Part 2 of the Review of Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible

Part 2 of the Review of Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible September 28, 2011

Now I turn to Chapters 3 and 4 of The Bible Made Impossible.  Chapter 3 is entitled Some Relevant History, Sociology and Psychology and Chapter 4 is Subsidiary Problems with Biblicism.

First, let me say that, contrary to the impression some have gotten, I am not at all dismissive of Smith’s overall argument; I happen to think it is worthy of serious consideration.  Otherwise I would not be engaging it in such detail.  Nor do I disagree with it entirely; I have qualms about some parts of it.

Second, I think there is at least one cause of PIP (pervasive interpretive pluralism) Smith overlooks that will inevitably plague any text and its interpretation: presuppositions people bring to the text that the text itself does not directly address.  I’ve written about some pre-biblical philosophical and theological presuppositions previously here.  One is nominalism versus realism with regard to universals generally and with regard to God’s nature specifically.  Does God have an eternal, immutable character that governs his actions or is God entirely free from any constraints on his power and what he wills?  Someone might try to argue that the Bible settles this, but I don’t think it does.  Luther certainly read the Bible and took it seriously and thought voluntarism (nominalism applied to the doctrine of God) was the right way to read it.  Others read the Bible, take it seriously, and think realism is the right way to read it.  The Bible doesn’t settle the matter.  To expect ANY text settle all possible ways of reading and interpreting it in advance is unrealistic.

Now, I realize Smith might say one thing wrong with biblicism is its expectation that the Bible can be read and understood without presuppositions or that it settles all such issues so that only one set of presuppositions can reasonably be brought to its interpretation.  Perhaps some biblicists think that.  But my point is that NO TEXT–and that includes any interpretive tradition or magisterium–can possibly settle all such potential presuppositional issues in advance.  There will always be ambiguity in any interpretation precisely because of this matter of perspectives caused by philosophical presuppositions.  So no proposed solution to PIP can be comprehensive.  PIP is inevitable.

Okay, on to Chapter 3.  There Smith discusses philosophical assumptions behind modern evangelical biblicism and what is called Scottish Commonsense Realism in particular.  He traces the influence of SCR on the Princeton theologians Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield and through them on contemporary conservative evangelicals such as Wayne Grudem.  He concludes that, since SCR has been discredited and replaced by critical realism, “the philosophical assumptions on which Hodge and Warfield built their theologies of the Bible are seriously problematic.” (59)  Since modern and contemporary evangelical biblicism is largely based on the theologies of Hodge and Warfield, then, biblicism is itself problematic.

Next Smith discusses sociological and psychological conjectures as to why PIP is not more troubling to biblicists.  He goes through a laundry list of reasons and concludes that “the general psychological structure underlying biblicism is one of a particular need to create order and security in an environment that would be otherwise chaotic and in error.” (64)  I think he could replace “biblicism” in that sentence with “fundamentalism” and it would be just as true if not truer (depending on how closely biblicism is tied to fundamentalism).

No doubt some philosophically trained or minded evangelicals will want to critique Smith’s treatment of SCR.  No doubt some will object that his reasons for why PIP does not trouble conservative evangelical biblicists more are mere conjectures.  But he admits the latter.  His argument doesn’t seem to be scientific so much as impressionistic.  The point is that he thinks these are reasons and you might too, if you consider them.  I’m not a biblicist in Smith’s sense and I’m not as troubled by PIP as he is.  But I don’t think it’s for any of the reasons he suggests.  Although, one specific reason might apply to me.

Smith’s second reason (p. 61) is because, he says, many evangelicals are simply in denial about the depth of PIP; they claim the differences among evangelicals are minor compared with their areas of agreement.  He rejects this reason and says that “Disagreements among biblicists (and other Bible-referring Christians) about what the Bible teaches on most issues, both essentials and secondary matters, are many and profound.  If biblicists hope to maintain intellectual honesty and internal consistency, they must acknowledge them and explain them.” (62)  I simply don’t agree.  I find that evangelicals do agree on the essentials of the faith–matters Christians have historically considered cornerstones of orthodoxy.  And when someone comes out and denies, say, the deity of Jesus Christ or the Trinity, evangelicals ostracize them from the evangelical movement.  Sure, some may attempt to ostracize others over non-essential matters as well (e.g., inerrancy or premillennialism), but that isn’t true as a general rule.  Most evangelicals are ready to accept as fellow Christian believers all who adhere to the few cornerstones of historic Christian orthodoxy.

