum of these arguments DOES convince me that biblicism can be maintained.” At least we’re dealing with the real material of the book. I’d disagree biblicism can be maintained, but I’d say that’s a fair comment. However, I don’t think it’s fair to say that Smith doesn’t entertain possible objections, nor do I think it’s fair to write long-winded reviews that don’t actually address the matter at hand.

  • For those who flippantly push aside postmodernity as self-refuting or wishy-washy. For those who think the experiments with emerging Christianity have been shown to be fruitless. I would suggest that there will be no more important conversation in the next 20+ years of Christianity than this.

    Unless a Strongman, an iron fist theologian, comes forward that commands uniformity (which seems to be the role many superstar pastors do in fact seek to occupy)–the problem of interpretation will be the reason Christians of all sorts will not unify, will not obey Jesus command to be one.

    The biggest challenge to Christian unity is Truth.

  • That is, worship of Truth.

  • Great post btw Scot!

  • NPJacques

    So now, on top of PIP, we have PDP: pervasive definitional pluralism about what biblicism is!

  • dopderbeck

    Good post. I agree with all your points.

    But… The really central issue is simply the central issue of ecclesiology that results from the Reformation, isn’t it? Either the Bible gives us the most central thing, Christ, with enough clarity, and God has (perhaps providentially and missionally) allowed the rest to be debateable, or there is one true Chuch with the authority to interpret.

  • dopderbeck

    Also — isn’t the problem not only how we use the Bible, but how we think of “Doctrine?”

    A common view of Doctrine is that it consists in precise, law-like statements of fact that correspond precisely to Divine realities. But this is quite a modernist assumption. The Fathers and greats such as Aquinas understood that Doctrinal statements are analogical. They knew that no human statement of Doctrine could be exhaustive and that there is a heremeneutic of Doctrine that entails sustained philosophical reflection, over time, on the Biblical texts.

    And good modern theologians know that too. See, e.g., Anthony Thistleton’s “Hermeneutics of Doctrine,” David Kelsey’s “Proving Doctrine,” Cardinal Newman’s “The Development of Doctrine,” Barth’s Dogmatics….

    Actually I guess I’m basically saying the same thing. “Doctrine” generally doesn’t just spring unadorned from Scripture. There is a hermeneutic and a historical process involved. Doctrines are second-order statements that reflect on the first-order reality of the Triune God revealed in Christ. That first order reality of Christ does spring clearly and directly from Scripture, but the second-order reflection on it is always provisional.

  • dopderbeck

    Sorry for multi-posting — just thought of one more thing. Another mistake is to presume that “Doctrine” is an “easy” or simple subject matter. After all, Doctrine seeks to make statements about the most enormous subject imaginable — God and His relation to the universe.

    Consider the natural sciences as an analogy. There is “pervasive interpretive pluralism” in every branch of the natural sciences, even where a great deal of basic content is widely agreed upon. Most cosmologists accept the Big Bang, for example, but there are things that cannot be explained (dark matter, dark energy) and many competing sub-theories. And some of those sub-theories hint at modifying the Big Bang model itself.

    This doesn’t mean the scientific method is in crisis (though it may suggest limits in that method that some scientists might not want to accept). Primarily, it means that the subject is so immense that no single interpretation of the data can yet capture the whole story.

  • Has Christian Smith adequately and accurately described a pervasive evangelical approach to the Bible? Biblicism.

    This was my biggest problem with the book initially and still is after digesting it over the last month. If one removes “democratic perspicuity” from Smith’s description of Biblicism I think pervasive interpretive pluralism is no longer a threat.

    And as I’ve thought about it, I simply don’t see the kind of simplistic view of perspicuity at work in much Evangelical theology. To take one example. The Dallas Seminary doctrinal statement (an institution Smith includes as Biblicist in his footnotes) does not mention perspicuity either in name or concept. It does, however, say, “We believe that all the Scriptures center about the Lord Jesus Christ in His person and work in His first and second coming, and hence that no portion, even of the Old Testament, is properly read, or understood, until it leads to Him” (Article I). So how can pervasive interpretive pluralism undermine the form of Biblicism Smith sees at work in the DTS doctrinal statement? One wonders…

    So Scot, I’m not sure all the reviewers of Smith’s book have missed the mark or dodged the real issue.