I think the reason I’m not more troubled by PIP is because I have come to terms with it as inevitable.  What I’d like to know is how Smith handles PIP.  Oh, yes, he joins the Roman Catholic Church.  (No sarcasm intended.)  That a respectable move even if I disagree with it.  I still consider him a Christian and possibly even an evangelical Christian (thought I think that would be in spite of some traditional beliefs of the RCC rather than because of them).  What I think is that he will eventually discover PIP there as well.  Who interprets papal pronouncements and conciliar decrees?  Obviously they’re open to varying interpretations.  Just because that particular church has a mechanism for expelling people who stray too far does not mean PIP doesn’t exist within it.  It just means it can enforce conformity when it chooses to.  But what if those with power to enforce are wrong in their interpretation of the Bible?  Then nothing is really gained except artificial uniformity.

Chapter 4 deals with “subsidiary problems with biblicism.”  Some of these are: “blatantly ignored teachings” of the Bible (68-69); “arbitrary determinations of cultural relativism” (69-72); “strange passages” (72-74) and “populist and ‘expert’ practices deviate from biblicist theory” (75-78).  Let’s take the first one and consider it.  Smith argues that biblicists routinely flout clear commands and teachings of Scripture such as “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” (68)  One has to wonder if he really thinks serious biblical scholars have never examined these commands and explained why they are not universally applicable.  Surely he knows better.  But he seems to think biblicism REQUIRES that commands such as this be adhered to to the letter and not qualified–even by serious hermeneutical reasoning.

Smith admits that this argument does not in and of itself prove biblicism impossible.  It may be, he suggests, that biblicists simply disobey such commands.  But he doesn’t think that all there is to it.  He thinks there are commands in Scripture that biblicism, as a theory of the Bible, should take literally and that biblicists, if they really believe in their theory of the Bible, would at least admit they are disobeying.  Instead, he says, biblicists simply ignore these commands.  They “simply [go] in one ear and out the other.” (68)  I think that oversimplifies more sophisticated evangelical biblicism.

I think many of Smith’s criticisms of biblicism strike against folk religion and unsophisticated fundamentalism.  But evangelical scholars who adhere to most, if not all, of what Smith calls biblicism early in the book have offered reasons for considering these commands culturally conditioned.  But he thinks the reasons offered are “arbitrary.” (69)  I just think he gives evangelical biblical scholars very little credit OR he would just say they are not biblicists insofar as they find and offer good reasons for considering these commands culturally conditioned and not universally applicable.  Again, I think William Webb, author of Slaves, Women and Homosexuals (IVP Academic, 2001) is a biblicist (even if not exactly fitting Smith’s profile) who offers sound reasons for considering some biblical injunctions culturally conditioned.

Smith admits midway through the chapter that “none of these empirical observations necessarily discredit biblicism.  It could be that biblicist theory is correct and that actual, empirical biblicist practices and experiences are often compromised.  Life sometimes works this way.” (78)  But Smith doesn’t think that’s the explanation.  Rather, he says, “biblicism is impossible to practice in actual experience–because of, among other reasons, the multivocality and polysemy of the texts.” (78)  Again, I wonder who exactly he means by “biblicists” here.  Apparently, they would have to be literalists–what one of my seminary professors called “wooden literalists.”  (I never quite figured out what the “wooden” meant unless “inflexible.”)  In other words, old fashioned, unreconstructed, unsophisticated fundamentalists–such as I grew up among.  Yes, one reason I left them is because I found their theory of the Bible, such as it was, impossible to believe consistently and impossible to practice.  But at times Smith SEEMS to want to include ALL conservative evangelicals among his impossible biblicists.  He specifically names Wayne Grudem a couple times.  While I disagree with Grudem’s view of the Bible, I’m not sure it’s as unsophisticated as Smith makes it out to be.  That is, I don’t think even Grudem is as literalistic as Smith suggests biblicism has to be or at least he offers reasons for not greeting fellow Christians with a holy kiss.

Another example Smith gives as a “subsidiary problem with biblicism” is “the genuine need for extrabiblical theological concepts.” (82-84)  Here’s his explanation: “Biblicism suggests that all of the pieces of the Christian doctrine and morality puzzle are right there in the Bible as propositions to be pulled out and put together in their logical ordering. … Yet a bit of reflection on orthodox Christian theology makes clear that numerous absolutely crucial doctrinal terms are not themselves found in the Bible but were invented or appropriated by the church during the patristic era.” (82) His examples are the terms Trinity, homoousion and creatio ex nihilo.

Again, I would argue that only the most unsophisticated evangelicals steeped in fundamentalism or folk religion (or both) think the Bible contains every important theological term.  I grew up in a very unsophisticated evangelical and even fundamentalist church and home and went to a college steeped in that tradition and I knew from a relatively young age that the Bible did not contain the term “Trinity” but it was something we were to believe anyway.  Why?  Because even though the Bible does not use the term, the concept it names is found in the Bible.  At least all the ingredients for it are there such that it is inevitable as one reflects on them.

Now, Smith seems to think even that kind of thinking is inconsistent with biblicism.  Maybe it is–as he defines biblicism.  But again, that just raises the question who actually believes in that kind of biblicism?  I do agree that many evangelicals, mostly ones I would call fundamentalists or folk religionists, are inconsistent about these matters.  In other words, as Smith is pointing out, they say one thing in their doctrine of the Bible but practice something else and claim consistency.  That is a problem.  But I find that MOST non-fundamentalist evangelicals, even ones I consider conservative, do not actually make the claims for the Bible Smith says they do.  Or they qualify them so severely (e.g., inerrancy, harmony, etc.) that the words they use are not really meant in their ordinary meanings.  (For example, progressive revelation and accommodation are standard qualifications of harmony.)

Smith concludes Chapter 4 thus: “When we confront biblicism’s many problems, we come to see that it is untenable.  Biblicism simply cannot be practiced with intellectual and practical honesty on its own terms.  It is in this sense literally impossible.” (89)  Again, I agree insofar as biblicism means rigid literalism, claims to absolute perspecuity such that all reasonable people will agree about its meaning exhaustively, technical inerrancy, etc.  It’s just that I don’t think most evangelicals who call themselves biblicists adhere to these beliefs about the Bible in unqualified ways.

What I do think is that SOME conservative evangelicals, including some biblical scholars and theologians, pay LIP SERVICE to beliefs about the Bible (to keep constituents off their backs) that they KNOW are not true.  I’ve been around in this evangelical movement for all my life and I’ve seen it frequently and perhaps done it myself at times.  For example, I know evangelical scholars who teach at very conservative institutions who DO NOT believe in inerrancy IN ANY WAY similar to their constituent pastors and lay people but who pretend to in order to keep their jobs or not rock the boat.  Now there’s a very real problem.  And there are SOME conservative evangelical theologians and biblical scholars and certainly pastors and denominational leaders who do seem to adhere to biblicism as Smith describes it.  It is impossible IF TAKEN THAT STRICTLY.  But I think most non-fundamentalist evangelical scholars and many, if not most, non-fundamentalist pastors and administrators gave up that kind of UNQUALIFIED biblicism long ago.

In spite of all my qualms and questions, I think Smith is putting his finger on an important problem that especially conservative evangelicals are reluctant to face and deal with.  It’s this: The grassroots of evangelicalism are much, much more conservative and unsophisticated in their biblicism than evangelical scholars and many evangelical scholars have to cater to that when they know better.  They are biblicists themselves, in a highly qualified sense, but they know that unqualified biblicism of Smith’s description is impossible to reconcile with the phenomena of the text and impossible to live out consistently.  They know that sophisticated hermeneutical moves are necessary to preserve biblicism and that it is necessary to qualify concepts like “inerrancy” almost to death (perhaps to death!).  But they don’t tell their constituents out of fear of a backlash and losing their jobs.  It happens.  I won’t name names, but anyone who pays close attention knows of recent examples.

So, yes, unqualified, unsophisticated biblicism as Smith describes it is impossible, but I just don’t think most evangelical scholars and leaders really believe it.  They preach it to the choir to keep the choir happy with them.  And that’s a real problem.  But there is a biblicism that is not that unsophisticated and unqualified and its not impossible even if it does raise some difficult questions and issues.  The alternatives, however, are worse.

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  • Matt

    “I find that evangelicals do agree on the essentials of the faith–matters Christians have historically considered cornerstones of orthodoxy. And when someone comes out and denies, say, the deity of Jesus Christ or the Trinity, evangelicals ostracize them from the evangelical movement. Sure, some may attempt to ostracize others over non-essential matters as well (e.g., inerrancy or premillennialism), but that isn’t true as a general rule. Most evangelicals are ready to accept as fellow Christian believers all who adhere to the few cornerstones of historic Christian orthodoxy”.