    So I find myself in substantial agreement with Leithart when he says,

    My implicit answer to [Smith’s] critique of biblicism is to show that his critique reduces to a critique of plain-sense hermeneutics and the expectations of clarity that this hermeneutical stance implies. Pluralism is only a refutation of a biblicism that claims that the Bible is so transparent that everyone can easily draw the same conclusions from Scripture. If the hermeneutical assumptions are removed, most of Smith’s critique fails.

    And to be clear, I do think Smith shows that one form of Biblicism (namely, that which makes democratic perspecuity essential) fails. But I just don’t find this form of Biblicism under all the same rocks Smith does.

  • dopderbeck

    Peter G (#39) — but I think Smith’s response to Leithart in First Things is spot-on — Leithart significantly misses the point.

    The heart of Leithart’s criticism is that Smith shouldn’t complain about things like books on “Biblical cooking” because the Bible does, in fact, address every aspect of life — and this reflects the Bible’s Christocentric nature. Says Leithart: If the Bible everywhere speaks of this Christ, then it must, directly or indirectly, speak of everything else besides. To call the Bible “Christ-centered” is to make the most comprehensive possible claim about its contents.

    Well, yes, of course. I don’t think Smith, or any Christian of any kind, would disagree. But this doesn’t say how the Bible speaks of the various aspects of life.

    For example, does the Bible bring “food” into theological perspective as a gift from God, something to be enjoyed, something to give thanks for, something to be abstained from at times, something that can become an idol, and so on… Absolutely! Does the Bible contain information from which we can construct a Bible Diet? I think not, and I’m sure Leithart would agree.

    We could do a similar exercise for any domain of life on which there are scores of books from evangelical publishers, as Smith notes — creation science, Biblical womanhood, Biblical archeology, Biblical history, and on and on. Again, I’m sure Leithart would agree.

    But if the issue boils down to hermeneutics, then resources beyond those provided directly and only in the Bible are required. The Bible doesn’t give us a hermeneutic of itself, at least not a consistent one.

  • dopderbeck, so you’re saying the issue is a hermeneutical one: how does the Bible speak? Is that right? Isn’t that exactly what Leithart says in the quote I cited above?

    What’s the point Leithart is missing?

  • Pervasive interpretive pluralism is a problem in every interpretive model that exists. It is just as easy to put a spin on Roman Catholic dogma as it is the New Testament, and it is just as easy for Bishop to gerrymander texts to conform to a preconceived notion as it is for a renegade Protestant.

    Pervasive interpretive pluralism is only a problem when someone’s stake is violated. Suppose I have a tree at the edge of my yard and a next door neighbor who claims it is his. He can claim it is his and deny it is mine all he wants, and there is nothing I can do about it. He has the freedom of thought and speech to think and say whatever he wants. However, once he builds a fence to deny me access to my tree, then it is no longer a matter of private interpretation, but becomes an issue to be decided with an authoritative interpretation by a public body.

    The same way in interpreting the Bible from OT through NT. In the Mosaic Law, each person was responsible for knowing the Law, and it was parents, not priests, who were authorized. The conscience was empowered to interpret, but on issues when other individuals or the community have a stakehold, there was a place for public adjudication and authoritative interpretation.

  • dopderbeck

    Peter — I think the point Leithart is missing is that the Bible doesn’t give us a hermeneutic of itself. This means that the sort of Biblicism Smith is critiquing necessarily fails. Christ comes first, the scriptures follow and bear witness — not the other way around. We get our hermeneutics from the living presence of Christ in the Church. If this is so, then the Bible simply does not function as Biblicists think it does. It does not stand alone as a source of comprehensive information about everything. It is not ontologically identical to the living Christ.

    If Leithart would agree with what I’ve said here, then I think his criticism of Smith is just misplaced. But note Smith’s reference to Barth in his response. What I’m saying here is also substantially Barthian. I think Leithart still wants scripture to stand alone as the sole source of our knowledge of Christ, and, by extension, of everything. Maybe it’s a subtle difference though.