    But Roger, I’m wondering, didn’t PIP exist (especially regarding essential matters) in the early church, hence Nicea and beyond. As I understand it (limited I admit) – orthodoxy hung on a political razors edge for 25+ years after Nicea. The need for an interpretive body (I am not RC ) outside of scripture appears inescapable. You stated in Mosaic, “All view something variously called the Rule of Faith or the Creed or the Gospel Tradition as the special distillation of divine revelation that serves as a touchstone for guiding Christian belief and distinguishing between false versions of Christianity and those that may legitimately lay claim to the title Christian…… your ‘pattern of authority'”.

    A bit off point I know but did PIP exist in the early church on the major issues? Smith writes, “In another, more general sense, this problem of pervasive interpretive pluralism goes all the way back to the recognition of the early church fathers Tertullian (AD 155–230) and Vincent of Lérins (early fifth century) about the impossibility of using scripture to persuade heretics of the error of their ways. Vincent wrote, “Owing to the depth of Holy Scripture, all do not accept it in one and the same sense, but one understands its words in one way, another in another, so that it seems capable of as many interpretations as there are interpreters.”[59] According to Tertullian, scriptural “ambiguity” and the possibility of reading the Bible in different ways means that “a controversy over the Scriptures can clearly produce no other effect than help to upset either the stomach or the brain.” Tertullian observed: “Though most skilled in the Scriptures, you will make no progress, when everything which you maintain is denied on the other side, and whatever you deny is (by them) maintained.

    I also am looking forward to your comments on his Christocentric approach to scripture – your canon w/in canon. Very helpful topic for me – thx

    • rogereolson

      My take on that is this: The “Rules of Faith” found in Irenaeus and Tertullian (for example) are distillations of what the writings of the apostles teach about Jesus Christ, salvation, etc. None of the church fathers thought any of this (contained in the Rules of Faith) fell outside of Scripture (including the writings of the apostles). But they felt the need to distill the diverse expressions of Scripture on these all important subjects into brief form to oppose the heretics (e.g., gnostics) who were adept at distorting the writings of the apostles and producing their own gospels. I think if we found that anything in these Rules of Faith were extrabiblical (to say nothing of unbiblical) we would have to deny them. But they aren’t.

  • Steve Rogers

    I find very little practical difference between what you refer to as “philosophical presuppositions” and folk religion. Both depend heavily upon subjectivity. We ridicule cults who use the Bible only as they deem it correctly “translated”, while quibbling among ourselves about getting it correctly “interpreted”.

    As you have candidly pointed out in your concluding paragraph, there is a quite pervasive political (even hypocritical) what I call smoke and mirrors scaffolding that has been upholding evangelicalism. I applaud your effort to distance yourself from some of it (e.g. Neo-fundamentalism) and I applaud Smith for getting to the core of the problem. Because once you remove the cornerstone of biblicism (bibliolatry) it all comes crashing down.

  • Blake

    I think this hits the concern I couldn’t quite find words for last time square on the head:

    “The grassroots of evangelicalism are much, much more conservative and unsophisticated in their biblicism than evangelical scholars and many evangelical scholars have to cater to that when they know better.”

    This leads one to ask which group drives and controls the evangelical movement in North America—the scholars with more nuanced views or the neo-fundamentalist segment (majority?) of the grassroots?

    • rogereolson

      Today I’m feeling cynical. Who drives it is people with lots of money and influence. And most of them are invested in maximal conservatism–both theological and political/economic. A former president of a major Baptist seminary told me that before he was fired he was called in by the seminary’s new board of regents (mostly wealthy laymen) and told to direct the faculty never to mention liberation theology. Students were not even to be told about it, let alone made to read or discuss it. They didn’t say this about any other specific theological movement. That’s pretty revealing. After almost 30 years of teaching in Christian institutions of higher education I can tell you that administrators feel pressure from wealthy and influential, theologically naive laymen and pastors to lean heavily toward the conservative side of things. Often that “concern” filters down to the faculty and results in faculty not feeling free to teach openly what they really believe EVEN WHEN it is well within the general sphere of evangelical orthodoxy. So, in sum, when people say “It’s not about the money” it is usually about the money. But, that’s just my cynicism talking. Hopefully I feel better tomorrow! Take it for what it’s worth.

      • Blake

        Ouch. I afraid I can’t disagree in the slightest. I’d go so far as to add that big money interests seem to regularly whip up the theologically naive grassroots intentionally, adding breadth as well as power to the pressure.