  • dopderbeck

    Peter — BTW, if you take a look at the intro to Leithart’s Brazos commentary on 1&2 Kings in the excellent “Theological Commentary” series, it’s interesting to note his Christotelic hermeneutic. He notes that a “Christian” reading of 1&2 Kings is not primarily about history or other things it may also address, but for a Christian reading primarily these texts foreshadow God’s grace in Christ. I’m pretty sure Smith would completely agree (so would I). This is miles and miles from the kind of Biblicism Smith criticizes. A Biblicist reading would expend a great deal of energy trying to “harmonize” 1&2 Kings with Chronicles and looking for archeological correlates and so on, as well as finding things like “Five Biblical Lessons on Leadership from 1&2 Kings…” So I wonder if Leithart really gets what Smith is going after.

  • Scot said I should post here a little blogpost (http://www.andyrowell.net/andy_rowell/2011/08/a-few-reflections-about-christian-smith-biblicism-and-barth.html ) I did giving a few preliminary reflections on Smith.

    Warm greetings to Jesus Creed fellow comment-ers,

    I highly recommend engagement with Christian Smith’s two books released this summer: The Bible Made Impossible and How to Go from Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in Ninety-Five Difficult Steps.

    Smith is a theologically-savvy sociologist of religion who teaches at Notre Dame. He is also a feisty friend of mine who attended my church until he decided to convert to Roman Catholicism and to whom I unsuccessfully tried to defend evangelicalism over many cups of coffee. Smith is well-worth engaging. I wish I had more time to write and reflect about this but I need to keep working on my dissertation this year so a little blog post is all I can manage and hopefully the big project will bear fruit in conversations like this one some day.

    I agree with Smith that the people of God gathering to discuss the Scriptures together will indeed produce a variety of interpretations; but contra Smith I am convinced that the Scriptures (read in the Christian community through the Holy Spirit) still chasten and delimit “interpretive pluralism” and “divergent readings” in such a way that another check (such as leaders legitimized by “apostolic succession”) is at worst, counter-productive and is at best, a secondary consideration.

    I must also register my objection that Karl Barth is not with Smith on this one but with me despite Smith’s comment in his response to Peter Leithart that he is “following Barth” along these lines. Barth is trying to facilitate in The Church Dogmatics a weighing of divergent readings of Scripture and proffering a fresh coherent synthesis for the Church to weigh and consider. It is true that Barth could be hard on fundamentalists or biblicists (for taking verses out of context or for trying to prove the Bible is true with secular methods so as to construct an unassailable starting point and foundation) but Barth’s vision of the church is largely compatible with the biblicist. Barth writes that the the apostolic Church is the church that is fixated on conforming to what the Scriptures teach.

    What we have learned to know as apostolicity and therefore as the mark of the true Church is quite naturally identical in substance with the term which in a very different dogmatic context has been used to describe the authority of the Bible as the source and norm of the existence and doctrine and order of the Church–the “Scripture principle.”

    Karl Barth, The Church Dogmatics, 4 vols. (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1956-1959, 1975), IV.1 p. 721.

    Barth envisions congregations gathered around the Scripture and he is confident that Jesus Christ will be their unity. This strikes Roman Catholics like Smith as the licensing of appalling disunity. Smith sees little “interpretive convergence” in biblicist evangelicalism, but rather only a “pervasive interpretive pluralism in biblical interpretation and theology.” I find this inherently subjective and therefore unpersuasive but can grant that there is certainly some biblicist interpretation that becomes heretical and cultish but like Barth I am optimistic that God is at work by his Spirit when people are sincerely gathered around the Scriptures. In the following (admittedly difficult to understand) quote, Barth acknowledges the ubiquity of bad interpretation of Scripture but still insists that Jesus Christ is present when people gather together around the Scriptures to hear from God by the Spirit.

    Thus in the confession of the community that which is lawful and right takes place, and the community is constituted, even though–and when is this not the case?–it sets itself in the wrong with its human speaking and hearing; even in impotent witness and poor proclaiming and publishing and teaching and preaching.

    Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV.2 p. 700.

    It is particularly interesting to read the litany of problems Barth is aware of: “impotent and poor . . . publishing and teaching and preaching” yet this in no way eliminates the possibility that God is at work.