        That said, hopefully we’ll all feel more optimisitic tomorrow. I look forwards to the next part of the review.

      • PLTK

        Sounds much like what happened at a Nazarene university a few years ago when a professor got into trouble for writing a book advocating evolution as an acceptable view for Christians. Initially there were no problems with his stance until pressure from the board and others in the church outside of the university eventually resulted in his “retirement.” Money and influence has great pressure on faculty.

  • Les

    I think you’ve articulated a big problem within evangelicalism. Scholars and pastors are often forced to cater to the naive view of the Bible held by many “grassroots” evangelicals not only for fear of losing their jobs, but for fear of doing real damage to the believer’s faith. There have been many times during small group or Bible study when I have attempted to explore the idea that a “literal” reading of a certain biblical passage might not be how the author intended it to be read. Often, the response is “if we don’t take the Bible literally then how can we trust is at all?” Many people, it seems, have no conceptual category between “literal” and “false.” If, for these people, the Bible is not characterized by all 10 factors of Smith’s Biblicism, then it cannot be trusted in any respect.

    While I might believe that such faith would benefit from a little boat rocking, I also don’t want to be responsible for someone walking away from Jesus. The most effective way for these people to grow in their understanding of the Bible would be for their pastors to winsomely address this from the pulpit—which is what isn’t happening in the first place. This is a big problem for evangelicalism that no one seems to want to talk about.

    • traveller

      As a point to ponder I wonder if “rocking the boat” would actually drive someone away from Jesus when if there views are so shallow they may not actually stay the course under any circumstances. In other words, is it better to maintain a very poor, incomplete understanding? And what is the best approach with someone? Leave them there or make the attempt to help them along in their journey. Of course, discerning the timing to do this may be important as well. But I just wonder, are we really being kind to people by not challenging them and helping them see their journey is just that a journey with new understandings around every corner?

      • Les

        That is an excellent question. While I agree that, in general, it is good for believers to be constantly refining their faith, there are many people who don’t share this conviction. For these 10-point biblicists, if the Bible cannot be taken literally (however they understand that word), then there is no way that ANY of it can be true. It’s an all-or-nothing proposition.

        While I agree that such a faith seems shallow, this kind of mindset makes it hard to know where to start in addressing it. What first step can we take that won’t make someone’s head explode? I think the gap between the biblicism of “grassroots” evangelicals and the much more nuanced and diverse view of scholars is a big problem that very few people are willing to talk about.

  • John Inglis

    It’s not as if Evangelicals haven’t recognized or struggled with these issues in the past. For example, in 1984 Roy B. Zuck revised his book “The Holy Spirit in Your Teaching”. That year Bibliotheca Sacra contained an adaption of chapters 4 & 10 of his book in an article titled, “The Role of the Holy Spirit in Hermeneutics.”

    Zuck raises the issue of PIP thusly, “However, the Holy Spirit’s involvement in teaching believers and guiding them in the truth raises some thorny questions: If true learning comes by the Spirit’s inner working, does this mean that one’s understanding of Scripture is ultimately a subjective matter? If a person senses the work of the Holy Spirit in his heart, does he automatically know the correct view of a Bible verse? If the Spirit interprets the Word privately to individual believers, how can one determine the correct view among several conflicting interpretations? If two people profess to be taught by the Spirit and yet hold differing views on some scriptural passage or issue, which view is valid?

    As Moule put it, “the blessed Spirit is not only the true Author of the written Word but also its supreme and true Expositor.”2 But the question remains as to how the meaning of God’s authoritative Word can be accurately discerned amid conflicting interpretations. If human interpretations confuse the clarity of the Word, is the Bible no longer authoritative? Is a person inconsistent if he allows the right of private judgment and at the same time claims that his interpretations are right and another’s wrong?

    Is the Bible not clear in its meanings? Can only a select few have insight into the meaning of Scripture? Are the “deep things of God” and His “thoughts” (1 Cor 2:10-11) understood only by some Christians? Can a Christian claim infallibility for his interpretation of a Bible passage simply by affirming that the Holy Spirit “taught” him that meaning?”