    Roman Catholics will regard this approach (relying on the Scripture principle and the common hearing of the Spirit’s leading while gathered around the Scriptures) as inadequate and unpersuasive. Surely there is a need for a more stable hierarchical structure and a system of traditional creedal and episcopal precedents to facilitate unity, they will say. Barth denies this. He writes this about denominational structures,

    It cannot supply, let alone create, the guarantee of unity, the mutual recognition of the individual communities . . . such an organ or institution is not an integral constituent of the essence of the Church . . . The one Church exists in its totality in each of the individual communities.

    Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV.1 p. 672-773.

    If now Smith sees an absence of “fairly convergent readings of the Bible” [emphasis mine–this seems to be an entirely subjective judgment–Do they all acknowledge Jesus as Lord? If so, that seems to be a pretty important convergence] as theologically indefensible, he also noted a decade ago the missionary power of the flexibility of evangelicalism.

    Of the four theories reviewed [Sheltered Enclave Theory, Status Discontent Theory, Strictness Theory, and Competitive Marketing Theory], Roger Finke, Rodney Starke, and Laurence Iannaccone’s competitive marketing theory seems to us to present the best orienting framework and set of assumptions with which to construct an explanation for evangelicalism’s vitality . . . Contemporary evangelicalism inhabits a pluralistic, competitive religious economy, on which it has very successfully capitalized . . .

    Evangelicalism has created a meaningful identity-space on the American religious field that, under one banner, manages to accommodate a remarkable degree of theological and political diversity. Evangelicalism incorporates Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Pentecostals, Charismatics, Independents, Anabaptists, Restorationists, Congregationalists, Holiness Christians, even Episcopalians. It also includes right-wing political conservatives, Republicans, moderates, Democrats, liberals, Independents, and political progressives.

    Christian Smith, American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 86-87.

    What Smith calls here “vitality”–that is, quantitatively verifiable growth documented by the sociologist–is a thin theological approximation of what Barth is aiming at when he repeatedly says the task of the church is to witness to Jesus Christ. Barth is prepared to tolerate some “plurality” for the sake of freeing up space for witness. “Better something doubtful or over-bold, and therefore in need of correction and forgiveness than nothing at all” (Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV.3.2 p. 780). He is prepared to listen, study and argue vigorously in the church for what God is saying to the church through the Scriptures knowing that this conversation will be unfinished (like his magnum opus The Church Dogmatics is) and knowing that some “impotent witness and poor proclaiming and publishing and teaching and preaching” will invariably be part of the process; rather than squelching the response to Scripture with the imposition of some drab synthesis that touts itself as apostolic though it has little resemblance to the missionary movement of the original apostles.

    The Church is apostolic and therefore the true Church where its external order–what is called Church government–is made so loose by respect for the direction of Scripture that all encroachment on the lordship of the One who is alone the Lord is either avoided or so suppressed and eliminated in practice that there is place for His rule.

    Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV.1 p. 723.

    In other words, some “interpretive pluralism” is to be contested in the church with better interpretation, but other “interpretive pluralism” may be appropriate expressions of witness to Jesus Christ in the world. As Leithart suggests, some “biblicist” books may perhaps be “very bad”–at a minimum they may strike readers of Smith as odd. That oddness may be theological error to which true “biblicists” will presumably be open to “examining the Scriptures . . . to see” if what they had written “was true” (Acts 17:11). But it may also seem odd merely because the world is a diverse place and faithful witness in the world may strike people in other parts of the world as odd. Barth writes of the variety of forms that witness will take in the world.

    Intrinsically unholy possibilities in the structuring of man’s life in society are sanctified and made serviceable to the gathering and upbuilding of the people of God in the service of its commission and for the purpose of its election and calling. The free God gives to this human people, which still cannot do anything more or different in this respect than what others can also do, the freedom to adopt its own form, i.e., the form corresponding to its calling and commission, in the sphere of general human possibilities.

    Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV.3.2 p. 741

    Again, it pains me to not engage even more fully on these matters but these are the general lines of reflection I would want to contribute to the conversation surrounding Smith’s two new books.

  • Christian smith

    As I said briefly in my reply, Leithart’s response had some good aspects. I believe he is on the right Christological track, more so than many others. I also recognize that FT limited the number of words he could publish online (unlike DeYoung), which puts a crimp on one’s ability to develop an argument. But I thought the second half of his response was quite fuzzy, which should be a red flag. And I did think he dodged the main argument of my book, despite his response not being a simple knee-jerk negative reaction, as others have been.

    My own response was limited in # of words by FT. It was originally longer, and said more about what I appreciated in Leithart’s response. But much had to be cut to the central statements.

    #42: I think this kind of argument is only superficially true. But it ignores the crucial dimension of history and (in)capacities of different church polities to handle disagreements (and errors) without ongoing division and multiplication. A more historically-informed sense of church history I think would require a backing away from this kind of blanket statement, as true as it might seem on the surface.

  • dopderbeck, I can’t speak for either Leithart or Smith (nor do I want to) so I can’t respond to much of what you’ve written.

    The main point in my comment above was that if one removes the democratic perspecuity star from Smith’s Biblicist constellation, then pervasive interpretive pluralism is not longer a threat to Biblicism. In Smith’s response to Liethart he says that one way to refute his argument is to show that “biblicism in fact need not to produce fairly convergent readings of the Bible.” And one way to do this, according to Smith, is “by eliminating some key parts of biblicism.” Now isn’t this exactly what Leithart is doing when he writes, “Pluralism is only a refutation of a biblicism that claims that the Bible is so transparent that everyone can easily draw the same conclusions from Scripture”? But Smith hedges himself by saying that eliminating any key component “would turn it into a quite different theory.” If Smith wants to define democratic perspecuity in such a way that democratic perspecuity is the sine qua non, fine. I’m against such forms of Biblicism myself (as it sounds Leithart is too). But I, like Leithart, don’t find this particular form as widespread as Smith does.

    So I think Leithart is, in fact, responding to Smith’s argument. He’s saying that biblicism as Smith defines it is not characteristic of evangelicalism. (To quote: “…and so biblicism as Smith uses the term is not as pervasive as he claims.”)

    Now one feel that Leithart’s wrong on this. Fine. But it’s not fair to accuse him of failing to engage the issue.

  • Sorry, should have proofread!

    That should read: “If Smith wants to define Biblicism in such a way that democratic perspecuity is the sine qua non, fine.”

  • Patrick

    I’m wary of the idea of pluralism = bad hermeneutic.

    Some of the brightest and wisest theologians I read and/or watch debate all have excellent hermenutical skills and disagree about various doctrinal positions.

    That’s why they hold those dialectical debates.

    Humans are fallible and it is altogether likely the greatest of all theologians had serious error in some viewpoint. Aquinas did and he’s as good as it gets, IMO.

    His logic for the perpetual virginity of Mary was weak( he had to conclude “Jesus’ brothers” in John 7 were His “spiritual brothers”).

    Further, the Churches that do seem to have a rigid agreement on all doctrines might be rigidly wrong on some of those beliefs. I know my old Church doctrine had error in it, but, everyone agreed with it.

  • Craig Wright

    Because of Rob Bell’s book,Love Wins, I did a lot of study on the subject and taught two eight week studies at our church. I have bought and read three books that have come out in response to the issue of hell and universalism, and listened to some sermons. One of several things I have learned from this experience is that even though we are all using the same book (the Bible), there is a lack of being careful and thorough. I am surprised at what some of these responding authors miss and do not even touch upon.

  • Taylor

    Megan #31,

    Smith did go through 6 biblicist reasons for PIP. My point was not that he didn’t address them at all, but that he didn’t address them well. That section of the book took roughly two pages, and then he summarily dismissed the explanations because none of them explained away the whole problem.

    This assumes a one dimensionality to a multi-dimensional problem, and I think his lack of real development in that area is why he lost alot of biblicist readers. The less time you spend understanding an argument, the easier it is to deconstruct.

    That doesn’t negate his assessment of the problems with the way biblicism is done, that was very well put together.

  • Luke

    I love this whole conversation and it is something which is really important to me but I honestly have to ask if someone could help me out by giving me more simple definitions for the terms being used….

    what is a simple way to define PERVASIVE INTERPRETIVE PLURALISM??

  • Terry

    Luke, among Bible-believing, and honoring Christians, there are multiple explanations given for many/most Bible passages and topics. A plurality of honest (and some not so honest) interpretations on anything and everything. It’s pervasive. That’s pervasive interpretive pluralism.