    Zuck rejects the RCC approach in favour of one that recognizes the fallibility of all human interpreters: “2. The role of the Spirit in interpreting the Bible does not mean that one’s interpretations are infallible. Inerrancy and hence infallibility are characteristics of the Bible’s original manuscripts, but not of the Bible’s interpreters. The manuscripts were inerrant because of the Holy Spirit’s guarding and guiding the writers to record what He wanted recorded, word for word. But such a superintending work cannot be claimed for interpreters of the Word. In inspiration the Holy Spirit superintended the authors in order to override any human error. In interpretation the Holy Spirit guides but He does not guard against infallibility. To elevate one’s interpretations to the level of infallibility would blur the distinctions between inspiration (a past, now completed work of the Spirit in the recording of Scripture) and interpretation (a present, ongoing work of the Spirit in helping interpreters in the comprehending of Scripture). Also it would ascribe to Protestants a level of infallibility for human leaders which evangelicals reject in Roman Catholicism.

    Therefore allowing the right of private (individual) judgment in interpreting the Bible does not mean that all the results of private interpretation are accurate.”

    Zuck was a dean and professor at Dallas, and so quite conservative. Consequently, it appears that Smith is painting with far too broad a brush and pejoratively speaking of evangelicals as a single solid group beholding the the problematic approach he describes. While that approach may be widespread among laity or some teachers, it is not so among the leaders and chief teachers in the movement nor among many evangelicals. Smith’s broad brush approach and failure to engage evangelicals who have long addressed the problem of PIP fatally hurts his arguments vis a vis evangelicals as a whole.

    Sure the PIP problem exists, but it has also been recognized and addressed many times. Other than raising the spectre of the problem again, providing good summaries and examples of the problem, and critiqueing evangelicaldom`s neglect in addressing it more forcefully and directly and publicly, I fail to see that Smith adds much that is new.


  • John Inglis

    To go back even further, the Westminster Confession states:

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

    The issue of PIP arose as soon as the church bureaucracy was no longer the sole mediator and interpreter of the Bible and there was no longer an infallible interpreter (i.e. the pope).

    This is not to say that there is not a line of development within the protestant church from the W. Confession to a radical perspecuity and literalism. True, there is that, but such a development is not inevitable nor is it the only way the protestant doctrine of unmediated Bible reading can or did develop.


    • rogereolson

      I hate to agree with the Westminster Confession of Faith, but…I think that expresses my view well (in a nutshell). Oh, and I do agree with the first question and answer of the Shorter Catechism: “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” If only we could just agree on that and agree to disagree about the details of God’s sovereignty.

  • Tim Reisdorf

    “What I’d like to know is how Smith handles PIP. Oh, yes, he joins the Roman Catholic Church.”

    While that may have solved one problem for him, I think it begs a larger question (at least for me). That is: What happens when he disagrees with the Roman Catholic Church? Maybe he never will. Great. But what if he does? Since he has subverted his own independent thinking about these things to the RCC, what does he do on such an occasion?

  • Theophile

    Hi Roger,
    Great ending!
    “But there is a biblicism that is not that unsophisticated and unqualified and its not impossible even if it does raise some difficult questions and issues. The alternatives, however, are worse.”

    Smith argues that biblicists routinely flout clear commands and teachings of Scripture such as “Greet one another with a holy kiss.”
    Taking a greeting of a letter, to named individuals and suggesting it a command
    from God, is nearly as silly as saying “The entire old testament is the old covenant, it’s all done away with”, by cherry picking sentences from that same letter.

  • gingoro

    “They preach it to the choir to keep the choir happy with them.”

    If true that sounds like speaking/preaching an untruth to me. Maybe I am wrong but I rather doubt it.
    Dave W

  • Craig Wright

    A number of years ago, I read an article in an alumni magazine from Talbot School of Theology (my brother received the magazine having attended there), by Robert Saucy, stating that we, as Protestants, did not go by anything extra (such as tradition), besides the Bible. It struck me immediately that he did not mention it was how we interpreted the Bible that made up our view of doctrine. I was amazed that he did not recognize that.

    • rogereolson

      In my view, one hallmark of fundamentalism is lack of recognition that the Bible is always interpreted and that no interpretation is the scripture itself. Put another way, fundamentalists (whether they call themselves that or not) claim their interpretations of the Bible are identical with what the Bible says–when they are not simply repeating biblical words.

  • Terry

    Lots of thoughts towards the problem of PIP in this series, but I want to remind us that is not the problem Smith is trying to identify/solve. Rather, PIP (right or wrong, similar as a problem to/within RCC or not) itself is a problem for the Biblicist as described, proving that Biblicism is impossible. It seems that biblicism’s impossibility, as described by Smith, is too often conflated with PIP which may be a problem in it’s own right, but is not the problem the book seeks to identify. Rather, PIP is proof the problem of biblicism exists and is a genuine problem.

    Roger, I appreciate your take regarding wondering how much of this biblicism really exists, from your observations from 30 years in the academy. I think that’s fair. At the same time, after 30 years in the local pastorate I must say it is a huge, huge problem in the local church. I’m part of a denomination fraught with this kind of biblicism. I didn’t sense Smith was trying to present this as academy directed, but more grassroots overall.

    • rogereolson

      That’s an important distinction I think Smith should make more clearly. His book seems aimed at scholars or at least educated pastors and lay people rather than at garden variety people in the pews.

  • Ivan A. Rogers

    To go back even further, the Westminster Confession states:

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

    This statement from the Westminster Confession is exactly what’s wrong with Evangelicalism. Notice how the opening sentence fights with itself, e.g., ““All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation are…clearly propounded…” May I suggest that the ONLY thing “necessary” for salvation is the finished work of Christ on the cross; whether it be “known, believed, and observed” or not. The above Westminster Confession statement is a glaring example of ‘works-based religion.’ It insists that we must put the finishing touches on the finished work of Christ.

    • rogereolson

      Thank God I’m not Presbyterian! I’d have to be semi-Pelagian! 🙂

    • Bev Mitchell


      I like Thomas Torrance’s comment on the Westminster Confession in the revised version of “The Mediation of Christ”. In a section beginning on pg 100 he points out that the Confession sets out to answer the question “what is the essence of God?” whereas the Bible answers the question “Who is God?” He concludes thus “In point of fact the doctrine offered there is not essentially or distinctively Christian, for it is not a doctrine of God as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ in whom and in the Holy Spirit we have to do directly and immediately with Christ himself.” With a personal approach we will still have different readings, but the overall result should be less divisive.

      Related to this is the necessity to hold revelation and reconciliation together and never separate them – as Paul testified, “I, yet not I, but Christ!” That’s a long way from “I think, therefore I am.” (see Mediation of Christ chapter 4 ).

  • Constantine

    Perhaps a more interesting question vis-a-vis Smith’s thesis is why is PIP necessarily bad?

    For example, we know that we are to “hold on to what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21) and test everything according to the Scriptures (Acts 17:11). But in the absence of PIP, how could that happen?

    If there were only Pervasive Interpretive Unity (PIU) what could be tested?

    Further, there seems to be a rampant anthropocentricity in Smith’s writing and some comments here.

    To wit Smith writes,

    So the question is this: if the Bible is given by a truthful and omnipotent God as an internally consistent and perspicuous text precisely for the purpose of revealing to humans correct beliefs, practices, and morals, then why is it that the presumably sincere Christians to whom it has been given cannot read it and come to common agreement about what it teaches? I know of no good, honest answer to that question.(Kindle location 685-88)

    The “good, honest” answer, I submit is the Apostolic one which is based both on the faithful exposition AND the faithful reception. (Galatians 1: 8-9, 2 Thess. 2:15). Smith errs by thinking that the truth of Scripture resides solely in human agreement.

  • Constantine

    The issue of PIP arose as soon as the church bureaucracy was no longer the sole mediator and interpreter of the Bible and there was no longer an infallible interpreter (i.e. the pope).

    Well, I’m not sure that is at all accurate for a few reasons. First, to speak of a “church bureaucracy” is very misleading, especially before the 12th or 13th centuries. With the disagreements between the various churches in the first few centuries and their autonomy its hard to know what “bureaucracy” really means.

    And even if one grants that Rome say, after the 12th century with the invention of the college of Cardinals was said “bureaucracy” there is great evidence for PIP even there. One Archbishop at Vatican I noted that there were at least five (5) interpretations of Matthew 16:18 among the Church Fathers.

    So it doesn’t seem to me that either a “bureaucracy” or unified interpretation ever existed, even in the RCC.

  • I was struck by the quote concerning “the general psychological structure underlying biblicism is one of a particular need to create order and security in an environment that would be otherwise chaotic and in error.” Is that not a driving force in much of what we call the industrialized West? In this area, isn’t this the basis for quite a number of interpretative efforts. The real disagreement comes about as the discussion turns on what is meant by that “order and security” – another discussion without end I suppose.