    Jason @15, I read your comment yesterday but just haven’t had a chance to get back and say: right on!

    As to the questions behind the post, It is very challenging to think through these things in a spirit of fear. In my opinion that is something that is wide-spread within certain branches of evangelicalism. If this thinking about biblicism threatens my currently held “need to hold it or the house of cards comes crashing down” position, it is necessary to destroy it at all costs. I speak as one who has spent most of my life in theological fear, taking every opportunity to bolster my theological certainty. In trying (emphasis on trying) to discuss these things within my denomination, the discussion only gets to the place where a biblicicist (as generally described by Smith) can, in their own minds, drop their certainty bombs and claim “point, set, match” in order to be done with the discussion and once again to have won the day and what they believe to be their Lord’s defensible honor.

    It’s a hard nut to crack. 

  • Patrick


    Non biblicists disagree daily as well.

  • dopderbeck

    Andy (#45) — BUT, and this is a big but, Barth’s doctrine of revelation is miles away from what Smith defines as “Biblicism.” Yes, you are right, along with Luther, Barth locates all dogmatics in scripture, and eschews reason and tradition. But, Barth certainly did not view scripture as a storehouse of propositions on every imaginable subject. Scripture, for Barth, is the place from which the Spirit makes Christ known — this dynamic role of the Spirit is utterly missing from Biblicism.

  • I do not think biblicists in general “view scripture as a storehouse of propositions on every imaginable subject.” There may be some here and there, but I do not think they predominate in evangelicalism — or even in fundamentalism, for that matter.

    Also, I think most biblicists recognize the illuminating ministry of the Holy Spirit in helping us understand the Word. At the biblicist Bible college I attended, which was more fundamentalist than evangelicalist, we were taught that the Holy Spirit comes to show us the things of Christ, to lead us into all truth and to illumine the Scriptures to us. So, to declare that the dynamic role of the Spirit in revealing Christ to us is “utterly missing from Biblicism” is a wild misrepresentation. As one who has journeyed with biblicists for many years, I know that to be untrue.

  • I posted this at DeYoung’s blog. I haven’t read every word on this, but I have read Gundry, DeYoung’s posts, McKnight’s, and some of Smith’s responses. No doubt, because this is a blog comment, this will be oversimplified, but Smith’s complaint about “biblicism” seems to resemble something like this:

    [1] If the Bible is as perspicuous as biblicists say it is, then biblicists should be able to render a perspicacious reading of the bible.

    [2] If we are able to render a perspicacious reading of the bible, then there would be no PIP.

    [3] PIP abounds

    [4] Therefore, the Bible is not as perspicuous as biblicists say it is.

    And the implication of the argument as a whole seems to be

    [5] Biblicists (or biblicism) should not be trusted as (a) reliable guide(s) to understanding the Bible.

    The conclusion [5] is the provocative one that can be powerfully resisted, but [4] strikes me as being so plausible that it is trivial. Maybe there are some fundamentalists out there who would be scandalized by [4], but they are not representative of the tradition Smith seems to be focusing on.

  • JPManning

    PIP exists everywhere. It is not solely a biblicist’s problem. Do phone-users have to refine their hermeneutic in reading a phone book if two users disagree on the number of Papa John’s?
    PIP may exist, but does does PIU (Pervasive Interpretive Unity). Many evangelicals agree on many different things across time and space from reading the same book.
    About PIP, just because certain divergences in view exist at some point in time, it does not mean they exist all the time. Even early Barth differed from later Barth in things. Smith’s views did not arise in a vacuum fully-formed. PIP says more about people than Scripture. Deducing principles about Scripture from the behavior of people is troubling…

  • Perhaps this is Pollyanna of me to say, but I’ve always thought that God fashions each of us to be a different part of the body of Christ and for that purpose causes some of us to be 1 John 4 Christians and others of us to be Romans 9 Christians and others of us to be Galatians 5 Christians, etc. Why can’t we just agree that we have a canon that sets certain boundaries for discourse within which God speaks to a variety of people in different ways? I’m not sure that there needs to be either a rigid magisterial understanding of Biblical interpretation or a radical populist priesthood of the believer one.

    What we need is for everyone to be humble and to receive God’s word as a gift rather than see it as a territory to be doctrinally colonized and deployed in the interests of our own power.