  • Daniel W


    I think Smith is making a point like this: many evangelicals claim to hold to the tenets of biblicism as Smith describes it. However, in reality, most of them do not. They qualify biblicism in the ways that you describe. These same evangelicals then make claims and accusations based on the idea that they adhere strictly to Smith’s list of tenets. They claim that their theology or hermeneutic is correct because they just believe what the Bible says. They claim other Christian groups are guided by tradition and extra-biblical ideas, while they themselves are not, as they adhere only to what the Bible says. However, as you have pointed out, this is not at all true. Biblicists, even fundamentalists, use extra-biblical knowledge and traditions to interpret the Bible since biblicism as Smith describes it is near impossible.

  • Adam L

    Wow Roger, thank you for this! This is an excellent series!

  • Rob

    Sorry this is a little late. I am not sure what Scottish Commonsense has to do with biblical interpretation. I understand Scottish Commonsense to be Thomas Reid’s philosophy. I do know that it was influential in the United States during the 19th century and so maybe there is a connection to Scottish Commonsense Realism. At any rate, I will assume there is some connection between Reid’s philosophy and what is being called Scottish Commonsense Realism.

    As far as being discredited, that’s news to philosophers!

    I know a lot of American theology in the last hundred years or so has been influenced by German Theology which itself has been influenced by Kant. Perhaps from a Kantian perspective Scottish Commonsense looks silly, but I don’t think that means Reid has been discredited.

    Kant never read Reid. He had heard of Reid and had even read some of Beaty’s work on Reid and concluded Scottish Commonsense was lame. Beaty however is universally agreed to have misunderstood Reid and Kant’s criticisms of Commonsense bear this out.

    Reid and Kant are both responding to the radical empiricism of Hume that seems to inevitably lead to skepticism. Kant’s view is incredibly complicated but ultimately requires the postulation of transcendental idealism in order to save from Hume things like free will, God, and the soul.

    Reid responds differently. His view also takes a lot of space to explain but here is my stab at a summary. Concerning perception, our cognitive grasp of objects in the world is immediate. Sensations are the means through which objects make themselves known, but we can have intentional mental states towards things out in the world. Both Hume and Kant believe that our mind can only grasp its own ideas immediately–we cannot have intentional mental states towards objects in the world, only ideas that represent them.

    Concerning epistemology, Reid denies any attempt to set Reason up as a judge over our other belief forming mechanisms like sense experience and memory. He thinks each source of belief comes with trustworthiness built in and that it is arbitrary to pronounce reason trustworthy and then demand that sense experience and memory then be justified by Reason or be considered untrustworthy.

    “If the author of my constitution should slip one false ware into my possession, what should stop him from placing another?”

    • rogereolson

      Smith explicitly appeals to critical realism as that which has by-and-large replaced both Kantian critical idealism and Common Sense Realism in late modern, postmodern epistemology. That has been my impression as well.

      • Rob

        “Critical realism” is not a term I have ever heard in contemporary P of Mind or Epistemology. From what I gather it might be compatible with a whole range of contemporary views of perception.

        But varieties of of Direct Realism are not gone by any means although they are not as popular as Representationalism. But all Smith’s antagonists need is for it to be a live option and it certainly is.

        I think that if Smith wants to make pronouncements on philosophy, he should consult contemporary philosophers. If he is reading only post-modern philosophy he should consider that they have almost no presence in academic Anglophone philosophy. He should then consider why that is. I will not so humbly point out that post-modern philosophers tend to have no training in logic and are basically unaware of developments in physics, cognitive psychology, linguistics relevant to these sorts of issues.

  • PIP is not a problem peculiar to theology but an aspect of the human condition. As such, PIP is to be expected whether we’re talking about scripture, Shakespeare’s plays or the causes of the Civil War. PIP isn’t the issue but how we manage it. The Fundamental/Evangelical church’s inability to manage PIP is appallingly apparent, perhaps stemming from an over-reliance on those with theological training. As Brennan Manning writes: “And what of the human heart’s capacity to understand God? Here we need the help of passionate visionaries such as Dostoevsky. Sacred scripture is too important to be left exclusively to biblical scholars. Theology is too vital to be consigned solely to the province of theologians. To explore the depths of the God who invites our trust, we need the artists and mystics.” – Ruthless Trust, The Ragamuffin’s Path to God (2000)

    • rogereolson

      I agree. PIP is an aspect of the human condition. Yes. But I disagree that in evangelicalism it stems from over-reliance on those with theological training. My experience of many years within evangelicalism is that the vast majority of lay people and pastors are virtually untouched by theology (as opposed to folk religion).